The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War poses a difficult question to the US and world Left: What sort of world order do we wish to inhabit? What principles do we wish to govern relations between the world’s nation states, multinational corporations, citizens, transnational religious groups, and all other actors?
There exist several conceptions of world order to consider since the outbreak of the war in February. The most traditional in international relations are all available: unipolarity; bipolarity; and multipolarity. These, of course, come in many different fashions. The purpose of this article will be to delineate what each of these mean in contemporary global politics given the ongoing war in Ukraine, why each would be detrimental to the Left’s cause, and outline what the Left should pursue as it pertains to its approach to the conflict and the broader international system. Briefly, I will argue all noted conceptions of polarity are defined in geographically exclusionary terms and are, therefore, opposed to the project of universal emancipation as they produce a hierarchy of power. The United Nations (UN) Charter, though enshrining geographically exclusionary entities (nation-states), nonetheless represents a document with limited power but important potential for further emancipatory projects. One such project would be through what I call omnipolarity, a pole with essentially no geographic exclusion. Thus, the Left today, though it should obviously call for peace between Russia and Ukraine and condemn nuclear saber rattling, should also categorically reject Russia’s annexations and infringement on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including with support for arms shipments to Kyiv.
Poles of Attraction
In 1990, as the Cold War was entering its final days, Charles Krauthammer described the “unipolar moment” which awaited the United States. “American preeminence,” Krauthammer wrote,
is based on the fact that it is the only country with the military, diplomatic, political, and economic assets to be a decisive player in any conflict in whatever part of the world it chooses to involve itself.
The year before Krauthammer’s piece, Francis Fukuyama wrote of “the end of history,” of the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” which heralded “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Unipolarity in the senses offered by Krauthammer and Fukuyama is based both on the material capacities of the one pole as well as the ideological triumph of its governing ideology. It necessitates convergence around certain values where the world is vulnerable to the threat of force by the hegemonic power, in this case the United States.
Even if Fukuyama was correct in his declaration liberal democracy is the final form of human government, unipolarity is by its nature antidemocratic. A world of liberal democracies does not in itself suggest an abolition of power imbalances between them. Though there exists evidence which tends to support democratic peace theory (the idea democracies do not go to war with one another), democracies can still have conflicts of interests which can result in the imposition of sanctions and perhaps, indeed, outright warfare. Since unipolarity is predicated on one centrifugal power, all other actors must bend to the center of gravity. The resulting international system is, therefore, detrimental to emancipatory projects as it disenfranchises those in geographical locations outside the unipolar center.
Bipolarity, by contrast, exists when power is roughly equally distributed between two centers. Such was the basic configuration of the international system during the Cold War, as the poles of Washington and Moscow competed for influence around the globe. While this slight diffusion of power and influence offers more variety than unipolarity, it, too, harms goals of democratic emancipation. As in unipolarity, the “uni” does not imply an absence of multiplicities, whether political, ethical, legal, etc., and the same is true of the “bi” in bipolarity. The existence of two primary centers of power and influence means the rest of the globe is the grounds of the poles’ competition. The Cold War is the classic example of a bipolar system, although the Non-Aligned Movement complicated this narrative. Important, though, is during the conflict, even while the two superpowers never waged direct war, millions were killed in their proxy conflicts.
If a bipolar system emerges in the coming decades, the likely poles will be Washington and Beijing. Just as the spaces and peoples revolving around the two poles in the Cold War were subjected to their struggle for supremacy, the same will likely result from a Sino-American bipolarity. Tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Arctic, human rights abuses, and more could play out in much the same way as the conflict between the United States and Soviet Union. Though cooperation existed between the two powers, their competition was a direct hindrance to the further democratization of the international system. The “San Francisco Promise,” as outlined in the third paragraph of Article 109 of the UN Charter, states review of the Charter should be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda if such a review had not occurred within ten years of the Charter coming into force. Such an agenda has never been taken up to reform the Charter, and especially the Security Council, whose five permanent members have veto power.
The central problems of both unipolarity and bipolarity, and what makes them hostile to Leftist and emancipatory goals, also apply to the concept of multipolarity. A “pole” is conceptualized as a unitary geographical space yet has an outside which revolves around itself. Even in a system with ten poles, the others must be subjected to the competition of the primary states. For instance, the last time the international system could legitimately be described as multipolar (between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War), peace was not the order of the day for those who fell outside the geographical boundaries of the several poles. For instance, that same century gave the world the scramble for Africa and many other horrors.
