by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
There is a growing risk that American policymakers will view competition with China through the lens of bipolarity, while their counterparts abroad perceive an increasingly multipolar world. The Trump administration talked frequently about the need to focus on “great power competition” in which the countries recognized as great powers tended to be the United States, China, and Russia. The Biden administration has abandoned this terminology but embraced “strategic competition” and cited China as the “pacing challenge.” Both these approaches suggest that the United States sees itself and China (and less frequently Russia) as the main protagonists on the international scene.
The problem with these framings is that they downplay the role of other key countries, including a number of U.S. allies—such as Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France—that are crucial players in their own right. By suggesting that the world is bipolar, American leaders effectively deprive these allies of agency. Furthermore, this framing undermines what makes an American-led world most attractive to others: the notion that the United States has adopted a more inclusive approach to order-building (especially when it comes to other leading liberal states) than most previous hegemons.
The reality is that the current order is multipolar and growing more so by the year. Gone is the unipolar moment in which the United States had no serious challenger. China’s rapid economic development and military modernization have catapulted it to the level of a superpower. Moreover, a number of the world’s other great powers are increasingly seeking more autonomy from the United States and China, rather than alignment with either of these powers. Unlike the Cold War when most of the world’s top economies were clearly aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union, circumstances today are far different. Few countries are openly aligned with the United States or China—most are trying to maintain the ability to adjust their policies and alignments as their interests demand. This bears all the hallmarks of a multipolar system.