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Criticism of A. G. Yakovlev’s bipolarity concept


In my opinion, we currently have in Russia three clearly defined approaches to the structure of international relations.

The first approach reflects the official position based on the ideas of multipolarity. It is presented in all official documents such as the National Security Concept (National Security Council), the Military Doctrine (Ministry of Defense) and the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Apart from the country’s leadership, it is usually championed by those scholars who support Moscow’s official line.

The second approach recognizes the unipolarity stemming from the dominance of the West led by the USA. This approach is shared by part of America experts and also by those who lost faith in Russia’s ability to form its own pole in a multipolar world.

The third approach promotes the idea of bipolarity as the most stable structure of international relations.

It is quite symptomatic that these three approaches reflect the clear political-ideological divisions in the academic milieu; Russian scholars have split into the right wing, left wing and center. The centrists favor the first approach; these are top-level officials and pro-government scholars who seek “a worthy place for Russia in the world.” The multipolarity concept outwardly – on the rhetorical level – has an anti-American thrust, though in essence it is perfectly harmless due to the impossibility of its implementation. The right-wingers, naturally, favor the second approach – unipolarity. They object even to anti-American rhetoric since they believe that the USA is too strong, and all hypothetical plans to create a multipolar world, not to mention a bipolar one, are perfectly illusory, therefore there is no sense in annoying the West. They propose recognizing the West’s leadership without reservations and joining the world system which it leads.

It is obvious that the third approach is favored by the left-wingers – enemies of the current regime. Multipolarity and particularly unipolarity do not suit them at all. They prefer bipolarity that they believe will limit the dominance of “the golden billion.”   

Many works are dedicated to bipolarity, [1] but the most consistent and tireless promoter of this concept is professor A. G. Yakovlev from the Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Therefore it is worthwhile to analyze his arguments in favor of bipolarity; we shall use as the basis his article And Yet It Is a Bipolar World On the Horizon, [2] published “for discussion purposes.”

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A. Yakovlev proceeds from the assumption that the very confrontation of the multipolarity and unipolarity concepts “reflects clearly the real division of the world community into two political camps, two global political poles,” with one pole (the West) being monolithic, while the other one is quite diffuse, consisting of autonomous components that include China, Russia and India. In A. Yakovlev’s opinion, “this is the state of the global political poles today.”

In other words, even though the article’s title suggests that a bipolar world is still on the horizon, the content states that the world is already bipolar “today.” The only problem is that the anti-Western pole is not yet organized, shaped, established as a center of power. Therefore, tomorrow’s problem is purely organizational.

So, let us identify the postulates. Firstly, the world is already bipolar today, but one of the poles is not organized. Secondly, the division in two camps follows a political line (“two political camps”). However, we won’t find in this article any explanation of the essence of this political division.

Let us proceed. A. Yakovlev writes disapprovingly of the activities of global hegemonist powers that expand “the oft-mentioned zone of responsibility of the American-Japanese and American-Australian military unions,” of their intention to create “in the vast Asia-Pacific region” a theater of military action of ABM, etc. (31-32). Though the balance of powers, “regrettably”, dips toward the West, this does not discourage the Russian professor since he believes that this “power superiority” is “short-lived.” If in the next 15-20 years “the West fails to achieve its goal, it will subsequently have to say goodbye to its hegemonist dreams” (32).

The author pins his hopes on the forecast that by 2020 the developed countries’ share of the world production will drop to 1/3, while China, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia will supply another third, and the rest of developing countries will account for the remaining third.

The second factor fuelling the author’s hopes is the belief that “the politically polycentric periphery,” once it “concentrates,” will manage to force the West into a joint search for a model of life support for mankind.

Here, again, the author’s logic doesn’t quite make sense. If the periphery will force the West to resolve together “the problem of mankind’s survival, central to the modern era,” then what will be the grounds remaining for the inevitable political polarization of the world community, for the antagonism between the West and the non-West? Doesn’t this outcome mean the establishment of universal harmony, without poles and antagonism? Evidently the author himself doesn’t believe in this idyll he outlined, therefore he promotes bipolarity.

