What happens?

Theorizing unipolarity and applicating the model raises a lot a questions as does on-going world politics. Here we present some of the questions and you are welcome to share considerations on the model and its meeting with the ‘real’ world 


Modern realism has been dominated by contributions from US based authors and by a strong focus on the US position and global policy. This is not surprising as the US host the bulk of political scientists as well as prevail in terms of international power. And, according to modern realism, because of its structural position, US behavior profoundly affects the other states and the international processes.

Just like other sciences, political science should be developed according to generally accepted professional standards rather than be taken hostage to ‘national’ or ‘religious’ interpretations. Consequently, whether or not modern realism is dominated by US based authors does not matter – in principle. However, an abundance of theoretical efforts and analyses of current unipolar world politics deals with the issue of how to conduct a ‘wise’ US policy. If so, it is understood, the US may preserve its position and become more or less accepted as a benign leader by the other states: the scholars “share in common that they argue that the United States could improve its situation by pursuing a different policy than it is actually doing.”

This is definitely a bias in the theoretical development and analysis of unipolar world politics. A research programme on unipolarity needs to aim beyond ‘how to improve U.S. policy’. Instead, it should target a variety of issues that broadens the scope of theory on unipolarity and its applicability.

To mention a few, issues to be addressed include how balancing works between the other states, which security strategies that prove successful under unipolarity, and whether the absence of great power completion implies a reduction of the explanatory power of ‘polarity thinking’.

While the emergence of a Euro-realism or other varieties may not be the solution, the time has definitely come to move beyond the narrow focus on suggesting a ‘wise’ US policy and, instead, to broadening the scope of theorizing unipolarity.

Mouffe and the unipolar world order

Chantal Mouffe wrote her main work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy during the Cold War (Laclau and Mouffe 1985), and its emphasis on radical democracy actually anticipated trends that did not meet the conditions to unfold until after the Cold War termination. Recently, she has approached post-Cold War phenomena and the functioning of politics under unipolarity.

In a 2005 essay Mouffe tries to explain the al-Qaeda related terrorist wave with a reference to unipolarity, which she consider suppressive in the sense that its dominant form of discourse suppresses alternative and dissident discourses. This leads to terrorism, according to Mouffe (2005).

Mouffe argued that contemporary international terrorism is caused by the unipolar world order, as it reduces the political arena which enables controversies a political expression. According to Mouffe, terrorism should be explained by certain characteristics of unipolarity that leave room for only one form of legitimate political discourse. In her view, unipolarity thus rules out the possibility of dissent and suppresses alternative discourses. Should dissent be expressed notwithstanding, there is a risk that it takes the violent form of terrorism (Mouffe 2005: 80-82).

For this reason – and other reasons building on Carl Schmitt’s works – she advocates the virtues of multipolarity and argues that a multipolar world is preferable to the current unipolarity.

We question Mouffe’s theses on the linkage between unipolarity and terrorism, and on the merits of multipolarity.

Unipolarity may well encourage terrorism. But definitely not because it suppresses alternative discourses. The current unipolar world order is characterized by the US project for market and democracy, and democracy does not suppress alternative discourse as authoritarian rule. And democratization has accelerated after the Cold War termination. Since the mid-eighties when the Cold War began to vane the number of democracies (as well as horizontal democratization) has expanded. Furthermore, the current unipolar system is characterized by the American political project for democracy. As democracy is less suppressive and more open to dissidence than authoritarian rule, the development within the new world order is permissive in Mouffe’s sense of ‘the political arena’, and consequently this arena does not explain the outbreak of persistence of the recent wave of terrorism.

Consequently, there is no reason to expect the current unipolar world order to be suppressive regarding political discourses. The superpower’s political project becomes particularly important under unipolarity, as there are few restraints upon it and it provides leadership and guidance. Conversely, the superpower must lead the whole world instead of just parts of it, and the political project therefore tends to be inclusive, absorb other projects and be adaptive itself. The superpower’s dominant position may produce alternative world order projects, but such projects tend to be either absorbed or marginalized and radical (arguments based on Hansen 2011).

A redistribution of strength within the international system, whether resulting from exhaustion or exogenous developments, may in principle lead to a new unipolarity, bipolarity, tripolarity or multipolarity. Among these outcomes, an emerging multipolarity appears to be the most likely option, with China and possibly India and Russia as the contesters.

Within the discipline of International Politics, multipolarity is usually associated with tensions and conflicts: many lines of conflict, lack of transparency and predictability, intense competition, great risk of war, and institutional stalemate. Nuclear weapons may dampen some of the tensions but still competition will prevail in a conflict prone environment (Waltz 1979).

In addition, the most risky periods in world politics are those of systemic change. Balances of power are disrupted, strength is further redistributed, people go to bed in one state only to wake up in another state next morning, national conflict erupt, institutions break down and so on (Hansen 2011).

Chantal Mouffe courageously promoted thinking on radical democracy during the Cold War. Too many did not take her thinking seriously in the light of the bipolar arms race and fear of ‘rocking the boat’.

However, we do not agree with Mouffe’s view on the current world order. Actually, the Cold War termination paved the way for comparatively more radical democratization. And it did so because the current unipolar world order is open to different discourses, more democratic than ever, and even more inclusive.

