The Arrival of Multipolarity and Its Impact on US-Russia Relations

A toxic combination of inertia, nostalgia, suspicion, and mutual recriminations continue to define the Russia-US relationship, rather than a clear-eyed appreciation of just how much the world has changed, writes Jacob L. Shapiro, founder and chief strategist of Perch Perspectives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world in myriad ways. For the geopolitically minded, however, the pandemic’s biggest side effect has been obvious: the acceleration of the multipolar trend in international affairs. On the eve of the pandemic, it was still possible to imagine a different scenario – however unlikely – that the Trump presidency was an American fever-dream; that China and the US would find a way to make up after their protracted trade squabble; that Humpty Dumpty – the anthropomorphized egg from the famous British nursey rhyme – could indeed be put together again.  

Instead, the emergence of a truly multipolar world has gone from being a trendy prediction to a present reality. Multipolarity has arrived and will govern international political dynamics for a generation. No corner of the world will remain untouched by the shift to multipolarity. But it is in the borderlands between rising and falling great powers – the “in-between regions” as this analyst often refers to them – that the effects will be most pronounced.

Multipolarity is by no means an unprecedented state of affairs. The decades before World War I were a similarly dynamic and perilous era, marked by ever-increasing economic integration even as regionally contained political and military conflicts broke out in regions throughout the world. (The Russo-Japanese War – a fight between two rising powers over the Korean Peninsula and northern China – typified these sorts of intense battles for position.)

Relations in truly multipolar eras are rarely zero-sum because they reflect genuinely complex systems. Unlike during the US-Soviet Cold War, when two powers duked it out for global supremacy, multipolar environments are exemplified by webs of constantly shifting relations. Pragmatism and short-term gains are often prioritized. Obviously, nations in multipolar environments have long-term strategic goals, but by definition no power can hope to overwhelm its enemies (or the inevitable coalition that would rise against it if it became too powerful). This often means that even though there is more “action,” the scope and effect of conflicts have a lower ceiling.

Eventually, of course, multipolar environments often lead to cataclysmic conflicts, as during the World War I-World War II period. These systemic battles evolve when an actor in the global system believes it possesses the requisite force to be more ambitious – to project power beyond its sphere of influence. Before this breaking point, however, multipolar environments can be periods of prosperity, and even relative peace.

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Consider, for example, the decades that immediately preceded the outbreak of World War I. Perhaps no two countries seemed more destined for conflict than the British Empire and the recently unified Second Reich. And yet, even as tension and hostilities between the two European heavyweights rose, so did economic integration and trade between them. Overall British-German trade almost doubled between 1904-1912.  [i] Edgar Crammond, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 77, No. 8 (Jul. 1914), pp.777-824. [/i] So great was the level of economic integration and prosperity that many analysts at the time believed conflict was an impossibility. This was of course best exemplified by Norman Angell’s famous 1910 book, The Great Illusion – but his was not a radical view. It was a reflection of conventional wisdom.

It is also not a coincidence that the last multipolar environment of the fin de siècle and the current period were and are periods of Industrial Revolution. The lead-up to World War I was marked by the transition from steam power to electric power. As a result of that shift, hydrocarbons became the lifeblood of modern economics (and modern militaries) – and a primary source of conflict in the wars that followed. Japan entered World War II in part due to a US placing an oil embargo on Japan on August 1, 1941. [See John Toland, “The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945,” New York: The Modern Library, 1970.Germany’s thirst for oil is also an underappreciated aspect of its World War II strategy. 

Today, the world is on the cusp of a fourth Industrial Revolution – a transition from the digital economy to the smart economy. This has been most recently reflected in US-China spat over 5G technology, and will increasingly encompass other sectors, such as space-based platforms, artificial intelligence, and a new class of strategically critical minerals and raw materials.   No country enjoys self-sufficiency when it comes to the inputs needed to enjoy the benefits of Industry 4.0. Most of the world’s cobalt, for example, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chile and Peru are responsible for almost 40 percent of global copper production; Australia is the dominant global producer of lithium; South Africa is the dominant global producer of platinum. Perhaps most ironically, the US and Russia (along with the Saudis and Iranians) produce the most oil and gas.   

In other words: even as a global competition for power, influence, and critical resources occurs, the most important players are all still dependent on each other. Not only that, but there is one key difference between the last multipolar environment of the fin de siècle and the multipolar environment that has emerged today: the advent of nuclear weapons. A conflict like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 is less likely in the current environment because nuclear weapons have changed the cost-benefit analysis of going to war. It is simply not enough to be able to defeat an enemy with conventional arms: great powers backed into a corner have the ultimate geopolitical equalizer to deploy if faced with defeat, further decreasing the odds of direct conflict between great powers during this multipolar era.

