The end of the Second World War (WWII) saw the multipolar system replaced with a bipolar one. During the Cold War the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) dominated the world system. The Cold War was the rivalry between the USA and USSR with strong economic, military, political and social influence throughout the world. This was encouraged by the realist assumption that in international politics, sovereign states balance each other’s power.
The international system is defined as a complex system of systems that is comprised of economic, political, scientific, technological and military systems. It is hard to analyse this complex system. It is even harder to forecast its future. Nonetheless, there are factors such as the defence industry and military power that affect the dynamics of the international system much more than other factors. After the Revolution in Military Affairs, which transformed the military paradigm, the significance of these factors for international relations increased.
Superpower and Unipolarity
American primacy in the global affairs is one of the most salient features of the contemporary international system. After the end of the Cold War, we currently live in a one superpower world. No other great power has enjoyed such advantages in material capabilities—military, economic, technological, and geographical as the USA. Other states rival the USA in one area or another; however, the multifaceted character of American power places it in a category of its own.
The fall of the USSR, slower economic growth in Japan and Western Europe during the 1990s and America’s outsized military spending have all enhanced these disparities. While in most historical eras, the distribution of capabilities among major states has tended to be multipolar or bipolar—the United States emerged from the 1990s as an unrivalled global power. It became a “unipolar” state.
Balance of power is used to refer to the relative amount of power held by two rival countries. Balance of power is essential because the two rivals may go to war if one gets more power than the other. They may also go to war if one fears that the other will upset the balance of power and go to war in the near future. Balance of power theory grew out of many centuries of multi-polarity and a few decades of bipolarity. Today the world is characterised by unprecedented unipolarity.
Balance of power in international relations is essential. Power means not only the military power but financial prowess and political clout as well. An imbalance of military power causes one nation or a group of nations to impose themselves on other countries. This could result in one-sided business and military decisions, including adverse business practices, anti-dumping duties, and military incursions. Then there is the issue of the financial and political clout of certain countries, which causes undue advantages to these countries. Unless a balance of power is established, poor and militarily weaker countries will have no say in financial and military affairs and will be forced to toe the line of powerful countries.
Implications of Unipolarity on the role of International Institutions on Balance of Power
International institutions play an essential role in the balance of power. International institutions play three pivotal contributions to peaceful conflict management. Firstly, international institutions can be used to overcome the security dilemma among states and to tame power competitions. Secondly, they sustain international cooperation and forestall the recourse of governments to unilateral self-help strategies. Finally, international institutions increase the autonomy of issue areas, which decreases the risk of destabilising spillover effects from other issue areas.
The United Nations (UN) is an international institution organisation responsible for facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace. It was founded in 1945 after World War II. It replaced the League of Nations, to stop wars between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue. It contains multiple subsidiary organisations to carry out its missions.
Over the decades, the UN has helped to end numerous conflicts, often through actions of the Security Council — the primary organ for dealing with issues of international peace and security.
The implications and dynamics of any unipolar system depend on how the unipolar state behaves. However, the unipole’s behaviour is usually affected by incentives and constraints associated with its structural position in the international system. The unipole’s domestic politics and institution might themselves change profoundly under the influence of its position of primacy in the international system.
The United States (US) unipolarity is determined by its strong military, economic, diplomatic and political power which is further highlighted across the globe. The stability of any international system depends significantly on the degree to which the major powers are satisfied with the status quo. Robert Gilpin argues that leading states “will attempt to change the international system if the expected benefits exceed the expected costs.” The transition from bipolarity to unipolarity represented a dramatic power shift in favour of the United States.
The United Nations, as an international institution, has succeeded in ending various conflicts and wars. However, there have also been instances of catastrophic failures resulting in millions of innocent civilian deaths. At most, the failures of the UN had been attributed to the interest of the superpowers in many conflicts. For instance, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the USA has been involved in one either directly or indirectly. The US unilaterally imposed sanctions against Russia without the involvement of the UN. The UN did not take any action against the USA or did reprimand it. No wonder scholars argue that the UN serves the interests of the superpowers.
