Abstract: Cognitive biases do not necessarily impact a single decision but can be rooted in national (civilisational) strategic thinking. Biased strategic thinking can lead to misguided strategies drawing on different international system configurations, thus giving rise to the pursuit of unrealistic goals or the underestimation of security threats. A vivid example of such biased views of polarity, and even the romanticisation of multipolarity, can be observed in contemporary Russian and Chinese political discourses. By contrast, downplaying the redistribution of power as a natural phenomenon is symptomatic for the European Commission and some EU member states. Both approaches result in biased grand strategies leading to the decline in one’s international rank, be it a bloody quagmire in Ukraine or a lack of preparedness for a highly competitive and entropic world.
Problem statement: How can varying views of contemporary geopolitical shifts and consequent cognitive biases impact the grand strategies of key players?
So what?: Grand strategy should be guided only by the analysis-driven unbiased view of the international distribution of power and its effects on one’s international position. A biased strategy can often lead to catastrophic consequences and a decline in one´s international rank.
Throughout history, rulers and political elites dedicated enormous efforts and resources to maintain power distribution in their favour. However, if there is any lesson to be learned from their historical struggles, power distribution constantly changes, and stable configurations are rare in the modern history of international relations. Yet, the perceptions of one’s might, and biased decisions based on flawed net assessments of the balance of power, often lead states to adopt grand strategies that set them on collision courses with their peer competitors. Moreover, states tend to underestimate their opponents, eventually enabling other powers to prey on their unbalanced strategies. Such is the case of the contemporary international system, which has entered a phase of redistribution of power, with its major actors pursuing conflicting strategies often unmeasured to the scale of structural changes or their actual power potentials.
States tend to underestimate their opponents, eventually enabling other powers to prey on their unbalanced strategies.
The ambitious strategies of the U.S. and Russia are creating friction where the interests of all major actors overlap. Meanwhile, the lack of the EU’s resolve is leading to the decline of its influence in Eastern Europe and Africa. At the same time, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is using the disarrayed system to pursue its interests and prey on the declining U.S.-led liberal order. Despite varying net assessments, all actors acknowledge the profound changes in the balance of power.
With increasing power redistribution, major actors tend to have different perceptions of the newly forming structure and its properties. On the one hand, the revisionist block led by the PRC and Russia promotes a romantic vision of cooperative multipolarity; on the other hand, the West is acutely aware of the instability of such systemic configurations and tries to come up with ideas of a “Rules-Based Order” or “Values-Based Order.” This article aims to look into the varying perceptions of the individual actors and the impact of the subsequent cognitive biases on the stability of the contemporary international system.
Structural Stability And Grand Strategies
Discussions on the forming of multipolarity can be traced to the end of the Cold War. At the peak of what Charles Krauthammer coined as the unipolar moment, structural realists, such as John Mearsheimer and Kenneth Waltz, claimed that new centres of power will reemerge, and with those new, likely multipolar, structures will be formed., ,  Now, more than thirty years later, there is no doubt about the strengthening of the PRC’s geopolitical stronghold, Russia’s resurgence, and India’s ascent, while the declining influence of the West has become a subject of denial for many. Yet, the U.S. retreat from the Middle East, Russia’s revisionism in Europe, the decrease of European sway in Africa, and the ascent of India and China are just a few symptoms of the power redistribution. Ignoring these symptoms can be fatal for those who do not prepare for the coming multipolarity, just like the redistribution of power and its conflictual nature has caught the EU unprepared.
While unipolar and bipolar systems are labelled as much more stable power configurations due to the lack of multifaceted competition, multipolar international systems have given birth to the bloodiest conflicts in the past 250 years. Therefore, hegemonic stability theorists refer to the systems with one centre of power as the least conflict-prone configuration, even though a hegemon can become a revisionist to eliminate the potential competitors and preserve its power. Still, the conflicts occurring in unipolar systems are of somewhat limited scope. By contrast, multipolar and bipolar systems offer many more opportunities for systemic conflicts as the number of stakeholders increases. That said, there is a high degree of romanticisation to multipolarity as a configuration where all relevant actors respect each other’s interests and sovereignty.
