Author: Amitav Acharya American University Washington D.C.

Many pundits see the emerging world order as a return to multipolarity, but this is misleading. There are at least five major differences between prewar multipolarity and the emerging twenty-first-century world order.

First, prewar multipolarity was largely a world of empires and colonies. The primary actors in world politics were the great powers, and those were mainly European, though the United States and Japan joined the club in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In contrast, the contemporary world is marked by a multiplicity of actors that matter. These are not only great powers, and not even just states, but also international and regional institutions, corporations, transnational nongovernmental organizations, social movements, transnational criminal and terrorist groups, and so on.

Second, the nature of economic interdependence today is denser, consisting of trade, finance, and global production networks and supply chains, whereas prewar multipolarity was mainly trade-based.

Third, contemporary economic interdependence is more global compared to that in the nineteenth century, when it was mostly intra-European, with the rest of the world in a situation of dependence on the European empires.

Fourth, there is far greater density of relatively durable international and regional institutions today, whereas pre–World War I Europe had only one— the defunct European Concert of Powers—and the interwar period only had the short-lived and failed League of Nations.

Fifth, challenges to order and stability have become more complex. The traditional challenge to world order, interstate conflict, has declined steadily since World War II and now stands at a negligible level. Meanwhile, intrastate conflicts and transnational challenges have grown considerably. Arguably, the biggest threat to the national security of many countries today comes not from another state but from a terrorist network. Moreover, issues such as climate change, human trafficking, drugs, and pandemics do not respect national boundaries and are magnified by interdependence and globalization, further complicating the mosaic of security challenges facing the twenty-first-century world.

The emerging world order is thus not a multipolar world, but a multiplex world. It is a world of multiple modernities, where Western liberal modernity (and its preferred pathways to economic development and governance) is only a part of what is on offer. A multiplex world is like a multiplex cinema—one that gives its audience a choice of various movies, actors, directors, and plots all under the same roof. At the same time, a multiplex world is a world of interconnectedness and interdependence. It is not a singular global order, liberal or otherwise, but a complex of crosscutting, if not competing, international orders and globalisms. A multiplex world is not defined by the hegemony of any single nation or idea. This does not necessarily mean the United States is in decline—this is still arguable. But it does mean that the United States is no longer in a position to create the rules and dominate the institutions of global governance and world order in the manner it had for much of the post–World War II period. And while elements of the old liberal order will survive, they will have to accommodate new actors and approaches that do not bend to America’s commands and preferences.

It is wrong to say that globalization is over. Instead, in a multiplex world it will take, and is already taking, a different form. Globalization may become less driven after liberal hegemony by trade and more by developmental concerns. This might give more space to the initiatives of the emerging powers, which tend to focus more on infrastructure than on free trade. Thus, the new globalization could well be led less by the West and more by the East, especially China and India, as it had been for a thousand years before European colonialism. On its own, China may not be able to lead globalization outright, but it has the potential to reshape it with initiatives like the One Belt, One Road strategy and the AIIB. Moreover, the new globalization will be anchored more by South-South linkages rather than North-South ones.

Due to the prominence of China and other emerging powers, the new globalization might also be more respectful of sovereignty, especially compared to the Western-led globalization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which has been associated with colonialism and direct and indirect military intervention to secure Western economic and strategic interests (a long list of examples would include the Suez and numerous interventions in Latin America). This is not to say that emerging powers do not use force or violate sovereignty. With its growing overseas investments, China will be tempted to abandon its professed policy of noninterference and to use force or coercion in support of its economic and strategic goals. But in line with the outlooks of the emerging powers, the new globalization is likely to be more economic and less political or ideological (especially compared to the West’s promotion of democracy and human rights).

G-Plus Governance

Global governance has already begun accommodating the growing roles of private bodies (corporations, foundations, etc.), civil society groups, and regional arrangements, thus reducing the position of formal intergovernmental organizations. And the emerging powers have already been clamoring for a greater voice and leadership in existing institutions while also creating new global and regional mechanisms, such as the BRICS-initiated New Development Bank and Contingent Reserve Arrangement (a financial mechanism), the AIIB, China’s OBOR and its Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia mechanism, and India’s own plans for infrastructure development in South Asia, to name a few. And while the demand for global governance will remain, the architecture will continue to fragment and decenter, confirming the onset of the multiplex world. The maintenance of world order depends on regional orders. As Henry Kissinger argues, “The contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions and to relate these regional orders to one another.” Yet developing such inclusive, open regional orders is a critical challenge. This would require creating new regional mechanisms and supporting those that already exist but are constrained by a lack of resources. While some liberal thinkers see regionalism (not including the European Union) as a threat to world order, there are many regional initiatives that, if recognized and strengthened, could actually support world order. For example, ASEAN +  Chiang Mai initiative on finance has allowed those countries to better cope with short-term liquidity problems, supplementing the existing capacity of the International Monetary Fund.  As another example, though the Obama administration feared the Chinese-inspired AIIB would be a competitor to the World Bank, its structure and rules mimic those of established multilateral institutions, and its management includes persons from Western countries. Thus, it is more likely to complement rather than compete with the World Bank or Asian Development Bank. In a fragmented and pluralistic world, exploring local and regional initiatives in diverse issue areas that complement older but fragmenting global institutions could be one of the most promising way to build world order in the twenty-first century. A multiplex world will not be free from disorder, but it is also not necessarily doomed to be what Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini call a G-Zero World—“one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage—or the will—to drive a truly international agenda”—simply because of the loss of a predominant U.S. leadership role. Leadership-sharing between the Western powers and the emerging powers is more attainable than (hard) powersharing. A world less dependent on U.S. leadership—but without a complete U.S. retreat into isolationism—will still find ways to cooperate. It will still come together in crisis, as happened after the global financial crisis, or to combat common perils, as happened with the Paris Agreement on climate change The latter was made possible not because of proactive U.S. leadership but because of common understanding among the Western nations, the emerging powers (led by China), and civil society groups. Importantly, the agreement avoided the traditional Western legalistic sanction-based approach in favor of a softer, voluntaristic approach that is characteristic of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A multiplex world is a G-Plus world, featuring established and emerging powers, global and regional institutions and actors, states, social movements, corporations, private foundations, and various kinds of partnerships among them.