So let us identify some more points. Though the Western world includes several centers of power, it stays nonetheless monolithic. The non-West, meanwhile, is not just diffuse and disorganized; there are powers inside it that promote nonviable concepts of multipolarity instead of unifying this world. These powers are official Moscow and official Beijing.

The bigger part of the author’s text is dedicated to lambasting the concept of multipolarity. A. Yakovlev also finds implied criticism of this concept in some pronouncements by Chinese scholars. Eventually, everyone should realize “the quite obvious division of the world community into two parts with a rigid antagonism of their vital interests” (40). The central link for the cementing of the anti-Western world “undoubtedly is the forming of the triangle Russia-China-India as the nucleus for rallying countries and peoples that reject the dictate of the West” (ibid.).

I am compelled to present here A. Yakovlev’s views on bipolarity in such detail since there are other interpretations of this concept in both Russia (for example, V. Tikhomirov, Yu. Sokolov) and

the USA (Hans Binnendijk, Alan Henrickson). [3] I am puzzled, by the way, by the fact that the Russian and American “bipolarists” don’t read each other’s works. Anyhow, let us proceed now with the analysis.

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First of all, one should keep in mind that the suggested approach is one of the scientific methods for analyzing international relations. It is called the geostrategic approach. It was developed by theorists of the “political realism” school based on the concept of power. There are many other methods and/or approaches: geoeconomic, geopolitical, class-ideological, civilizational, technocratic, etc. Each of these methods has its own set of instruments and covers a certain segment of world relations. No single one of them is universal; each captures only “part” of the truth. The geostrategic approach is no exception; therefore, when we use it we must realize in advance that geostrategy “covers” only part of reality.

If we proceed from the ideas about polarity that have become established in Russia, we must recognize the cyclical nature of the structural changes in international relations. World history always evolved from multipolarity to bipolarity which then transformed into unipolarity, or hegemony. The transition from one structure to another took the form of leaps, i.e. it happened through wars and conflicts (most recently it happened through the Cold War on the strategic level and many “hot wars” on the regional level). This regularity can be traced starting from the Ancient world, through Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the New Era.

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980-s saw the collapse of the bipolar system: it was replaced in no time - in the early 1990-s - by unipolarity, as the USSR and the whole Eastern Bloc crumbled instantaneously (by historical measures). Today the world is dominated without contest by “the golden billion” led by the USA. It is precisely this world, or pole, that is the subject of international relations; the rest of the world is its object, or periphery (with the exception of China). It is wrong to call this world bipolar, as A. Yakovlev does – not just on the strength of the law of cyclical evolution, but also on account of the fact that the non-Western world is economically weak and politically amorphous, and compelled therefore to serve the interests of the West. The least attempt at resistance (in Yugoslavia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America, even in South-East Asia) is promptly crushed by the West in order to bring the non-West to its senses.

I remind you that the bipolarity of the Cold War period was based on approximate parity of force, equality in the balance of powers. When this parity is violated, the structure of international relations breaks and transforms into a structure of dominance and submission, i.e. unipolarity. Hegemony or dominance is not sought for the purpose of establishing equal-rights relationships; that would defeat the idea of seeking hegemony. Hegemony means lording it over the rest of the world.

The logic of cycles suggests that a unipolar world must transform into a multipolar one. This goal is pursued usually by the countries defeated in the previous cycle and by the countries that managed to increase greatly their economic potential while sitting on the sidelines of the struggle in the bipolar system.

At first sight, Russia belongs in the first category, China and India belong in the second category. That is why Russia and China champion so fervently the concept of multipolarity that will enable them, in their leaders’ view, to take “a worthy place” in the world community. India keeps mum about it, since, on one hand, in stayed away from the struggle, on the other hand, it failed to increase dramatically its economic potential. Its GDP is below $500 billion, which is embarrassingly little for a country with a population of almost one billion.

