For Superpowers, It Takes Two to Tangle
After a couple of decades as the world’s only superpower, the United States now defines in its national-security strategy two surging great powers, China and Russia, as “peer competitors.” As the sense of rivalry intensifies in Washington, Beijing and Moscow, an enlightened voice from Oslo weighs in on the theoretical and strategic debate.
Although geographically closer to the strategic challenge that Russia poses to Europe, Øystein
Tunsjø argues that China is in a different class and poses the only strategic challenge to the US. Indeed, Tunsjø’s central argument is that we have entered a bipolar structure of international relations, where China is closing the gap with the US, albeit slowly, with no other states coming close in terms of national power. This “distant third” phenomenon, which Tunsjø demonstrates with extensive empirical evidence, is the basis of his claim about the “return of bipolarity.”
He adds to this an ambitious new theory of international relations termed “geostructural realism.” In layman’s terms, it stresses how geography shapes the ways in which states work out a balance of power. Tunsjø’s assessment of the future of our bipolar world is, as one might expect from a realist, rather pessimistic. Given the geography of East Asia, with fluid and disputed maritime borders and revisionist aspirations of numerous states, the two poles, Washington and Beijing, will find it hard to work out a new equilibrium without coming to blows.
The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics: China, the United States, and Geostructural RealismBy Øystein Tunsjø Columbia University Press, 2018, 271 pages, $65.00 (Hardcover)