Without a proper crisis management vehicle, such as a functioning international order, multipolarity can become a survival of the fittest. The past 250 years show that the concert of Europe was sustainable only thanks to the crisis management vehicle — ad hoc diplomatic conferences and all major actors’ interest in preserving the existing balance of power.
Stability in a Multipolar International System
In expert discourse, structures with multiple centres of power are one of the most debated configurations owing to the longevity of the European balance of power politics. For most of the modern period of international relations, power distribution has been multipolar. However, the most frequently analysed periods are those starting from the Napoleon era until the present, as datasets, such as Correlates of War, or other projects can precisely measure the material power capabilities of states since the beginning of the 19th century.
For most of the modern period of international relations, power distribution has been multipolar.
Proponents of stability in multipolar structures come from the school of classical realism. Hans Morgenthau believes that increased uncertainty about the intentions of others is forcing states to be more cautious in their actions. Morton Kaplan adds to this argument and sees multipolarity as more stable, as balancing coalitions are more natural to form. However, the claims of classical realists are challenged by the popular notion of David Singer and Karl Deutsch, who assume that even multipolar systems operating under the rules of balance-of-power policies are shown to be self-destroying as multipolarity appears to be an unstable configuration in terms of conflict frequency; moreover, multiple centres of power also imply a variety of interests.
To bridge the classical realist claims with the conflicting view of structural realists, Richard Rosencrance compared the virtues of bipolar and multipolar systems. He concluded that multipolarity is more conflict-prone than bipolarity due to the greater diversity of interests and demands. However, due to more interaction opportunities in a multipolar context, states are less obsessed with each other, thereby reducing the instances of arms races. Nonetheless, structural realists argue that bipolar structures are more stable precisely due to the rigid balance of power between two blocks and point out the perils of buck-passing proneness in the multipolar configuration, which might lead to potentially unchecked revisionist powers.
Glenn Snyder and Kenneth Waltz argue that the twin dangers of “abandonment” (being left in the lurch in a crisis or war as a result of buck-passing) and “entrapment” (being dragged into misguided wars by one’s alliance commitments as a result of chain ganging) are more worrisome in multipolar systems than in bipolar systems. Meanwhile, Thomas Christensen and Jack Snyder suggest that these problems are even more pronounced when conquest is easy and the need for prompt and reliable allies is especially great.
These arguments bring us to the notion of structural balance in multipolarity, as the states can overreach their power, form powerful alliances to conquer, or simply buck-pass the threat of potential aggressors. Therefore, John Mearsheimer observes the structural configuration from the point of a balanced power distribution. He develops the term “balanced multipolarity” — an inherently stable configuration as it lacks potential hegemon but retains power asymmetries.
The final set of arguments represents a school of hegemonic stability within which scholars generally agree on a hierarchic instead of anarchic order of international relations. William Wohlforth defines multipolarity as a flat hierarchy in which no state is unambiguously number one. Multipolarity is unstable as all three conditions for war are present: uncertainty, freeriding, and fear of allied defection. Therefore, Wohlforth assumes that uni- and bipolarity are more stable configurations than multipolarity, as there are far fewer incentives for direct positional competition over status.
Multipolarity is unstable as all three conditions for war are present: uncertainty, freeriding, and fear of allied defection.
The analysed arguments imply two broad categories of reasoning as to why multipolar systems are prone to instability. The first category draws on the structural arguments demonstrating that multiple actors mean multiple reasons to fear. One of the most critical questions about the stability of the multipolar system is the balanced distribution of power. Whereas in the second category, the unit-level set of assumptions comprises arguments about the uncertainty that influences decision-making processes, thus offering space for miscalculations that eventually lead to instability. The unit-level argument mainly stresses the issue of allied defection, freeriding, or buck-passing, which represents the peril of leaving the potential aggressor unchecked. At the same time, the mirroring danger of buck-passing represents chain ganging, with scholars describing them as twin dangers.
Nevertheless, as the empirical data in this article show, there is a third category of instabilities in multipolar international systems- cognitive ones. Cognition-based instabilities are embedded in misperceptions of one’s might or flawed net assessments of the potential threats one’s peer competitors pose.
