Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 9 Notes: Power and Twenty-first Century World Orde

  • What is power?
  • How, and to what extent, has the nature of power changed?
  • What were the implications for world order of the end of the Cold War?
  • Is the USA a hegemonic power, or a power in decline?
  • To what extent is the world now multipolar, and are these trends set to continue?
  • How is growing multipolarity likely to affect global politics?

The issue of world order is vitally important because it reflects the distribution of power amongst states and other actors, affecting the level of stability within the global system and the balance within it between conflict and cooperation. However, this raises questions about the nature of power itself. Is power an attribute, something that states and other actors possess, or is it implicit in the various structures of global politics? Does power always involve domination and control, or can it also operate through cooperation and attraction? During the Cold War period, it was widely accepted that global power had a bipolar character: two superpowers confronted one another, the USA and the Soviet Union, although there was disagreement about whether this had led to peace and stability or to rising tension and insecurity. Since the end of the Cold War, nevertheless, there has been deep debate about the nature of world order. An early view was that the end of the superpower era had given rise to a 'new world order', characterized by peace and international cooperation. But what was the 'new world order', and what was its fate? A second view emphasized that the emergence of the USA as the world's sole superpower has created, in effect, a unipolar world order, based on US 'hegemony'. Is the USA a 'global hegemon', and what are the implications of unipolarity? A third view highlights the trend towards multipolarity and the fragmentation of global power, influenced by developments such as the rise of emerging powers (China, Russia, India, Brazil and so on), the advance of globalization, the increased influence of non-state actors and the growth of international organizations. Will a multipolar world order bring peace, cooperation and integration, or will it herald the emergence of new conflicts and heightened instability?

  • Power, in its broadest sense, is the ability to influence the outcome of events. Distinctions are nevertheless drawn between actual/potential power, relational/structural power and 'hard/soft' power. The notion of power as material 'power over' others has been subject to increased criticism, leading to more nuanced and multidimensional conceptions of power.
  • The Cold War was marked by bipolar tension between a US-dominated West and a Soviet-dominated East. The end of the Cold War led to proclamations about the advent of a 'new world order'. However, this new world order was always imprecisely defined, and the idea quickly became unfashionable.
  • As the sole remaining superpower, the USA has commonly been referred to as a 'global hegemon'. The implications of US hegemony became particularly apparent following September 11, as the USA embarked on a so-called 'war on terror', based on a neoconservative approach to foreign policy-making. This, nevertheless, drew the USA into deeply problematical military interventions.
  • Although neo-con analysts argued that the USA had established a 'benevolent global hegemony', critics, who included realists, radicals and many in the global South, particularly in Muslim countries, argued that the USA was motivated by a desire to ensure economic advantage and to secure control of vital resources, even acting as a 'rogue superpower'.
  • Twenty-first century world order increasingly has a multipolar character. This is evident in the rise of so-called 'emerging powers', notably China, but it is also a consequence of wider developments, including the advance of globalization and global governance and the growing importance of non-state actors.
  • For neo-realists, a multipolar diffusion of power amongst global actors is likely to create a tendency towards instability and even war. On the other hand, multipolarity may strengthen the trend towards multilateralism, leading to stability, order and a tendency towards collaboration.