The phase transition from unipolarity to multipolarity and the three concepts
To understand the fundamental transformations of the world order taking place before our eyes, and above all the transition from a unipolar (globalist) model to a multipolar one, different conceptual units and methods can be used. They should gradually develop into a more or less coherent Theory of a Multi-polar World. I offered the first version of this theory in my books “The Theory of a Multipolar World” and “The Geopolitics of a Multipolar World”. But these are only the first approaches to such a serious topic.
In this article I wanted to draw attention to three concepts that can help us understand the basic content of the global transition taking place in the system of International Relations. This is what explains the main trends, conflicts and problems of our time — from the conflict in Ukraine to the problem of Taiwan and many other more local ones. If we understand the structure of the phase transition, we will understand the meaning of current events. But this transition itself also requires a conceptual description. This is what the three concepts discussed in this article should be used for.
The First, Second and Third Worlds
First of all, we should pay attention to the somewhat forgotten today theory of “three Worlds,” popular during the Cold War era. It is the basis for the concept of “the Third World,” which has become a common and stable concept in theories of International Relations and, more broadly, in political language. At the same time, the term “First World” has not received a similar development, and the concept of “Second World” has hardly ever or almost never been used at all. However, it is the concept of the “Second World” and its main characteristics that are most consistent with the multipolar order and best describe the main subjects of multipolarity.
The theory of zoning “three Worlds” — First, Second and Third — is based on an assessment of the level of technical progress, the efficiency of the economy and its growth rates, industrialization and post-industrialization, and the country’s place in the global system of division of labour.
The First World was considered during the Cold War era to be the West, the United States and its main allies, including Japan. “The West” here was viewed not geographically, but civilizationally. The category of the First World included countries with a developed capitalist economy, liberal-democratic regimes, a sharp predominance of urban and industrial centers (high level of urbanization), but the main thing – with high rates of economic growth, with scientific and technical potential, superior to other “Worlds”, with leading positions in finance, with possession of the latest type of arms, with dominance in strategic sphere, developed medicine, etc. The First World was seen as the ultimate model of human society, the vanguard of progress and the visible expression of human destiny. The other two Worlds were seen as destined to catch up with the First World, growing closer and closer to it.
Since it was the First World that was taken as the universal model, the other “two Worlds” were described by comparison with it.
The Third World was the exact opposite of the First World. It was a zone of serious lagging behind the West, with a stagnant and slowly developing (or not developing at all) economy, with a minimal level of science and technology development, with an unstable currency, with an initial stage of democracy combined with archaic political institutions, with a weak and incapable army, low industrialization, with pervasive corruption, poorly developed medicine, with widespread illiteracy and a predominance of rural population. The Third World was totally dependent on the First World and sometimes on the Second World, and the sovereignty of the countries belonging to the Third World was a mere convention with no real content. The First World considered it its duty to take responsibility for the Third World, whence the theory of “dependent development”, giant non-repayable loans, the establishment of direct curatorship over the political, economic and intellectual elites of these countries, partly embedded in the educational systems of the First World.
But the Second World in the Cold War era was endowed with some peculiar features. It was understood as socialist regimes which, despite rejecting the political economy of capitalism, i.e. in direct ideological opposition to the First World, nevertheless achieved a level of development comparable with the First World. But in terms of aggregate indicators (whose criteria were, however, formulated by the First World, which allows for a certain bias and ideological motivation), the Second World was still inferior to the First World. However, the lag was not as significant as in the case of the Third World.
The Second World was understood primarily as the USSR, as well as the countries of the Eastern bloc (especially Eastern Europe).
The concept of “the second world” is important as a precedent for the First World to recognize that even by following an alternative to liberal capitalism scenario of development, it is possible to achieve results cumulatively comparable with the West. This is what distinguished the Second World from the Third World. The Second World had the potential to effectively oppose the first and challenge the universality of its model. And this effectiveness had a very concrete expression in terms of economic growth rates, the number of nuclear weapons, the level of scientific potential, education, social protection, urbanization, industrialization, etc.
