Soon, for the first time since the end of the Cold War in 1991, we will see multipolar world politics. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the only global superpower. The war on terror, among other things, has been the result of a world where no country can challenge the US for dominance. The emergence of rivals, whether this comes from Russia, China or even the EU, will soon end this. But it might still take a long time for us to understand what the consequences will be.
The story of American global hegemony begins at the end of World War II. A result of the war was that the European imperial powers had destroyed each other. Even the British Empire, which had won the war and successfully prevented an invasion, had received the final nail in its coffin. Within a few years, Britain would cease to be the global power it had been, and the only men left standing would be the Americans and the Soviets. Both were catapulted to the forefront of global politics.
George Orwell, who originally coined the term ‘Cold War’, accurately predicted what would happen in the coming decades. Once both the Americans and Soviets had nuclear weapons, he knew that neither could risk a war. So, just as he predicted, they would continue "ruling the world between them".
Forward to 1991, and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Americans were the last man standing. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicted that the end of the Cold War would bring "the end of history". He argued that the demise of Soviet communism proved the superiority of liberal ideology, under the leadership of the US. History would not literally end, but he thought that there would be an end to the conflict and competition we had seen throughout the 20th century. Instead, he thought the world would just get on with business more or less at peace.
Rather than producing peace, American global hegemony created a different type of war. The ‘War on Terror’ began in 2001 and gave the US a new excuse to intervene in countries across the globe. It bares noting that the US (or NATO, or the ‘West’) has not fought a military that was even closely as well-equipped since the end of WWII.
Recently, there has been talk of a new Cold War. This argument normally revolves around a resurgent Russia. The truth is that Russia has nowhere near the power that it did during the Soviet era. In fact, a ‘resurgent Russia’ has simply been a Russia recovering from the economic crisis it faced during the 1990s. Their main strength, as ever, is their sheer size – about 70 times the size of the United Kingdom.
There have been legitimate concerns, particularly following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Also, Russia has attempted to expand its influence over surrounding countries by its leadership of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. However, Western sanctions have crippled the Russian economy and they cannot come close to competing with NATO. This conflict has pushed Russia into growing economic reliance on China. In this relationship, the journalist and author Tim Marshall has noted that Russia is already the "junior partner".
This brings us to the real challenger of American global hegemony: China. Lucian Pye, a political scientist and expert on China, said that "China is a civilisation pretending to be a nation". It is roughly 39 times the size of the UK and has a population of 1.4 billion, about 20% of the world’s population. Before the industrial revolution in the West, China was the highest producing nation. Now that the industrial revolution has reached it, it is again.
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative perfectly exemplifies the nation's growing ambitions. The project is constructing infrastructure such as railways and ports which will reconnect the old ‘Silk Road’. It includes 71 countries, who make up a quarter of global GDP, and it stretches all the way from east Asia to Africa and Europe. As well as boosting the Chinese economy, it will provide a way to influence other countries politics and even transport soldiers across thousands of miles. Crucially, and particularly in light of the US-China trade war, it will seriously limit American ability to control Chinese trade.
The debate rages over when China will fully catch-up with the US as a global superpower. Predictions generally vary between the year 2050 and 2100. Already a major industrial power, China still has a long way to go if it wants to improve the welfare of its citizens or have a military that can compete with its American rival.
In the meantime, both the US and China will have to keep an eye on emerging economies such as India, Nigeria and Brazil. Russia, which cannot hope to compete with China in east Asia, will probably continue to focus on repairing its economy and protecting its influence in eastern Europe and central Asia.
Nobody knows what the return of a multipolar world will mean. There will almost certainly be conflict as China seeks to assert itself in east Asia. On the other hand, a check to American power could promote peace. Only time will tell.