In “The Myth of Multipolarity” (May/June 2023), Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth challenge the idea that the United States is in free fall down the great-power ranks. Washington, they say, “remains at the top of the global power hierarchy—safely above China and far, far above every other country.” In their view, the world “is neither bipolar nor multipolar, and it is not about to become either.”
The authors are correct that the United States is still the most powerful country in the world. But their basic argument—that the current distribution of power is unipolar—is off. In fact, a closer look at the authors’ preferred indicators of power and their underlying assumptions suggests just the opposite. Unipolarity is an artifact of the past.
Brooks and Wohlforth base their argument on three fundamental claims. One is that the crude distribution of power—or a country’s overall economic and military capabilities—shows that the United States and China are the only two plausible great powers today. The second is that the United States’ technological advantages, combined with the high barriers China must surmount to catch up, mean that China is not a peer competitor. The authors’ final claim is that the international system lacks meaningful balancing against the United States, as other states have neither created formal alliances nor armed themselves in ways that constrain U.S. freedom of action. In bipolar and multipolar systems, they contend, the poles engage in pervasive balancing against each other, so the current dearth of balancing suggests that unipolarity endures.
But each of these points is suspect. For one thing, requiring that other powers have rough parity with the leading state is a strange way to define or count poles. Throughout history, great powers have never been thought of as quantitative peers. Rather, they are states with sufficient economic and military resources, diplomatic reach, and political acumen to influence other leading countries’ calculations in peace and make a good showing against them in war. This broader definition is why the Austro-Hungarian Empire, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union have all been judged as “poles” of their respective international systems. Even though each of these states was far weaker than the strongest state of the time, they were still capable enough to factor mightily into questions of war and peace.
Ultimately, there is a threshold—sometimes significantly lower than one might expect based on crude measures—reflecting how states compare across the board in their economic, military, technological, and diplomatic attributes, and above which states qualify as poles. Polarity, after all, captures those state attributes that allow some of them to influence the course of world politics on core matters. And although overall economic and military output matter, they take analysts only so far in judging power. Today, a diverse economy, a favorable geographic position, and the possession of nuclear weapons are especially important factors in such assessments. India, for example, with its large economy, favorable geography, and strong nuclear arsenal, gets a boost relative to crude power measures. So does Japan, which has almost all the same advantages as India, albeit with a latent nuclear capability. China, meanwhile, merits a similar—and perhaps even greater—boost, with its less favorable geography offset by its impressive conventional military and growing nuclear arsenal.
Nor is China’s relative technological backwardness nearly as much of an impediment to its great-power status as Brooks and Wohlforth allege. Putting aside questions about how difficult it is for countries to develop cutting-edge technology, countries do not need to be technological leaders to qualify as leading powers. Austria-Hungary and Russia, for instance, were backward by the standard of 1914, yet they were central to European multipolarity. The United Kingdom failed to leverage the second Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the extent that Germany did, but it was still a pole in the same era. The Soviet Union was never close to net technological parity with the United States, but it was considered a peer competitor throughout the Cold War.
Instead, what a country needs is to produce a sufficient quantity of “good enough” technological material to influence major international decisions. On this score, it is notable how far China has come in a short period. The country had almost no domestic computer industry in the late 1980s, but today China is a major producer of the computer chips that run much of the global economy. The same is true in other fields. It is thus unsurprising that U.S. policymakers are increasingly worried about China’s technological prowess: given that China is producing a lot of good (if not great) material, it is not clear that the United States’ technological lead would be decisive if the two states went to war.
In fact, the United States appears to have its hands full with China as is. Brooks and Wohlforth are right that any one country can be balanced by the United States more readily than the reverse. Yet it is the existence of balancing, rather than its intensity, that tells us about the distribution of power. This distinction is important because Washington’s own behavior indicates that the United States faces growing geopolitical constraints and counterbalancing pressures, all of which imply that the system is not unipolar. Despite a defense budget approaching $1 trillion, policymakers and experts routinely argue that China’s growing economic and military footprint means that the United States can no longer simultaneously meet its commitments in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The result has been many fraught conversations over where and how Washington should spend its finite resources. Meanwhile, the United States is redoubling its efforts to enlist India, Japan, and other Asian countries against China. Such efforts would not take place if the world were still dominated by Washington—and by Washington alone.
Judging power is a fraught game. Yet Brooks and Wohlforth’s claims are exceedingly difficult to square with both U.S. policy today and a more comprehensive view of what constitutes a great power. Analysts can debate whether the world is bipolar or multipolar. But unipolarity is no more.