The First World corresponded to the Western capitalist camp, the Second World to the Eastern bloc and socialist countries.
These two “Worlds” were in an unstable equilibrium. It was unstable because the First World insisted on its superiority, while the Second World only had to oppose it, partly adopting from the First World certain elements in economics, technology, etc.
The First World and the Second World projected their influence on the Third World, which was the main area of their clash.
All Third World countries were divided into capitalist and socialist, although there was also a “Non-Aligned Movement” whose members tried to justify their own development strategy – without dogmatic capitalism nor socialism. But this did not lead to an independent theory and became just a system of compromises and combinations, depending on the specific situation. All the same, the criteria of the First World (capitalism) or their doctrinal reinterpretation in the ideology of the Second World (socialism) served as a model.
Therefore, the main content of international politics of the Cold War era was the confrontation of the First World with the Second World. This was reflected in the bipolar model.
It is important to note, as John Hobson does, that this zoning of types of societies corresponds to the classical triad of 19th century racist anthropology (Morgan, Tylor, etc.), which distinguished
- barbarism and
White people corresponded to “civilization,” yellow to “barbarism,” and black to “savagery. This model was abandoned definitively in Western anthropology only after World War II, but it was retained for the purpose of assessing the political and economic level of development of countries and societies.
- the First World came to be identified with “civilization” (earlier, with “the white man” and his “burden” in R.Kipling);
- the Second World – with “barbarism” (hence the racist proverb “scrape a Russian and find a Tatar”);
- the Third World – with “savagery” – with “the peoples of Africa and Oceania” (that is, in general with “blacks”).
The Second World: An Expanded Definition
Here we should pay attention to something that was usually ignored during the Cold War era. The Russian Empire in XVIII — XX centuries was also such a Second World in relation to the West. Western Europe was rapidly industrializing, while the Russian Empire was still primarily an agrarian country. Capitalism and bourgeois democracy were established in Western Europe, while the Russian Empire maintained monarchy. Autonomous scientific institutions flourished in Western Europe, while the Russian Empire assiduously copied European science and education. But nevertheless the Russian Empire was quite capable of resisting the West, defending its sovereignty and its way of life, and winning wars.
This observation significantly changes the content of the concept of the SDecond World. If it is applicable to the USSR and the countries under its influence, and to the Russian Empire, which occupied approximately the same territory, then it should be understood as something more general than the USSR.
Second World, broadly understood, is a political-economic and ideological model alternative to global capitalism and challenging the dominance and hegemony of the West (the First World).
In this sense, the fall of the USSR, although it was a disaster for the Second World (as previously was the fall of the Russian Empire), but it was not its end. Already after 1991, new outlines of the Second World began to take shape. A number of countries considered Third World during the Cold War – China, India, Brazil, South Africa – made a sharp breakthrough and reached a level of development comparable with the First World in three decades. Of course, they made use mostly of the tools of global capitalism, but they managed to adapt these tools in such a way that they preserved their sovereignty and put capitalism to the country’s advantage (and not vice versa – like liberal reforms in Eastern Europe and in Russia in the 1990s).
Since the early 2000s, when Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, Russia, the heir to the Second World of the previous stage, began to gradually restore its geopolitical sovereignty. But this time a multipolar rather than bipolar model began to take shape. The First World was opposed not by a single power, but by several. And the ideology of this confrontation (which was realized in each pole of the Second World with varying degrees of radicality and ideological clarity) was not socialism (except for China), but vague anti-globalism and a purely realist rejection of Western (primarily North American) hegemony.
The Second World countries did not form an solid ideological bloc. They became a set of regimes, claiming their own path, qualitatively different from the globalism of the First World.
Political scientists and economists noticed this phenomenon as an accomplished fact, uniting the Second World countries of the post-bipolar era in the conventional construction of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), then after the inclusion of South Africa – BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).
