The United States Unipolar International System

A great power in the discipline of international relations is one that excels in competence, size of population, political stability, size of territory, military strength, resource endowment and economic stability. These characteristics collectively referred to as power capabilities are a source of assurance for such a power the ability to exert its political, military, economic and social influence on a global scale. The polarity of the international system and the number of great powers determines the how power capabilities distribution play in the international system. In the event that there are more than two great powers, then the system becomes multi-polar; if these powers are two, it becomes a bipolar system, while those with one power are considered to be unipolar (Baylis, 2017).

As world war was ending, the multi-polar system saw a race for the balance of power among the great powers. The participants in this race were not strong enough to have the advantage of pre-dominating other powers which led to the international system transforming into bipolarity. This bipolar world was dominated by two powers that had a considerable strong military, cultural and economic influence on their allies. This involved an equal amount of distribution of power between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States that resulted in the creation a system that had no peripheries and with no differing spheres of influence; which brought stability for more than 40 years, assuring peace and limiting wars between the powers. Following the collapse of the USSR and the end of the cold war, the United States emerged as a great power of a new unipolar international system.

A well-defined hierarchy of power in a unipolar system gave the United States the opportunity to loom largely unchallenged resulting in a stable and peaceful world order for many years. This current stability along with the bipolar balance of power with an assured Mutual Assured Destruction has been the longest period without war taking place between major powers. However, the current emergence of new powers likes the so-called BRIC countries-Brazil, Russia, India and China-could bring back the multi-polar international system.

The Current United States Unipolarism

With the coming to an end of the cold war; the collapse and the dissolution of the USSR saw the bipolar international system change to a unipolar one where the United States came out as the only superpower. In such a unipolar world, a state’s power is not controlled and balanced by other states; such an inequality allows the international system to impact and shape the entire world. After 1989 the United States has been seen as a leader in economics, military and technology with the ability to impose its will on other countries.

This unbalanced dominance has been reinforced and promoted by some factors. The geographical position of the United States has assured the country of security for many years compared to other states like Russia and China which are land powers surrounded by enemies. The United States unlike these countries is too far away and isolated from its potential threats. This has made it hard for any country to make an attempt to attack the United States for the last 70 years. An unchallengeable military power has strengthened this geographical security.

The hegemony notion does not only insinuate that the military dominance ad geographical security, but also impact the cultural hegemony and influence. According to the Gramsci’s notion of hegemony it suggests that the hegemonic ruling class in a capitalist society has the power to persuade and impact the subordinate classes to adopt and accept its values. As a lonely superpower and a lonely one in the last 20 years, the United States has played an important role in the design of the new world order. From an economic view point the United States has played a huge role in laying the foundations of the world’s economic order longer before the era of a unipolar world supporting Bretton Woods’s system. The United States nowadays commands around seventeen percent of IMF’s votes and the World Bank’s largest shareholder. This has led to the tradition that the World Bank’s president has been a citizen of the United States, while that of the International Monetary Fund has been a European always.  

The United has furthermore tried to shape and guard the world order politically. The American power during the cold war period offered their support for anticommunist guerrillas and governments for purposes of contrasting the spread of socialist values. The collapse of the USSR saw the United State use the democratic peace theory that suggests two democracies do not fight each other to support and promote liberal democracies across the world. This unequal power distribution and the recognition of the United States hegemony led to a world with no conflicts and wars among the major states and very few interstate armed fights over a period of the past 50 years. The Unipolar world under the United States leadership has been characterized by intrastate conflicts most of which occurred after the wake of the USSR dissolution. These regional and intrastate natures of these conflicts have hardly involved a potential danger for the hegemony of the United States or the stability or polarity of the world order.  

In the last decades, the power of the United States has been challenged sporadically through the use of asymmetric means, as it occurred with a terrorist attack in New York on the eleventh of September 2001. The United States’ image was eroded due to the lack of the Bush administration to show respect for the international community rules and the drive to apply hard power with no consideration of other actors. The slow decline of the US hegemony along with the loss of influence and the emergence of new powers are an indication that the United States’ unipolarity could not stay forever.

Unipolarism in decline: Rising and resurgent powers

Many of neo-realists of International relations view unipolarity as a source of potential danger and instability which consequently leads to other states to pull a counterbalance of hegemony power using either soft or hard power. Other scholars suggest that well defined hierarchy in the unipolar world ensures that there is stability and peace, majority of which agree that there will be raising costs diminishing returns, power diffusion to rivals and polity decline in the long run which will undermine the dominance of the hegemony resulting to a counterbalance by other powers. The recent economic crisis of the United States and the emergence of new players seem to confirm this assertion. In the last few years the United States has experienced an economic crisis which could have a serious impact on their hegemony and could lead to the shift of focus from global affairs to internal matters. The United States could come out of international agreements. The United States could withdraw from some of its international agreements due to the overstretching economic crisis that they are facing leading to the creation of power vacuums which could be occupied and refilled by other regional adversaries and competitors.

Other countries are ready to replace the United States on a basis of regionalism and could aim to play the role of great powers in the future. For example one of the United States’ adversaries in Asia-China-has increased its military spending by an estimated one hundred and seventy percent since the year 2002, and by an estimated five hundred percent since the year 1995. China is also making an economic move by acquiring parts of the United States economic debt and could result in China economically overtaking the United States in a few decades. India is ranked among the ten fastest growing economies since 1980 and it has been projected that its growth rate could click top three in the next decade. India has a constant population growth which will play a role in the support and reinforcing its economic rise. Population and economic growth in Brazil would also help the country grow economically making it a great player in the Latin American region.

Other scenarios could design the future of power distribution and result in the emergence of other great powers: global warming could give a country like Russia which is a regional actor to exploit its natural resources in the Siberian soil, giving them the capability to challenge the supremacy of the United States.

A shift to a multi-polar world with a rivalry of great powers is considered to be more of a fable vagary advanced by international relations scholars, but it comes as a concrete and a feasible and an outcome that is feasible for the near future. The shift from a unipolar to a multi-polar world could disturb the stability of the future world order ((Lerner, 2018).


Baylis, J., Smith, S., " Owens, P. (Eds.). (2017). The globalization of world politics: an introduction to international relations. Oxford University Press.

Lerner, M. (2018). Third World: Premises of US Policy. Routledge.

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