Stanley's blog

These terms are frequently used and often appear interchangeable. But what do they mean? Is there any common understandable.

Multipolarity is a system of power distribution in which several countries have very substantial influence.
Our deepest challenge,” US national security advisor Henry Kissinger wrote in 1969, will be “to base order on political multipolarity even though overwhelming military strength will remain with the two superpowers.”

French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing described in 1978 his differences with US President Jimmy Carter as a “means to attain our grand objective, namely, the organization of a multipolar world which will not be limited by the decisions made by two superpowers alone.”

Yale University historian Paul Kennedy predicted in 1987 the balance of military power will shift over the coming 20 to 30 years, creating a truly multipolar world around 2009. “If the patterns of history are any guide, the multipolar economic balance will begin to shift the military balances,” he later told the New York Times.

“Global politics,” Samuel Huntington argued after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, “is now passing through one or two uni-multipolar decades before it enters a truly multipolar 21st century.”

China and Russia signed in 1997: a “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order”, prompted by a fear of US unipolarity.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in 2000 claimed the US is not looking to “establish and enforce” a unipolar world. Economic integration, she says, has already created “the kind of world that might even be called ‘multipolar.’

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in 2003 warns that French President Jacques Chirac’s multipolar vision, and his prolific use of the term, is “dangerous and destabilizing.”

A New York Times leader in 2007 describes the “emergence of a multipolar world,” with China taking “a parallel place at the table along with other centers of power, like Brussels or Tokyo.”

The US 2008 National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2025 report of 2008 declared the advent of a “global multipolar system” as one of the world’s “relative certainties” within two decades.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2009 that, “We will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multipolar world and toward a multipartner world.” *

US Vice President Joseph Biden declared in 2009 that, “We are trying to build a multipolar world.”

(My thanks to Elizabeth Dickinson for the material from which the above was selected.)

It will be seen from these quotations that a multipolar world is seen as a world where several poles of power replace today’s unipolar one. The vision is of competing countries and the danger is the re-ascendancy of ‘balance of power’ thinking.

Multilateralism describes several countries working in together. Inevitably, the more powerful countries wield greater influence, but the vision is of countries seeking win-win solutions, and not playing zero sum games, which is implicit in a multipolar system. The basis of multilateralism is interdependence.

China has in the past advocated multipolarity, but now seems to be embracing multilateralism. The United States, on the other hand, still seeks a multipolar world. Europe is firmly mutilateralist.

When following the debate, care must be taken to see that the terms are correctly used, because they frequently appear interchangeable, which they are not.

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  1. In economics we have an interdependent world – multilateralism, not multipolarity. This is emphasised in today’s FT: The grasshoppers and the ants – a modern fable, by Martin Wolf.

    The course of the present economic globalisation, the article suggests, is that most advanced economies will default on their debt and perish; with the consequence that the creditor countries will lose their savings, and also perish.

    But what changes are needed to avoid the unacceptable outcome? And to avoid previous mistakes, international checks on the enforcement of the new rules will be necessary – trust, but verify.

  2. In a nutshell: In systems theory, multipolarity, as a description of the international system’s nature, embodies the idea of a more or less balanced distribution of power between more than two actors.

    Multilateralism, in contrast, describes the way HOW states act;
    or at least how states (which gained power in a multipolar system, compared to their position in a bipolar one) should act, in order to avoid escalations as in the 20th century (See also Grevi and de Vasconcelos 2008: 22). This is also the basis the United Nations (UN) were built on and the EU gradually developed from. The crux of the matter is that states only cooperate as long as they regard it beneficial to achieve their objectives.

    From a European (policy) perspective, multilateralism includes two functions: one being participation in international politics and its processes, the other being a mean to habituate the international community to cooperation and to avoid the system’s tendency towards anarchy and power politics (Krause 2005).

    And to ge even further: Multilateralism can hence be seen as the collective struggle by the international community for averting human and natural catastrophes through strengthening international institutions (Grevi and Vasconcelos 2008: 152) and hence indeed a form of cooperation the int. comm. should strive for.

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