But the BRICS governments at some point realized the objective background of this zoning of civilization and began to develop relations among themselves in this paradigm. Thus began the cautious, gradual formation of a new model of the Second World. This time it was multipolar, because each member of BRICS is a sovereign phenomenon, independent of the other members of the club.
In the BRICS system, Russia is the undisputed military leader and partly the leader in resources.
China is the undisputed economic leader.
India is the third most important pole, with a strong economic and industrial infrastructure, an impressive demographic and a highly politically consolidated society.
Brazil represents symbolically all of Latin America and its enormous potential (not yet fully manifested), as well as a impressive State with a strong military, trade and scientific component.
South Africa, as one of the most developed countries of the African continent, also symbolically represents the new post-colonial Africa – with its enormous and as well yet undisclosed potential.
Now let us turn to a different theory – the “world-system analysis” constructed by Immanuel Wallerstein. Immanuel Wallerstein, a representative of the Marxist school of International Relations (primarily in its Trotskyist interpretation), based on the doctrine of la longue durée (F. Braudel) and Latin American theorists of structural economics (R. Prebisch, S. Furtado), developed a model of zoning the world according to the level of development of capitalism. This vision represents a development of Vladimir Lenin’s ideas of imperialism as the highest stage of development of capitalism, according to which the capitalist system naturally tends to be global and to extend its influence over all mankind. The colonial wars between the developed powers are only the initial stage. Capitalism is gradually realizing the unity of its supranational aims and forming the nucleus of World Government. This is fully consistent with the liberal theory of International Relations, in which the phenomenon of “imperialism”, critically understood by Marxists, is described in apologetic terms as the goal of a “global society”, One World.
The geographical expression of the theory of the world-system is the identification of three layers.
The core or “Rich North” forms the zone of the highest development of capitalism. The core corresponds to the region of North America and Western Europe, that is, Atlantic area and the corresponding Western European civilization, whose pole in the twentieth century shifted to the United States. The core of Wallerstein’s world-system coincides with the First World.
Around the core there is the first ring, which in Wallerstein’s theory is called “semi-periphery”. It includes countries that are inferior to the core in terms of development, but are desperate to catch up with what they see as a model. The semi-periphery countries are also capitalist, but they adjust models of capitalism to their national criteria. As a rule, these countries develop regimes of the “caesarist” type (according to the nomenclature of A. Gramsci), that is, liberal hegemony is accepted only in part, especially in the economy, technologies and models of industrialization, while local models corresponding to pre-capitalist or non-capitalist models continue to dominate the political system, culture and social consciousness.
Wallerstein’s semi-periphery includes the most developed countries of Latin America – especially Brazil, India, China and Russia. In other words, we again get approximately the countries of the BRIC or BRICS club, that is, the Second World.
According to Wallerstein, the pure periphery corresponds to what was originally understood as the Third World with the same basic characteristics – underdevelopment, backwardness, inefficiency, archaic institutions, absence of free market and competition, corruption, etc. This is also called the “poor South”.
In Wallerstein’s theory of world-systems, there follows a statement about the main trend of global development. It stems from the Marxist belief in progress and the change of economic formations. This means that not only spatial but also historical, temporal relations exist between the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery.
The periphery corresponds to the past, to the archaic pre-capitalist order.
The core embodies the universal future, global capitalism (hence globalization).
And the semi-periphery is the zone in which there should be a decomposition into what goes to the core and what collapses into the periphery. According to Wallerstein, the semi-periphery is not an alternative to capitalism, but only its delayed stage. It is a delayed future. Therefore, Wallerstein himself was not particularly interested in the semi-periphery, tracing only those trends that confirmed the splitting of such societies into a globalist liberal elite and an increasingly feral, archaic and proletarianized masses. Wallerstein predicted that the semi-periphery would soon split into a core and a periphery and cease to exist.