In this connection the question arises: will the law of cycles work when the turn of multipolarity comes again? I am not quite certain about this, because, as mentioned above, there are also other laws at work in the world arena, functioning outside the limits of the geostrategic field. For example, the laws of geoeconomics function in the area where the three main types of world economic relations interact in a complex combination: internationalization, integration and globalization. Therefore, if I’m not certain about the transition to multipolarity, I can’t be certain about bipolarity, either. In order to make definite claims, I should bring together the law of cycles with the laws of geoeconomics and examine their interaction in the area of their contact.

But even if I leave aside this complex analysis and stick to A. Yakovlev’s positions, i.e. the standard geostrategic approach, I am compelled to point out a number of contradictions in the Russian professor’s writings.

I trust that the reader remembers this: A. Yakovlev divides the world into two camps on the basis of “politics” (he writes of “two political camps”). What is the essence of this political division? In the previous period of bipolarity, everything was clear: capitalism on one side, socialism on the other. And what do we have now? The West has capitalism, obviously. But what about the non-West? The so-called periphery consists mostly of capitalist states. It is no accident that during the past struggle between the two systems, the Third World countries gave no real support to the socialist system; on the contrary, they only weakened it by sucking financial and economic aid out of it. Of the three countries that are today supposed to form the central link of resistance to the West, two – Russia and India – are capitalist states. Both have their specifics, of course, but the main signs of capitalism are in place: private property of means of production as the dominant property form, and bourgeois democracy. This is how the theorists of the left – Marx, Engels and Lenin – defined the essence of capitalist states. If they were correct, then how can the world community become divided into two political camps?

It is only theoretically possible if we assume that socialist China will manage to unite around itself all the countries “steamed” at capitalism, which won’t be that many (North Korea, Cuba and some Third World countries). But in this sort of “political” division, Russia and India end up on the side of “the golden billion.” Will the other pole manage to sustain this kind of “bipolarity”? The answer, I think, is obvious. In other words, bipolarity based on political differences is nonsense, at least at the present time in history. It may start making sense only in the event of Russia and India turning socialist. This possibility cannot in principle be ruled out in the next 15-20 years.

In his pronouncements about bipolarity A. Yakovlev mentions more often than not the formula of the West vs. the non-West, which can mean only one thing: the criterion of different levels of economic development. Then he should be talking about economic poles, not political ones. This kind of demarcation makes more sense, since development inequalities between countries are also a source of conflicts between countries that stimulate the forming of different poles and centers, and between these poles, confrontation can emerge. Prior to the emergence of the Soviet Republic and the Soviet Union a bit later it was precisely the uneven development of states that led to various wars within the limits of one and the same social-political system. Even World War II started as a war for the purpose of extending spheres of influence, motivated by economic and geostrategic considerations; it was not a war between socialism and capitalism. In other words, theoretically the division in two blocs can possibly be caused by uneven economic development of states; it can result outwardly in a geostrategic confrontation (I’d like to remind here that geostrategic confrontation is a struggle for power).

In this connection let us revisit A. Yalovlev’s idea about the three-link axis Russia-China-India. As everyone knows, this idea was voiced on the official level by Ye. Primakov when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was subsequently repeated countless times by the “Eurasians” and by all those who can’t stand the West together with the USA. Many of these people realize that “in reality this kind of strategic union is simply impossible, due first of all to Beijing’s position (it does not view India and especially Russia as peer-level partners) and to fundamental contradictions.” [4] Despite having made this statement, the authors (S. Lunev and G. Shirokov) don’t lose optimism, justifying it in this fashion: “Chess players are fond of saying: “threat is stronger than execution.” It is precisely the threat of creating a military-political union that may force the North to make substantial concessions to the three Eurasian giants” (ibid.). I don’t quite understand what compelled them to abandon the much more reasonable assessments of this “triangle” contained in their joint monograph, [5] but I have two simple questions for them in connection with the above claims. First: how do they justify calling China and India Eurasian states? Have any of their parts reached Europe? Second: on which concrete issues must the North make concessions to these states? Or is this just typical Russian talk “in general”?