Omnipolar Cosmopolitan Democracy
Polarity inherently means a hierarchy of power relationships, and for this reason any of the traditional conceptions of ordering the international system in such a way is detrimental to emancipatory causes. The concept of “omnipolarity,” by contrast, resolves this issue by abolishing the necessary otherness which characterizes polarity. Philosopher Jacques Rancière defined emancipation as “the way out of a situation of minority,” “a situation in which you have to be guided because following the path of your own sense of direction would lead you astray.” This minority status may be taken to mean a situation of Otherness, and applied to the international system emancipation would mean the abolition of polarity-based competition for power, influence, and resources. This abolition is the chief characteristic of omnipolarity.
A system with power distributed in a global federated democracy with the establishment of a parliamentary assembly alongside the UN General Assembly (UNGA) would create a situation in which individuals could impact decisions of worldwide importance, thus removing the gravitational pull of poles. The “omni” in omnipolar means there exists no external sphere unaffected by decisions. Many of the discriminations and suppressions committed in the past, including in democratic countries, have been tied to the phenomenon of polarity described above through competition for scarce resources against those outside of communities. For the Left, a truly internationalist project must seek to eliminate this othering and bring every person into the same community. Furthermore, a Leftist internationalist project must also be democratic, allowing each adult member of the human family into the process of the decisions which affect them. An omnipolar cosmopolitan democracy with a world parliament will serve just this end.
There are several additional reasons for an omnipolar cosmopolitan democracy. First is the simple recognition that there exists today challenges which cannot be solved by either nation-states working together or retreating into isolationism. Nation-states recognize these challenges exist and have attempted to solve them along bilateral and multilateral lines, as well as through international law. A central problem with this approach, however, is the voluntary nature of international law as powerful states can outright refuse to sign on to binding agreements. This leads to great powers either disregarding international laws and resolutions with little to no consequence, along with imposing sanctions not authorized by the UN Security Council.
This failure on the part of the UN and its member states is a direct result of its decision-making membership being entirely composed of nation-states, not democratically elected representatives. Nation-states represent the interests of their institutions, which do not always correspond to the interests of the populations they represent. The core problem in politics is to align the interests of the governed with those tasked with governing. Democracy, whether through direct referenda or elected representatives and other means of voicing concerns, is the best way to give the interests of entire populations a voice in the halls of power. Therefore, a world parliament made up of representatives elected by the global population would give just such a voice to their interests on the most pressing international challenges.
As mentioned, polarity as traditionally defined (whether unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar) necessarily comes with a geographical and ideological demarcation, a line which separates who belongs to the pole and who does not. Such a demarcation can take place, of course, within the same community. When the 1787 Constitution was ratified in the United States, slaves were counted for the purposes of population counting and representation, but only as three-fifths of a person to indicate their oppression while also enhancing the power and influence of slaveholding states in the new union. National and more local governments can infringe on the rights and interests of parts of their own populations, just as nation-states internationally do not always represent the best interests of their entire populations. Another advantage of an omnipolar order would be the presence of the order in all parts of the world, with no allowance made for the discounting of any persons’ or groups’ interests. Just as omnipolarity would eliminate the othering of persons outside the traditional polar structure, it would also remove the ability of national and local governments to impose their own such demarcations.
Problems of Multipolarity
Finally, democracy is regarded in much of the world as a universal right. The definition of this right to democracy, however, is under threat by the seemingly impending arrival of multipolarity. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, stated the world order created by victory in Ukraine would provide recompense for the country’s losses. The order alluded to is likely multipolarity. In their Joint Statement from early February, Russia and China declared their shared view that the global changes taking place were evidence of increasing “multipolarity, economic globalization, the advent of information society, cultural diversity, transformation of the global governance architecture and world order.” Specifically on democracy, Moscow and Beijing stated their belief “democracy is a universal human value,” and
is a means of citizens’ participation in the government of their country with the view to improving the well-being of population and implementing the principle of popular government. Democracy is exercised in all spheres of public life as part of a nation-wide process and reflects the interests of all the people, its will, guarantees its rights, meets its needs and protects its interests. There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy. A nation can choose such forms and methods of implementing democracy that would best suit its particular state, based on its social and political system, its historical background, traditions and unique cultural characteristics. It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.
In his article “Multipolarity versus Sinocentrism,” Gilbert Rozman highlighted, though this was not his intention, the difficulty in squaring interests and worldviews under multipolarity in the context of the Sino-Russian relationship. “Both multipolarity and Sinocentrism,” he wrote,
have been subject to reinterpretation. Chinese thinking on the former has narrowed as Russia’s has broadened. Although both take the Sino-Russo-US triad as the core, China has tended to drop other states and to marginalize Russia with bipolarity at the center.
At its most orthodox, Moscow’s current views of multipolarity may mean a return to a concert of great powers system as existed prior to the First World War. At its most transformative, it could mean what ultranationalist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, in his book “The Theory of a Multipolar World,” described as a “polycentric” system where
the equality of civilizations on the level of the international order will not imply the identity of their domestic arrangements. Each civilization will thus get the right to organize its societies in accordance with its own preferences, value systems, and historical experiences.
