Discussions from undergarduate seminars 1: The world system after the cold war

Having the opportunity as a Doctoral Tutor at Sussex University provides me with the welcome opportunity to discuss and listen to the ideas of undergraduate students. I am currently leading seminars with two groups of 1 st year students in International Politics

The theme of the previous two weeks has been the Cold War and it’s aftermath. In this week’s seminar we discussed in particular the nature of polarity in the international system and the major works of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington.

When asked whether today’s international system could be best described as uni-polar, bi-polar or multi-polar, student opinion were divided. With the rise of China and a re-assertive Russia few though that America remains the predominant power in the world, despite its continued military and economic superiority, although some did point out the importance of America’s soft power/cultural influence which is often forgotten in mainstream international relations theory.

There was more support for the idea of a multi-polar system. With the aforementioned growing influence of China and Russia it is hard to make the case for a bi-polar model. Perhaps unsurprisingly the European Union was also highlighted by students as another viable “pole”. Should the EU overcome its current challenges and pursue greater integration in the wake of Britain’s withdrawal the case can certainly be made be made for it becoming a major foreign relations player in the future.

One could also look to a potential strengthening in Asia in the face of increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region although old rivalries, especially between Japan and South Korea, make the creation of an non-Chinese led Asian “pole” problematic in the future

Historically a multi-polar system ends in conflict (see World War 1 and 2) . There are too many actors to ensure stability. But there has never been a multi-polar system in a nuclear world. Many attribute the (debatable) “long peace” of the Cold War to the fact the cost of conflict between nuclear armed states would be so great as to make a war essentially unwinnable.. That may ultimately be the variable which ensures relative global security in a a new age of multi-polarity. All out war between any combination of potential polar leaders such as the United States, China, Russia, the EU or even rising economies such as India or Brazil remains unlikely while nuclear weapons remain a possible recourse. The Presidency of Donald Trump, the continued leadership of Vladimir Putin in Russia and an increasingly nationalistic China will put this theory to the test in the coming years