One of, if not the, most important elements of the international system is the “balance of power”. The way that strength and power is distributed among the countries of the world profoundly impacts the way that these countries interact with each other, and, to use a sports analogy, determines which players get to lead the game. Power is a very sought after resource, and each country is always trying to maximize its power by making choices which bring it the most benefits and which cause it the least harm. This drive to maximize power is based around the concept of sovereignty; each country is the master of its own realm, and as such no outside power can influence the decisions made within that country. In order to guarantee this sovereignty, each country seeks to maximize power in an attempt to dissuade other countries from invading; after all, because each country is sovereign, the only way to impact change within another country’s borders is to invade, occupy, and govern it. Conversely, the maximization of power allows a country to have the greatest chance of impacting change on the international arena because that country can make costly choices such as waging war without much harm. These theoretical approaches towards analyzing the way the international system works make up the core tenets of the “Realist” theory of international relations.
A country which has maximized its power and which has an unequal control of the ‘balance’ of power in comparison to the other countries of the globe is called a ‘unipolar’ hegemon. Examples of this distribution of power are few and far between. Some examples of this ‘unipolarity’ can be seen in the brief dominance of Napoleon’s French Empire, the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the British Empire at its height, but even in these examples the power distribution was arguably not concentrated in the hands of a single power. Only in the case of the United States can a clear and enormous maximization of power far beyond that of any other country in the international system be recognized. Yet now, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of American hegemony, a number of countries are beginning to rise to challenge that unipolarity. The most prominent of these countries is China, which is expected to become a major challenger to the United States within the next twenty years, and which will shift the balance of power back into a ‘bipolar’ distribution akin to the balance during the Cold War. Of course, China is not alone as a rising global power; India, Brazil, Russia, and the European Union continue to grow more economically and militarily powerful, and will tilt the distribution of power away from the United States.
The fact that the United States ‘unipolar moment’ is so brief, lasting for the past two decades and perhaps for the next one or two, demonstrates how difficult it is to hold on to power and how fleeting the moment of supreme power is. Consider the Napoleonic Empire; during its meteoric rise to power and unipolar concentration of power, a coalition of countries formed to oppose it and restore a balance of power. This coalition forming occurs when countries feel threatened by a hegemon; it makes perfect strategic sense, because a hegemon, especially a unipolar one, presents a grave security threat to a country’s hegemony. As countries rise to form coalitions to balance against a disproportionate concentration of power, that hegemon loses much of its strength; it cannot balance against the collective strength of the countries opposing it. Perhaps this is a reason for why it is so difficult to remain a unipolar hegemon, why there are so few examples of such hegemony in history, and why such periods of time are so fleeting.
What are the implications of this on the United States today? The most important one is that the United States should consider a different approach to maintaining its power. Attempting to retain the balance of power will be an impossible task; other countries will rise, and countries have and will form coalitions to balance against the United States. Trying to maintain our power will be a costly and dangerous endeavor. Rather, the United States should find new methods through which it can acquire power and through which it can manipulate and control the international system to its own benefit, even when its concentration of power begins to slip. The most obvious of these methods is the United Nations and the other governing bodies of the international community. By leading these organizations and setting a precedent of following international law and customs, the United States can design an international system where the countries of the world must play by the rules it designs and monitors. If the United States pursues this strategy then, even when the world reenters a period of bipolarity of even multipolarity, where multiple countries are equally vying for ultimate hegemony, countries will be bound to follow the rules of conduct, and as such the United States will find itself in a much less dangerous situation. Furthermore, by leading the international community, the United States can build for itself a reputation of leadership and respect which transcends actual military and economic strength.
Within the next twenty years, the United States will have lost its current concentration of power, and other countries will have risen to challenge it in a manner we have not experienced since the Cold War. Unipolar hegemony can be retained only briefly, and we must maximize the amount of positive leadership that we can while we still retain this hegemony. We must attempt to influence the international system to the greatest degree we can now, so that when our hegemony begins to slip we will still be able to direct and dictate the conduct of countries across the globe. Yet we should also learn from history that an arrogant pursuit of power will be costly and dangerous, and ultimately is a fools game. We must recognize that countries experience waning and waxing in their power distributions, and the United States will as well.