Both the “orthodox” and “transformative” accounts just described would be a severe blow to the emancipatory project of the Left. If human life is to count everywhere the same and if externalities reach beyond the borders of any envisioned political community defined along the lines of polarity, an omnipolar cosmopolitan democracy must be the Left’s project of political emancipation.
What I assume many on the Left consider to be “multipolarity” is the desire for a realization of the Westphalian system of equal sovereign states. Scholars such as Jean Cohen, Christina Lafont, and Seyla Benhabib have all sought to disprove the often-supposed dichotomy between cosmopolitanism and national sovereignty this approach seems to entail. Such equality is guaranteed via the UNGA, yet the institution lacks real enforcement mechanisms for its resolutions. Anything it may try to do can be immediately vetoed by one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Advocates of multipolarity in this sense, what this article refers to as “egalitarian multipolarity,” should be strengthened by a reform of the Security Council which limits the veto’s potency at hindering international action. Still, such a position, while a valid pursuit for the Left, cannot be the only goal as nations’ representatives to the UNGA are not democratically elected or directly accountable to their populations. The establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly (UNPA) to operate alongside an empowered UNGA, though, would allow for the equality of sovereignty and democratic advocacy at the highest intergovernmental body.
Toward Global Emancipation
Finally, let us turn to the issue of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, and what it means for the prospects of an omnipolar order as described above.
The UN as currently organized failed to prevent the conflict, just as it failed to prevent the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq, and countless other instances of powerful nations meddling in the internal affairs of others. With a more diffused distribution of power capabilities and democratic representation at the highest level of global governance, however, such instances would have had a better chance of being resolved peacefully. Still, the international community has clearly made its feelings known as to the ultimate actor of aggression in Ukraine. In March, 141 members of the UNGA voted in favor of a resolution condemning the aggression against Ukraine and demanding Russian troops immediately withdraw from the country, with five nations voting against and 35 abstaining. In April, the UNGA voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, with 93 in favor, 24 against, and 58 abstaining. Most recently, in October, the UNGA voted to demand Russia reverse its annexations in Ukraine, with 143 in favor, five against, and 35 abstaining.
According to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council has the authority to oversee responses to armed aggression. The Charter does not, of course, detail what should be done when an aggressor is a permanent member of the Security Council. Democratizing the Security Council and reforming the veto are crucial for making the UN a body which can adequately address and prevent potential conflicts. Structuring the global governance architecture along omnipolar lines as mentioned above with a UNPA acting alongside the UNGA would allow for the greatest popular pressure to be put on belligerent states. As things stand now, though, and regardless of a more thorough accounting of blame leading up to the ongoing war, only one state violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another UN member state and did so while rattling their nuclear saber. This is an occurrence the international community should find categorically unacceptable, and given the votes listed above, it has repeatedly done so. Therefore, the Left should both push for diplomacy, but at the same time recognize the normalization of territorial gains via military conquest will only lead it astray from its goals and the possibility of solving our most urgent global challenges. Considering this, the Left must also ask itself when, if ever, any order it supports should respond to aggression with its own armed force.
Peace should be the norm of international relations, and indeed the basis of binding laws governing interstate behavior, but norms and laws only function peacefully so long as every actor plays by the same rules. Ukraine, for all its problems, was not the state who broke the peace with Russia in February, or even in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Defending Ukrainian sovereignty, even with arms shipments, is in the interest of the Left given Kyiv’s equal status to Russia at the UN as well as because doing so is in line with the omnipolar framework outlined above. In an international order with federated power distribution, but with the highest authority having binding obligations upon the rest, nation-states ought not have any moral case for violating the rights of fellow states. To give in to Moscow’s demands that Kyiv cede territory or withdraw applications to either the European Union or NATO (or any other foreign policy decision) is to fail to live up to the value of equal nation-states under the UN Charter, and it means a continuation of the great power politics which has stifled emancipatory politics and cost millions of lives for centuries.
Now, what is to be done? A truly omnipolar international architecture cannot be created in the short-term. However, according to Article 22 of the UN Charter, the UNGA can, by a simple vote, “establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions.” Several organizations already advocate for this strategy, including the World Federalist Movement (WFM) and Democracy Without Borders, of which I am a member. As it pertains to DSA, the International Committee should consider partnering with the WFM and incorporate a campaign for a UNPA and omnipolar structure into its political and educational activities. Such a structural change to the global governance architecture must be based on a bottom-up strategy of education, mobilization, and popular pressure on domestic elected officials to endorse such a vision. If global emancipation is to be democratic, such institutional changes as presented above offer the best means of its realization.