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Polariteit als basisconcept van de Internationale Betrekkingen: theoretische analyse, historische situering en hedendaagse relevantie

(2014)
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(UGent)
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Abstract
Although a small number of past studies have questioned the relevance of polarity as the crucial structuring element of international relations, the concept remains central to the structural realist tradition, both as a way of describing different eras in terms of multi-, bi- or unipolar power configurations, and as a causal explanation for great power behaviour. However there is the striking fact that most American neorealists describe the period after the end of the Cold War (1992-2012) as unipolar, while commentators and policy makers, mostly outside the United States, describe the same period as multipolar or evolving towards multipolarity. We therefore question the relevance of polarity analyses. Our survey of the polarity litera-ture reveals a lack of consensus on what is understood by polarity. Waltz (1964) already pointed to the difference between polarisation in different blocs on the one hand and polarity defined in terms of the numbers of great powers. Wayman (1984) calls this a ‘cluster polarity’ versus ‘power polarity’ approach. Within this latter approach a further difference exists between those who define polarity in terms of the number of great powers or in terms of the number of a sub-category called polar powers, consisting of very powerful states. We call this a numeric versus a hierarchical definition of polarity. Three other elements further diminish the value of the polarity concept: the lack of consensus on who the great powers/polar powers are in a given period (a problem particularly important in the post-Cold War era); the lack of a clear circumscription of the international system studied; and the materialist, mainly military, power concept polarity thinkers use, while neglecting economic power, and institutional and other non-material forms of power. Moreover there is a difference between the use of polarity terminology in the academic and the scientific debate on the one hand and its daily use in public debate, where the term is much vaguer, and has several overlapping meanings – it is (in its original bipolar version) strongly linked to the Cold War, the ideological East-West divide and the nuclear arms race – but as such is not attributed any causal meaning. We apply these definitions to different time periods: the Cold War (1945-1991), the 19th century (1815-1914) and the post-Cold War period (1992-2012). This shows that bipolarity, as defined in the academic literature, offers a good description of the Cold War era, both from a power and cluster polar perspective. Precise definitions of power polarity prove to be irrelevant. Only when it comes to economic power do we see a substantial difference between the two superpowers (USSR and US). By contrast, though commonly seen as a classical example of multipolarity, a closer analysis of the 19th century reveals a complex reality: at the global level the system was undoubtedly British quasi-unipolar, while the European system can only be described as multipolar if one uses a numeric concept of polarity. Great powers differed profoundly in terms of economic, military and diplomatic weight. Moreover the century witnessed important shifts between the great powers. If one uses a hierarchical polarity concept it would therefore be much more appropriate to describe the period in terms of shifting polarity constellations (British-Russian bipolar, British unipolar, British-German bipolar). Moreover, in contradiction to the claims of hegemonic stability theory, British industrial, maritime and global dominance never led to an exclusive ideological or diplomatic dominance over the other great powers. On the contrary, at the height of its material power (the 1860s) the influence of Britain was limited and the European order in great disarray. Finally the century is difficult to describe in cluster polar terms. At no point did it see the formation of the exclusive and opposite ideological, economic and military blocs that were a typical feature of the Cold War. This analysis questions the relevance of contemporary polarity thinking which commonly uses a hierarchical polarity concept for the post-Cold war period, but a numerical one when discussing the 19th century. In a second part we map the historical evolution of the great power concept since 1815. 19th century thinking and practices emphasised military rather than economic elements when defining great powers. Polarity thinking is highly influenced by this approach, which limits its relevance in a period that is marked by the growing importance of economic power. One difference however is that today great powers are usually defined in terms of military capabilities, whereas in the 19th century they achieved their status as a result of their accomplishments in war. Both in the 19th century and in current polarity thinking there is a strong link with the idea of balance of power. However polarity thinking reduces the balance of power to military capabilities, whereas in the 19th century it had a much broader connotation in terms of a balance of rights, duties and equal treatment. This last element also shows that great powers were a status group, recognized as such by their peers. This recognition was formalised for the first time at the Congress of Vienna (1815), and it explains why the 19th century is described as multipolar, despite the important difference in material capabilities between these great powers. Polarity thinking does not take into account these status, and thus social, elements, though they explain a great deal of great power behaviour (e.g. Russian). We continue by making a critical analysis of the current use of polarity terminology. We first focus on the French discourse and the dispute that arose with the US during the run-up to the Iraq War. Our analysis shows that the French use of multipolarity has a strong resemblance to the way ‘balance of power’ was used in the 19th century, and thus not only covers pure material elements but also rights and duties, recognition as equals and collective great power management. Until the Obama administration, polarity terminology