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No Longer Numero Uno?

March 25, 2023 | Expert Insights

The rise of new powers is transforming the global landscape as the world changes. The United States, which has been the global dominating power for decades, is now confronting a new reality- a multipolar world in which other nations regularly challenge its position.

The question now being debated is whether, with its still predominantly superior military, technological and economic might, will the U.S. fight tooth and nail to retain its primacy or will it join a coalition of like-minded democratic nations to confront the other pole- a resurgent China?


The U.S. was the dominant power to emerge out of the ruins of World War II, with its mainland unscathed from the ravages of a global conflict. While it is estimated that the human sacrifice to destroy Nazi Germany was the highest paid by the USSR (around 27 million dead), Europe paid through its destroyed landscape and shattered industry. However, the U.S. profited from the massive economic resurgence of total global war, coming out as the leading industrial and technological power.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the dominating global force. Its military, economic, and cultural influence has shaped the world order. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have demonstrated that the military might alone not ensure America's continued dominance and Russian boldness in invading Ukraine despite all kinds of threats by the U.S. and its European allies having further diminished its power. In the second decade of the 21st Century, a real competitor in China is taking shape.



The American withdrawal from Afghanistan is an inflexion point as it marks the exhaustion of the U.S. state and the people from indulging in foreign expeditions for too long with confused objectives which were hard to attain. The stark reality is that even the U.S. has limitations regarding military and economic interventions in far-off lands, which can only further its geopolitical interests but at a high cost to its treasury and lives of its young men and women. As President Trump said, shortly after his election, in 2016, "We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. […] We will build up our military not as an act of aggression, but as an act of prevention.”

These sentiments were echoed by President Joe Biden in September 2021 when he announced the end of an era of significant U.S. military intervention overseas, the likes of Iraq or Afghanistan. Washington wants to move on "from narrow counter-terrorism goals and nation-building abroad to broader threats to U.S. primacy from China and Russia.”

It is clear that the U.S., while acknowledging its diminishing military and economic capacity, is poised to refocus its energies to meet any new challengers- China, Russia or even a combination of both. Its potential rivals need to take note of this American determination to retain its dominating position amongst the comity of nations.

So, how does China stack up as the most likely candidate to challenge the U.S.? Despite all the media hype, most analysts agree that for the next three decades at least, China will lag behind the U.S.- militarily, economically and geopolitically.

On the military score, the U.S. dominates the strategic, tactical and operational domains of warfare across the spectrum of warfare-land, sea, air and space. The USN surpasses the PLAN in rapid deployment and force projection. These sentiments are echoed by Chinese top-level military commanders, who acknowledge that while China may be an economic heavyweight, it remains a military novice compared to the U.S. The last major offensive it carried was in 1979 against Vietnam, which turned out to be a damp squib in strategic terms-its impact on Vietnam was very transitory. The PLA is heavily involved in securing the third largest country in the world for the Communist Party and would be hard-pressed to spare resources to man, equip and launch massive expeditionary forces as has been done by the U.S. in this century itself.

The real battle is waged on the economic front in the so-called multipolar world and this is where the U.S. is facing the most serious challenge from China. Both the U.S. and China are resorting to economic statecraft to pull down each other through trade agreements, sanctions, and investment policies aimed at their interests and reducing their rival's. Concerns exist, however, that these steps could backfire and result in economic reprisal from other nations, further eroding America's standing in the international community.

There is a growing realisation that the United States cannot sustain its supremacy in a multipolar world without the assistance of other nations. This includes forming solid alliances and cooperation with other major nations and participating in global institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. By cooperating, nations may address global issues such as climate change, terrorism, and economic inequality while encouraging global stability and prosperity. The advent of QUAD, the AUKUS, the I2U2 etc, alliances formed under the tutelage of the U.S., are directed to get together like-minded nations outside the European theatre. Although never spoken of, the target of all these is clearly China. In response, China has failed to develop a similar alliance unless its frequent exchanges with Moscow can be viewed as a potential axis.

The U.S. can be challenged today, as is evident from the response of many countries in the Asia Pacific and Africa to the war in Ukraine. This is the strength of a multipolar world. If China, Russia, India, South Africa and Brazil emerge as true world powers, say within the next three decades, then definitely the U.S. should have concerns regarding challenges to its geopolitical interests. Even if regional powers get together to challenge the American writ, say Iran-China-Russia in Asia and North Korea-China-Russia in the Far East, this could exacerbate tensions and reduce the options available to the U.S. to deal with the situation as the sole superpower. Such a situation may not benefit global military and economic stability as it could lead to a fragmented and unstable world order. We are witnessing this as an offshoot of the Ukraine war. This would also remove the focus from global issues like cyber terrorism, climate change and economic inequity.

However, the rise of a multipolar world may accrue some benefits also if there is an acceptance on the part of the major powers like the U.S., China and Russia that collaboration is a saner choice than confrontation. As new powers emerge, they may wish to collaborate with the United States and other nations to tackle shared concerns and promote global security and prosperity. This could result in the formation of new partnerships and alliances as well as the consolidation of existing ones.

An additional advantage of a multipolar world is the possibility of more innovation and competition. This could result in new technologies and industries, along with greater productivity and economic growth. A third advantage of a multipolar world is the potential for more cultural diversity and exchange.


  • The world powers, especially the U.S., must be prepared to accept a multipolar world as it takes shape. They must participate in a collaborative, inclusive, and multilateral approach to global governance. This necessitates a willingness to share authority and resources with other nations, as well as an adoption of a more cooperative and collaborative approach to global governance.
  • Developing solid friendships and alliances with other great nations is one way to accept a multipolar world. This includes collaborating closely with China, Russia, and the European Union to confront shared challenges and promote global stability and prosperity. This includes participation in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund and collaboration with other nations to influence the international order to advance American interests.
  • Taking on common issues such as climate change, terrorism, and economic inequality is another approach to accepting a multipolar world. These challenges call for a coordinated global response, and the United States can lead in finding solutions that benefit all nations. This includes investing in renewable energy and sustainable development, fostering economic equality and social justice, and strengthening international collaboration on counter-terrorism measures.