Misperception and Reality

After Polarity in International Relataions

January 27, 2015

Disappearance of Polarity:


“Polarity” has long served as a useful explanatory framework in the study of international politics.  The analogy to physical magnetism represents a system of states pulled or pushed into alliances by forces analogous to magnetic fields.  Thinking in terms of polarity can be useful in explaining the dynamics of alliances and foreign policy behavior of states during periods when states are the main actors in the international arena, and when the focus of interest is politico-military competition among states.  To be sure, the “poles” in international systems are not identical to magnetic poles. Thus, as with most analogies, the parallel with physical magnetism can distort and mislead if taken too literally or employed beyond its proper range of application.


Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars referred to two kinds of systems based on polarity--multipolar and bipolar.  Multipolarity was typical of the international system before World War II.  It was replaced by a bipolar system during the Cold War.  This bipolar system no longer exists, leaving only one superpower.  Hence, many scholars characterize the current system as unipolar.  However, unipolarity is a problematic concept, first of all because it is an oxymoron. Unipolarity is inconsistent with the very definition of polarity.  A magnet has two poles, and multipolarity can easily be conceptualized by adding more magnets to the picture.  Unipolarity departs enitrely from the useful analogy to physical magnetism. It is devoid of the dynamic that makes multi-polarity and bi-polarity interesting and useful. It is difficult to imagine push or pull without some notion of a force pulling in another direction.  The current world order, characterized by a hegemonic superpower with many partners or allies, is not a polarized world order.  


Richard Haas suggests that the current world order is best characterized as “non-polar.”  Haas argues that the current world order is not polarized, because politico-military competition among states is no longer the overriding focus of interest.  In the twenty-first century, he writes, “nation-states have lost their monopoly on power and in some domains their preeminence as well” The world is dominated, not by one or two or even several states, but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power. “States are being challenged from above, by regional and global organizations; from below, by militias; and from the side, by a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations. Power is now found in many hands and in many places” (2008: 44-45).  Another constraint on the emergence of great-power rivals is the emergence of an international system on which all states are dependent for their economic welfare and political stability. States do not, want to disrupt an order that serves their national interests. “Integration into the modern world dampens great-power competition and conflict.” (2008: 49).


Haas’s argument is enlightening, and I agree with most of it.  The present paper builds on and attempts to go beyond Haas’s useful insights.  Haas focuses on the emergence of multiple centers of power, including many non-state actors, as well as the dependence of states on the international system.  I focus on some additional fundamental changes in nature of international politics.   


Fundamental changes in nature of international politics:


Discreditation of War


Power politics in the politico-military sense and conquest used to be the standard fare of international politics.  However, since World War II, force is no longer seen as a legitimate instrument of foreign policy—except when used in self-defense.   Power politics used to be the essence of international politics.  States were expected to threaten war and go to war in pursuit of their national interests. War was, as von Clausewitz writes, only a “continuation of state policy by other means.” (1874).  This changed, largely as a result of the two world wars.  Forceful means have been largely delegitimized as instruments of foreign policy.   What happened to bring about this change?


War and conquest have been much glorified throughout history, but no longer.  War and conquest have gone out of fashion.  One has only to consider the kind of language used throughout the ages in talking about war in order to appreciate how strange such language sounds to 21st century ears.


“War is to man what maternity is to a woman.” Benito Mussolini

“It were better to be a soldier’s widow than a coward’s wife.” - Thomas B. Aldrich, 1836-1907

"War is the mother of everything." –Heraclitus

“Вперед вы, товарищи, не смейте отступать, Чапаевцы смело привыкли умирать!”

“Смело мы в бой пойдём. За Русь святую. И как один прольём. Кровь молодую.”