Romantic Cooperative Multipolarity
Despite Russia and the PRC having embarked on the multipolarity rhetoric jointly, there are few distinctions one can dissect from their respective visions. In Russian political parlance, multipolarity embodies an optimistic worldview based upon a “just” power distribution among various gravitation poles. While multipolarity is basically about the balance of power in Realpolitik terms, it is mostly about managing inescapable global diversity for a variety of Russian discourses.
Russian scholars adopted the rhetorics and pursued the ideas of civilisational centres predestined to lead the newly forming multipolar structure. What Richard Haas labelled as centres of somewhat meaningful power in nonpolarity, Alexey Drobinin frames as civilisational second and third peripheral belts formed around this core. Additionally, there are “capable loners” – countries that possess above-average serious ambitions within the regional and, in some cases, global agenda, as well as tools for their implementation. However, it is unclear how Russian experts and policymakers view Turko-Azeri cooperation in the Southern Caucasus, a traditional Russian domain, and whether Turkish influence in Russia’s “soft underbelly” can be referred to as a second or even a third civilisational belt given the (frozen) conflicts in Georgia and Nagorno Karabakh, both of which involve Russia’s vital interests.
In Russian discourse, the respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of the individual actors is the most often articulated feature of the emerging multipolar system. Simultaneously, the PRC’s leadership has also adopted this tenet when discussing the future of the international system. However, when discussing non-interference, Chinese leaders mostly draw on nostalgia for the unipolarity when the PRC had a free hand to grow economically and expand its economic might internationally. In contrast, the Russian elite draws on creating Russia’s sphere of influence in its neighbourhood free of Western influence. The Russian leadership emphasises respect for Global South countries and their fair contribution to global governance in the newly-forming system. As a part of these narratives, Russia and the PRC have been successfully pushing the West out of Africa and Asia. However, the romantic visions of a fair international system directly contradict anarchy as the bedrock of international relations. Anarchy is neither fair nor does it draw on equality. The very manifestation of this argument is that Russia can fight its war in Ukraine or try to revise the international system. The systemic power distribution is anarchy-driven. Therefore, it depends on the actors and how much they can develop their power capabilities and affect the structural relations.
The romantic visions of a fair international system directly contradict anarchy as the bedrock of international relations.
Russian romanticisation of multipolarity will go as far as its interests to artificially establish a sphere of influence in its neighbourhood. Although such an artificial buffer directly contradicts the principles of anarchy, power imbalances will occur sooner or later, regardless of international agreements.
The PRC´s rhetoric on multipolarity is more sober. The PRC benefitted from the unipolar system as it grew into its current significance under the auspices of the U.S.-led liberal order. The Western manufacturers’ offshoring allowed the PRC to boost its industrial production while its domestic producers acquired Western know-how. The globalised economy then allowed Chinese firms to become top exporters in their respective industries.
Besides, the PRC’s vision is deeply rooted in its historical and philosophical underpinnings. The “Tianxia” worldview, originating from the 15th-century concept of “all under heaven,” exemplifies the ancient Chinese belief that the world is too vast for any single entity to dominate. Reflecting this, modern China is reluctant to impose its system on other nations, emphasising mutual cooperation and coexistence. In this multipolar framework, the PRC perceives itself not as a mere participant but as a cornerstone advocating for a world wherein regions, including Europe, operate autonomously with respect to U.S. dominance. The PRC’s strategic roadmap indicates concentric growth — initially establishing dominance within Asia, especially East Asia, and subsequently, expanding its influence across Eurasia and beyond. Economic prowess forms a linchpin in the PRC’s strategy, utilising trade relationships to cement its influence across Asia and Eurasia. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aiming to connect with Europe while strategically bypassing U.S.-dominated routes, is a testament to this.
Economic prowess forms a linchpin in the PRC’s strategy, utilising trade relationships to cement its influence across Asia and Eurasia.
Russia’s endorsement of a multipolar world is evident in its recently updated foreign policy. Russia envisions a world not dominated by any single power. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), initially conceived as a counterpart to the EU, underscores Russia’s pivoting focus towards Asia, especially in light of its synergising interests with the PRC’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). In this geopolitical calculus, the Sino-Russian alliance crystallises as a defining element. Although Russia may often be the secondary partner in this alliance, its strategic position in Eurasia lends it significant weight.
