Bipolarity! What are the advantages and disadvantages for small States of the existence of a bipolar world?


Just as we find various models of the political system, there are various models of the international system also. Morton A. Kaplan was the first to give six models of the international system- balance of power system, loose bipolar system, tight bipolar system, universal system, hierarchical system and the unit veto system.

Out of the six models, he argues that his balance of power model and the loose bipolar system model have since appeared on the international scene. We are however, concerned with the second and third—loose bipolar and tight bipolar to discuss in detail in our study of bipolarity.

Polarization Centre. International scene is always in a state of change. There are alliances, counter-alliances, pacts and what not, aimed at consolidating power. With change in circumstances, the centre of power concentration also changes.


With this process, the countries that had sought security and shelter under a particular super power tend to go to the new centre of power.

This process of alignments and re-alignment makes certain powers as super powers capable of serving as the centers of polarisation.

Polarisation Defined

Polarisation means the union of like- minded countries into a single homogeneous unit in order to safeguard their national interests.

Polarisation thus, naturally means that various countries with similar ideas on various problems confronting the world unite around a super power with a view to giving united front.


Polarisation has been facilitated by the scientific and technological advances under which the world has shrunk in area and distance.

In this way, when two centers of power, i.e. two poles appear round which the other countries of the world revolve, the system is known as Bipolar. If there emerge more than two centres of power it is called multi polar.

Multi polarity before Second World War. The beginning of the First World War witnessed a multi polar world. This multi polarity, however continued in existence even after the end of the war.

If the num­ber of great powers before the First World War was eight, it came to seven after the war. This happened because Russia which was shattered during the First World War, re-emerged as a Bolshevik Russia after the War.


Germany which was given a crushing defeat, again woke up under Nazi forces led by Hitler. It emerged as the leading aggressive power. Britain and France continued to dominate world scene as before.

However, France emerged more victorious and more dominating power in world politics. U.S.A. which had kept its hands off the international politics, had to say good-bye to her policy of isolation during the First World War.

She was forced to abandon her neutrality. America appeared after the war as a great world power. Italy also re-emerged under the Fascist impact of Mussolini.

Bipolarity after Second World War. The major effect of World War II on the international system appeared in the shape of bipolarity. All the great and big nations were shattered.


Their economies were shattered. Their military superiority was shattered. France was humbled by Germany. Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated by the Allies.

Britain no doubt was as an Ally but suffered heavily on the economic front. She could not keep her commitments. She was forced to abandon colonisation.

Only Soviet Russia and U.S.A. appeared as the two giant powers on the international scene. Both of them represented two different systems of ideology. U.S.A. represented Capitalism and Imperialism while Soviet Russia represented Communism.

For the poor and oppressed countries of the world, Soviet Russia offered allurement. In this way, the countries having different options joined one of the two blocs.


It is why some thinkers and scholars have described the international conflicts of our times as a struggle for leadership between Soviet Russia and U.S.A. Again, according to others, it is a struggle between two rival social systems.

On account of this mutual rivalry between the Soviet and American blocs in international politics, the English historian Toynbee has described modern world politics as Bipolar politics.

Both Soviet Russia and U.S.A. have come out with the mission of establishing their absolute supremacy by dividing the whole into two hemi­spheres.

According to Toynbee, the countries of these two hemispheres have been reduced to the position of either associates or satellites of these two giant powers. In the words of Toynbee:

“All the other States in the world of today are in some measure dependent most of them on the United States and a few of them of Russia, but none completely indepen­dent of one or other of these two powers.”

Tight Bipolar System. The ideological hostility between the two super powers opened an era of conflict, distrust, competition and miscon­ception. The world was thus divided into tight bipolar system.

The three factors responsible for this system were : two part division of world, advent of atomic warfare and unprecedented ideological rivalry. Virtually the whole of the world was divided into two alliances.