“What makes a regiment of soldiers a nobler object of view than the same mass of mob? Their arms, their dresses, their banners, and the art and artificial symmetry of their position and movements.” - Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Three cheers for the war. Three cheers for Italy's war and three cheers for war in general. Peace is hence absurd or rather a pause in war. – Benito Mussolini

Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles and it will only perish through eternal peace. Adolf Hitler

War is the Health of the State Randolph Bourne (1918)


The kinds of war that used to be glorified were very different from 20th century wars.   The catastrophic nature of the two world wars as well as subsequent wars have put a heavy damper on all inclination to glorify war.  Before the 20th century, wars used to be fought between armies.  In the 20th century, war became total war, pitting entire populations against each other (Aron, 1951).  War always brought death and destruction, but the advent of tanks, bombing from airplanes, machine guns, poison gas, and other modern technologies took the death and destruction into a completely different dimension.  The advent of nuclear weapons made it possible that war could lead to annihilation of the human race. Romanticization of war has thus become increasingly difficult.  To be sure, here were always critics of war, but the horrors of modern warfare have fundamentally altered attitudes toward war.  To be sure, wars still take place, but war has been de-romanticized and delegitimized. 


Ideology confused with state interests:


During the Cold War, the notion of power in international relations underwent a profound transformation.  Ideology with universalist claims became an important component of power, and both a weapon and driver of conflict between the competing alliances.  To be sure, military competition and classical power politics remained central to superpower rivalry.   However, the advent of ideology as a weapon, a motivating force, and a domain of competition for both superpowers transformed the rivalry into something very different from past international rivalries.   


Previously, power could be assessed primarily in military terms, and rivalries resulted from clashes of interests of rival states.  During the Cold War, however, the heart of the conflict was not clashing state interests.  It was about ideals, about competing ways of organizing society and competing ways of life.  Victory could mean only ideological conversion, or physical conquest or elimination of the adversary.   The conflict was total--a clash of fundamental principles.  Yet, as serious as the conflict was, it always remained intangible and ephemeral, rather detached from reality, and difficult if not impossible to assess concretely. 


The confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States thus had two different aspects--ideological and military, and these were typically confused and conflated. The Truman Doctrine, which became the foundation of U.S. foreign policy aimed to stop both Soviet expansion and the spread of communism in Europe and elsewhere, assuming that these were one and the same thing.  Collapsing these two kinds of threat into one seemed to make sense, since both the Soviet military and the international Communist movement were controlled by the Kremlin.  A country could be taken over by military conquest or by a communist revolution or coup, and communists took part in military actions.  According to the Domino Theory, first advanced during Truman’s presidency, if a country came under the influence of Communists a “domino effect” would follow that would spread communism to other nearby countries.


Despite its surface plausibility, however, such conflation of the military and ideological threat was largely mistaken, and it prevented the United States from assessing realistically the threats it faced.  In many cases blind anticommunism stood in the way of making sensible policy. Most obviously, the doctrine of containment led to U.S. involvement in a disastrous, unwinnable war in Vietnam (Schulzinger: xi) that had little to do with tangible American interests.  Yet, the Domino Theory and fear of communism dominated American foreign policy thinking. According to this theory, if Vietnam fell to communism, other countries of Asia would fall like a row of standing dominoes. As Secretary of State Dulles explained in a 1954 press conference, referring to his plans for the creation of SEATO: “That is the whole theory of the North Atlantic Treaty. When the nations come together, then the so-called 'domino theory' ceases to apply."(Dulles, 1954: 6).  Dean Rusk, Secretary of State during the Johnson Administration, and  advocate of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam later confessed "I thought the SEATO Treaty was a mistake" precisely because "[n]o one really stopped to think what an American commitment to collective security on the Asian mainland might mean."


U.S. efforts during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union and Communism might appear successful, since the West was apparently the clear victor in the Cold War.  In fact, most of these efforts appear to have been misguided and largely a waste of money, the main consequences of which were to needlessly fuel a costly arms race, and aggravate the risk of nuclear annihilation.  There is little evidence that the Soviet State was actually aggressive and expansive, as was almost universally assumed in the West.  On the contrary, apart from supporting proxy wars in the Third World, the Soviet Union behaved cautiously in the international arena, and there are very good reasons to believe that it had no interest in conquering and occupying Western Europe, let alone the whole world. 


The danger represented by the international communist movement was a more complex matter.  To be sure, there were some countries in which the coming to power of communist parties might have actually posed threats to the U.S. and its allies.  However, little attempt to was made to differentiate among communist parties and to assess differentially the threats they posed.  Many countries could have been taken over by communist parties without posing the slightest threat to the security of the U.S. or its allies.  In other countries, communism had weak membership and electoral bases, and posed no threat beyond providing some assistance to Soviet espionage. 


