Current international tensions have intensified a debate that has existed for at least a decade between two radically different views of the world and international relations: the unipolar world and the multipolar world. When libertarians disagree on foreign policy, the underlying cause is often this difference in worldview. The purpose of this article is to show that a unipolar world is contrary to the principles of libertarianism and that a multipolar world is an important step toward global liberty.
Unipolar versus Multipolar
A unipolar world is a world led by a single pole of power, for example, the current, liberal, rules-based international order centered in Washington DC. This international order is a flexible, fuzzy concept, distinct from international law (even though the two sometimes coincide). This is the world that the United States, with its Western allies, created in 1945 and has tried to expand since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The underlying idea is that Western political systems, “liberal democracies,” have a moral superiority that justifies their global rule. It is, by definition, a power of hegemonic ambition. The unipolar world is a world in which nation-states lack independence; they are dominated—for their own good of course—not only by the center of power but also indirectly by the supranational institutions that lend their allegiances to the central pole.
A multipolar world is the opposite of the world described above. It is a world that much more strictly respects international law, in particular as expressed in the Charter of the United Nations. No value judgment is applied to political systems in this view of international relations. On the contrary, political systems are seen as consequences of specific political cultures and histories. The multipolar world is not universalist. Global political power is divided and shared between a multitude of poles, and nation-states are not subjected to supranational institutions.
As these short descriptions show, the multipolar and unipolar visions are mutually exclusive. This largely explains the tensions that currently exist in international relations.
Why Not Support the Unipolar World?
At first glance, it might seem strange that libertarians should prefer a multipolar world. Indeed, the unipolar world is centered on the West, which is often deemed more respectful of civil liberties than the rest of the world. Moreover, libertarians are ideologically committed to an open world that minimizes the political and legal obstacles hindering free trade between companies and individuals from different political spheres.
Would it not be natural for libertarians to prefer a unipolar system where a single political entity manages the world, ensures peace, and weakens the political boundaries between nation-states? The answer to this question is, emphatically, “No!” Support for a unipolar world is an error caused by classical liberalism’s universalist, Enlightenment roots. There is never a guarantee that the winning pole of power will be benevolent and peaceful. What if it is not? In fact, support for a unipolar world can often be explained by ignorance of the true nature of the federal government of the United States (even though it has been exposed over many decades by intellectuals and journalists such as John T. Flynn, Robert Higgs, Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano, and John Perkins).
Moreover, the current unipolar world is neither economically nor politically as free as it presents itself. Examples of illiberal policies (such as crushing taxation) abound in the West. Western elites have never really been willing to implement free trade, for example, between the West and the developing world, to the detriment of the latter. Additionally, the problems of democratic legitimacy in the West have become all too common; decisions are often made by leaders in opposition to the will of the majority.
Furthermore, the unipolar world is heading toward political globalization, which is undeniably a form of international fascism, as professor Michael Rectenwald has shown in a brilliant series of articles. From the beginning, the unipolar world was unfair and unstable because it favored the Western financial system based on the US dollar. Different forms of coercion exist for nations that do not cooperate. The threat of military use is obvious, but the extraterritoriality principle of US law (such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) is also a threat. By its very nature, the unipolar world cannot exist without constant, illegal, and unsolicited interventions in the internal affairs of countries that do not wish to fully adhere to the political positions of the center of power. This is the only way the unipolar world can be maintained and extended.
Nonintervention and Decentralization
The unipolar world, therefore, goes directly against the principle of nonintervention, which is fundamental to libertarianism. The principle of nonaggression, and thus the peaceful exchange between nations so important to libertarians, is much better represented and protected by international law.
Libertarians fundamentally recognize the decentralization of political power within nation-states. These same libertarians should accordingly support the decentralization of political power among nations. This is, of course, tantamount to supporting a multipolar world. The benefits of decentralization have been demonstrated by libertarian historians such as Ralph Raico and Donald Livingstone; centuries of competition between small European political entities were key to the economic development and political liberalization of these societies.
The multipolar world is, however, not a sufficient development from a libertarian point of view because of the statism that persists in such a world, but it is an important step toward freedom compared to the unipolar world. Libertarians must, therefore, support the multipolar world and reject the unipolar world for the previously outlined reasons. This position needs to be expressed strongly, even if it is not so popular at present, because the multipolar world is still poorly understood and poorly accepted by a West accustomed to its dominant position.