Unipolar, bipolar and multipolar World order

By Priya Chetty on July 25, 2015

The downfall of the Soviet Union in December 1991 drew the curtain from a bipolar world dominated by the former and the U.S. for nearly half century and led to rise of speculations regarding the next likely world order. Robert Gates (1992), former Director of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) opined that a more unstable, turbulent, unpredictable and violent era prevailed after the demise of the Cold War and Soviet Union. Some opined that the breakdown of the bipolar world would eventually pave the way for a multipolar world which was long due, owing to the prevalence of the Cold War. Murray & Brown (2012) assessed the new world order to be a uni-tripolar configuration- existence of three centers of power, namely, Europe, Asia and Americas, dominated by the US. Samuel Huntington (2007) while describing the world order further, coined the term uni-multipolar balance of power. Where America have to balance its dominance with other power centers as well to achieve its end. Krauthammer (1991) on the other hand presented a different analysis predicting a unipolar world dominated by the United States. According to him, the world structure is characterized by the presence of a superpower whose capabilities cannot be counter-balanced. In present times this proposition matches with the U.S. whose economy, if not gets wrecked can continue its dominance for the next 30 to 40 years. Lastly, a final proposition by a less confident group asserted that the new world order can be best described as an interregnum, owing to a state of flux and huge transformations the world is undergoing.

This article explores the trends in the geopolitical system shaping the world order. The global scenario, witnessed several transformations within the states and their international relations. This trend was primarily absent in the period between the end of WW II and the Cold War, where only dual polarity prevailed. The 21st century saw the onset of a different political scenario with the rise of emerging economies like Brazil, China, and India in the game of Super-power along with Russia.

Bringing order to the world

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, the world order was significantly unipolar with the US acting as the sole hegemon of the international order. But the onset of twenty-first century witnessed rise of some note-worthy trends.

Guerrero (2013) in the BRICS Summit in 2011 identified the increasing presence of the South in global governance, shaping a multi-polar world. Such proposition was based on the increasing powers of the emerging economies by strengthening relations amongst them.  Such a trend gained momentum because of economic stagnation in Europe and America, post global financial crisis of 2008. Such stagnation paved the way for BRICS countries to thrive in the world order by gaining economic and political clout and rearranging the global system to their benefit.

The 21st century witnessed the rise of China as the hegemon of not only Asia but of the entire World Order and challenging US to be the sole superpower and decision-maker in the international system. As Kocharyan (2005) pointed out that the 21st century is gradually moving towards an equilibrium of power, preventing a single nation to monopolize power and acting as the colossus is counterbalanced by the efforts made by China. The possible reason behind such a disposition as asserted by Nau (2002) might be long ideological and power politics differences between the U.S. and China. Moreover, the economic co-operation between the two hegemons smoothening China’s path towards its engagement of economy to that of the world. This rendered the nation power to influence U.S. in decision-making.  Furthermore, China’s growing military prowess along with its increasing presence in the global economy acts as a deterrent to US’s intervening policy towards Taiwan and Korean islands. The increasing influence of China as the rising Superpower can be well described through Mearsheimer’s (2001) idea of the nation as the “church for realpolitik in the post-Cold War Era”(37).

Rise of new superpowers of the world

But economic rise does not solely contribute to make a superpower. It is the amalgamation of both hard power and soft power that shapes a country to become a world power. While hard power lies with the economy and military where as soft power includes prestige, cultural influence and tradition. In the present context, the geo-political strategy of Asia is on the rise through the presence of China followed by India in the global world order. A considerable shift has been noticed from the dominance of the geopolitical strategy of Europe and America during the 19th and 20th century to that of Asia in the 21st century (Herd 2010).  This trend of rising power of the East has been observed by eminent political scientists as anti-American, where the nation’s dominance will be curbed by the former. Though, Fareed Zakaria refuted this point. He opined that such a rise of multiple power-plays in the global politics is definitely no anti-America, rather a post-American world order, “driven by the rise of the rest” (Zakaria 2008).

Supremacy of Russia and the chaotic Middle East

Through the observation of different trends existing in the present world order, it is difficult to name the system as unipolar (as was the condition in post-Cold War), or bipolar (with US and China as the hegemon). Rather, with the emergence of various other players like South Africa, Japan, India, and Russia along with the developed countries of Europe act as deterrent to the rise of a monopolistic hegemony. Multiple factors emphasize on the maintenance of power-equilibrium. For example, using the geographical advantage, Russia is maneuvering its military force in establishing a de facto rule on Crimean territory. Besides, it continues to demonstrate geographical supremacy over Ukraine. This has not only benefitted Russia to prove its military supremacy to the West but virtually showed its control over the large shale gas reserves Ukraine possess.

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Middle East is going through a prolonged period of turbulences. The Arab Spring, religious war in Syria, chaos in Yemen and Libya is finally resulting in collapse of the latter. Renewal of dictatorship in Egypt and most recently rise of the IS and establishing its territorial claim over most of the Middle-Eastern countries have resulted in a chaotic situation. Besides, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel are submerged with its internal problems owing to warlord doms, Gaza Strip and militancy thus resulting in an unstable province.

Where is the World order headed to?

With the continuous development of countries in their various sectors of hard and soft power leads to a multi polar world order. In such a system, each country thrives to exert dominance in its neighborhood with checking the advancement of its hostile partners. Observing the recent trends, vast human cataclysms of the past century is likely to repeat, owing to development of nuclear power working as deterrents to each other. Rather, as Fareed Zakaria asserts, co-existence of multi-polar world with the combination of both East and West is what the 21st century world order is heading to.


Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).



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