Multipolarity and Strategic State Ascendancy

The world is more diplomatically complex today than it has been at any other point in history. Any nation’s relations with another have become inextricably bound along ethnic, religious, economic, political, and strategic lines. They are a complicated mess that can almost never be accurately reduced to a single factor or even a single paragraph. But as the United States of America loses its clear global hegemony and the world moves towards a slightly more multipolar system, the effects on the interactions of states have been obvious. The waning U.S. power has allowed for particular states to play the Great Powers off of one another to their great advantage –– whether that be for economic, strategic, or purely political reasons. Although multipolarity has traditionally been seen as the optimal state of balance for world order, it is clear now more than ever that globalization has made multipolarity just as dangerous as unipolarity.

The international relations of nations, such as Turkey with the U.S., clearly display the issues of modern-day globalism as they relate to diplomacy. Turkey is formally allied to the U.S. through their North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership, and it reaps the benefits of this in its entirety. From significant amounts of investment from the West to Turkey to military technology sharing agreements making Turkey a modern military force unrivaled in the Middle East, Turkey is a full benefactor of the West’s capital and technological ability. Yet, what separates Turkey from other NATO members is its control of the Bosphorus Straits and its important position in the Middle East. Turkey keeps Russian warships out of the Mediterranean, it is a keystone of NATO’s Middle East strategy, and it acts as a counterbalance to the influence of states like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey, under President Erdogan, has a keen understanding that they are indispensable to the West; however, just as the West needs Turkey, the Russo-Chinese bloc desires Turkey’s cooperation. Leveraging these factors, Turkey is able to afford the luxury of close military, political, and economic partnership with the Russian and Chinese governments while still retaining the benefits of NATO membership. But Turkey’s usage of its position goes beyond permitting it to engage in such a large quantity of beneficial bilateral relations. Its position lends it the ability to act with almost complete impunity in its locale. Turkey has always been an aggressive state in the Middle East, applying its Kemalist, particularly nationalist, policies almost zealously, but never has it been so emboldened as in the past 20 years. Turkey today occupies a notable strip of Northern Syria and all of Northern Cyprus, sends regular military incursions into Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and otherwise regularly violates the rights of its own citizens. If a weaker European nation like Estonia were to attempt what Turkey has done today, they would be met with nothing but ire. It is the apt political understanding of the Turkish government and their existence at a critical juncture of two massive spheres of influence that have prevented the Turkish state from becoming a pariah. Ultimately, it is the decline of the U.S. which has afforded Turkey such ludicrous political leeway. 

India is perhaps another clear example of multipolarity lending strategically located states the ability to ascend through the usage of the resources of both the American and Russo-Chinese blocs. India is a necessary partner for both China and the U.S.. From an American perspective, India is a regional counterbalance to China in the same way Iraq once balanced Iran –– chiefly through political and economic subversion. From the Chinese perspective, India is a former enemy that, if they were to instead join paths, could help establish Chinese dominance over the Middle East and most of Southeast Asia. India, just as Turkey, plays both sides. India is closely militarily linked to the U.S., benefits from U.S. investment greatly, has massive trade ties with the U.S., and often places themselves alongside the U.S.. Simultaneously, India receives similar economic benefits from China, has entered into the floundering economic alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS), and has diplomatically aligned with China in the recent War in Ukraine. Without a doubt, India is building towards its political independence from either bloc. There is a clear desire to establish an Indian sphere of influence, made glaringly obvious by the governmental statements of the past three months regarding the war in Ukraine. To build to that point, India has been using both major blocs to its advantage across every field and, in so doing, has successfully furthered its own global position. 

Multipolarity is a growing fact of the world that is, at least in the short-term, largely inevitable. However, the U.S. and the larger world must be mindful of the fact that multipolarity lends itself to this sort of strategic state ascendancy, certainly more so than in a unipolar world. To be clear, “strategic state ascendancy” is the economic and political uplift of strategically located states as a result of growing multipolarity. Further, selective state ascendancy is conducive to greater authoritarian regimes. Yes, these states are “exploiting” the Great Powers by pitting their strategic interests against one another, but it is not the common person who profits from the state’s ascendancy, but instead the state’s elites. Turkey and India have both strayed from democratic ideals since embracing their middleman status, and it would be a mistake to uncritically celebrate what changes multipolarity has brought to the people of these nations. Multipolarity is not the ideal that it might have been 300 years ago, but rather a tool for some states to act despotically without any recourse. Waning U.S. power means that these instances will become more common. American alliances and international relationships will only become more dependent upon providing greater incentive as the Russo-Chinese alternative continues to appear more lustrous in its appeal.