is almost completely absent from official American texts, but we do detect an implicit but strong hegemonic influence and an emphasis on cluster unipolarity, when it comes to relations with European allies. This hegemonic influence is also present in the work of Brooks and Wohlforth (2008; Wohlforth, 1999), the main representatives of the ‘unipolar stability theory’ (Layne, 2009). Our analysis detects several inconsistencies in their comparative treatment of the 19th century, the Cold War and the current polarity configuration, most particularly when it comes to the power polarity definition used, the identification of great powers, the demarcation of the relevant system, and too strong an emphasis on a strictly military interpretation of the balance of power. Nowhere is it proven that the interaction between great powers differs substantially between the ‘multipolar’ 19th century and the ‘unipolar’ 21st century. After a final analysis of the power relations during the last 25 years, which shows a complex pattern of power relations, differing from region to region, from power domain to power domain, we draw some conclusions as to the theoretical relevance of the polarity concept. While analyses in terms of material power are surely necessary, thinking in terms of the number of great powers or polar power is much less needed. Apart from the high level of institutionalisation of current international relations, and thus the importance of legitimacy and power struggles within institutions, we could not identify any substantial difference between the way great powers interact in the ‘multipolar’ 19th century and ‘unipolar’ 21st century. The fact that some authors think there is can be explained by several factors: the lack of thorough power analysis of the 19th century relations, the vagueness surrounding system definition, not taking into account the social foundation of 19th century multi-polarity. To a lesser extent, incongruences in the definition of power polarity, and the complete disappearance of cluster polar approaches from polarity analysis, also contribute to the blindness to the similarities. By contrast, the differences between the 19th century and post-Cold War interaction on the one hand, and the bipolar Cold War period on the other hand, are striking. We therefore conclude that polarity thinking is too much influenced by the very specific and unique context in which it arose, and is therefore unsuitable as a general framework for analysing great power relations in a broader historical perspective.
Keywords
international relations, neorealism, polarity, multipolarity, bipolarity unipolarity hegemony historical analysis, post-Cold War, Cold War, 19th century, balance of power, international system

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MLA
De Keersmaeker, Goedele. “Polariteit Als Basisconcept Van De Internationale Betrekkingen: Theoretische Analyse, Historische Situering En Hedendaagse Relevantie.” 2014 : n. pag. Print.
APA
De Keersmaeker, G. (2014). Polariteit als basisconcept van de Internationale Betrekkingen: theoretische analyse, historische situering en hedendaagse relevantie. Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen, Gent.
Chicago author-date
De Keersmaeker, Goedele. 2014. “Polariteit Als Basisconcept Van De Internationale Betrekkingen: Theoretische Analyse, Historische Situering En Hedendaagse Relevantie”. Gent: Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
De Keersmaeker, Goedele. 2014. “Polariteit Als Basisconcept Van De Internationale Betrekkingen: Theoretische Analyse, Historische Situering En Hedendaagse Relevantie”. Gent: Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen.
Vancouver
1.
De Keersmaeker G. Polariteit als basisconcept van de Internationale Betrekkingen: theoretische analyse, historische situering en hedendaagse relevantie. [Gent]: Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen; 2014.
IEEE
[1]
G. De Keersmaeker, “Polariteit als basisconcept van de Internationale Betrekkingen: theoretische analyse, historische situering en hedendaagse relevantie,” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen, Gent, 2014.
@phdthesis{5835977,
  abstract     = {Although a small number of past studies have questioned the relevance of polarity as the crucial structuring element of international relations, the concept remains central to the structural realist tradition, both as a way of describing different eras in terms of multi-, bi- or unipolar power configurations, and as a causal explanation for great power behaviour. However there is the striking fact that most American neorealists describe the period after the end of the Cold War (1992-2012) as unipolar, while commentators and policy makers, mostly outside the United States, describe the same period as multipolar or evolving towards multipolarity.
We therefore question the relevance of polarity analyses. Our survey of the polarity litera-ture reveals a lack of consensus on what is understood by polarity. Waltz (1964) already pointed to the difference between polarisation in different blocs on the one hand and polarity defined in terms of the numbers of great powers. Wayman (1984) calls this a ‘cluster polarity’ versus ‘power polarity’ approach. Within this latter approach a further difference exists between those who define polarity in terms of the number of great powers or in terms of the number of a sub-category called polar powers, consisting of very powerful states. We call this a numeric versus a hierarchical definition of polarity. Three other elements further diminish the value of the polarity concept: the lack of consensus on who the great powers/polar powers are in a given period (a problem particularly important in the post-Cold War era); the lack of a clear circumscription of the international system studied; and the materialist, mainly military, power concept polarity thinkers use, while neglecting economic power, and institutional and other non-material forms of power. Moreover there is a difference between the use of polarity terminology in the academic and the scientific debate on the one hand and its daily use in public debate, where the term is much vaguer, and has several overlapping meanings – it is (in its original bipolar version) strongly linked to the Cold War, the ideological East-West divide and the nuclear arms race – but as such is not attributed any causal meaning.