Both nations showcase striking strategic similarities in their pursuit of a multipolar world. Economic partnerships are prioritised, reflecting a shared understanding of the enduring influence of trade and economic ties. New regional and global groupings, such as BRICS and SCO, emerge as counterweights to the dominance of traditional Western alliances, proposing alternatives to the current global order. Yet, these groupings are not fully developed institutions, which would be necessary to upend the stability of the forthcoming order and serve as socialisation and crisis management tools vital to stabilise international orders.
Dominance At All Costs
The U.S. views of multipolarity are mostly negative as these are connected to the decline of hegemony and the collapse of Pax Americana. Experts in the U.S. are divided on the matter: one group comprises proponents of preserving the U.S. dominance via foreign policy, while the other includes prominent neorealists who claim that the redistribution of power is a natural process and U.S. hegemony is destined to end sooner or later.
In opposition to the scholars portraying the world as multipolar, Wohlforth and Brooks write:
“The persistence of unipolarity becomes even more evident when one considers that the world is still largely devoid of a force that shaped great-power politics in times of multipolarity and bipolarity, from the beginning of the modern state system through the Cold War: balancing.”
Their argument, however, can be dismissed as one can find traces of balancing in the Indian foreign policy or the Southern Caucasus, which manifests the classic features of multipolarity when multiple powers like Türkiye, Russia, the U.S., the EU, and Iran are balancing each other.
The decline of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Habsburgs or the Soviet Union makes a case for what the literature knows as imperial overstretch or overextension of power. Conventional wisdom holds that, in the lifespan of every great power, the costs of maintaining the vast sphere of influence will eventually exceed the benefits of remaining at the system’s top positions.
The decline of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Habsburgs or the Soviet Union makes a case for what the literature knows as imperial overstretch or overextension of power.
History remembers many hegemons who found themselves entrapped in a web of commitments, fighting too many opponents simultaneously. Hegemons, when overstretched, start encountering their relative decline, and other states’ interests become threats. Then, they can either assign too much value to certain foreign policy issues and overreact, too little and underestimate, or just the right amount to maintain a balance.
Thus, the U.S., the once sole superpower, fought expensive wars in the Middle East, overcommitted from Washington D.C. through Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Asia Pacific while also struggling with domestic issues. Over the past 20 years, the Afghan war alone has cost the U.S. more than USD 2 trillion. That amount accounts for roughly seven per cent of the current U.S. debt, which has grown two-fold to almost USD 30 trillion over the past two decades, equalling 127 % of U.S. GDP. With the PRC’s growing might and a resurgent Russia demanding a revision of the Pax Americana security architecture in post-Soviet countries, the U.S. found itself overstretched on three fronts it could not sustain anymore. Withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan and pivoting to Asia are making a case for U.S. retrenchment, often prescribed as a remedy for overextension of power.
Wright offers a more comprehensive view that draws on retrenchment as a redeployment but addresses the consequences of U.S. withdrawal from the world more than retrenchment. In this regard, retrenchment critics assume the retreat to offshore balancing would likely cause a power vacuum and subsequent struggle for power in regions where the U.S. provides security.
Martin Indyk makes the case against retrenchment, highlighting the unclear stance of the U.S.’ Middle Eastern allies in the recent Ukraine crisis. The reluctance of residents of former U.S. dominions to side against Russia is a product of partial American retreat and a sign of international change that makes world politics much more complex. Critics of retrenchment fear the unclear demarcation of such spheres and Chinese and Russian desires to expand further.
The reluctance of residents of former U.S. dominions to side against Russia is a product of partial American retreat and a sign of international change that makes world politics much more complex.
At the same time, Wright, amongst many, stresses an issue of agency in the case of countries that would bear the fallout of the redistribution of influence. Despite the correct assumptions about denied agency to small states on the periphery, the critics of retrenchment tend to ignore the only constant in the international system – change. Even if one admits that the structure had not shifted and the U.S. has remained an undisputed hegemon, the odds that this reality would remain unchanged are low. Sooner or later, the distribution of power would shift. With it, the spheres of influence of other great powers would form naturally or by force. The West may be able to influence these changes at present, but later, this chance might vanish in the whir of unpredictable events.