Once the semi-periphery disappears, the whole world will become global: the rich North will interact directly with the poor South, where again the elites will be included in the core, and the masses, mixed with the masses of other zones in global migration, will become the global international proletariat. This is when the proletarian revolution predicted by Marx will begin, as well as the crisis of the world capitalist system and, later, communism. And this must happen only after the completion of the process of capitalist globalization, and therefore after the abolition of the semi-periphery.
As a Trotskyist and anti-Stalinist, Wallerstein believed that socialism could not be built in a single country, neither in the USSR nor in China, any such effort would only postpone globalization and thus the World Revolution that would follow it. Just as Marx and Engels stressed in their Manifesto for the Communist Party that while the bourgeoisie was struggling with medieval institutions, communists should support it, and only after the success of the bourgeois revolutions should they then enter into direct confrontation with the capitalists. So, too, Wallerstein and most cultural Marxists and contemporary leftists advocate globalization against the preservation of sovereignty, for – after the total victory of liberals and globalists – engage in a decisive battle with them. This is why they do not call their doctrine “anti-globalism”, but “alter-globalism”, putting forward projects of “post-liberalism” rather than “anti-liberalism”.
A multi-polar reading of semiperiphery
In the context of a multipolar world, Wallerstein’s world-system is rather wrong road map. Multipolarity reads the very phenomenon of semi-periphery quite differently. It is not merely a temporary condition of backward societies not yet included in the core, but the possibility of an alternative course of history which rejects the universality of capitalism and liberal globalization, denies the core the right to be synonymous with the future and an example of universal destiny. The semi-periphery is taken here not as an intermediate phenomenon between core and periphery, but as
- an independent combination of an underlying civilizational identity that remains unchanged and
- a process of modernization.
Huntington, who spoke about the clash of civilizations, which should replace the bipolar world, used the expression “modernization without Westernization”. This is a conscious strategy of the elites of the semi-periphery, who make a choice not to integrate into the global elites of the core, but to remain the ruling class in the civilizational context of the semi-periphery. This is what we see in China, the Islamic countries, and partly in Russia.
The concept of the semi-periphery, detached from the Marxist-Trotskyist context of world-system theory, turns out to be identical with the Second World. This allows us to focus more precisely and in greater detail on the vectors of relations between the countries of the semi-periphery (BRICS) and the core countries and the countries of the periphery.
By combining the potential of the countries of the semi-periphery and establishing an intellectual dialogue between the elites who consciously decided not to integrate into the core of global liberal capitalism, we get a project with resources comparable and even exceeding the aggregate potential of the core (the First World), but with a completely different vector of development. In an intellectual sense, the semi-periphery is here not as the territory of a “delayed future,” but as a zone of free choice, which can at any moment sovereignly combine elements of “future” and “past” in any proportion. All that is needed is to abandon the liberal and Marxist dogma of linear time and socio-technical progress. But this is not as difficult as it seems, because Confucianist, Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic and Hindu theories of time do not know the dogma of progress, and see the future on which capitalists and Marxists insist as something purely negative, as an eschatological apocalyptic scenario, or have a completely different view of it.
The semi-periphery (the Second World) in this case ceases to be an intermediate stage and a “gray zone” between “progress” and “savagery,” “civilization” and “archaic society,” but asserts itself as a field of sovereign civilizations that themselves establish basic criteria, norms and measures – regarding human nature, God, immortality, time, soul, religion, gender, family, society, justice, development, etc.
The core itself then loses its status as “an universal goal” and becomes just one civilization among others. The Second World asserts: everything is a semi-periphery, from which one can go either toward the core or toward the periphery. And the core countries themselves are not an abstract example of a universal future, but only one of humanity’s regions, one of its provinces, which has made its choice, but this choice and its consequences must remain within its borders.
