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With the rise of new powers and the decline of seemingly unchallenged US dominance, a conventional wisdom is gaining ground in contemporary discourse about world politics that a new multipolar order is taking shape. Yet ‘multipolarity’ – an order with multiple centres of power – is variously used as a description of the current distribution of power, of the likely shape of a future global order, or even as a prescription for how power ‘should’ be distributed in the international system. This book explores how the concept of a multipolar order is being used for different purposes in different national contexts. From rising powers to established powers, contemporary policy debates are analysed by a set of leading scholars in order to provide an in-depth insight into the use and abuse of a widely used but rarely explored concept.
The introductory chapter outlines the rationale for the book and places the current debates about multipolarity in the wider context of the existing scholarly literature on polarity. The chapter discusses the continued utility of polarity analysis as well as what should be considered the limits of this concept. As part of making the case for the utility of the concept, the chapter argues in favour of distinguishing between polarity as an analytical tool deployed by scholars engaging in system-level theorising on the one hand, and an ‘ordering concept’ used by practitioners on the other. The chapter also discusses the limits of polarity analysis, identifying a number of major deficiencies and blind spots in the existing literature. This includes scholarship that explores the polarity debates in both the scholarly and practitioner realms with a view to developing conclusions about its substance, efficacy, and utility in national policy debates. The chapter then links this to the individual case study chapters that follow, highlighting the ways in which they not only shed light on the state of the debate in the individual states themselves, but also contribute valuable insights for polarity analysis in International Relations more generally. The broad methodological approach of the volume is outlined alongside setting out the guiding questions used to frame the empirical analysis in each of the case study chapters. The chapter ends with a brief description of the structure of the book and the key findings of each chapter.
The concluding chapter reflects on the implications for both scholarship and policymaking of the contested nature of the multipolar narratives analysed in the previous chapters. It brings together a set of recurring themes and topics from across the case studies and draws out some of the general and longer-term implications that emerge from the individual national contexts. For scholars, it discusses the theoretical and empirical challenge of distinguishing between regional and great (global-level) powers as well as making the case for a more fine-grained focus on the perceptual components of polarity analysis. For policymakers, it highlights the need to be able to deal effectively with ambiguity and subjectivity in net assessments and strategic analysis relating to power transitions. It also discusses the likely policy impacts of the continued salience of narratives of imminent multipolarity on issues such as alliance management.