Precipitate Decline: The Advent of Multipolarity

By Wallerstein, Immanuel | Harvard International Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Precipitate Decline: The Advent of Multipolarity


Wallerstein, Immanuel, Harvard International Review


As recently as 2003, it was considered absurd to talk of the decline of the United States. Now, however, such a belief has become common currency among theorists, policymakers, and the media. What significantly raised the awareness of this concept was, of course, the fiasco of the United States' preemptive invasion of Iraq. What is not yet sufficiently appreciated is the precise nature of this decline and when it specifically began.

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Most analysts contend that the United States was at its hegemonic apex in the post-1991 era when the world was marked by unipolarity, as contrasted with the bipolar structure that existed during the Cold War. But this notion has reality absolutely backwards. The United States was the sole hegemonic power from 1945 to approximately 1970. Its hegemony has been in decline ever since. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major blow to US power in the world. And the invasion of Iraq in 2003 transformed the situation from one of slow decline into one of precipitous collapse. By 2007, the United States had lost its credibility not only as the economic and political leader of the world-system, but also as the dominant military power.

Since I am aware that this is not the standard picture either in the media or in scholarly literature, let me spell this out in some detail. I shall divide this account into three periods: 1945-1970, 1970-2001, and 2001 to the present. They correspond to the period of US hegemony, that of slow US decline giving rise to a creeping multipolarity, and that of the precipitate decline and effective multipolarity of the era inaugurated by US President George W. Bush.

Unquestioned Hegemony

The United States had been a rising world power since the 1870s, when it entered into steady competition with Germany to claim the succession as hegemonic power to the declining Great Britain. One way to think about the world wars is that they were really a single 30 years' war in which the principal protagonists were the United States and Germany. From that standpoint, the unconditional surrender of Germany in 1945 marked the clear victory of the United States. That it required the military assistance of the USSR is no more significant than when Great Britain required the military assistance of Russia in 1815 to achieve a clear victory over France and assume its hegemonic position.

This 30 years' war was quite destructive to infrastructure. In 1945, the United States was the sole major industrial power not to have suffered direct attacks on its physical equipment. In 1945, the United States was by far the most productive and efficient producer in the world-economy, to the point that it could out-compete all other countries even in their home markets.

On this economic base, the United States established its unquestioned hegemony. It created the types of international structures that would best serve its needs, such as turning Western Europe and Japan into political satellites. While it did partially dismantle its armed forces, it had a nuclear monopoly and the air force with which to deliver these bombs anywhere in the world. At the same time, New York City became the cultural capital of the world, displacing Paris in almost every artistic and literary domain.

Of course, the United States still faced a challenge from the Soviet Union, which had a very powerful military structure and a desire equal to that of the United States to impose its ideological preferences on other nations. On the other hand, given the massive destruction caused by World War II, the Soviet Union had no desire to engage in a military confrontation with the United States. So the two countries struck a deal, which was symbolically termed Yalta. The deal had three components. First, the world was divided into two blocs, whose boundaries were defined by the location of the respective armies in 1945: the Soviet Union controlled one-third of the world and the United States two-thirds. …

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