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. 


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.’

China’s Tobacco Epidemic

Many scholars and practitioners are worried about the deteriorating environmental problems that China currently faces. But equally problematic and perhaps more intractable to address is the burgeoning tobacco epidemic that is sweeping the PRC and an epidemic that is being caused by the government itself. In a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek, the menacing tobacco problem is unpacked. And the picture is unbelievably stark and worrisome. Here’s a snapshot

  • The China National Tobacco Corp., which serves China’s 300 million smokers, is by far the largest cigarette maker in the world. In 2013 it manufactured about 2.5 trillion cigarettes. Its next largest competitor, Philip Morris International (PM), produced 880 billion. 
  • China National controls 98 percent of the market that employs more than 500,000 Chinese and they form among roughly 20 million people who derive income from tobacco products. In 2012, the SOE generated about $170 billion in revenue.
  • The effects are chilling. Lung cancer is soaring in the country. Smoking related illnesses are expected to kill more than a million chinese citizens this year and this figure will rise to 3 million by 2050. Right now, there are 300 million smokers in China. 
  • Tobacco control is abysmal. China National and its regulator are the same entity and they share physical location in Beijing as well as website and chief executive. 

Despite the existence of international and regional tobacco control efforts, including legal treaties, progress is thwarted by shambolic regulation or no regulation coupled with deep vested interests that have huge material stakes in the continuance of the tobacco industry. Health wise, China could reach a tipping point with the rise in prevalence of smoking related illnesses and the costs, financial and human, that will engender. Perhaps, that might result in a shift in policy to arrest this escalating epidemic. 

Grappling with a more Multilateralist China

The intellectual coverage accorded to China from the IR, IPE, Global Governance and Internatlonal Security scholarly communities has considerably increased our knowledge of Beijing’s international overtures over the past two decades. Despite this, we are not better off when it comes to understanding what exactly Beijing is trying to achieve within the international order. Many claim it is trying to rewrite, overthrow, restructure, reform the order in its favour. The problem lies in the paucity of empirical work on China’s behaviour within multilateral institutions. Notwithstanding some important works, notably Alastair Iain Johnston’s Social States, there comes now some more work on China’s multilateral behaviour.

Rosemary Foot (Oxford) has published two recent articles that furnish us with a more micro-understanding of Beijing’s behaviour within specific multilateral venues. The first article published in the recent Asian Survey looks at China’s approach and manoeuvring in the recently established UN Human Rights Council from the erstwhile UN Council of Human Rights. Foot and Inboden present a narrative that describes China’s gradualist and pragmatic approach in the institutional design of the new forum and how Beijing cultivated and co-opted its Asian partners not through direct inducements but by negotiating and forging a common stand on matters where their norms have shown to converge. As they argue below:

‘China benefitted from the presence of many like-minded states in the Council; Asian developing countries and other states within this grouping are in relatively close alignment with China on human rights issues. The human rights issue does not split neatly into democracies versus non-democracies, but more into the West versus the developing world.’

What this indicates is that China will invest political capital within multilateral settings and institutions on matters they deeply care about and appear to be more status-quoesque than revisionist when it comes to particular matters, like human rights. And this clashes with commentaries that point to a more revisionist China.

The second article was published in this September’s International Affairs looks at China’s enthusiasm with the UN’s peacekeeping arm.  Foot argues that, under Xi in particular, Beijing has asserted itself in the peacekeeping sphere, with contributions in combat forces, engineering troops, police and medical units. Also, Beijing has doubled its peacekeeping budget. Why? Foot argues that the UN’s setup and organisational advantages are compatible with and underscore China as one of the many sovereign states. Hierarchy is eschewed, on paper. Also, the UN serves as a workable mechanism where China, through its financing and institutional preferences, can advance and work to institutionalise certain norms with respect to governance and economic development. On the peacekeeping and development assistance front, China has worked to strengthen the writ and capacity of the state within target nations such that they can then be relied on to be the principal arbiters and decision-makers. Sovereignty matters. Going ahead, as countries and the multilateral system rely more on China, it will be interesting to see this normative clash and contestation play out in the context of liberal international norms and rules that have governed the order since 1945.

The Establishment – Owen Jones

I have just finished reading, actually more like breezing, through Owen Jones’s The Establishment. It was a quick, pulsating read. For those of us well versed in critical theory, the book’s thesis and expositions are hardly new or revelatory; it solidifies the belief of how the power of few overwhelmingly shapes the destiny of a lot more. The book’s core argument is that over the past three decades, we have seen the rise and gradual entrenchment of a class of individuals who through their ideas, beliefs, sustained and prolific agency have captured the corridors of power in Westminster and have used that to enrich themselves and their preserves to the detriment of the larger public good. This entrenchment has become so pervasive that it is, arguably, all but impossible to dislodge. One can pick on the selective pieces of cases, stories, individuals that Jones relies on to flesh out his core argument. Jones looks at and draws from institutions that form what he claims to be the core parts of the establishment – government, political class, media, police force, bankers and the national security establishment. Through individual anecdotes and cases coupled with a cogent empirical examination of these networks or nexus and how they are formed, Jones makes his case for the pervasive power base that forms the center of power in Britain. These actors also represent and propagate a powerful ideology – ‘neoliberalism’ epitomised by unyielding belief in the power of markets to organise public life and allocate resources. What follows is a polemic that is, in parts, unputdownable. Although Jones is less successful at marking where these core ideas of the establishment came from – Mont Pelerin Society and their Hayekian acolytes that have achieved unparalleled success after decades of neglect across the atlantic. Although the rise of Thatcher and Blair represent key conjunctures, one needs to more carefully examine the social politics within the country and the opportunities it afforded to the political class before they rammed through market friendly policies. The chapters on the police force and media are damning. Not only have they caved to those in power but have done so in insidious ways. The Establishment is a must read to understand modern Britain politics at its most depraved state.