In fact, the period from 1945 to 1955 is a decade when tight bipolar system worked perfectly well. It is because this decade saw various important events such as in­vention of atomic energy, achievement of atomic capability by the

U.S.S.R., the Warsaw Pact, the Berlin blockade, rise of NATO, accession to power in China by Mao Tse-tung; Korean War etc.

It is in this period that the great Soviet-American rivalry resulted in cold war. America entered into alliances with almost 44 nations. These alliances included North Atlantic Treaty (1949), South East Asia Treaty Organisation.

Organisation of American States, etc. Soviet Union, on the other hand, concluded Warsaw Pact with East European Countries. However, the Warsaw Pact came into existence in 1954 when NATO allies agreed to include West Germany in membership.

Rosen S.J. -and Jones W.S. argue that the tight bipolar system existed from 1945 to 1955 but still the U.S. bloc enjoyed more power and influence. What they want to show is that bipolarity should not be taken to mean equality of capability.

Power is always relative. It need not follow absolute equality.

It is worth remembering here that the number of nations aligned with both the blocs reached over sixty in 1955. Compared with this the membership of the U.N. in 1955 was only 76, sixteen of which were admitted only in 1955.

So, at the start of 1955, the number of nations- joining the two blocs exceeded the number of U.N. members.

Loose Bipolar System. However, after 1955, the super-power alliance system began to weaken due to internal conflict and loss of con­fidence appearing in each bloc. East European dissatisfaction with Soviet. Russia appeared in the shape of Hungarian revolt of 1956.

The policy of de-Stalinisdtion followed by Khrushchev further reduced Soviet control over her allies. China, under Mao, sought independent status. Conse­quently, world Communist movement was also divided into two.

Latin America began to consider itself a member of the Third World despite its formal military and economic ties with the U.S. Castro’a Marxist Government divided the solidarity of Western Hemisphere. De Gaulle of France demanded that Europe, be de-Americanised.

The emergence of the Third World loosened bipolarity because it presented many ‘non-bloc’ nations. They were non-aligned to get aid from either bloc.

Both the blocs tried their utmost to maintain bipolarity through economic rewards and deprivations, offers and withdrawals of military supply, punishment etc. but they failed.

It must, however, be pointed out that Kaplan was of the opinion that loose bipolar system would appear after the balance of power system. But in actual practice, not the loose but tight bipolar system appeared.

Kaplan believed that tight bipolarity will appear after loose bipolarity. But just the reverse of Kaplan’s order has come into operation in the world. It is after the tight bipolarity that loose bipolarity has appeared.

Very Loose Bipolarity. The bipolar interpretation of the present internal politics is an over-simplifications of the real situation.

As the things have developed during the last two decades, the position as obtain­ed after World War II has changed considerably. As at present, it is not reasonable to say that Soviet Russia and the United States have established their absolute supremacy in world politics.

It is because the countries defeated in the Second World War have again started re-asserting their position. Indeed, very loose bipolar system exists at present. Blocs do exist but with little significance.

France, under the leadership of Ge Gaulle, tried to assert itself in international politics. Remaining in U.S. block, it negotiated openly with the U.S.S.R. and East Germany.

De Gaulle launched atomic explo­sions and made France again one of the leading countries of the world. She tried to get out of the control of U.S.A. But after De Gaule, France could not maintain the same tempo of asserting herself.

Then Great Britain also began to realise that she should assert her­self. She was one of the first big powers to recognise Communist China. U.S.A. did not accord de-jure recognition to China until 1979.

As against this, Britain entered into trade with China against the wishes of the American bloc. She went on for conferences and negotiations with Soviet Russia against American wishes.

She asserted the supremacy of India in South Asia after India defeated Pakistan and lowered American prestige in December, 1971. But still Britain has not established herself as another pole round which other countries could hover.

Not only are there breaches in the American bloc, these are in the Communists bloc as well. China has finally broken up with the Soviet bloc.

It is because China has begun to assert herself as a world power. She aspires to lead the Third World (countries not aligned with either of the two blocs). The contest between China and Russia has enabled Yugoslavia to establish herself independently of the Communist bloc.