We apply these definitions to different time periods: the Cold War (1945-1991), the 19th century (1815-1914) and the post-Cold War period (1992-2012). This shows that bipolarity, as defined in the academic literature, offers a good description of the Cold War era, both from a power and cluster polar perspective. Precise definitions of power polarity prove to be irrelevant. Only when it comes to economic power do we see a substantial difference between the two superpowers (USSR and US). By contrast, though commonly seen as a classical example of multipolarity, a closer analysis of the 19th century reveals a complex reality: at the global level the system was undoubtedly British quasi-unipolar, while the European system can only be described as multipolar if one uses a numeric concept of polarity. Great powers differed profoundly in terms of economic, military and diplomatic weight. Moreover the century witnessed important shifts between the great powers. If one uses a hierarchical polarity concept it would therefore be much more appropriate to describe the period in terms of shifting polarity constellations (British-Russian bipolar, British unipolar, British-German bipolar). Moreover, in contradiction to the claims of hegemonic stability theory, British industrial, maritime and global dominance never led to an exclusive ideological or diplomatic dominance over the other great powers. On the contrary, at the height of its material power (the 1860s) the influence of Britain was limited and the European order in great disarray. Finally the century is difficult to describe in cluster polar terms. At no point did it see the formation of the exclusive and opposite ideological, economic and military blocs that were a typical feature of the Cold War. This analysis questions the relevance of contemporary polarity thinking which commonly uses a hierarchical polarity concept for the post-Cold war period, but a numerical one when discussing the 19th century.
In a second part we map the historical evolution of the great power concept since 1815. 19th century thinking and practices emphasised military rather than economic elements when defining great powers. Polarity thinking is highly influenced by this approach, which limits its relevance in a period that is marked by the growing importance of economic power. One difference however is that today great powers are usually defined in terms of military capabilities, whereas in the 19th century they achieved their status as a result of their accomplishments in war. Both in the 19th century and in current polarity thinking there is a strong link with the idea of balance of power. However polarity thinking reduces the balance of power to military capabilities, whereas in the 19th century it had a much broader connotation in terms of a balance of rights, duties and equal treatment. This last element also shows that great powers were a status group, recognized as such by their peers. This recognition was formalised for the first time at the Congress of Vienna (1815), and it explains why the 19th century is described as multipolar, despite the important difference in material capabilities between these great powers. Polarity thinking does not take into account these status, and thus social, elements, though they explain a great deal of great power behaviour (e.g. Russian).
We continue by making a critical analysis of the current use of polarity terminology. We first focus on the French discourse and the dispute that arose with the US during the run-up to the Iraq War. Our analysis shows that the French use of multipolarity has a strong resemblance to the way ‘balance of power’ was used in the 19th century, and thus not only covers pure material elements but also rights and duties, recognition as equals and collective great power management. Until the Obama administration, polarity terminology is almost completely absent from official American texts, but we do detect an implicit but strong hegemonic influence and an emphasis on cluster unipolarity, when it comes to relations with European allies.
This hegemonic influence is also present in the work of Brooks and Wohlforth (2008; Wohlforth, 1999), the main representatives of the ‘unipolar stability theory’ (Layne, 2009). Our analysis detects several inconsistencies in their comparative treatment of the 19th century, the Cold War and the current polarity configuration, most particularly when it comes to the power polarity definition used, the identification of great powers, the demarcation of the relevant system, and too strong an emphasis on a strictly military interpretation of the balance of power. Nowhere is it proven that the interaction between great powers differs substantially between the ‘multipolar’ 19th century and the ‘unipolar’ 21st century.
After a final analysis of the power relations during the last 25 years, which shows a complex pattern of power relations, differing from region to region, from power domain to power domain, we draw some conclusions as to the theoretical relevance of the polarity concept.
While analyses in terms of material power are surely necessary, thinking in terms of the number of great powers or polar power is much less needed. Apart from the high level of institutionalisation of current international relations, and thus the importance of legitimacy and power struggles within institutions, we could not identify any substantial difference between the way great powers interact in the ‘multipolar’ 19th century and ‘unipolar’ 21st century. The fact that some authors think there is can be explained by several factors: the lack of thorough power analysis of the 19th century relations, the vagueness surrounding system definition, not taking into account the social foundation of 19th century multi-polarity. To a lesser extent, incongruences in the definition of power polarity, and the complete disappearance of cluster polar approaches from polarity analysis, also contribute to the blindness to the similarities.
 By contrast, the differences between the 19th century and post-Cold War interaction on the one hand, and the bipolar Cold War period on the other hand, are striking.
We therefore conclude that polarity thinking is too much influenced by the very specific and unique context in which it arose, and is therefore unsuitable as a general framework for analysing great power relations in a broader historical perspective.},
  author       = {De Keersmaeker, Goedele},
  keywords     = {international relations,neorealism,polarity,multipolarity,bipolarity unipolarity hegemony historical analysis,post-Cold War,Cold War,19th century,balance of power,international system},
  language     = {dut},
  pages        = {XX, 673},
  publisher    = {Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen},
  school       = {Ghent University},
  title        = {Polariteit als basisconcept van de Internationale Betrekkingen: theoretische analyse, historische situering en hedendaagse relevantie},
  year         = {2014},
}