Home > News > Unipolarity is what states make of it
176 views 6 min 0 Comment

Unipolarity is what states make of it

- January 8, 2009

“Justin Logan”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/01/are_we_doomed.php and “Matt Yglesias”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/01/are_we_doomed.php ask a question.

American policymakers have tended to expansionism, to recklessness, and to grand strategies based on trying to dominate the world. A (hopefully) interesting theoretical question I’m kicking around is, Under unipolarity, what constraints are acting, given that structure really isn’t, and is there any reason to believe that any of these constraints will start limiting American strategic options any time soon? If there are no binding constraints in sight, aren’t we very likely (destined?) to continue with the primacy strategy we’ve followed more or less since 1991?

And GWU faculty (or, more specifically, Marty Finnemore) already have an answer. Marty has a “piece”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2919388&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0043887109000082 (behind paywall) in the new issue of _World Politics_[1] entitled ‘Legitimacy, Hypocrisy, and the Social Structure of Unipolarity: Why Being a Unipole Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be’ that touches exactly on this topic. Her opening sentences:

bq. One would think that unipoles have it made. After all, unipolarity is a condition of minimum constraint. Unipoles should be able to do pretty much what they want in the world since, by definition, no other state has the power to stop them. In fact, however, the United States, arguably the closest thing to a unipole we have seen in centuries has been frustrated in many of its policies since it achieved that status at the end of the Cold War. Much of this frustration surely stems from nonstructural causes – domestic politics, leaders’ poor choices, bad luck. But some sources of this frustration may be embedded in the logic of contemporary unipolarity itself.

Marty’s argument is straightforward. The distribution of power tells us relatively little about how unipolar systems _in particular_ are likely to work, precisely because such systems impose less constraints on the unipole. Thus, we could expect big differences between a world, where, say, an equivalent of Nazi Germany was the unipole, and a world where the equivalent of modern Sweden was. This has three important consequences (presented in simplified form below).

(1) Raw power simply isn’t as useful as it seems at first glance for many of the goals that unipolar states might want to achieve. If they want to genuinely use their power to shape politics, they need to legitimate it. And this implies that they diffuse some of their power to the other (legitimating actors).

(2) As Ikenberry and others have argued, states will want to construct constitutional orders in order to underpin their legitimacy. But these institutions have their own rational-legal logic – which is to say that they can have unexpected consequences, and even bind the unipole itself.

(3) The unipole can get some freedom of action through hypocrisy – that is, paying lip service to norms and institutions while not actually respecting them. But hypocrisy too has its limits, and can carry serious costs for the unipole.

These arguments seem to me to bear out in recent history. We don’t _see_ much talk of America’s unipolar moment these days, and the cheerleaders of American unipolarity have been discredited. Indeed, US foreign policy has become a lot less bumptious over the last few years, largely in response to the travails of an excessive reliance on the perceived benefits of unipolarity. The US pretended that the social constraints of unipolarity didn’t exist. It didn’t work out so well.

Thus, not only can the social norms of unipolarity restrain the unipole in theory, but they have been shown to do so in practice. The claim – very common a few years ago among people like Charles Krauthammer – that the restraint-free status of unipolarity allowed the US to synthesize John Bolton style realism with William Kristol style neo-conservatism has been shown to be without foundation. I don’t anticipate any US administration returning to it soon (which isn’t to say that one won’t see the more usual forms of over-reach etc, but this particular form of hubris appears to have been exploded for the moment).

fn1. This article is one contribution to a special issue featuring other luminaries of IR such as Ikenberry, Walt, Wohlforth, Snyder and Jervis. I suspect that most of the other pieces take a much more structurally determinative view of unipolarity, but since I haven’t read ’em yet, I can’t say for sure.