The Stability of a Multiplex World

There are several things that should be kept in mind by the international community in general and the Western nations in particular to help manage the transition to a multiplex world.

First, stop pining for the return of liberal hegemony, by which I mean the post– World War II world order created and dominated by the United States and centered around Western interests, values, and institutions. That order might have delivered much good (as well as lots of bad) to the world, and some of its institutions (such as the UN system) will continue, but the particular historical circumstances behind the rise of liberal hegemony are gone. The global power shift is for real and here to stay.

Second,  prepare to live without significant U.S. support for multilateralism. This support might come selectively and sparingly, but its absence should not deter international cooperation if other major players participate or offer support.

Third, the end of U.S. hegemony does not equal the “return of anarchy,” if anarchy implies the end of global cooperation, as some worry. Progress in global governance was never linear to start with, nor was there ever any consensus that global governance is a good thing. Demand for global governance has and will continue to be varied depending on the issue area. Such demand is driven by a mix of strategic, functional, and normative motives as well as a domestic political calculus. While the normative and domestic motivations may be declining among Western states, the functional and strategic motivations might yet drive demand for global governance in several areas, including climate change and transnational security.

Fourth, despite claims about the world being “on fire,” there are also many success stories of growth and stability in the world. When it comes to international stability, there is both good and bad news.

Fifth, give due credit to the contribution of non-Western actors to the marketplace of ideas for global cooperation. Latin American countries championed human rights before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and had developed a tradition of regional norm and institution building before the EU was conceived. The East Asian countries, led by Japan, pioneered a path out of postcolonial dependency and underdevelopment. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea had much to do with the leadership of Southeast Asian diplomats.  

Sixth, encourage pragmatic globalism in place of ideologically-charged liberal internationalism, a term that is deeply associated with Western hegemony and hypocrisy. History provides many examples of practical, non-ideological, issuebased cooperation among nations of diverse political composition to uphold international stability.

Seventh, embrace G-Plus global governance. The growing complexity of global governance is inevitable due to the proliferation of a variety of new actors and transnational issue areas. It is impossible for the state-centric bureaucratic institutions to cope with these changes. These institutions should welcome the proliferation of “demanders” of global governance and learn to work with them, avoiding duplication of resources. The ongoing fragmentation in global governance creates new opportunities for closer partnership between intergovernmental institutions, civil society, and the private sector.

Eighth, take regional powers and regionalism seriously. Regions are crucial sites for both conflict and cooperation. In considering ways to develop a new world order, one should not focus too much on the big emerging powers while neglecting the role of other regional powers in the developing world, such as Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey. Not all forms of regionalism are harmful to global cooperation; indeed, they may contribute to it. Many regional organizations share normative concerns about peace and justice and deserve their space in any meaningful scheme for global order. The traditional liberal universalist tendency to associate regionalism with spheres of influence or power balancing is misplaced, since many examples of regionalism today are open, interactive, and inclusive.

In sum, the stability of a multiplex world will require many Western nations to give up their free-riding on the United States and accept shared leadership with the rising and regional powers. It will require greater partnership between global and regional bodies, as well as public, private, and civil society groups. A G-Plus world requires a genuinely reformed system of global governance that accords sincere recognition to the voices and aspirations of all. America and its Western allies must give up exclusive privileges such as the French leadership of the IMF, American presidency of the World Bank, and Japanese presidency of the Asian Development Bank in return for the trust and cooperation of the rest.

 A New Vocabulary of International Relations

The complexity of international politics today calls for a greater questioning of the existing theories and vocabulary of international relations, especially of liberalism and realism. Liberals often profess a monopoly over all “good things” in international life, such as rationality, respect for human dignity, good governance, free trade, and rule-based order, and they trace the origins of these goods exclusively from Western civilization. Yet these ideas and practices can be found in other, non-European civilizations, including but not limited to Islamic, Chinese, and Indian. Liberal theory has shown little acknowledgement of the multiple sources of and contributions to the development of its ideas and practices. As a result, liberalism is seen today as asking and expecting “the rest” to follow principles that it claims have been solely developed in the West, even as the leading liberal Western nations grossly violate them. With liberalism now under challenge at home, it will be even harder to sell it to the rest of the world. When facing the future, while liberals remain in denial, realists return to the past. Instead of seeking fresh ideas to understand and explain change in world politics, they keep rehashing notions like multipolarity (or the general theory that international stability depends mainly on polarity or the distribution of power) or the Thucydides’s Trap to describe the present or emerging world order. This is a misapplication of history. The world today is a far cry from the nineteenth-century multipolar era; it is even more distant from the self-styled and limited geopolitics of the Greek city-states. The era of liberal hegemony is past. The liberal international order will be just one of many crosscutting systems, and it will have to compete or enmesh with other ideas in a world of growing complexity and interconnectedness. International relations scholars should be wary of conventional wisdom and be open to new concepts and theories, and hence to new possibilities of world order that have no precedent in history. Keohane was right: A hegemon is neither necessary nor sufficient for global order—and neither, it turns out, is an unchallenged liberal ideology. In a multiplex world, scholars and practitioners alike will have to embrace the complexities of this new system. The future may very well depend on it.

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