In the U.S., for example, the communist party (CPUSA) played a prominent role in the U.S. labor movement from the 1920s through the 1940s.  The party played a not insignificant role in U.S. politics and rendered some assistance to Soviet espionage.  However, it never came close to posing a threat to the social and political order in the U.S.  By 1957, its membership had dwindled to less than 10,000, of whom some 1,500 were informants for the FBI (Gentry, 1991: 442).  The communist parties of France and Italy both had significant membership and electoral bases. They won many seats in the parliaments of those countries, and long played obstructive roles in politics.  Membership of France and Italy in NATO had little if any dampening effect on the membership and electoral bases of these parties. However, since a substantial majority of the Italian and French electorates opposed the communists, it his highly unlikely that they would have ever come to power.  Moreover, with the passage of time, both parties evolved in the direction of Euro communism, again due to factors in domestic politics rather than NATO's efforts to contain communism and the Soviet Union.   


I do not mean to suggest that the Soviet Union and Communism posed no threat at all to the security of the U.S. and Europe.  My point is that the threat was greatly exaggerated, and that poor understanding of the Soviet Union, of communist movements, and of the interrelationships between them often led the U.S. and its allies badly astray.  


Communism was never a monolith, let alone a monolith micromanaged by the Kremlin.  Over time, this came to be at least partly understand by at least part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  Occasionally, pragmatism would break through ideological blinders, as it did in the Orwellian transmutation of communist China from mortal enemy to strategic partner and major trading partner.  However, the myth of the communist monolith and the mortal threat it allegedly posed remained deeply engrained in the American foreign policy establishment and American society more generally. 


In fact, the communist movements in different countries differed greatly.  Generally speaking, those communist parties which were most subservient to Moscow enjoyed little popular support, and did not represent threats to the countries in which they were active.  Those parties that enjoyed broad popular support were driven by their support bases to evolve in the direction of social democracy, and it was difficult for Moscow to influence them. 


With regard to the threat allegedly posed by the Soviet state, if one disregards the international communist movement, it is difficult to characterize the behavior of the Soviet state as aggressive or expansionist.  The establishment after World War II of a buffer zone in Eastern and Central Europe consisting of sattelite Communist regimes was the last clear example of Soviet expansionism. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union used force outside its state boundaries only in its suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Neither of these operations aimed at increasing the territory of the Soviet Union.  Neither did the Soviet Union’s long war in Afghanistan seek to increase Soviet territory. To be sure, increasing Soviet military power did pose real threat to the security of the U.S. and its allies, but this was driven by the logic of the arms race rather than by Soviet expansionist ambitions.   


In addition to leading policy making astray, confusion of ideology and military threat fostered detachment of foreign policy thinking from reality. When von Clausewitz wrote about war as a "continuation of policy by other means," it was possible to make hard-nosed assessments of military strength.  To be sure, assessments could be mistaken, and diplomacy and battlefield strategy could alter outcomes.  However, when ideology became an integral component of both threat assessment and national strength, rational calculation of both threat and national strength acquired a surrealistic character, which it has not lost in the post-Soviet era.  


Institutionalization and habit: 


Creeping, unplanned, unrecognized institutionalization and persistent, largely unconscious attitudes and thought patterns are among the most important factors that have shaped the post-Soviet world order.  After the Soviet collapse, there was no fundamental rethinking of the world order.  Neither was there any fundamental rethinking later on when the former Soviet bloc states and the Baltic republics were admitted into existing Western institutions. Although it can be argued that NATO in its original Cold War composition was not anti-Russian, addition of the former Soviet Bloc states and the Baltic Republic unmistakably made it more anti-Russian than it previously had been.  


Thus, the post-Soviet world tended to be chaotic, and shaped largely by illusion, inertia, and unintended consequences.  A good illustration is provided by Gen. Charles Wald in his comments on the expansion of NATO to the east, a process in which he was intimately involved.  “[The] alliance expansion has been both frivolous and feckless. The attitude was, the more the merrier. … NATO didn't really look at the Article 5 part of it" (Bandow, 2010).  NATO now has 28 member states in an alliance that has the official aim “to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.  All member states are covered by Article Five of the treaty, states that “if an armed attack occurs against one of the member states, it should be considered an attack against all members, and other members shall assist the attacked member, with armed forces if necessary.” Yet, those who carried out the expansion of NATO never even thought about the Article Five. 