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That is good news for the great powers in question. It is exceedingly bad news for the powers caught in between. History has all sorts of pithy names for the ways in which multipolar geopolitical competition in the 19th century was primarily a series of proxy conflicts – “The Great Game,” “The Scramble for Africa,” etc. 

 ] A new series of similar conflicts is already here. Think of the developments that have occurred since the pandemic began in earnest in March 2020: the 2020 Nargorno-Karabakh War, the rise of an Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique, the continued deterioration of governance in the Sahel region of northern Africa, the recent Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border spat, and the proliferation of anti-government protest movements in Latin America, especially in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and perhaps now Colombia.

These conflicts are all connected. On the one hand, they arose out of distinctly local concerns. As the American saying goes, “All politics is local.”   But they are also symptoms of the competitive pressures building within a multipolar geopolitical system.

The world is not descending into a second Cold War between the US and China. Rather, a multifaceted competition featuring the European Union, Turkey, India, Russia, Japan, Australia, Brazil, and others has replaced the Pax Americana.

It is a shift that will be most pronounced in the regions located between these powers. The most important of these regions are Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central Asia – the zones of conflict where the balance of power of the future is to be decided.

Of course, these are not the only regions “in-between” great power competition. Eastern Europe remains a key buffer zone between Russia and the US/European alliance. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently traveled to Kiev to demonstrate the importance the US places on its relationship with Ukraine – and, more importantly, on Kiev’s independence from Russia. 

Russia, however, knows that US support is more rhetorical and symbolic than practical in the case of Ukraine. The US is finally winding down its wars in the Muslim world and has firmly pivoted its focus to Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. In strictly geopolitical terms, conflict Ukraine is an unwanted distraction for Washington. Maintaining the status quo is the priority.

For Russia, of course, the status quo is verging on unacceptable. Ukraine is not some far-away in-between region – from Moscow’s perspective, it is a culturally and historically inalienable part of the Russian nation – and a strategically crucial buffer zone between Russia and the West. Even so, Russia’s “Ukraine problem” does not really have much to do with the United States anymore. Russia fancies itself a Eurasian power, but Moscow is a European city. US policies have pushed Russia and China closer together than ever before in history, but if Russia only looks east, it will transform from regional power to Chinese vassal state in the blink of an eye. Which is why Russia’s relationship with Europe, and specifically, the European Union, matters far more when it comes to Ukraine and to Russia’s future than does its relationship with the United States.

The pandemic accelerated multipolarity – but it also accelerated the deepening of a more coherent, strategically minded European Union. Of course, 27 constantly bickering member states will always strike Russia as inefficient and dissonant. In many ways, the EU is the polar opposite of the Russian state. But this is not the European Union of 2008 anymore. External threats have papered over internal conflicts and the EU is playing a more powerful and geopolitically defined role, one befitting the second-largest economy in the world. 

Ultimately, the prime motivator of US grand strategy is to prevent the emergence of a true Eurasian hegemon. The future of Ukraine as a result will be defined far more by EU-Russia relations than by the melodramatic and theatrical political drama currently taking place between Russia and the US

Ironically, the US and Russia share something in common in this brave new world. Both must grow accustomed to being less powerful, i.e., less able to impose their wills on other countries. The US can no longer be all places at once and be all things to all people. It must learn to prioritize how and where it commits its resources (and as recent history has shown, the US is a slow learner.) For the foreseeable future, the US will focus primarily on the Indo-Pacific – not in the Eastern European borderlands. Russia, meanwhile, is no longer “a continental empire with a global historical mission,” but a regional power fighting “tooth and nail for its place in the world.” In this regard, Russia is a slow learner as well. The US and Russia remain formidable military powers, but in a multipolar world, political, technological, ideological, and perhaps even cyber power matter more than brute force.

Unfortunately, a toxic combination of inertia, nostalgia, suspicion, and mutual recriminations continue to define the Russia-US relationship, rather than a clear-eyed appreciation of just how much the world has changed – and how much both would benefit from a less self-righteous US and a less irredentist Russia. Instead, it would seem the US and Russia are destined to compete with each other in the in-between regions of the world for years to come. There, Washington and Moscow may be surprised to discover the presence of powers no less formidable, ambitious, and flexible – powers uninterested in a return to unipolar or bipolar conflict, but rather in assuring their security and supercharging their prosperity in a new multipolar age.

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Paul J. Saunders
The US-China competition seems unlikely to produce a wholly multipolar system despite the many differences from the US-Soviet Cold War. In practice, the international system will probably combine features of bipolarity and multipolarity; it may even resemble a competition between bipolarity and multipolarity, in which each structure enjoys advantages in certain sectors, writes Valdai Club expert Paul Saunders.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.