The conflict between Soviet Russia and Yugoslavia proves the limitation of bipolarism even in the Communist Camp. In the ideological war against Western states, Russia demands national independence of smaller States.

But the imperialist policy of Russia does not recognise real independence of the States under Russian influence. Yugoslavia is a small State and she does not match Russia in any way.

But the conflict between the two great world powers has enabled Yugoslavia to follow her own policy and to maintain her independence with complete disregard to Soviet Russia.

All this shows that breaches within two blocs are real and great. So, bipolarity as it obtains at present is rather a very loose bipolarity. This system does not appear in Kaplan’s theory.

Rise of Multi centrism. International scene presents today neither bipolarity nor multi polarity. Certain people regard the emergence of Communist China as the emergence of multi polarity.

This is not true China has failed to catch up as a pole of power like that of the United States and the Soviet Union. It has emerged only as a centre of power like many other centers of power in the world of today but still in a bipolar world.

The new centers of power are not only individual states but also the supranational unions such as the European Economy Com­munity etc. It is not proper to regard the present system as that of multi ­polarity. It is a system of multi centrism.

Due to breaches resulting in a very loose bipolar system, certain new States have emerged as centers of power in the world. Some states such as India and above all Red China are moving towards this status.

Today, nuclear power is no longer the monopoly of Russia and America. China has caught up with Russia and America in nuclear technology. She is said to have developed intercontinental ballistic missiles nuclear-powered sub­mariners and the like. She has developed hydrogen bomb also.

She is as such not only a nuclear but a thermo-nuclear power at present. It is on this account that America under President Nixon had to recognise reality and seek a hand of friendship of China after all.

China now claims to lead the Third World. Third World countries are the neutral countries of Asia and Africa.

India has also developed nuclear technology. She demonstrated this to the world on May 18, 1974. She has also succeeded in launching spacecrafts. She is consequently a potential great power.

Pakistan is also on the verge of exploding a nuclear device. She has developed nuclear capability with the help of various countries.

Japan has also emerged as a great economic power. She claims to be the third biggest country from the economic point of view. She is known to have aspired for a permanent seat in the Security Council.

Germany has emerged as a great industrial nation of the world. Israel has also struck a terror to the Arab world. It is on the verge of joining the nuclear club.

The European Economic Community has developed as a major centre of power. It is a community of rich industrial European States which deal with other regional groupings as a collectivity from a position of strength.

The major members of the EEC are among the principal sup­pliers of arms to sensitive regions of the world. It is on this account that the EEC occupies an important place in the strategic world power system.

Moreover, the EEC interacts organically with 56 developing countries of the Third World. In that capacity, it uses economic diplomacy to get political benefits. Its members have established themselves so firmly and independently of the U.S. bloc that they count as a separate entity of international politics.

Factors responsible for the decline of Bipolarity. The tight bipolar system that worked at the international stage from 1945 to 1955 became loose, and then very very loose, to the extent that a new system of multi centrism has appeared. There are various factors that have under­mined the importance of bipolarity. These are:


1. The overkill potentiality of nuclear weapons has led to ‘nuclear rationality’. Both the blocs have learnt that destruction caused by nuclear warfare will mean no gain to either.

They have, therefore, learnt lessons in co-existence. And, this is in spite of their differences in ideological, political and economic systems.

2. Liberalization in the Soviet policy after the death of Stalin made it difficult for the Soviet Union to continue cold war.

3. The tendency on the part of major powers to assert their own position, even independence of their bloc, led to the creation of various centers of power.

4. China’s break from the Communist bloc weakened the unity of the international Communist movement.

5. The recovery of West European nations from the ruins of war in both political and economie fields made them prosperous, dynamic and self-confident. They now determined to exert their own diplomatic initia­tives and to safeguard their own interest.

6. The emergence of various new nations after they got independence from colonial powers, weakened the foundations of bipolarity. The emer­gence of these newly independent Afro-Asian States accelerated the tendency towards multi centrism.

