West's Liberal order giving way to multiplex world

By Amitav Acharya Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/24 20:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Since the election of Donald Trump as US president, there is growing concern in the West about the fate of the liberal international order. At a recent Peking University dialogue between this author and historian Niall Ferguson, Ferguson described the liberal order as a "myth" or a "fairytale." In a book published in 2014 entitled The End of American World Order, I pointed to several myths about the liberal order under American hegemony. My argument was not that it did not exist, but that it existed mostly as a select club of Western nations. The largest nations of the developing world, such as China, India and Indonesia, were outside this club.

The liberal order was eroding fast well before Trump's election, mainly due to the rise of the "rest," led by China. It received a powerful blow from the 2008 global financial crisis. Yet Western scholars and policymakers were blind to its decline because of the internationalist policies of the Obama presidency and the widely held expectations that Hillary Clinton would succeed Obama and continue his foreign policy approach.

Then many pundits thought the main challenge to the liberal order would come from outside, from rising powers like China, Russia and India. Yet, Trump's election proved that the main challenge to that order is from within Western societies. Trump did not cause the decline of the liberal order. He simply exploited its weakening appeal among sections of the American public, especially those left behind by economic globalization, to win the White House. Now he is doing all he can to push the liberal order over the precipice.

Indeed, it is ironic that those countries earlier expected to challenge the liberal order, such as China and India, have become the biggest supporters of its economic pillars such as trade openness, whereas the traditional leaders and defenders of the liberal order, especially the US under Trump and Britain (after Brexit) are actively undermining it.

The real question now is what comes after the US-led liberal order. Most pundits foresee a rerun of multipolarity, such as that which existed before World War II. But the world today is very different. Before World War II, a handful of great powers, mostly Western, shaped the global order. Today's shapers of world politics include a multitude of other actors, including multinational corporations, international and regional institutions, transnational social movements and extremist groups. Economic interdependence before World War II was chiefly among Western nations. The rest of the world were colonies or semi-colonies of the West. Today, interdependence is truly global, and multi-faceted. It exists not only in trade, but also in finance, production networks and supply chains.

A world of multiple actors with diverse capabilities and bound by complex forms of global interdependence is what I call a multiplex world. In our Peking University dialogue, Ferguson raised the prospect of a "concert of powers" to manage international order. This is what the European powers did after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. This would be essentially a great power club. Instead of the hegemony of a single power or two, it creates the collective hegemony of a small group of great powers. The concert of Europe system they created after the Napoleonic Wars trampled on the sovereignty of smaller and weaker nations.

Today, such a formula would be politically unacceptable. Rising powers, such as China and India, seek to maintain equitable and mutually beneficial ties with the developing countries. Moreover, who will be included and excluded from the concert? Will India and Brazil be part of it? If not, what then happens to the BRICS grouping, which has been a productive venue for interaction among the emerging powers? Or the G20 which has brought together the world's emerging and established powers?

The emerging world order will not be shaped by any one formula, but will contain a mix of approaches. Great power cooperation is essential. But so is cooperation and equitable relations between the great powers and weaker nations.

Of critical and urgent need is the reform and strengthening of multilateral institutions to make them more democratic and accountable. The large postwar institutions created under US dominance are failing in the current form. They need to allow more voices from the emerging powers and developing nations. The era of hegemony by a single power or a handful of great powers is past.

The author is a Distinguished Professor of International Relations at American University, Washington DC and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University. The article is based on his recent presentation at the Institute for China-US People to People Exchange, Peking University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Newspaper headline: Liberal order giving way to multiplex world

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