We come to the third concept, fundamentally important for understanding the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world and the place of the BRICS countries in this process. We are talking about the notion of the Civilization-State. This idea was formulated by Chinese scholars (especially Professor Zhang Weiwei), and most often the concept of the Civilization-State is applied to modern China, and then by analogy to Russia, India, etc.
In the Russian context, a similar theory was put forward by the Eurasianists, who formulated the concept of the State-World (gosydarstvo-mir). In fact, in that school Russia was understood as a civilization, not just as one of the countries, hence the main concept of Eurasianists – Russia-Eurasia, that is Civilization-State.
In fact, Samuel Huntington in his insightful, if not prophetic, article “The Clash of Civilizations” has already suggested the transition to civilization as a new main actor of International Relations. The Anglo-Italian specialist in International Relations Fabio Petito clarified that relations between civilizations do not necessarily have to produce conflicts, just as in the theory of realism in International Relations between any national State war is always possible (this follows from the definition of sovereignty), but it is obviously happening rare enough. What matters is the shift in the subject of sovereignty, from national State (French “État-Nation”) to civilization. This is precisely what Huntington predicts.
Civilization-State is defined through two negations:
- it is not the same as the national State (in the realist theory of International Relations), and
- not the same as a World Government uniting all humanity (in liberal theory in International Relations).
It is something in between: the Civilization-State can include different peoples (nations), confessions, and even sub-States. But it never claims uniqueness and planetary scope. It is fundamentally large-scale and durable, regardless of the change of ideologies, facade, culture and formal boundaries. The Civilization-State can exist as a centralized Empire, or as its echoes, remnants, fragments, capable under certain historical circumstances to reassemble into a single whole.
The national State appeared in Europe in modern times. The Civilization-State has existed since time immemorial.
Huntington noticed the new emergence of civilizations in a special situation. In the second half of the twentieth century, national States first were melted in two ideological blocs — capitalist and socialist — and then, after the collapse of the USSR, the liberal order prevailed on a global scale (Fukuyama’s “End of History”). Huntington believed that unipolarity and the global victory of the capitalist liberal West is a short-lived illusion. The global spread of liberalism can complete the decay of national States and exterminate communist ideology, but it cannot replace deeper and seemingly long-defunct civilizational identities. This is what has happened in the last 30 years. And gradually it were civilizations that began to claim to become the main actors of international politics – its subjects. But this implies giving them the status of polity, hence the concept of the Civilization-State.
There are forces and patterns at work in the Civilization-State that modern Western political science does not grasp. They are not reducible to the structures of the national State and are not grasped by macro- and micro-economical analysis. The terms “dictatorship,” “democracy,” “authoritarianism,” “totalitarianism,” “social progress,” “human rights,” etc. have no meaning here or require fundamental translation. Civilizational identity, the State- and society-forming significance of culture, the weight of traditional values – all this is deliberately discarded by modern political science, and only comes into view when studying archaic societies. But such societies are notoriously politically weak and act as objects of research or of modernization. The Civilization-States have their sovereign power, their intellectual potential, their form of self-consciousness. They are subjects, not objects of study or “development aid” (i.e. veiled colonialism). They do not simply reject the West as a universal model, they rigidly cut off the influence of Western soft power within their own borders. They extend their influence beyond their borders, not only defending but also counter-attacking, putting forward their integration theories and ambitious projects. Such are the BRI or the Eurasian Economic Community, the SCO or the BRICS.
China is taken as an example of a Civilization-State for a reason. Its identity and power are the most illustrative. Contemporary Russia has come close to this status, and the special military operation in Ukraine, accompanied by its withdrawal from global networks, is one of the proofs of this deep and powerful will. But while Russia and, to a large extent, China successfully build their Civilization-States on direct confrontation with the West, India (especially under Modi’s nationalist rule) is trying to achieve the same result with reliance on the West, and many Islamic countries that have the same goal (primarily Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, etc.) combine both strategies – confrontation (Iran) and alliance (Turkey). But everywhere it is going to one thing: the establishment of a Civilization-State.
