Unipolarity is arguably the most popular concept used to analyze the U.S. global position that emerged in 1991, but the concept is totally inadequate for assessing how that position has changed in the years since. A new framework that avoids unipolarity's conceptual pitfalls and provides a systematic approach to measuring how the distribution of capabilities is changing in twenty-first-century global politics demonstrates that the United States will long remain the only state with the capability to be a superpower. In addition, China is in a class by itself, one that the unipolarity concept cannot explain. To assess the speed with which China's rise might transform this into something other than a one-superpower system, analogies from past power transitions are misleading. Unlike past rising powers, China is at a much lower technological level than the leading state, and the gap separating Chinese and U.S. military capabilities is much larger than it was in the past. In addition, the very nature of power has changed: the greatly enhanced difficulty of converting economic capacity into military capacity makes the transition from a great power to a superpower much harder now than it was in the past. Still, China's rise is real and change is afoot.
The development of the concept of soft balancing is an attempt to stretch balance of power theory to encompass an international system in which traditional counterbalancing among the major powers is absent. There are two fundamental faws, however, in current treatments of soft balancing: the failure to consider alternative explanations for state actions that have the effect of constraining the United States, and the absence of empirical analysis of the phenomenon. A comparison of soft balancing and four alternative explanations in the main cases highlighted by proponents of the concept-Russia's strategic partnerships with China and India, Russian assistance to Iran's nuclear program, the European Union's efforts to enhance its defense capability, and opposition to the U.S.-led Iraq war in 2003—reveals no empirical support for the soft-balancing explanation. The lack of evidence for the relevance of balancing dynamics in contemporary great-power relations indicates that further investments in adapting balance of power theory to today's unipolar system will not yield analytical dividends.
We develop scholarship on status in international politics by focusing on the social dimension of small and middle power status politics. This vantage opens a new window on the widely-discussed strategies social actors may use to maintain and enhance their status, showing how social creativity, mobility, and competition can all be system-supporting under some conditions. We extract lessons for other thorny issues in status research, notably questions concerning when, if ever, status is a good in itself; whether it must be a positional good; and how states measure it.
Most scholars hold that the consequences of unipolarity for great power conflict are indeterminate and that a power shift resulting in a return to bipolarity or multipolarity will not raise the specter of great power war. This article calls into question the core assumptions underlying the consensus: (1) that people are mainly motivated by the instrumental pursuit of tangible ends such as physical security and material prosperity and (2) that major powers' satisfaction with the status quo is relatively independent of the distribution of capabilities. in fact, it is known that people are motivated powerfully by a noninstrumental concern for relative status, and there is strong empirical evidence linking the salience of those concerns to distributions of resources. If the status of states depends in some measure on their relative capabilities and if states derive utility from status, then different distributions of capabilities may affect levels of satisfaction, just as different income distributions may affect levels of status competition in domestic settings. Building on research in psychology and sociology, the author argues that even capabilities distributions among major powers foster ambiguous status hierarchies, which generate more dissatisfaction and clashes over the status quo. and the more stratified the distribution of capabilities, the less likely such status competition is. Unipolarity thus augurs for great power peace, and a shift back to bipolarity or multipolarity raises the probability of war even among great powers with little material cause to fight.
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