The Inaugural Kenneth N. Waltz Annual Lecture A World Order Without Superpowers
The category of superpower, as distinct from great power, has become naturalized in the discourses about international relations. But ‘superpower’ has only become common usage since the end of the Second World War and in modern history cannot meaningfully be applied much further than the 19th century. This article argues that superpowers are a historically contingent phenomenon whose emergence rested on the huge inequality of power between the West and the rest of the world that developed during the 19th century. As this inequality diminishes, the most likely scenario for world politics is decentred globalism, in which there will be no superpowers, only great powers. The largest section of the article uses a framework of material and social factors to show why the US is unlikely to remain a superpower, and why China and the EU are unlikely to become superpowers. The following three sections use the same framework to look more briefly at why a world with only great powers is likely to take a more regionalized form; why this might produce a quite workable, decentralized, coexistence international society with some elements of cooperation; and what the possible downsides of a more regionalized international order might be, focusing particularly on the problem of regional hegemony. The conclusions offer five policy prescriptions for living in a decentred globalist world.