Still, there are challenges: how the democratic West preserves its position, how dissatisfied Islamists may adapt to the rule of the game, and how the political arena is expanded in the Middle East, which still represents the major post-Cold War democratic deficit.

Hansen, Birthe (2011): Unipolarity and World Order. London: Routledge (ftc. January).

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe (1985): Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.

Mouffe Chantal (2005): ‘Schmitt’s Vision of a Multipolar World Order’. The South Atlantic Quarterly 104:2, Spring.

Waltz, Kenneth N. (1979): Theory of International Politics. New York: Random House.

Extract from a presentation by Birthe Hansen at a seminar celebrating the 25th year of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, University of Copenhagen, December 2010

Unipolarity, democracy and the Middle East

By focusing on the world order, the model for unipolarity provides concepts for understanding and explaining recent wave of democratization in the Middle East.

The Middle East did not immediately become a part of the so-called Third Wave of democratization. After optimistic views presented shortly after the end of the Cold War, scholars began to explain why democracy had not come to the region by a reference to Islam. Others pointed to the strength and skills of the authoritarian regimes.

In contrast, the ‘cross-over-hypothesis’ based on the model for unipolarity insists that democratization is possible in the Middle East, that it most likely will occur and that the initiation of the process might need external pressure. As a matter of fact, democratization took off in the region after the US-led invasions, particularly in Iraq.

US pressure for democratization, however, came to a halt as the bloody power struggle in Iraq developed, and as the Afghan insurgency demanded still more resources.

Still, expectations were created, and some preparations began, e.g., in Egypt, when President Mubarak had to allow for presidential election in 2005. The election was rather cosmetic but fuelled expectations of more and better elections and the need for preparing for the next one.

The Middle East popular revolts that began in Tunisia spread across the region in the early spring of 2011. It is too early to say which blends of genuine democratization, new forms of authoritarian regimes or even Islamist take-over will be the outcomes.

Still, the world order perspective including its emphasis on the democratic nature of the current conditions of competition in the international system points to democratization even in the Middle East as the most likely outcome. In a unipolar world, it is difficult to evade socialization to the conditions of competition – there is no alternative. The Waltzian emphasis on integration in the system as a pre-condition for successful socialization provides us with an explanation of the delay.

For an elaboration on the cross-over-hypothesis and the socialization argument, see:
B. Hansen and C. Jensen: ‘Unipolarity and Democracy in the Middle East’. Working Paper 2006/04, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, 2006

Danish security policy and the unipolar world order

By Anders Jønsson, Royal Danish Army Academy, July 2011. 

Through an analysis[i] of the Danish security policy prior to and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent transition from a bipolar to a unipolar world order, the fundamental changes in the aims, means and conduct of Danish security policy are outlined: the transition has simplified and unified Danish security policy[ii]

The aims of Danish security policy have evolved from being based solely on direct, national security, to being based on both direct, national security and on international influence. The purpose of the latter is to create international security and therefore a more indirect, national security. This aim can be seen as a consequence of the absence of a conventional threat against Denmark. Thus, Danish security policy aims have shifted from defining Denmark solely as a consumer of security to defining Denmark as both a consumer and also a producer of security.

The means of Danish security policy have also undergone a change with the transition to a unipolar world order. The different Danish security policy means (military, political and economic) could, in a bipolar world, be viewed in isolation, each with a distinct purpose. During the Cold War, the military means was primarily used for deterrence purposes, while the political and economic means were used for non-provocation. The security policy aims are now largely directed towards international involvement and therefore a combined and integrated use of Danish security policy means is required. Because of the complexity of the threats in a unipolar world, the use of security policy means in an isolated manner will no longer be effective. The ‘hard’ security has, in popular terms, gone ‘soft’, and the ‘soft’ security ‘hard’, something which necessitates a dynamic understanding of the need for integrating military and civil means.

The conduct of Danish security policy has also changed significantly. The double-sided security policy role as both a consumer and producer of security is in sharp opposition to the Danish security policy conduct during the Cold War. At that time, the role as frontline state forced Denmark to balance between deterrence and non-provocative behaviour, creating two conflicting concerns that resulted in a complex and sometimes dangerous mix between Balancing Policy and Free riding policy.
The complexity of the security policy conduct has now gone. Both the role as a consumer of security and that as producer of security point in only one direction. In light of the unipolar world order, both roles will be safeguarded through close political connection to the United States. This conduct is contained in the concept of flocking. Danish flocking policy means that the United States, as the only remaining superpower, will be able to guarantee Denmark both security and international influence. The challenge for Denmark is that flocking, in a unipolar world, is a general tendency among countries in all regions. Therefore, Denmark must show a willingness to share the international burden and take responsibility for action in order to stand out from the rest. Thus, Danish flocking policy must necessarily be accompanied and combined with Hard Work policy, a combination that is natural since the two concepts often occur in tandem and also mutually reinforce each other. Therefore, Danish security policy has gone from being based on a conflicting mix of Balancing and Free riding to being based on a unique and natural combination of flocking and Hard Work, and the analysis concludes that the unipolar world order that emerged after the end of the Cold War has simplified and unified Danish security policy.

[i]  The analysis was based on concepts from ‘The Unipolar World Order’ in B. Hansen and B. Heurlin (eds.): The New World Order. Contrasting Theories. London: Macmillan/Palgrave, 2000.

[ii] The full analysis (in Danish) is available from the Royal Danish Army Academy.