The Second World as a New Universal Paradigm of International Relations
Now let us put these concepts together. We get a conceptual series:
Second World — semi-periphery — Civilization-State
Second World is a definition emphasizing the intermediate character of the countries making today the choice in favor of multipolarity and rejecting unipolarity and globalism, that is, the hegemony of the First World.
In terms of the level of economic development and the degree of modernization, the Second World corresponds to the semi-periphery of the world-system theory. However, unlike Wallerstein, this reading of the very nature of semi-periphery does not recognize the inevitability of splitting into an elite integrated into world globalism and a feral, archaizing mass, but asserts the identity and unity of a society sharing a single identity, both at the top and at the bottom.
The poles of the Second World (semi-periphery) are the Civilization-States, both actual (China, Russia) and potential (the Islamic world, Latin America, Africa).
Armed with this apparatus we can now better understand what the BRICS is.
So far it is a rather conventional alliance, or rather a club of Civilization-States (explicit and implicit), which represent the Second World and meet the basic criteria of the semi-periphery.
However, this club in the current conditions is in an unique situation: the twentieth century saw a significant erosion of the sovereignty of national States, which have lost much of their content through the excessive formalization of their status in the UN, as well as in the almost forced affiliation to the one or the other ideological camps. In the bipolar system, sovereignties were almost discounted in favor of the two main decision-making centers — Washington and Moscow. It was these poles that were absolutely sovereign, while all other national States were only partially and relatively sovereign.
The end of the USSR and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact did not lead to a new strengthening of national States, but it temporarily cemented a unipolar world that, in the course of globalization, tried to insist that from now on only Washington and the Western liberal system of values and rules had sovereignty on a universal scale.
The next logical step would have been the declaration of a World Government, as called for by Fukuyama, Soros and Schwab, the founder of the Davos Forum. But this process has been thwarted, both by internal contradictions and — this is the main element! – the direct revolt of Russia and China against the established unipolarity. Thus, it was the Second World, the semi-periphery and the Civilization-States that challenged globalism and prepared for its collapse. And what seemed to be a temporary and transient phenomenon – semi-periphery, BRICS, turned out to be something much bigger.
Thus, the prerequisites for a multipolar world were laid, where the Second World, the semi-periphery and the Civilization-States became the main trend-setters in world politics, going far beyond the status that Western-centered theories of International Relations, including the Trotskyite version of Marxism (Wallerstein), prescribed them.
The concept of the Civilization-State, if it can be defended and fulfilled by the members of the multipolar club, that is, the Second World (especially the BRICS countries), will mean a complete restructuring of the entire picture of the world.
At the other hand, the West, the First World, the core, will be reduced from a global center into a regional one. From now on, it will not be the measure of things, but one of the Civilization-States, or even two – North America and Europe. But in addition to them, there will be roughly equal Civilization-States – China, Russia, India, the Islamic world, Latin America, Africa, etc., quite competitively capable and of equal value. Nobody among them will represent the “Future” or the “Past”, but all will become “zones of Present” and of free choice.
This is in the near future. But even now we can see that by adding together the potentials of the two well established Civilization-States, their combined potential is able to balance the West on the main parameters, which already makes the dominance of the West something relative and reduces its global claims to clearly defined regional boundaries. It is the definition of these new boundaries of the West, which ceases to be a global phenomenon and is transforming before our eyes into a regional power (from World Government and the core into a Western Civilization-State), that is the meaning of Russian military operation in Ukraine and the likely establishment of direct Chinese control over Taiwan.
Often (but not always) the change of the world order takes place through wars – including world wars. The construction of a multipolar world, alas, will also go through wars. If wars as such cannot be avoided, it is possible to limit their scope, determine their rules and establish their laws. But to do this it is necessary to recognize the logic on which multipolarity is built and, accordingly, to study the conceptual and theoretical foundations underlying the multipolar world.
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