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The Case for a Quadripolar World

According to the conventional wisdom, the twenty-first century will be characterized by the global shift from American hegemony to Sino-American rivalry. But a bipolar international order is neither inevitable nor desirable, and we should start imagining and working toward alternative arrangements.

CAMBRIDGE – Having diminished America’s global role while refusing to accept China’s growing clout, Donald Trump’s presidency represents the last gasp of a unipolar epoch. But while many assume that the unipolar post-Cold War world is giving way to a bipolar international order dominated by the United States and China, that outcome is neither inevitable nor desirable. Instead, there is every reason to hope for, and work toward, a world in which Europe and the emerging economies play a more assertive role.

To be sure, as the world’s most economically successful autocracy, China has already achieved significant geopolitical influence in Asia and beyond. During the two most recent global crises – the 2008 financial collapse and today’s pandemic – the Communist Party of China quickly adjusted the country’s political economy in response to changing circumstances, thereby solidifying its grip on power. Because countries that do not want to toe the US line now routinely turn to China for inspiration and, often, material support, what could be more natural than China emerging as one of the two poles of global power?

In fact, a bipolar world would be deeply unstable. Its emergence would heighten the risk of violent conflict (according to the logic of the Thucydides Trap), and its consolidation would make solutions to global problems wholly dependent on the national interests of the two reigning powers. Three of the biggest challenges facing humanity would either be ignored or made worse.

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