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Published in Journal of Global Security Studies, 2(1) 2017: 2-17.
The literature on the current global order is confused over its polarity. Depictions of a current multipolarity are found alongside discussions of the longevity of US-led unipolarity, while others point to the early stages of US–Sino-dominated bipolarity. These competing visions of the interstate order sit uneasily within the existing literature that both defines polarity in terms of the distribution of material capabilities and makes system-level predictions based on the assumption that all actors perceive polarity objectively. This article outlines the need for a more analytically eclectic understanding of polarity. Exploring the possibilities of a deeper engagement between the realist literature on structural power and the constructivist literature on perception, agency, and performativity, it puts forward a redefinition of polarity in which perceptions of status replace a focus on the distribution of capabilities. An analysis of the Cold War period—normally depicted as a clear case of unbroken bipolarity—demonstrates the usefulness of this reconceptualization.