To the growing spate of books on rising powers and the future of the international order we can add Amitav Acharya’s The End of the American World Order. No other issue has garnered such voluminous interest over the recent in popular and academic literatures as the one of rising powers. What are they? What do they want? What does their rise portend for the global order and the United States? Acharya bravely takes a stab at all these questions (plus more) and comes out of the exercise not with flying colours but having substantively added value to the overarching discourse and discussions that many scholars have tripped up on.
The book is structured in five parts – the first section describes the main argument of the book: in that we need not refer to the extant geopolitical conjuncture as a multipolar order but as a multiplex order. Unlike multipolar orders that are characterised by several rising powers whose material capabilities are on the ascent, multiplex world or multiplex order is distinguished by different producers and actors (i.e. nations) that are staging their own shows in conjunction with other states. Unlike the unipolar world that ostensibly shows only one ‘movie’ (that of liberal internationalism) a multiplex order shows several ones. Here, the ‘making and management of the world is more diversified and decentralised with the involvement of emerging powers, states, global and regional bodies, and transnational non-state actors.’ What Acharya desires to depict is a fluid, polycentric world that is driven by multiple and cross-cutting forces that impinge on nations in unique ways. Convergence is meaningless to talk about. Despite the multiplicity of shows and actors, the underpinning edifice is, however, one and one that is shared by all actors – American power undergirds and sustains this infrastructure. Acharya’s visualisation is novel and rather refreshing. But it glosses over one critical element – other powers or actors maybe staging their own shows within the structure but they are highly dependent on the main show (i.e. US which Acharya admits) that underwrites the structure but they are also borrowing large parts of the main show in Acharya’s lexicon and still opt to exist in the main theatre as a cog and choose to exit and re-enter when it suits them best. Acharya’s argument also clearly distinguishes between the decline of the United States and the decline of the American world order. Rightfully, he points that the latter which is happening cannot be equated with the former, which other pundits and commentators have chosen to do.
The second and third chapters focus on the United States and its fleeting unipolar moment. The decline of the AWO (American world order), Acharya argues, stems from not a misguided sense of isolationism but militant ‘adventurism’ captured by George Bush’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the attendant costs and implications to America’s power. By wading through the arguments, Acharya punctures the notion that unipolarity, as come claim, leads to stability and an international order that functions effectively. Disorder emanates out of reckless policies that has diminished the differences between the United States and other rising powers, who two decades ago paled in comparison when it came to hard and soft power.
Next, Acharya goes to effectively elucidate the myths of liberal hegemony or those that advocate for a rules-based international order underpinned by American power (a la Ikenberry). Superbly, Acharya knocks down the purported merits of the liberal international order that US has stewarded since the end of the war. To be clear, the order did not include all countries even after it was established. Several critical countries – China, India, Soviet Bloc, parts of the Middle East and Southeast Asia were not constituent elements of the order. And all these countries, some more than others, worked to resist the edicts of the order that was instituted without the consent of the many. It was more coercive that consent based and it did not benefit many of these reluctant states for a long time. Critically, the American stamp or imprint that is widely projected wilfully ignores the agency and leadership of several emerging powers like India and other Latin American countries who worked to advance and solidify important norms and institutions in the 1940s and 50s. It was not an all-American affair as many Americans like to believe.
The next chapter considers rising powers in some depth. Quite astutely, Acharya captures the maelstrom surrounding the rising power lexicon. There is great obfuscation surrounding rising power conceptions, very existence and their interests and intentions. Conceptual clarification is greatly lacking. As Acharya argues, there is a clear and conspicuous ‘accounting gap’ between the aspirations and capabilities of these emerging powers and the benefits and burdens they impose on the existing order. Empirically, there is not much work on measuring the intentions, perceptions and capacities of rising powers as they engage with the order. These variables could tilt their behaviour – either drive them to work with international institutions or outside them or a strategy that features both as per the issue. Despite their vaunted status in the current architecture, these powers are not in a state to assume any sort of leadership positions or drive collective action coalitions on problems that emerge. And the forums where emerging powers have been, at least on the face of it, a leading presence like the G-20 has not amounted for much. The wide grouping is now in a flailing state and without a raison d’être to guide its path in the choppy waters of international politics. Should it be a crisis manager or function more like a convenor? What issues should it cover going ahead? These are questions that will, no doubt, recur as emerging powers gain more stake within the international order.
What does the arguable end of the AWO signify? What sort of governance is required to manage troubling collective actions that no nation can address alone? And how should emerging and emerged nations manage their rather tenuous and thin institutional accord? Acharya calls for greater emphasis on regional solutions. Now there are more regional orders and projects than ever before. These vehicles are tackling emergent issues as they arise. For instance, the Arctic Council that was pieced together to manage the growing resource issues in that part of the world. Other examples include the SCO and OSCE which are burgeoning security frameworks. Acharya places his faith on these projects given the maturation of several regional projects and growing number of regional economic agreements that dot the international landscape. Unlike the concert type of governance model, the regional model, in his words, holds more promise. If these regional orders are better linked and connected to international institutions like UN and UNSC, their relative writ could strengthen.
Despite his enthusiasm, however, a regionalised world is unlikely to take over the responsibilities of international governance anytime soon. As Acharya carefully points out, some emerging powers find regionalisms and regional responsibilities a burden and not a boon. India and Indonesia have rather tepid connections with their regional counterparts and less inclined to divest considerable power and authority on SAARC and ASEAN to play a central role in regional affairs. Neither will South Africa, China or Russia for that matter. Acharya also does not consider the prospect of a G-2 that was much talked about sometime ago. Notwithstanding the differences between the US and China, there currently exists around 50 distinct bilateral dialogues between both nations on all public policy matters. Of late, we have also see renewed efforts and willingness from Washington and Beijing to come together and tackle climate change through joint measures. If these functional mechanisms deepen, they could present a viable means of addressing global problems despite the unease it will stir up in world capitals. What you might also see more of going ahead is organised anarchy characterised by a plethora of groupings and frameworks (bilateral, multilateral, mini lateral, plurilateral, public-private, south-south) uniting state, non-state, public and private actors working to address collective action problems. And that will require much more careful and judicious mapping if we are to better grapple with what will come after the American world order. It might not be multipolar or multiplex but multi-centric.