American Activists’ Foreign Policy
Proponents of continuous U.S. primacy draw on correct assumptions about the nature of U.S. power and the lack of empirical evidence about the causality between defence spending and American national debt. As of October 2023, the U.S.’ total support to Ukraine reached USD 69.5 billion. Nonetheless, given recent developments, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have asked for an additional USD 100 billion to support Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. However, parts of the U.S. are seemingly ignoring the global context of the dire need for retrenchment. As the robust evidence on the disruptive effects of great power overstretches points out, the major problem is not the debt and military expense. These are just byproducts of an overstretched foreign policy. The primary cause is the lack of ability to contain two or more opponents simultaneously. In 2023, the U.S. is dealing with four regional challenges:
- Russia’s aim to revise the European security architecture, including the war in Ukraine and political warfare on the continent;
- The PRC´s expansion in the Asia Pacific, including escalations around Taiwan and the South China Sea;
- North Korean nuclear threats to the U.S.’ East Asian allies; and
- Iran’s support for anti-Israeli forces in the Middle East. The recent Israel-Hamas conflict is a complication in Israeli-Arab rapprochement and the consequent need for a proactive U.S. approach to the region from where it was trying to partially retreat to focus on more pressing issues.
Against the backdrop of the advocates for the U.S. activist foreign policy arguing that the U.S. is still powerful enough to maintain its globally overstretched commitments, Waterman and Stokes argue otherwise:
“ In spite of the scope of the problem associated with increases in Chinese military capability, relative decline exerts its most profound influences at levels of analysis that are more flexible and adaptable to change than those of (the U.S.) national military strategy or grand strategy.“
By contrast, in proposing offshore balancing, Posen argues that U.S. allies can contain Russia and the PRC, while the U.S. waits over the horizon. A different angle is offered by Heisbourg, who advocates for NATO 4.0, which would jointly focus on the PRC and Russia’s containment along with forming a crisis management body within the alliance. His proposal might solve the long-term issue of the U.S. remaining as the decisive force in containing China and Russia via NATO.
Many retrenchment proponents build their arguments on cutting defence spending and restraining foreign policy via offshore balancing. In their response to these arguments, Norrof and Wohlforth demonstrate that public debt is not as influenced by enormous military spending. Hence, the rentrenchers camp is not correct in their arguments. In contrast, one might argue that internal retrenchment is viable only when great power finds itself in decline with respect to one opponent. However, when a group of challengers appear, redeployment and redistribution will likely be the best option from a strategic standpoint.
Many retrenchment proponents build their arguments on cutting defence spending and restraining foreign policy via offshore balancing.
Moreover, muscle-flexing strategies are likely to result in mirroring responses, which is the lesson of the Caribbean Crisis, when Soviet build-ups were met with doubling escalations, and the Vietnam War, when the Vietnamese mirrored the U.S.’ so-called signal-sending strategy instead of deterrence, resulting in war. Recognition of the profound structural changes, and their subsequent incorporation into the U.S.’ grand strategy, might result in more efficient use of power preponderance. At the same time, the current course seems biased by the perception of American invincibility and the fears of losing credibility in the eyes of allies and peer competitors. These events have set the U.S. on the spiralling course of strategic overstretch that has often resulted in the collapse of major powers.
Traditionally, the EU reacts to external stimuli rather slower than its member states. This is because of a lack of consensus on common defence and foreign policies. When dealing with structural shifts, the EU faces a similar problem as the U.S. — merely admitting the power shifts takes much effort as it directly concerns the relative decline of the West. Yet, in 2023, multiple European leaders admitted that the international system is facing a new reality.
The association of multipolarity with potential threats might explain Europe’s newfound interest in reevaluating its foreign and security policy balance. However, it is imperative to challenge this reflexive association of multipolarity with instability. After all, Europe’s experiences during other power configurations were not always favourable. The EU was sandwiched between superpowers during the Cold War and often found itself at odds with the U.S. on issues of multilateralism in the post-Cold War era. Given this history, it’s fair to question whether a more diffused power system might offer more opportunities for Europe.
At its core, multipolarity signifies power distribution among multiple major actors. This division is not solely based on geographic or ideological factors. Still, it assumes these power poles interact frequently, especially in the 21st century, when contemporary technology enables instant and worldwide information transmission. This configuration introduces a plurality of interests and enhances interaction capacity among major powers. Yet, attributing inherent properties to multipolar systems requires caution, especially concerning their stability.
