Polarity, Balance of Power and International Relations Theory: Post-Cold War and the 19th Century Compared

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Year of publication: 2017
Author(s): Goedele De Keersmaeker
Palgrave Macmilan (London)

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Abstract

Since the end of the Cold War until at least the end of the first decade of the new millennium there existed a wide consensus shared by American academics, political commentators and policy makers : the world was unipolar and would remain so for some time. By contrast, outside the U.S. a multipolar interpretation prevailed. Despite differences in details, the BRIC countries, the European Union and some of its member states, seemed to share one view: the world was multipolar or would become so very soon. This contradiction questions the Neorealist claim that polarity is the central structuring element of the international system as this presumes that analysts can at least agree on whether a period is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar. This book explores this contradiction. It outlines different definitions of polarity and goes back to its Cold War roots, by which it is profoundly influenced. Then it looks at the 19th century and shows that despite the fact that is usually considered multipolar, power distribution and relations between great powers were much more similar with the unipolar post-Cold War’ than is usually accepted. In the last part we compare the way multipolarity is used in French texts with the way balance of power was used in the 19th century and show that the two discourses actually had the same function. By contrast American unipolarism and hegemonism is close to the old European tradition of universal monarchy, which was rejected by balance of power thinking.