Back to Bipolarity?

By Binnendijk, Hans; Henrikson, Alan | Strategic Forum, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Back to Bipolarity?


Binnendijk, Hans, Henrikson, Alan, Strategic Forum


A decade after the Berlin Wall was torn down and a new international system was born, the nature of that new system is not yet clear. It is a fluid and complex system that remains in evolution. But an evolution toward what? The past can tell us something about what might happen in the future if historical patterns can be discerned and applied to today's world. History shows that the fluidity in today's world has precedents in the early stages of each of the past five international systems. Each of those previous systems had a life cycle: there was a tendency for fluidity and multipolarity to turn into rigidity and bipolarity, with that bipolarity in turn resulting in large scale conflict (or a Cold War) and the demise of the existing international system. Most of the past systems developed before or during the Industrial Age. There are signs that history may be repeated in the Information Age--and it may be moving into a more bipolar and more dangerous stage.

Five International Systems

Five international systems have existed since the birth of the United States. We are now less than a decade into a sixth. Most of the previous systems, though Eurocentric, have tended to dominate world politics and they have become increasingly global. The five systems are summarized below. In each case, a trend toward a bipolar division and conflict can be seen.

First System: The Treaty of Utrecht to Waterloo

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ended the War of Spanish Succession and ushered in a new international system based upon what may be called a loose balance of power. The early system was multipolar, with a number of nations forming temporary relationships with one another and with wars fought for limited purposes. In northern Europe, Russia (after Peter the Great) and Prussia (after Frederick the Great) were in ascendancy as Swedish power faded, and these two new powers became rivals. In southern Europe, France and Austria were rivals. As a result, Russia and Austria seemed to be logical allies, along with Great Britain which needed a counterweight to France. Russia and Austria together fought four small wars against France and its allies between 1733 and 1748. These alliances were not permanent and, as the diplomatic revolution of 1756 demonstrated, the system remained fluid. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763), alliances shifted as France, Austria, and Russia fought together against Great Britain and Prussia. Furthermore, Russia and Prussia found common interest in the progressive partition of Poland later in the century, and they both stayed neutral as France and Great Britain fought in the War of the American Revolution. It was during the Seven Years War and the American Revolution, however, that a firmer bipolarity began to take shape centered on Great Britain and France. As Napoleon's power grew at the turn of the century, he was still able to form fluid alliances on the continent to isolate and defeat his enemies. The system became tightly bipolar when Britain, Russia and their allies united against an aggressive and republican France. This clash culminated in the battles of Borodino, Leipzig and Waterloo, where the first system ended.

Second System: Congress of Vienna to the Crimean War

A new Concert of Europe was born in Vienna in 1815 ushering in the second international system which was based upon a balance of power designed to prevent a hegemon from arising again on the continent. Great Britain acted independently as the balancer, contributing to the fluidity of the system. For example, when Austria grew concerned about Russia's policy in the Near East, the Austrians turned to Britain for help. When Russia distrusted Prussian intentions in the Baltic states, the Tsar also turned to Britain. The outlines of an underlying bipolarity existed in the system with liberal France and Britain leading in the west and conservative Russia, Prussia, and Austria dominating the east. …

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