Neither do the planners and executors of NATO expansion to the east appear to have given much thought to NATO’s lack of an official enemy and a casus belli (under what circumstances are alliance members obliged to go to war).  The nature of the Soviet threat, whether it was illusory or not, was clear to all the states that joined NATO to protect themselves against that threat. Yet, the purpose of NATO in the post-Soviet era is not clear.  The powerful factors that used to drive states into alliance with one or the other of the superpowers before the Soviet collapse are no longer operative.  If one were to ask representatives of a range of NATO member states why they remain members of NATO, their answers would vary greatly.  Russia represents an unofficial enemy for the Baltic republics and some of the former members of the Soviet Bloc.  However many, perhaps most other NATO members do not see the alliance as directed against Russia, even though two NATO Secretaries General from Scandinavia have recently been warning of the the danger Russia allegedly poses to European security, and calling for greater NATO military presence in Eastern Europe.  Many members of NATO remain in the alliance largely out of inertia, although they do not see much purpose in it.  Moreover, leaving the alliance would likely be perceived as a rejection of its high principles.   


The problems of NATO are only one concrete example of a much broader problem in the post-Soviet era.  Little thought and effort have been devoted to rethinking the post-Soviet world order.  Old institutions were superficially adapted to integrate Russia, its former satellites, and the Baltic states.  The same personnel remained in place, with the same attitudes and thought habits, in the same institutional culture.  Russia was proclaimed to be a partner, but the task of making it a genuine partner was not thought through. The sloppiness and superficiality of Western thinking about how to integrate Russia into the new world order are nicely summarized by Dmitri Trenin (2006: 89)


From the beginning of the post-Cold War era, the West saw Russia as a special case. Armed with nuclear weapons, its great-power mentality shaken but unbroken, and just too big, Russia would be granted privileged treatment but no real prospect of membership in either NATO or the EU. The door to the West would officially remain open, but the idea of Russia's actually entering through it remained unthinkable. The hope was that Russia would gradually transform itself, with Western assistance, into a democratic polity and a market economy. In the meantime, what was important was that Russia would pursue a generally pro-Western foreign policy.


Moscow found such an offer unacceptable. It was only willing to consider joining the West if it was given something like co-chairmanship of the Western club--or at the very least membership in its Politburo. Russian leaders were not willing to follow the guidance coming from Washington and Brussels or to accept the same rules that its former Soviet satellites were following. Thus, despite all of the talk about Russia's integration into Western institutions, the project was stillborn from the beginning. It was just a matter of time before that reality became obvious to both sides.


This deadlock is largely due to the persistence of deeply-engrained thought habits, which survive mainly by inertia.  If the Soviet threat to Europe during the Cold War was largely illusory, the idea that post-Soviet Russia could be a threat to Europe is nothing short of ridiculous.  Crimea is usually cited as evidence of Russia’s aggressiveness and expansionism, yet the conditions for Crimea’s joining Russia were unique.  Nowhere else does Russia have a comparable military presence already in place. The overwhelming support of the Crimean population for joining Russia, as well as the reluctance of Ukrainian forces to oppose it made the role of the military forces unusually easy.  Such conditions do not exist anywhere else.  And Russia’s apparent support for those forces in southeastern Ukraine fighting for separation or federalization, while perhaps of questionable legality, seem akin to standard U.S. practices over the years. Military interventions abroad: http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html Covert operations: http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/pitfalls-us-covert-operations Regime change: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covert_United_States_foreign_regime_change_actions




Aron, Raymond.  1951.  Les guerres en chaîne: 3. éd. Gallimard.

Bandow, Doug. 2010. The Cold War Is History: So why is the U.S. still defending prosperous Europe and subsidizing its shrinking militaries? The American Spectator. 

Clausewitz, Carl von.  1874. On War. Volume 1, preface to the first edition.

Gentry, Kurt. 1991. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. W. W. Norton & Company.  

Haas, Richard N. 2008. The Age of Nonpolarity: What Will Follow U.S. Dominance?  Foreign Affairs, 87(3): 44-56

Harbutt, Fraser J. 2002. The Cold War era. Wiley-Blackwell: 19–20.

Schulzinger, Robert D. 1997.  A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975.  Oxford University Press. 

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