Will unipolarity give way to multipolarity?  To state my answer up front, yes, I believe it will.  The question is, how soon…or how long?  Nations rise and fall; governmental structures and those who make up those governments, to include their policies and personal interests, change.  Sometimes this is for the good, sometimes for the bad.  So, to theorize of a perpetual unipolar arena, in my view, is to rely too heavily on theory and not enough on reality.

Writing in 1993, Layne predicted that the unipolarity of the U.S. would be confronted with a multipolarity push sometime between 2000 and 2010.  The timing of his predication may have been off, but there is yet soundness to his underlying analysis. He noted one of the reasons the U.S. has been able to maintain its hegemonic power is due to its strategy of “benevolence” rather than “coercion”.  In other words, the U.S. isn’t a 20th Century Russia or Germany.  American has largely contributed to what may be called humanitarian missions and efforts around the world.  To rise up and challenge the U.S. would kind of be like biting the hand that feeds you.  That being said, Layne still laid out two reasons as to why a multipolarity system was inevitable: 1) “the hegemon’s unbalanced power creates an environment conducive to the emergence of the new great powers,” and 2) “the entry of new great powers into the international system erodes the hegemon’s relative power and, ultimately, its preeminence.”  This is largely due to economic shifts and the competitive nature of international politics.  Layne seem to view a sort of balance inherent within nature: a golden mean of international relations.  There is a natural tendency towards this center of balance, and while there may be periods of imbalance, it’s only a matter of time until the table starts to tip the other way.

Wohlforth (1999), on the other hand, holds the view that unipolarity is relatively stable and not necessarily prone to conflict.  He argues his case on three points: 1) the U.S. has a wide margin of superiority (economically, militarily, technologically, and geopolitically) over other so-called eligible states, 2) a lack of hegemonic rivalry means there’s a tendency towards peace in the international stage, and 3) the durability of the U.S.’s unipolarity, which was 10+ years strong (at the time of his writing).  This stability has been further supported by its shielding oceans.

Lieber and Alexander (2005) argue that balancing is not occurring due to the post 9/11 strategy being limited in scope – a focus on particular regimes and counter-terrorism – and therefore few states have a stake in the game or they have a shared interest.  This may be similar to Layne’s point regarding the benevolence of the U.S. – other nations primarily see what America is doing as being agreeable; therefore, why challenge it?  They go on to reference Mersheimer, who they note as a notable exception to the structural realist prediction at this point, in pointing to the two oceans on either side of the U.S. as a reason for the U.S. not pursuing global hegemony.  I am skeptical of this theory, however, as the U.S. has military outposts throughout the world, to include a strong navy.  The UK of the past is also used as another example by Leiber and Alexander.  Yet, this UK of the past was an empire, and by definition an empire is in the business of pursuing global hegemony.  I think one must have a very limited concept of the praxis of hegemony in order to hold this view.

Out of these three perspectives, I am most agreeable to Layne’s theorizing, being a more realistic perspective of conflict in the world and the natural tendency towards balance (I think the 20th Century was a vivid, and deadly, illustration of this).


Layne, Chistopher. 1993. “The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great Powers Will Rise.” International Security 17.4: 5-51. : http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?url=http://www.jstor.org/stable/2539020

Wohlforth, William C.1999. “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security 24.1:5-41. http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tsh&AN=2238576&site=ehost-live

Lieber, Keir A., and Gerard Alexander. 2005. “Waiting for Balancing: Why the World is Not Pushing Back.” International Security 30.1: 109-139 http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?url=http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137460