Many experts agree that the Palestinian terrorist organisation 1968 hijacking of El Al Israel Flight 426 was the beginning of “modern” terrorism. The United Nations only condemned the action but did not take any action. Subsequently, in the twentieth-century terrorist acts continued with no reasonable reaction from the UN serve for just a simple condemnation. They only took action when their perceived ally, the United States was attacked in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The UN outlawed terrorism and punished those responsible for the attacks. However, this only applied to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The failure of the non-proliferation treaty shows the failure and inability of the UN to enforce basic rules and regulations on offending nations, especially superpowers. It must be noted that the US was the only nation in the world to own and test nuclear weapons at the creation of the UN in 1945. However, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was signed by 190 nations in 1970. The signatories included France, England, Russia, China, and the US that owned nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, nuclear stockpiles remain high. Many countries have continued to develop nuclear weapons. These include North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India.
The UN is seen to favour the interests of the dominant country through the power of veto of the five members of the UN Security Council, which consists of fifteen nations, five of which are permanent. The permanent members are France, Russia, China, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The other ten nations are elected to serve two-year terms. Thus, five permanent members have veto power. This means that when a permanent member vetoes a vote, the Council resolution cannot be adopted, regardless of international support. For instance, on July 19th, 2012 the Security Council attempted to evoke Chapter VII sanctions from the UN Charter to intervene and prevent genocide in Syria, but the vetoes by China and Russia halted any international intervention.
The 1991 crisis in Somali was another example of the UN’s perceived failure to maintain peace. The dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown after 21 years in power. As the UN forces left, the country slid into civil war and famine. The UN did not take action, not even offering humanitarian assistance. The United States had an interest in Somalia, particularly the control of the sea coast.
The 2003 war in Iraq was another example of the international institution the United Nation’s failure to take action against powerful countries. The US invaded Iraq on suspicion that they had weapons of mass destruction. However, this was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council. However, the UN did not take action against the US apart from condemning the illegality.
The implication of having recognised the superiority of the US military and the increasing technological gap between the US and European defence industries, the European countries have taken steps to increase the European military integration. Western European Armaments Group (WAG) was established in 1993 to increase the cooperation of major European countries in the defence industry. In 1998, France, Italy, Germany, the U.K., Sweden, signed an agreement to increase cooperation among these countries. By the end of 1998, a deal between British Aerospace (BAE) and Daimler Chrysler Aerospace (DASA) has been agreed, which would create a European Aerospace and Defense Company (EADC) that would be bigger than the American defence giants.
America’s balance of power grand strategy yielded a bounty of institutions and partnerships in the decades after 1947. The most important have been the NATO and the United States-Japan alliances. This global system of American-led security partnerships has survived the end of the Cold War. It has provided a bulwark for stability through the commitments and reassurances they manifest. The USA maintains a forward presence in Europe and East Asia and its alliance partners gain security protection and a measure of regularity in their relationship with the world’s leading military power. The American-led alliance system has inspired several economic and political agreements. These agreements have helped generate unprecedented levels of integration and cooperation among the countries of Western Europe, North America, and Northeast Asia.
American global power – military, economic, technological, cultural, political – is one of the great realities of our age. Never before has one country been so powerful or unrivalled. The USA emerged from the Cold War as the world’s only superpower. It grew faster than in Europe and Japan. American bases and naval forces encircle the globe. Russia and China remain only regional powers. They have ceased to offer ideological challenges to the West. Thus, American unipolarity affects how international institutions operate in the international system. The world’s most powerful state can operate on the global stage without the fear of counterbalancing competitors. The UNSC remains, to a large extent an avenue for great powers to check themselves. The UN primarily must function as a peacekeeper and condemn the actions t creating that promote conflict in the world. Although primarily influenced by the USA, the UN needs to show a high level of commitment to maintaining peace and harmony to gain worldwide acceptance.
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