Advantages of Bipolarity. Bipolarity, it is argued, tends to reduce international violence. Four reasons are given to prove this fact:

1. Reduction in Tension

With only two world powers, their areas of influence are clearly demarcated. This leads to reduction in tension. Both the Soviet Union and America are concerned with happen­ings in altogether different areas of the world.

This has led to a solid and determinate balance. Expansion is not so easy. Aggrandizement is not possible.

2. Leads to balance resulting in peace

There being only two rival blocs, competition in every field is relative which keeps the balance, resulting in peace.

Both the power blocs are equally engaged in space race, economic growth, military preparedness, propaganda struggle and domestic issues.

‘Policy proceeds by limitation, with occasional attempts to outflank.” Nothing escapes calculation in terms of international balance.

By asserting the interests of the two great powers in even minor matters, the balance is sought to be achieved in everything.

3. Equality of Power

Thirdly, the most important stabilizing factor is the “nearly constant presence of pressure and the recurrence of crises.” Crises are natural and even desirable in a condition of conflict.

If crises do not occur, it means that one side or the other is neglecting its own interests. Maintenance of balance will then mean large or small wars. As long as there are only two major powers, the power of both will be almost equal.

There will be “equal and opposite reaction.” This will check any one of the two powers to embark upon a policy of aggression.

4. Any change anywhere in the world

Any change anywhere in the world does not affect the basic position of two powers. Finally, the preponderant power of the two super States means that minor shifts in the balance are not of any great importance.

They cannot shake the balance easily. The U.S. lost China in 1949, the Soviet Union lost it in 1962, but neither change dras­tically altered the Russian-American balance.

The two States were so strong that they could accommodate change easily. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. confronted each other on almost every issue but none of the issues was of decisive importance.

Increment or decrement to the one is not a simultaneous loss or gain to the other.

Disadvantages of Bipolarity.

Nevertheless, bipolarity has a nega­tive effect also on international system as discussed below :

1. Bipolarity increases motivation for expansion

It may be true that international polarisation helps to prevent successful expansion by either side but it does not reduce desire for expansion.

It may rather increase it because the competition between poles is both intensive and extensive. Each action by one will be viewed as a strategic move on the part of the other.

Even those actions which may not be intended to have international reference will be seen in terms of bipolar competition. This will naturally increase political hostility between them.

The antagonism generated on one side by the action of the other will be reciprocated and the tempo of discord will increase. Any advance in the position of one must take place at the expense of his adversary.

Hence the reciprocal fears of surprise -attack may grow to such point that they cannot be endured. Preventive war may be seen to be preferable to war at the opponent’s initiative.

2. Bi-polarity leads to unnecessary confusion

Bipolarity implies two opposed things. In the first sense, both the super powers are seen as engaged in a duel for world supremacy or to maintain their re­lative positions.

In the second sense, substantial territorial or political changes can take place in international relations without affecting the international stability. The U.S. can gain or lose China without any impact on the balance.

A gain to U.S. is not at the cost of U.S.S.R. An increase or decrease to the U.S is not simultaneously a loss or gain to the U.S.S.R. Since bipolarity means both the opposing positions, it is more confusing in content. .

3. A policy of calculated risk.

The formula of “Peace by crises” is not a good remedy. It means that the world’s most peaceful place is on the end of war.

In simple words, it means that nations try harder to avoid war when they are faced with immediate prospectus of war.

But this policy is fought with risk. When one decides to fight fire with fire, he is engaged in a policy of calculated risk.

Conclusion. It is not in the fitness of things to call the present world as bipolar. It is far from that. It is a world of multi centrism. Waltz has said: “To write in 1964 of bipolarity is merely to express nos­talgia for an era already ending.’ Still, some people use this term.

But this use does not in any sense mean that either power can exert a positive control everywhere in the world. It is to misinterpret history. By recognizing the concept of non-alignment, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have shown their inability to extend their wills without limit.

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