Multipolarity signifies power distribution among multiple major actors. This division is not solely based on geographic or ideological factors.
EU leaders, such as security and foreign affairs chief Josep Borrel or EC President Ursula von der Leyen, are becoming increasingly vocal about forming a multipolar international system. However, in the age of global powers, individual EU powers, such as Germany or France, will be dwarfed by the U.S., the PRC, or India. Therefore, it is unlikely that European actors would play any pivotal role in global multipolarity unless the EU emerges as a unified block on the global stage.
Is There a Place for a European Values-Based Foreign Policy?
The EU has traditionally advocated for a values-driven foreign policy. Embracing its liberal foundations, it has been a vocal champion of ‘normative power,’ using its influence to externalise tenets like democracy, good governance, and the rule of law. These values form the core of the EU’s international identity and greatly influence its relations with other global actors. However, as the world drifts towards a multipolar structure characterised by the presence of influential non-liberal powers, the EU’s consistent push for its liberal values might face stronger headwinds.
The ascent of a multipolar world presents a unique challenge. It underscores the necessity for societal norms to bridge the gaps between varying worldviews and establish an order marked by peaceful coexistence. This shift towards a more pluralistic approach signals a potential evolution from substantive values to societal norms, providing a framework that promotes harmony amongst states with disparate ideologies.
While the EU’s influence is substantial, it is not without its limitations. Issues of security, defence, and the divergence of interests among member states often hamstring the bloc’s efforts.. Yet, the EU’s significant market and regulatory power might allow it to exert considerable influence beyond its territorial confines. Moreover, the EU’s societal values, which underscore humanity and trust, can be potent tools in international diplomacy, even if they sometimes clash with the foreign policies of its member states.
Nevertheless, European lawmakers are having a difficult time adapting to the new reality. Apart from the public statements and strategic documents, the actual substance of the EU’s grand strategy is largely absent. The war in Ukraine has shown critical gaps in the EU’s military-industrial production capacities and a lack of preparedness for mid- to long-term conflicts. While suffering unprecedented international sanctions, Russia has overcome the initial shocks for its industrial base and resupplied its ammunition, rockets and drones to the extent that it is reaching parity, if not superiority (in artillery), with Ukraine’s NATO-supplied army. This dynamic is accompanied by an economic slowdown, raging inflation and an exodus of heavy industries due to the energy prices crisis.
Apart from the public statements and strategic documents, the actual substance of the EU’s grand strategy is largely absent.
Unlike the U.S. and Russia, the EU is seemingly reluctant to accept the laws of anarchic international relations. This likely stems from the very fundamental reason for the EU’s existence. Thus, the EU is an institution that defies the laws of anarchy. The current absence of strategic thinking is likely embedded in the EU’s origins as it was founded under a hegemon’s supervision, restricting power imbalances from reappearing on the European continent. Although global security challenges can potentially foster leadership and strategic thinking, the current situation is rather highlighting the EU’s deadly external dependencies on strategic commodities and security.
The system is encountering two main dynamics impacting the grand strategies of major powers. The first dynamic is a well-known structural phenomenon called redistribution of power. This phenomenon is well described and observed since ancient times, and the first recorded instability due to the redistribution of power is the so-called Thucydides trap: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
The shifting dynamics of international power structures have long been a topic of interest for scholars of international relations. Throughout history, the transition of power from dominant states to rising challengers has often led to significant instability and, in some cases, armed conflict. A prominent observation of this phenomenon can be traced back to the above-mentioned Thucydides, who noted Sparta’s preventive war against the rising power of Athens. This ancient observation is a foundation for numerous studies arguing for the inherent instability during such transitional periods in global relations. Modern parallels can be drawn with the evolving dynamics between the U.S. and the PRC, reminiscent of ancient Athens and Sparta’.
At the heart of the debate is the notion of who initiates conflict during power shifts. Contrary to Thucydides’s view, which argued that dominant Sparta preemptively attacked a rising Athens, theories like power transition and hegemonic stability suggest that the rising power is more likely to initiate conflict. . Key triggers for such a confrontation include the rising power’s dissatisfaction with the status quo and a perceived window of opportunity. While both schools of thought agree on the stabilising influence of a dominant hegemon, they differ in their perceptions of the hegemon’s role. Hegemonic stability theorists believe the hegemon distributes public goods, while power transition theorists view the hegemon as primarily self-interested.
