What kind of interpolar world?

Two stories about the Middle East ? Israel?s latest settlement plans and Iran?s nuclear programme ? shed more light on the world?s power structure than the pages of a thousand history books

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignores US demands,
says Israel has the right to
build in Jerusalem,
and shows no willingness to change his policy. The US
reaction: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seeks to dispel rising
tension, reaffirms the deep US
commitment to Israel’s
security – but is shown to be powerless. Israel continues as before.

An altogether different Middle Eastern leader, Iran’s Mahmoud
Ahmedinejad ignores US demands, says his country has the right to build a
nuclear programme, and shows no willingness to change his policy. The US reaction: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham
Clinton calls Iran a
“menace”, threatens “real consequences” for Tehran’s actions – but is shown to be
powerless. Iran
continues as before.

In these two stories about US Middle East policy there is more
insight into the shape of the modern world than can be found in thousands of
books. Everyone agrees that power in the world is shifting from the liberal
democracies of the West to the often illiberal capitalists of the East and South.

But how fast and with what effects have often been unclear. Some
hope that the world will become multipolar, with the US,
China and possibly Brazil and India on a par with each other. Others
imagine that one pole, the US,
will be completely replaced another, with China as the most often assumed to
be the next superpower. The Italian scholar Giovanni Grevi suggests that a new
kind of arrangement will come into view: an interpolar world, which he defines
as “multipolarity in the age of interdependence.” In other words, it is not
enough to look at the redistribution of power: the effects of globalisation have
to be factored in too.

But while Grevi may have coined the right phrase to describe the
world, the two stories about US Middle East policy show that he may have imbued
it with the wrong kind of meaning. For in the US impotence vis-à-vis friend and
foe alike, it is clear that a different type of interpolar world is emerging.
It is an order that exists between the end of the American Century, which lasted
roughly from the First World War, and the beginning of Pax China, which has yet to begin.

It may in the end turn into a world without poles, a “non-polar”
world as Richard N Haas called it. But it has not yet reached this stage – and
may never do so. Rather, the world is going through a transitional period, characterised
by a number of dynamics. 

It is a world, where the basic parameter of conducts are still
set by the US or the system is has forged – whether on the Law of the Sea, the
UN Charter or the Bretton Woods
institutions — but in each region there are local and regional powers that
that can limit the actions of the superpower. 
They do not unite or offer an alternative world order but they
substantially restrict the ability of the superpower to advance its own

Crises tend to be created by states that act in their short-term
interests, but produce negative externalities for others – or act against their
own long-term interests. Take the case of Israel. It is clearly in Benjamin
Netanyahu’s interest to follow the policies of
all Israeli governments since 1967, when the Jewish state won a war with its
Arab neighbours and seized east Jerusalem, which it later annexed: to continue
the settlement programme. Not to do so would probably bring down his coalition.

Unfortunately, Israel’s short-term interests go against both
the short and long-term interests of the United States. As General David
Petraeus, Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), is said to have
argued: Israel’s actions
wreck US credibility in the Middle East and inflame anti-Americanism in the Muslim
world. Its policies may also go against Israel’s
long-term interests by radicalising the hitherto relatively quiescent
Palestinian population of east Jerusalem.

But the only way Israel’s calculation will change is if external
actors, like the US,
alter the incentives for action – or the disincentives for staying the course. Telling
the Israeli government that it suffers from a form of false consciousness, as
Hillary Clinton did at her speech to US lobbying group AIPAC, will not work. Focusing
on incentives is what George Bush Snr did in the run-up to the 1992 peace
conference in Madrid when he used then Israeli
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s request for $10 billion in U.S. loan
guarantees to pressure for change.

Yet it is exactly this
kind of power that is seeping away from the US and is not being accumulated elsewhere.
China may be on the rise,
but it is unclear whether it will take on the kind of hegemonic power that the US once did. In
the meantime, it is content to block the US.

More fundamentally, it
is not clear that China
sees itself as that kind of power. It is a regional hegemon-in-the-making with an
uneven but global reach. It is an exceptionalist power, but not a universalist
one: China wants other
countries to take on its characteristics and values only in so far as this advances
Beijing’s own

So while China is challenging the collective dominance of
the United States and
Europe, the cases of Israel and
show that the world is not becoming “multi-polar”. It may over time
become “non-polar”, dominated not by one or two or even several powers, but
influenced by many state and non-state actors exercising various kinds of
power. But it has not yet reached such a disorganised and dystopian state.

Yet the world is clearly moving away from one kind of regime and
towards another, ill-defined one. In this period, US power will decrease, its ability
to influence other actors – friends and foes alike – will decrease. But the
influence of China has yet
to manifest itself and may never do so in the same way as US power. The
world is now going through an inter-polar moment.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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