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Tunsjø: The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics

Øystein Tunsjø shows why the international system has entered a new US-China bipolar system that differs from the previous US-USSR Cold War bipolar system.
Title: The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics

 New book by Øystein Tunsjø

Author: Øystein Tunsjø
Publisher: Columbia University Press 
Published: 2018
Number of pages: 271
ISBN: 0231176546 (Hardcover), 

In the first part of the book Tunsjø explains why the international system has become bipolar. He focuses on three arguments: 

  1. the narrowing power gap between the US and China
  2. the widening power gap between China and # 3 ranking power, such as Russia, India, Japan, and Germany
  3. the roughly similar distribution of capabilities between the contemporary international system and the origins of the previous bipolar system between the US and USSR in 1950 

China has not reached power parity with the US, but the USSR was never as powerful as the US during the previous bipolar system. More importantly, it was the widening power gap between the two top ranking powers (US and USSR) and the third ranking power (UK) that shifted the international system from multipolarity to bipolarity in the 1945-1950 period. Currently, it is the widening power gap between the US and China and any third ranking power that has shifted the international system from US unipolarity to US-China bipolarity.

By focusing on polarity, Tunsjø seeks to explain and predict a few important matters in international politics:

  1. rivalry and balancing among the two superpowers
  2. stability or the risk of war between the United States and China

Historically, great powers or superpower(s) pattern of behavior have differed between multipolar, bipolar and unipolar systems. Thus, it matters whether the US and China will be peer competitors in a new bipolar system.

The book reconfigures one of the best known theory in international politics, Kenneth Waltz's structural realism, and develops a new geostructural realist theory. Neither Waltz nor anyone else have compared two bipolar systems. Thus, Waltz's structural realism cannot explain why US-China rivalry/balancing differs from US-Soviet rivalry/balancing or predict whether there is a higher risk of war between the two superpowers in the twentieth compared to the twenty-first century.

The key arguments of the book draw on geopolitics and contend that rivalry in the new bipolar system will be different and the risk of limited war between the superpowers higher than during the previous bipolar system:

  • Geopolitics and the importance of water barriers postpone strong balancing, and the US and China are unlikely in the near future to pursue an arms race characteristic of the US-Soviet pattern of behavior during the previous bipolar era.
  • Geopolitical factors make superpower rivalry in a bipolar system concentrated on maritime East Asia more prone to conflict than a bipolar system concentrated on continental Europe.
  • China and the United States are likely to be preoccupied with rivalry and conflict in maritime East Asia. Geopolitics will help subdue global-security confrontations and involvement in proxy wars by the superpowers in other regions. This is different form the relative stability that emerged in Europe, and the global rivalry and conflict that developed between the superpowers during the previous bipolar period.
Published 07 March 2018 00:00.. Last updated 27 May 2019 08:45.