Power Relations in the Twenty-First Century: Mapping a Multipolar World?

  • Published

Power Relations in the Twenty-First Century: Mapping a Multipolar World? edited by Donette Murray and David Brown. Routledge, 2018, 225 pp.

Power Relations in the Twenty-First Century serves as an excellent reference text that analyzes the past, present, and future relationships of today’s Great Powers. The volume’s 13 contributors provide valuable insights about the United States’ interstate relationships. However, the true value comes from their understanding of the nuanced relationships between other powers such as China, the European Union (EU), Russia, and India. All authors confirm the decline in the US’s share of global power, but no actor or group of actors possess the capability or interest to lead a revised order. Additionally, the third-party dynamics indirectly reinforce the US’s slightly diminished position within the world order. Power Relations serves as a comprehensive reference text for geopolitical and military strategists, widely sourced with hundreds of authoritative citations for further research.

India—The Fulcrum. All contributors to Power Relations placed critical emphasis on India’s role in defining the probability of any revised world order. China and India headline every rising power index, and China leads India due to initiating economic reforms before India. However, geography, demography, and US support buoy India’s long-term outlook. Over recent decades, India transitioned from its policy of nonalignment to a close-hugging partner of the US. Since India opened relations with the US in the early 2000s, the US-India partnership has raised India’s potential in almost every category. A close US-India relationship may prove the greatest guarantor of the existing US-led order.

India’s cooperation with the US to counter China provides de facto support for the current order. Unique among Great Power relationships, China and India share extensive land borders, which accentuates the anxieties of Great Power competitors. In parallel, though Russia and India share a long history of friendship, their twenty-first-century goals conflict. Russia’s diplomatic obsession with multipolarity and military adventurism drive India further toward the US. Thus, India’s response to the multipolar advocates will delay the dawn of any post-American order.

Of secondary importance, the barren India-EU relationship gives indirect support to the US-led order. India and the EU label each other as “strategic partners” and share democratic values but possess little else in common. Distant geography and differing national priorities leave India and the EU disinterested in each other. Neither actor wields the resources or the interest to challenge the US, and both reject increased Chinese influence in a multipolar order. The indifference of the world’s largest market (EU) toward the soon-to-be world’s most populous country (India) supports the status quo by default.

Mistrust of Potential Challengers. Global mistrust of Russia and China’s advocacy for a multipolar system limits the likelihood of any revision to the world order. Russia and China’s ambitions starkly contrast with the Western-oriented liberal world. Hawkish analysts view Sino-Russian alignment against the US as a harbinger of change, but Power Relations offers contrarian views on Russian and Chinese analyses.

US pressure on China and US-EU pressure on Russia forced a Sino-Russian marriage of convenience, but the relationship lacks the fertility to bear an enduring alliance. Structural instabilities exist within the Sino-Russia partnership that perpetuate long-term uncertainty. Russia’s obsession with status, territorial tensions, and the volatile Sino-Russian history exemplify three of many challenges for deeper coalition. Still, Sino-Russia cooperation creates a substantial test for the international system.

Power Relations labels Russia as a “sniper-power” rather than a re-emergent super power. Russia uses its resource wealth to remain influential in global energy markets. When energy prices fall, Russia compensates through membership on the United Nations Security Council or military power. Additionally, Russia’s geographic characteristics inextricably connect it to three evolving power centers: Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. Therefore, Russia will continue to act as an international spoiler for the foreseeable future.

Power Relations assesses that a major conflict between the US and China is unlikely. The author devalues the normally cited key indicators of China’s rise: gross domestic product, increasing research and development (R&D) budget, and military spending. Instead, the author identifies more meaningful metrics for power comparison that moderate China’s prospects to challenge the US: net wealth, R&D output, and China’s military spending relative to its border insecurities. Ultimately, even if China desires to restore the status of the Middle Kingdom, it lacks the endowment and selflessness to lead a post-American order.

The EU boasts the world’s largest market, but the supranational entity lacks the agility, cohesion, or security mechanisms to defend itself against Russian revanchism or Chinese economic infiltration. For example, the EU interprets China’s aggressive bilateral negotiations with weaker EU member states as an attempt to circumvent and exploit the EU. Separately, post-Soviet Russia’s realist approach of using hydrocarbons and military power for political manipulation threatens the EU’s economy and physical security. As a result, the EU will compensate for these threats by gravitating closer to its traditional ally, the US.

Unbreakable Family Ties. The US’s “pivot to the Pacific” results in ever-diverging priorities for the US and EU. The US and EU need each other, but this divergence makes cooperation increasingly challenging. Though the EU represents the world’s largest economic market, its lack of political or military unity prevents it from decisive collective action outside of Europe. Thus, its collective enforcement of foreign policy lacks potency relative to the US. However, shared common values underwrite the longevity of the US-EU relationship and thus the existing order. Also, the combined US and EU economies account for approximately half of the world’s economic output, so the enduring nature of the US-EU partnership fortifies the existing order against revisionist powers.

Reviewer’s Note. A critical weakness in a few sections of Power Relations stems from excessive focus on the tactical details vice strategic context of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and 2016 US presidential election. All authors recognize the destabilizing effects of Brexit and many of President Trump’s policies. However, the few authors whose analyses depended heavily on specific timelines for Brexit or palace intrigue associated with President Trump’s political appointees proved myopic. These authors could improve their analyses by contextualizing these unanticipated events rather than treating them as anomalies.

LCDR James M. Landreth, US Navy



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."