Globalization, Economic Interdependence, and Polarity


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr.

Sir Michael Howard stated, “Previous peace settlements were successful because they did create a viable balance of power in which all the major powers felt reasonably secure, reasonably satisfied” (Howard 1990). However, there has been an ever growing importance on socio-economic well-being in the scheme of international security and stability. To that accord, military strength may not be all that is needed to retain power.

Historically, unipolar systems have been associated with leading superpowers that faced “growing resistance” and “repeated attempts to uproot their status” (Israeli 2013). A logical result of this opposition would be the possible and eventual demise of the superpower. This runs counter to the aspirations of any superpower, which is, to stay in power as long as possible. Dr. Israeli codifies this dilemma as the “unipolar trap” (2013). Once trapped, superpowers must embrace the reality that every decision, be it moderate or aggressive, can have a game changing impact on its status. Following the Cold War, the U. S. found itself transitioning from a more moderate approach to opposition to one of aggression. Dr. Israeli argues that between 1989 and 2001 the U. S. acted contrary to what is normally expected of a superpower. That is, instead of demonstrating its political and military supremacy through aggression, it attempted to discourage hostility by acting moderately. Sometimes, acts of modesty work counter productively and are considered a sign of weakness. Dr. Israeli implies that had the U.S. reacted more aggressively toward the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, Osama Bin Laden’s network of al-Qaeda would not have had the confidence to launch the attacks in 1993, 1995, 1998, 2000 and the catalyzing September 11, terrorist attack. After 9/11 the U. S. adopted a more aggressive approach to opposition. Both the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are evidence of this. Here, Dr. Israel points out how aggressiveness is also a two edged sword.  He points to the remaining opposition by the presidents of Iran and Venezuela as evidence that resistance was still inevitable (Israeli 2013).

Personal Reflection

The economic interdependence typified by modern globalization means the international system has arguably evolved to reversely emulate the multi-polarity of the Westphalian system, albeit, in a different fashion. That is, the mere existence of a superpower in an age where military might does not necessarily equate to hegemonic power, does not guarantee unipolarity. The military might of such superpower would be contingent on its ability to avoid exhausting itself economically. Likewise, the absence of a single state or nation-state with comparable military might does not guarantee unipolarity within the system.  Because a wide array of actors ranging from states to multinational corporations to private donors to various types of regimes (with mutual interests and concrete economic interdependencies) could, at any given moment, form a conglomeration of power proving that bi/multi-polarity had never ceased to exist in absolute terms. In essence, the economic caterpillars of today, could become economic butterflies tomorrow flying beyond the restraints of a so-called “superpower” that is on the verge of an economic collapse.

Overestimating the influence of U.S. military power or humanitarian intervention throughout the world leads to what Stephen Wertheim referred to as “dangerous deployments and dashed hopes” (2010). True, some states look to the U.S. for leadership, but others look for the day when the U.S. will overstep its boundaries or miscalculate its capacity. Likewise, notions of “imperial overstretch” should not be ignored. It begs to reason that involvement in non-domestic affairs present opportunities to expose previously unrecognized vulnerabilities. Unilateral decisions in the face of globalization could exacerbate such vulnerabilities as other actors within the international system would observe such imperial failure. As Stephen Walt pointed out in The Myth of American Exceptionalism, a murky perception of “exceptionalism” can lead to miscalculated decisions, and, U.S. advantages “don’t ensure that its choices will be good ones”  (2011, 75). If universal cooperation is mandated by universal standards, what are some standards that a majority of the global citizenry in a globalized world would subscribe to? Then, on the scales of a Global Peace Index, or Human Development Index, or Commitment to Human Rights or other factors, how would the U.S. weigh as a hegemon? In essence, when ignoring military might, does the U.S. test out as a hegemon across all other sectors of influence; social, cultural, ideological, economic, etc.? Again, alliances can be formed not only between nations, but by corporations, trade unions, and others.

Perceiving an absence of attempts by smaller-weaker nations as evidence of hegemony may not prove true. More importantly, the same absence could provide evidence that collective partnerships are formulating under the table. That is, what idiot would sit at the roundtable and prematurely communicate an attempt to subvert or sabotage a nation revered as a superpower? Intelligent criminals apply at law enforcement agencies every day. Do they do so to ensure justice is upheld? In the realist view, sitting at the roundtable with some of the worst violators of human rights could only exemplify self-help behavior for self-seeking motives; Engaging in peace talks could only exemplify self-help behavior for self-seeking motives. Could it be that many are sitting in the backseat waiting for the driver to pass out at the steering wheel or have a heart attack (in this case a heart attack would be imperial overstretch) because they, too, are declinists?


Israeli, Dr. Ofer. The Unipolar Trap. April 2013. (accessed March 10, 2014).

UCTV. The Transformation of Europe with Sir Michael Howard. May 4, 1990. (accessed March 10, 2014)

Walt, Stephen M. 2011. “The myth of American exceptionalism.” Foreign Policy no. 189:  72-75 (accessed March 14, 2014).

Wertheim, Stephen. 2010. “A solution from hell: the United States and the rise of humanitarian interventionism, 1991-2003.” Journal of Genocide Research 12, no. 3/4: 149-172. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost(accessed March 14, 2014).


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