The fate of the unipolar world

When my friends and I welcomed the new decade alongside the intermittent crashing of waves on the delectable shores of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, we took a moment to predict what the 2020s would herald for our own lives and the potential events that might shape up the world in the years immediately ahead. Besides a few very predictable hits along the lines of “graduating” and “running it back the following New Year’s Eve,” most of our predictions fell flat and are probably resoundingly laughable at this point in time. Surprisingly enough, the only major one we managed to hit on the nail was the high possibility that we’d finish college in the midst of a recession, or at the very least teetering close to one. 

Predicting the world to come is no easy task and no one can do so with total absolute certainty, but a recurring theme regarding the future seems to arise more frequently as the nature of the global world order breaks the mold cast by the circumstances of the end of the Cold War: the end of the “unipolar world.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in the final days of 1991, the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. The bipolarity that had defined the international stage for nearly five decades gave way to American unipolarity. Thanks to the country’s vast network of international alliances and bilateral partnerships, the United States found itself in a position of primacy, where the defense of her interests could go virtually unchallenged. It was the perfect storm for the United States to cement herself as the most powerful country in the world, as a mass transition towards democracy in the developing world returned governments that were much more akin to allying themselves with Uncle Sam and checking as many items off America’s wishlist as they could: trade liberalization, privatization, free and fair elections and easier paths for foreign direct investment.

Up until this year, I had never heard of this concept, but became invested in it after it became one of the President of Russia’s favorite topics to spew vitriol against since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War back in February. Throughout many of his speeches, especially those directly related to the ongoing war, President Putin has repeatedly stated his wishes for the world to do away with American unipolarity. Back in August, he asserted that the current unipolar model, which he considers obsolete, will be superseded by a new world order. Last week, he blasted the West, saying it was doomed and promised “a liberation anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony.” Beyond the propagandistic value of his statements, made to assuage domestic concerns regarding Russia’s underperforming military, does Putin make a valid point regarding receding American influence? 

To an extent, America’s standing on the world stage is not the same as it was in the recent past. Russia’s desire to hold former Soviet republics in a tight clutch, combined with China’s aggressive push to extend its influence into the developing world through both hard and soft power definitely weakens unipolarity, as it creates additional bands of nations that seek to act on a different set of interests than Washington’s. All that is predictable, as Russia and China have never been on the best of terms with the United States. However, what about the rest of the world, where the United States sways sizable influence? As other countries grow and consolidate their power, they naturally become more confident in moving forward as they see fit. This means the United States has to put more effort in maintaining its friends worldwide.

Within Latin America alone, countries beyond those perennially conflicted with the United States are now more willing to buck the American line. Mexico, which had been a relatively loyal companion to the United States in its preceding four administrations, now takes a significantly more independent path under President Lopez Obrador, often finding itself at odds with the approach Washington wished it took. For instance, since taking office in 2018, his government has pursued several economic and drug policies that directly counter American interests. The same can be said of other Latin American governments like Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru, which have shown a higher willingness to go their own way. The recent election of left of center administrations that highly pride their sovereignty will definitely test the United States’ ability to retain good relations with a part of the world that has remained within her sphere of influence for multiple decades now.

A world away, the United States also has to face challenges with its European and Asian allies, as the election of more nationalistic governments in Europe creates uncomfortable tensions and leaders like newly elected Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. attempt to pull off a balancing act and draw closer to both Beijing and Washington. Although the United States has a long list of domestic concerns that need to be urgently addressed, it cannot let foreign policy fade into a secondary concern. It is important that the sovereignty of nations be respected, but the multipolar world Russia so eagerly awaits is one where liberal democracies lie on one end, and authoritarian regimes coalesce around the others. The world is shifting and the United States needs to learn to shift with it, lest President Putin’s wish be granted. Now, more than ever, the United States needs to find ways to remain at the forefront of the promotion of values considered indispensable to a proper society like freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It may be time for the United States to return to the drawing board and rethink the way it guarantees its place in the world, but it cannot by virtue of stronger rivals abandon one of its raisons d’être. The circumstances may change, as change is the only constant in life, but for the United States to accept a fate prescribed by its adversaries and quietly shepherd itself into a managed decline would be the ultimate act of betrayal to the values hundreds of millions hold close to heart, and enable authoritarianism to flourish unchecked.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.


Chinese department celebrates Mid-Autumn Festival

The Chinese department and the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, in the LaFortune ballroom Sunday, Sept. 26. The celebration featured student performances, traditional decorations and Chinese food. 

The Mid-Autumn Festival, Zhongqiu Jie (中秋节) in Chinese, is one of China’s biggest and most important festivals. The festival is a celebration including family reunions, mooncakes, parades and lanterns. 

The Chinese department’s annual festival is important for students studying Chinese, according to professor Yongping Zhu.

He said the purpose of the event is “to allow our students who study Chinese to know Chinese culture by learning Chinese dance and [performing songs].”

According to assistant teaching professor and event coordinator Congcong Ma, the festival celebrates the harvest season and usually falls on Sept. 15. However, she explained that the date of the celebration is based on the lunar calendar, so the exact date varies from year to year. 

“We have a very full bright moon on that day and that represents the family reunion. It’s a good chance to bring all of our students together, to have the opportunity to meet people from different [grade] levels, like a family reunion,” Ma said.

Zhu also described the family-oriented celebration. He said on the day of the festival, the moon is rounded and this is interpreted as a metaphor for family members coming together. 

Junior Linh Oliver said the festival is based on the myth of the Moon Goddess Chang’e (嫦娥). 