The well-known Indian journalist Dev Murarka participated once in one of the Round Tables at the Gorbachev Foundation and was compelled to utter: “I listened attentively to all the speakers in the course of this discussion, and I must confess that it left a sad impression. It seems to me that the dominant motive here is a schizophrenia of sorts.” [6] Evidently addressing personally A. Yakovlev who was present at that Round Table and, naturally, had raised the topic of Russia, China and India as “antagonists of the West”  (68), Murarka offered many convincing counterarguments, including one out of the ordinary: he claimed that India lacks “will for power”, i.e. desire for “attributes of might and status.” His conclusion is this: “Struggling to create this bloc makes as much sense as flapping wings in vacuum” (117).

The strangest thing is that A. Yakovlev and many other proponents of this idea fail to understand that the West just might be interested in this strategic triangle. Moreover, the USA might find it worth to supply $ 50-100 million in seed capital to get this alliance started. After that, amazing things would start happening.

Imagine for a moment that the alliance has been created. To support it, all three member countries would need to earmark certain funds every year, otherwise the alliance would not work. In order to maintain “the golden billion’s” world domination, the USA alone expends about $300 billion annually, with part of this money going to support the alliances that A. Yakovlev disapproves of. Since in the case of this “axis” Moscow will be the initiator, it will have to shoulder the lion’s share of the costs. Recall the Warsaw Pact Organization: 85-90% of its funding came from the Soviet Union.

Let us calculate now what it will cost - this “second front”, or the anti-Western pole, in A. Yakovlev’s terminology. Consider that the foreign policy potential of the West [7] (the Group of Seven) is estimated at over $500 billion (that is just expenditures on foreign policy, not GDP figures) – an amount that ensures the West’s domination of the world. Accordingly, the world that wants to oppose the West must come up with a comparable amount of funds. Let me now inform the reader that Russia’s foreign policy potential is approximately $10 billion (in f. y. 1998), China’s and India’s – in the range of $10-12 billion; the three-country total is just over $30 billion. In order to seriously “challenge” the West, this sum must be increased by a factor of almost 17. But even if it is only doubled (to equal the foreign policy potential of Japan alone), each of the “axis” countries would slip into financial duress. This is why the USA and all of the West should be extremely interested in the emergence of this alliance that would bankrupt its members much faster that any “imperialist intrigues.”

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It is perfectly obvious that the bipolarity concept doesn’t pass the simplest criticism even in the interpretation of professor A. Yakovlev – one of the best China experts in Russia. This doesn’t mean that the concept itself is not viable in principle. It does, unfortunately, have roots that supply nourishment to the West, though not in the soil analyzed by A. Yakovlev. A scientific analysis of this concept requires a very disciplined use of the concept apparatus. When you see “might” as synonymous with “power,” “pole” as synonymous with “power center,” “globalization” as the same as “integration,” you are treading the path of empty talk that is so characteristic of Russian scholars. This bunch is equally habitually ignorant of the laws of international relations, including the one particularly important to Russia: the law of optimal expenditures on foreign affairs. One has to state that the incompetence of Russian scholars is one of the causes of the great country’s disappearance from the world arena. The rest of the world, though, will most likely only welcome this development.

[1] See, for example: Yu.V. Sokolov, "O mifakh i realiyakh mirovoi polotiki"  in Novyi poryadok na veka? (M.:MNEPU, 2000).  

[2]  A. Yakovlev, "I vsye zhe na gorizonte dvukhpolyusnyi mir," Problemyi Dal'nego Vostoka, no. 4 (2000): 29-41.

[3] See the previous sections.

[4] See Kruglyi stol "Rossiya — India — Kitai,"  30—31 May 2000. Tezisyi (written by S.I. Lunev and G.K. Shirokov).

[5] S.I. Lunev, G.K. Shirokov, Rossiya, Kitai i India v sovremennyikh global'nyikh prozessakh (M.,1998); electronic version.

[6] Gobachev-Fond, Vneshnyaa politika Rossii: vozmozhnaya i zhelaemaya (M.: Aprel'-85, 1997),  111.

[7] The term “foreign policy potential” means the aggregate of the country’s expenditures on foreign policy and national security.