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Polarities We Have Known

Above: A world map showing the two blocs during the Cold War in 1959.

In political terms, a “pole” is a center of power, expressed in the familiar terms of national strength, military, diplomatic, economic, sociology, stability, leadership, determination, etc. There are three, and only three, ways in which to examine world politics through “poles”: unipolar (one center), bipolar (two), and multipolar (three or more). Those are the only alternatives, and it makes no difference whether “multipolar” has three or thirty centers; it remains “multi” throughout.


Historically, the main definition of “power center” has been “unipolar,” insofar as most political regimes from ancient times to the seventeenth century have consisted of “empires” wherein government ran directly from the top down to the central and distant regions. The Roman and British Empires probably constitute the clearest examples of a land and a sea-based system each, with both Rome and London as classic “imperial” centers of great political authority.


While empires still existed until the mid-twentieth century, the gravity-center of world politics took a sharp turn against imperial rule in 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia (Germany) ended the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. The result not only ended the religious war between Catholic Rome and Protestant Europe but it also inaugurated the “nation-state,” wherein political “sovereignties” based their authority on both their people (nation) and their unique political association (state). Thereafter, world politics became both Europe-centered and multipolar, while as many as fifteen “countries” (nation-states) began competing with each other for supremacy through near-endless alliances and wars.

The modern nation-state was both homogenous and aggressive, against itself and others abroad. Internally, they were “British,” “French,” “Dutch,” “Spanish,” etc., while overseas, they combined to carve the remainder of the globe into particular regions with little left to digest.

The great wars of the last century were essentially the result of latecomers to the system, mainly Germany and Japan, bent on finding their own “place in the sun” between the vast expanse of territories, from central Europe, Africa through the Middle East to the Far East, already taken by the rest of Imperial Europe. As collisions and near-wars produced history’s greatest conflicts (world wars), the newcomers soon found out that beneath the imperial “sun” there was precious little room left “on the beach.”

Multipolarity as a system ended in the Twentieth Century, pushed over in 1914 and finally laid to rest by 1945 when the USA first entered the fray and, in effect, replaced Great Britain as the “holder” of the historic Balance of Power that governed European society for centuries.


This was a historic moment, memorialized by the American Foreign Service Officer Joseph M. Jones in his classic, The Fifteen Weeks. It was within this time period, February through June 1947, when the “torch was passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace” (John F. Kennedy) who took on the responsibility to preserve the hard-won peace, create a new world order and “stay the course” (Ronald Reagan) until the Soviet Union was gone and another world order promised a new “lease” on an old and already-dead multipolarity.

In between, the world witnessed, and lived, a precarious order in which nuclear stalemate kept a global stability based eventually on the doctrine that, if fulfilled, meant a possible termination of any order to the world, old or new. While “Mutual Assured Destruction” (“MAD”) secured the end of a potential communist order, the “bipolar” world lived day-by-day in which small points on the globe promised to erupt into the end of humanity. As crises passed and went, from Korea to Taiwan, Vietnam, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Cuba, Panama, Iraq, Suez, Hungary, Berlin, the political order seemed just one step away from the vanishing point.

But by late 1991, the Soviet Union, exhausted by competition from America and NATO, and under the combined guidance of Reagan, Gorbachev, Thatcher, and the Pope, “threw in the towel” and returned as an old friend from multipolar days. Under its “baptized” name, Mother Russia came back to life but was not exactly welcomed under the wing of the brand-new American emergence as guardian of Western civilization.


First introduced by the late journalist Charles Krauthammer in 1990, the “Unipolar Moment,” according to him, was “a unique historical phenomenon… called the moment of unipolarity” and caused by the emergence of modern history’s first “superpower.” Krauthammer acknowledged that the “moment” would “be brief” and confidently assured us that the U.S. would, sooner rather than later, be joined by rivals from both Asia (Japan, China) and Europe (Germany).

The emergence of America as the unipolar savior of peace in the world was certainly not unique to Krauthammer. None other than British Prime Minister William Gladstone wrote in 1878 that “while we have been advancing with portentous rapidity, America is passing us by as if a canter. …she will probably become what we are now, head servant in the great household of the world.” French demographer Vacher de Lapouge predicted both the eventual Cold War and American supremacy, noting that “the United States is the true adversary of Russia in the great struggle to come… I also believe that the United States is appealed to triumph. Otherwise, the universe would be Russian” (1899).   British novelist H.G. Wells in Anticipations (1900) wrote that “the great urban region between Chicago and the Atlantic” will emerge by the year 2000 to “strangle the serpents of war and national animosity in its cradle,” while his compatriot, William Thomas Stead, entitled his 1900 book The Americanization of the World, The Trend of the Twentieth Century.

And Reality

So much for a unipolar “moment,” which, as Krauthammer saw, came and went in a flash in the American political culture.

Clue: while all other great imperial regimes came from homogeneous societies, perhaps only Krauthammer knew that American heterogeneity would savage any efforts to control outsiders and, almost inevitably, force Americans inward time and again. If a society tolerates chronic quarreling inside, it can hardly expect to govern order outside.

As the country approaches another election minus any thought on world order, and as the riots between and among identity groups clog our cities, note please the re-emergence of world politics as between several sovereigns all bent on similar paths toward their own versions of what and who should govern.  China heads this list, but it’s anyone’s game.

For a reminder of potential results from such chaos, suggest The Peloponnesian War (Thucydides), on polarity four hundred years before Christ.

Then go riot for your cause back home, and watch the world go to hell in a handbasket, for the 1,450th time (rough guess).

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