“The moon is said to symbolize a lot of things that are crucial in Chinese culture: family and togetherness, harmony, longevity and prosperity,” Oliver said. “Even in modern times, this holiday serves as a time for reflection, recentering of self and spending quality time with those you hold dear.”

Each level Chinese class prepared a performance for the event. First, second and third-year students performed in larger groups while fourth-year students had individual performances, according to Oliver.

“There were a lot of super talented solo performers who got to showcase their passions, and then there were group performances from all the different classes,” Oliver said.

After the performances, students and families were invited to enjoy Chinese food and mooncakes. 

The event was sponsored by the department of east Asian languages & cultures, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian studies and the center for the study of languages & cultures. 

The Chinese department also hosts an annual celebration in February to mark the 15 days of Chinese New Year. 

Contact Caroline at


In defense of the Grand Empress Dowager

When one thinks of powerful and influential women in the second half of the 19th century, it would not be surprising for the list to come up rather short, as the circumstances most women around the world found themselves in prevented them from foraying into society beyond a limited set of roles. Over the past week, I asked some of my friends who they thought could potentially top out a list of the century’s most influential women. Beyond “I have no idea” and “Why are you asking me this?” the only name which consistently came about was that of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the United Kingdom and its vast global empire for over six decades. If she can manage to remain a household name well into the 21st century and have an era named after her, then she probably is without a doubt not only the most important woman from the 19th century but also one of the greatest figures to have lived back then, irrespective of gender. However, there is another, who in my opinion beats out Queen Victoria, consigned to obscurity in the West and maligned by most in the East. 

Cixi, Grand Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty, was born to a Manchu family in Beijing in 1835. When she was only 16 years old, she was selected to enter the Forbidden City as one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s many consorts. In an impressive stroke of luck, she was one of the chosen few among over 60 candidates sent in from all over the Empire! Although she had a low rank within the complex structure of the Emperor’s harem, she secured her position by giving birth to Zaichun, the Emperor’s first and only son. In addition, her ability to read and write Chinese proved advantageous to her, as she was able to assist the Emperor in exercising his duties, giving her a thorough education regarding the art of governing. When Western invaders during the Second Opium War invaded and razed through Beijing, burning down the cherished Old Summer Palace, the Imperial Court fled northwards to avoid the dangers brought about by the invaders. Upon the Emperor’s death a few months later, Cixi’s five-year-old son was enthroned as the Tongzhi Emperor, with Cixi and Empress Dowager Cian, the Emperor’s official wife, serving as co-regents. 

Although tradition dictated women were strictly forbidden from meddling in politics, Cixi skillfully used her wit and cleverness to assert herself as the power behind the throne. Since the new Emperor was only a child, whoever controlled the regency would wield true power in China until the Son of Heaven came of age. Sensing the danger of having highly reactionary elements serve as the new Emperor’s minister regents as encroaching Western powers sought to continue to interfere with China, Cixi engineered a coup against the board of regents whom the deceased Xianfeng Emperor had entrusted to run political affairs throughout his successor’s childhood. After clearing the board and securing her position as the official regent, Cixi effectively controlled China for over five decades until her passing in 1908. 

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, Nationalists and Communists alike derided Cixi’s memory, framing her as an inefficient and corrupt despot ultimately responsible for China’s decline throughout the nineteenth century. Traditional historians in China have always been prejudiced against powerful women within court affairs, and the fact her legacy has been mostly defined by those deeply opposed to Imperial rule in China and one-sided accounts fed by ignorant Western contemporaries prevents one from acquiring a clearer understanding of who Cixi truly was, and her contributions to launching modern China. 

Over the summer I had the opportunity to read two books on Cixi. The first, “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China,” by Jung Chang, is a 2013 biography that dives deeply into the inner workings of the Qing court of the time and does a lot to explain Cixi’s contributions to modernizing the almost medieval China of the time. Suppressing foot binding, cleaning up the bureaucracy, improving tax collection, crushing the Taiping rebellion and launching the Tongzhi restoration are just some of her deeds. Without Cixi’s position as regent, many historians agree Imperial China would have succumbed to the ash heap of history a lot earlier than 1912. Chang wrote this biography after going through court records, correspondence and diaries, which revealed a much more intimate picture of Cixi’s role in Chinese history. The second book, “With the Empress Dowager,” by Katharine Carl — an American artist invited to paint Cixi’s portrait and live within the Imperial Court in the early 1900s — does a lot to demystify Cixi’s enigmatic persona and bring down the perception of a power-crazed despot which still lingers to this day. 

As history is written by the victors, the modern understanding of Cixi has been distorted by relying on those who always had a deep contempt for her and the regime she symbolized. However, in defense of the Grand Empress Dowager, she presents the perfect example as to why contentious figures ought to be thoroughly analyzed and reviewed to have a more complete understanding of their role in history. Certainly, she was no saint worthy of canonization, but she certainly also was not the vicious “she dragon,” which decades of history built upon palace gossip, revolutionary vitriol and Western xenophobia made her up to be. 

To bring things back to the question of who the most important woman of the 19th century was, I close with a quote by Cixi herself: “Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria . . . still I don’t think her life is half as interesting and eventful as mine. Now look at me, I have 400 million people all dependent on my judgment.” That ought to settle any contest.

I invite you all to learn more about Cixi, whose storied life kept me wonderfully entertained throughout 75 nights while living out in Arkansas for the summer.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in Finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes, and karaoke. You can reach him at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.