The Briefing: Japan throws its hat in the ring.
- Japan may steeply increase its military spending
- The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has expressed a desire to bring it to 2% of GDP
- That would be about double Japan's current defense budget
- They cited China's aggressive posture and North Korea's missile development as motivating factors
- Some European countries are similarly spooked by Russia
- It's both convenient and inconvenient timing
The Big Question: What does it all mean?
You may have heard the phrase “the unipolar moment” before. Maybe you don’t recognize it. Maybe you already know exactly what it means and implies already. If that’s you, you can probably skip to The Theory. If not, let’s break it down.
Here’s the simple version. During the Cold War, the world experienced a “bipolar moment,” meaning that there were two major “poles” of global power both minted in 1945: the United States and the Soviet Union. Bipolarity is dangerous, because two superpowers are bound to exist as rivals, each desiring an expanded sphere of influence. While neither may be eager to risk direct confrontation, that doesn’t make it impossible (see: Dr. Strangelove).
But the Cold War—despite some terrible casualties indeed—didn’t result in that kind of destructive conflict. When it ended in 1991, the United States emerged triumphant and ready to embark on its almost word-historically unique “unipolar moment.” As the only world superpower left standing, America possessed unparalleled leeway to shape the fates of nations. Like bipolarity, unipolarity comes with its own undesirable and dangerous features. It can breed hubris, entitlement, and even brutality on the part of the unipolar power, which cannot be held accountable by anyone else.
Now, that moment appears to be ending, as China rises to retake its ancient place as a global superpower. American officials thus fear a return to a “bipolar moment” along with its attendant risks and anxieties—or even worse, an eventual new unipolarity helmed by China.
The history and prospects of different polarities are fairly simple. However, increased military spending in Europe presents another, very different possibility: a “multipolar moment” with power balanced between the United States, China, and Europe (or the European Union). What that means in theory—or could mean in practice—is a little more complicated.
The Theory: Unipolarized glasses.
The common sense understanding of unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity ranks their relative levels of stability in that order. A unipolar concentration of power is most stable, while a multipolar distribution is most volatile.
Think of a classroom full of young, violent children (that’s basically what countries are, anyways). If one kid is 14 and the rest are 6, things are going to be fairly peaceful for most, though the big kid’s least favorites likely won’t fare too well.
If everyone is about the same age and size—that is, if you’ve got multiple poles—things are going to be comparatively hectic. It’s almost as if that just describes regular classrooms for a reason.
But the sort of multipolarity we’re considering is supposed to be different, because Europe and America, by and large, are very good friends. Proponents of the theory that democracies simply don’t go to war with each other might even say that a multipolar scenario dominated by democracies could totally reshape how we understand these power dynamics.
Even taking this for granted—that the existence of a European pole would chalk up to a 2v1 of democracy vs. autocracy—the problem remains that for the US, any increase in anyone else’s power, whether Europe or China, is ultimately a relative decrease in its power, and that’s intolerable when your overriding goal is to keep yourself safe. Power is security.
The Takeaway: A mixed bag.
America has a puzzle before it.
The obvious truth is that its privileged status as the world’s lone superpower appears to be waning. What to do about that is a conundrum. If decline is bound to pass now, then increased military independence of allies like Japan and Europe would be advantageous, especially compared to decline without any powerful friends.
On the other hand, encouraging, let alone facilitating, increases in military expenditures by allies risks locking in a relative decline in US power which otherwise might not be so inevitable: a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. One might argue that China can be contained to slowly wither and die the same way the Soviet Union did.
Regardless of how America is poised to fare, democracy would probably be better off with a more powerful Europe and Japan. As Macron and so many others have argued, the election of Donald Trump is a clear warning sign that America cannot be relied on to keep Europe safe. Our abuse of power in the Middle East were clear warning signs that democracy was rarely, if ever, our first foreign policy priority. The EU, flawed as it may be, has cut its teeth on cooperation between diverse partners, dealmaking, and the spread of liberal democracy.
A multipolar order dominated by democracies could prove more resilient and stable than a unipolar one dominated by the US. Unipolar arrangements are stable—until they aren’t. Constructing a backup arrangement to fill the void that one day will be left by America is better to do before it’s needed.Subscribe to Spectacles