Copeland’s theory of dynamic differentials adds a further layer of complexity. He argues that declining states, especially those experiencing rapid economic downturns, are more likely to instigate major wars or crises. This idea could be seen in the actions of contemporary Russia in the post-Soviet era.
Whether one subscribes to the power transition theory or the Thucydides Trap, the consensus is that shifts in global power structures breed instability. Factors such as power dynamics, temptations for preventive war, and dissatisfaction with the status quo invariably lead to heightened interstate competition and a potential descent into a zero-sum game.
Whether one subscribes to the power transition theory or the Thucydides Trap, the consensus is that shifts in global power structures breed instability.
The second dynamic is related to major actors’ misperceptions and cognitive biases. Varying structural perceptions of great powers lead them to adopt biased grand strategies, often too ambitious and not corresponding with the actual power potential to the desired goals. Despite a vast body of research pointing to the dangers of power redistributions, as established actors are often on a collision course with the rising ones, there is a lack of research on the causes of instabilities embedded in faulty grand strategies due to the structural misperceptions of major actors.
This is despite the literature on grand strategies, retrenchment and great power conflicts stressing the importance of actors’ perceptions of the external stimuli or their own power potential. Be it the depth of one’s decline or acknowledgement of the structural shifts, the perceptions, and subsequent cognitive assessment, of one’s positions can prevent major instabilities. The late 19th-century British accommodation of an unprecedently growing U.S. offers a great deal of knowledge about managing relative decline via retrenchment. The Empire acknowledged the depth of its decline and incapability to compete with the U.S. on the necessary scale that would potentially result in an all-out major war. At the bottom of the British net assessment was a recognition of the structural shifts and adoption of an adequate strategy with the survival of the Empire in mind.
Thus, the evidence gathered in this research suggests a three-fold problem as follows:
- The contemporary international system does not manifest sober cognitions as all major actors view the structure based on different premises;
- Major actors fail to correctly assess and implement their power capabilities as they tend to underestimate their peer competitors (e.g., the collective West considers Russia a declining power and vice-versa) or overestimate their power capabilities (e.g., Russia’s aims to revise the global order); and
- The grand strategies of Western actors take their survival for granted. In particular, the EU’s strategic choices do not seem to reflect the urgency of recent structural shifts.
Accordingly, four clear manifestations of cognitive biases can be outlined:
- Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine was based on the premise that the West was in a deep decline;
- The U.S. foreign policy overstretch is based on the bias of salvaging its primacy;
- The EU’s decreasing global significance is based on the bias of overrating its power; and
- All major actors underestimate their peer competitors and, therefore, apply strategies that can potentially lead to conflicts or overextension of power in the mid- to long-term.
The contemporary great power competition manifests signs of the correlation between redistribution of power, cognitive bias, and faulty strategic decision-making. The current grand strategies of major powers are contradictory and often conflictual based on varying cognition of the systemic configuration. Contrary to Wohlforth and Brooks’ claims, all major powers are balancing policies, if not practically, at least rhetorically. The U.S. is trying to counterbalance the PRC’s growth and contain Russia to limit the challenge to the U.S.-led liberal order. By contrast, Russia and the PRC are trying to dismantle Pax Americana to increase their influence. Finally, while the EU member states admit the profound changes in the structure, the bloc struggles with accepting the new reality while lacking any policies that would indicate it’s preparedness to defend its place as a global actor.
Nevertheless, while we are witnessing reactions to the newly-formed structure, the cognitive bias embedded in varying perceptions of the structural configuration is a major peril. As evidenced by the grand strategic choices of individual actors, at least four great powers have contradictory views of the international system, and they apply conflictual strategies, resulting in friction.
Jozef Hrabina is a geopolitical risk consultant and founder of GeopoLytics. With a background in academia and the commercial sector as it relates to international relations, his research and work deal with the interplay between geopolitics, geoeconomics, and trade, and how they impact strategic security and great power relations in the 21st century. He also analyses the stability of multipolar systems, particularly in Eurasia. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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