Unipolar, bipolar and multipolar

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

JACQUES "CHIRAC had stopped using the expression `multipolar world'," Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times wrote from Paris, reporting that some senior French officials said "he did not want to unnecessarily antagonise the Bush administration, which regards the expression as a rhetorical red flag because it seemed to envision a power to oppose rather than support America".

Two weeks later, Vice-President Dick Cheney used the expression along with its opposite to oppose and fuzz up both: "Our choice is not between a unipolar world and a multipolar world. Our choice is for a just, free and democratic world." The Associated Press' Deb Riechmann explained that "unipolar has become code for overwhelming U.S. power".

The week after that, President Chirac of France told Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post that multipolar was not a code word for challenging U.S. power. Instead, "we will see a number of important powers assert themselves. China, India, Europe, South America are examples. This leads to what I call a multipolar world".

Hold on; there appears to be some confusion at very high levels about polarity and its prefixes. By defining the differences, perhaps we can bring about a rapprochement, or at least a rhetorical detente, before great nations freeze into polarisation.

A pole, from the Greek polos, "axis", is "one of two ends of an axis going through a sphere". In other words, when you stick an axis through the middle of a ball, the places where it goes in and comes out are that round object's poles. To describe those diametrically opposite regions, you need an adjective: polar. Because those arctic places on the sphere rotating on its axis called Earth are pretty cold, we call Gus, the furry star of New York's Central Park Zoo who comes from that habitat, a polar bear.

On the theory that polar regions are directly opposite - "poles apart" - physicists used the metaphor to describe the total separation of positive and negative charge in chemical or atomic systems, which is why you see those plus and minus signs on either end of your batteries. Then political scientists, with a need for a metaphor to dramatise the process by which views diverged, latched on to this Manichaean metaphor. To frown upon the deliberate stirring of the pot of controversy, they came up with the verb "to polarise" - to encourage a clash of extreme views.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, observing disputations of heavy thinkers, in 1810 wrote about "philosophy being necessarily bipolar". Psychiatrists in our time, traumatised by the negative "maniacal" connotations attached to "manic depression", latched on to Coleridge's word and came up with "bipolar disorder" to describe the abnormal mood swings from euphoria to depression in their patients.

Geopoliticians, already familiar with polarisation, were attracted to such a scientific-sounding word because it could be used to describe opposing political or military power centres. In 1966, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a lecture at Lehigh University, said that where we once had "bipolar nuclear confrontation" against a single enemy, the United States now faced smaller wars of liberation that led to a "multipolar power relationship".

Two years later, a little-known strategist working for Nelson Rockefeller picked it up: "The most profound challenge to American policy will be philosophical," Henry Kissinger wrote, "to develop some concept of order in a world which is bipolar militarily but multipolar politically."

This departed from the word's metaphoric base. An axis has two ends - no more, no fewer - and so polar can refer to one end and bipolar to two ends, like a magnet or a couple of superpowers. But since the prefix multi- means "more than two", a multiple prefix was tacked on the stem word that didn't deserve that treatment.

The metaphoric mangling didn't end there. Somebody felt that polar could be treated like lateral, which means "on the side"; hence unilateral, "one-sided", bilateral, "two-sided", and multilateral, "many-sided".

In diplolingo, bilateral is a neutral word meaning "between two sides", but multilateral carries a connotation of "harmonious, cooperative" and unilateral a connotation of "arrogant, bullying, self-centered". On that analogy, multipolar means "power-diffused", bipolar means "competition between two powers" and - here we go - unipolar, like unilateral, refers to a policy "unconcerned with the rights or feelings of others". That explains the rise of unipolar, a pole with only one end, as impossible in logic as multipolar.

When meaning is flouted by the powers that be, what's a poor semanticist to do? I deal with the hand that common elitist usage deals and not the hand that politicians or strict etymologists insist I play. Today's meaning of bipolar is "characterised by two-power confrontation, as in the Cold War". Multipolar, its pivotal pole jerked around into an asterisk, means "a world of many powers with not one dominant and no clear leadership". And unipolar, the big stick that never ends - rightly rejected by Cheney and smoothly abandoned by Chirac - means "who does that self-righteous, moralising big shot think he is, anyway?"

ALL I wrote, in an aside about the origin of the sense of drag meaning "men wearing women's costumes", was that NASCAR was "drawing millions to drag strips". Not one peep out of a drag queen, but hundreds of e-mail messages from irate drag-car racing fans.

Last week, the Daytona 500 took place, a race organised by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Cars from dealer stock drove in circles for 500 miles as millions of fans (including "NASCAR dads", a phrase that replaced "soccer moms") watched in fascination.

Come the Labour Day weekend, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) will conduct its annual world series of drag racing. Vehicles specially built for speed - "hot rods", not stock cars - roar down a quarter-mile strip of road. The NHRA was founded in 1951, its spokesman writes, "to encourage kids to race legally on drag strips instead of illegally on public streets". All its 80,000 stock-scornful members have my best wishes, along with a suggestion that the organisation change its name so that its initials, like NASCAR's, form a memorable acronym.

New York Times Service
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