Bruce Jones – Still Ours to Lead

Bruce Jones – Still Ours to Lead

Perhaps the most rankling aspect of Bruce Jones’s new book on global governance is the title. Still Ours to Lead is a title that smacks of ignorance and parochialism reflective of the broader impulse ingrained in Washington of American leadership writ large. The book examines the current multipolar international order, the range of public goods problems that exist, the diversity of newer rising powers that are involved in addressing them and the state of the dominant power (U.S.) and its ability to lead coalitions to address those emergent challenges. Jones argues that in this multipolar era, the only state capable of mounting and mobilising the effort to address large, systemic, sometimes wicked and globally salient problems is the United States. The capacity of the US in identifying problems, assessing their implications and building coalitions to address them is unparalleled and a role that no other state can fill. To make the case for sustained American leadership, Jones recounts how a series of challenges like climate change, conflict resolution, maritime security are being tackled in the world. He also looks at US’s challengers, the rising powers and their role in the system. Like others, he argues that these powers have an incentive to cooperate and an impulse to compete as they ascend up the order. Also, as a bloc, these countries have little common interests despite their propensity to increasingly band together in various parts of the world on an annual basis. China, India and Brazil get top billing amongst these powers. 

One of the book’s pluses is the exploration of how some key public goods challenges are being tackled by all these powers, major and emerging. For instance, Jones details how piracy is being tackled off the Gulf of Aden by a coalition of several powers under the leadership of the US. Jones is also one of the first to brief us on the shifting situation in the Arctic and how various powers are positioning themselves to cash in on the oil reserves. However, the book fails from providing a complete conceptualisation of the international order. In Jones’ book and world, a state-centric international order pervades. Nowhere to be seen are international organisations that work to manage several key global challenges with member states in tow. Also missing are other institutional vehicles and non-state actors that are now playing an important role in managing global problems. This is not just a plain oversight. We cannot grasp the management of ebola as the virus raged without considering the role of the Gates Foundation or private pharmaceutical companies that played in controlling the spread through their drugs. We can make similar cases across the global governance landscape of other actors that are making their mark in areas like climate, food and energy security. Moreover, and this might be the most problematic part of the book – Jones fails to adequately question whether American leadership is an unalloyed good. As we have seen, this is not the case in many issues, principally those concerning war and intervention. If anything, American leadership has demonstrated that it has the potential to cause havoc as much as it can supply leadership. It is another matter if other countries do not step to provide leadership, which they invariably do not. But resting the duty and responsibility on the US, without challenge, can be dangerous. To better grapple with the challenges and issues going forward, we need to consider each case separately, look at the range of countries that have a stake or interest and work to craft coalitions or groups willing to address the issue. The politics of the moment should trump the politics of the past in making that judgment. 

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No One’s World – Charles Kupchan

The recent signing of a spate of climate agreements between China and the United States have reignited debates on the return of the ‘G-2’ – a putative partnership between the two most important countries on earth to collaborate and tackle pressing collective action problems that confront humanity. Ideas about a G-2, however, was preceded by Ian Bremmer’s claim that we live a G-Zero world where no major power or the hegemon has the power nor capability to singularly address major global problems. In a G-0 world, anarchy reigns. Dovetailing with this idea comes Charles Kupchan’s recent book No One’s World which aims to advance a similar argument – that the international order is currently in and will be in a state of institutionalised anarchy where multiple powers who hold multiple and distinct views on international politics and governance will vie with each other for supremacy and leadership. In other words, the world as we know it characterised by American primacy and leadership has given way to a world where America is one amongst the major powers or nations hoping to effect change in international politics. Kupchan makes this argument by parsing through centuries of history, charting how the West ascended to its place at the top and remained there fora long while before being buffeted by several crises that also precipitated the rise of a slew of emerging powers.

After that, Kupchan presents the rise of the rest, contextualising how they ascended and importantly, giving due attention to their differential visions of the world and politics and how that will only widen cleavages between major powers in the world today. The key argument here is the notion that contrary to what many liberal internationalists claim – a normative chasm has emerged between major powers on critical matters of politics and governance that cannot be easily reconciled through commerce and international cooperation. What ensues is a power struggle within the order between major powers. To allay the potential and expectedly pernicious costs of this competition, Kupchan calls for greater humility and understanding from Europe and the United States, impelling them to work together to create a workable accord such that a more amenable future can be charted out for global peace and prosperity. Unlike other scholars, Kupchan also details the malaise that has afflicted the west over the past decade and the resultant loss of economic and geopolitical influence. Paralleling this waning is the rise of rest that Kupchan breaks down into different categories – Autocrats (Communal or China, Paternal or Russia and Tribal or the Emiratis), Theocrats that fuse religion and statecraft (Middle Eastern Countries), Strongmen (African leaders), Populists (Latin American countries) and ‘other’ difficult democracies (India, etc.). These countries are presented as the ‘other’ countries that have conceptions of order and governance and are keen on conforming to so-called universalist ideas and visions of modernity. Their respective countries and political traditions are shaped by historical trends over generations which appear resistant to socialisation. 

Kupchan’s breakdown is refreshing from earlier accounts that list the rest as a homogenous and monolithic creed when in fact these countries vary greatly. However, by doing so, he also effectively dismisses elements in these countries, special interests and other interests, that are actively pushing these countries to reform and converge. Moreover, Kupchan also fails to adequately account for and of the leadership inclinations in these countries and their growing desire to organise themselves through mechanisms like the BRICS and its offshoots. There is not but one game in town anymore. Options exist and these countries are now exercising their will in that respect. Also, Kupchan fails to realise the growing fissures within the west itself. In fact, over the recent past, countries like Japan and Germany, staunch American allies for over fifty years have been irked by American preponderance and are chafing against it more than ever before. Across all these countries, domestic forces and elements will direct their onward trajectory in the international order. It is thus important to look and deftly map and outline their agency to get a better sense of the ‘rest,’ their attitudes to the ‘west’ to gauge the coming ‘global turn.’