A multiplex world

Print edition : October 17, 2014
The book argues that the unipolar moment is at its end, with Asian economies daring to confront the supremacy of the West.

ANTI-AMERICANISM continues to blow across the globe. United States President Barack Obama has made little difference to the unnecessary war initiated by the George Bush-Tony Blair era. Instead of sending in troops, he has been solely responsible for using the ruthless and unethical drone warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan and more recently in Iraq. The U.S.’ unrivalled military vigour, its corporations and popular culture merge into a “hyperpower” that influences indigenous cultures across the world.

Amitav Acharya, in his new book, The End of American World Order, examines the American experience and its worldwide impact through its far-reaching political and foreign policy, military action, cultural production and consumption, an appallingly prejudiced diet of unawareness and misrepresentation spun out by the media; you name it and it is perceptibly present in the farthest corners of the world. The handling of the rest of the world at the United Nations and its directing of global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is indicative of its hegemony. This is the world order that the author argues is now reaching its end.

Power without informed democratic control is central to the complex relationship of the U.S. to the rest of the world. It claims to export democratic values and yet remains a threat to sovereign nations around the world. One American life lost in Iraq provokes a disproportionate response from the Pentagon. Collateral damage to civilians is of no consequence. The rule of international law is flouted across the board and client regimes are set up wherever the need arises. Whether Iraq or Afghanistan, democracies cannot be affected at will; the multifaceted history of a nation cannot be overlooked. And it cannot be denied that democratic cultures always evolve from within. The false and hypocritical discourse of fighting for democratic institutions and justice stands corroborated by the U.S.’ interventionist and self-promoting foreign policy over many decades.

A country that depends on its global supremacy for marketing itself cannot escape the wave of anti-Americanism. Disparities of wealth, power, freedom and opportunity have given rise to anti-globalisation protests and numerous other movements for justice and peace. The era of undemocratic control of the world economy and the free flow of capital and labour are now at an end. The arrogant denial of the freedom of others clashes with the potential of the present to create alternatives to the U.S. order. In the post-9/11 decade, there is clearly the emergence of the average American who refuses to be lied to. The arrogance of President George W. Bush, the ruthless bombardment of Palestinian civilians, the number of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-engineered coups around the world are more than sufficient to provoke worldwide acrimony. The unipolar moment, Amitav Acharya argues, is now at its end with the rise of the Asian economies, which daringly confront the supremacy of the West.

With these visible signs of decline, the author argues, the world gradually becomes “multiplex” instead of being “mulitpolar, polycentric, non-polar, neo-polar, post-American, G-zero”. “There may be one film running in different theatres in the same complex, but more often there are different films in different theatres in the complex. In a multiplex world, we have different producers and actors staging their own shows concurrently,” he writes. This metaphor underscores the international hegemony of the U.S. that is slowly being replaced by a more decentred world, with regional powers gaining in political and economic strength. There is more confidence in regional and local solutions than in global market forces. The outcome, encouragingly, is interdependence, which is inherently counter to U.S. foreign policy that has little respect for regionalism. The hegemony of the U.S. stands replaced by a viable cooperation between nations, a kind of scenario where “regionalism is less polarising, and more open… and multidimensional”.

“To a large extent, [the role of the emerging powers] lies in preventing or frustrating the continuation of American World Order rather than providing an alternative form of global governance on their own initiative. The lack of unity, vision, and resources makes an alternative construction of global order by the emerging powers unlikely. Hence, cooperation between the established and the emerging powers is critical to the future of global governance. The emerging powers by themselves neither represent nor exhaust the possibility of an alternative, or post-hegemonic, global governance structure. Moreover, while the liberal hegemonic order narrative tends to downplay regional forces or present them as a threat, the emerging power hype ignores the fact that securing regional legitimacy is a major prerequisite for their global ambitions.”

Multipolar world

The view that the U.S. dominance goes hand in hand with its role as a global policeman falls apart in the face of the ensuing idea of mutipolarity that propels notions of justice and development within systems that are underpinned by healthier and more efficient procedures of governance. Today’s global order under the U.S. cultural and political dominance is slowly being replaced by the fast-growing multipolar order. Regional organisations such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) are gearing to a mutual understanding of respect for justice, human rights, ecology and democracy, and ensuring that any infringement of justice or international law would lead to the penalising of member states.

As the author argues, the intergovernmental institutions will “introduce a healthy diversity and leadership into the emerging world order instead of the singular dominance of American power or the EU’s [European Union] legalistic and centralised model of cooperation”. Amitav Acharya perceptively analyses the contemporary scenario, which has all the signs of movement towards an intergovernmental control over regions, thereby bringing to an end the eras of hegemonic global powers. The thesis becomes all the more interesting as Amitav Acharya does not go with the conventional view that the corollary to the demise of the U.S. hegemony would be global instability. Rejecting this widely held opinion, he takes a dig at the indispensability of the U.S. world order by giving more credence to the case for interdependability in transnational relations. Indeed, “ the unipolar moment in international relations is over, and we are now entering a multiplex world”. This is apparent in the crisis swallowing up Ukraine, which is indicative of the fast-changing scenario of world politics wherein powerful single states now have no control or check on international issues. It would be a fallacy to blame the U.S. leadership for this transformation. The outcome is the result of a “transformed international environment” where it is a foregone conclusion that the ascendancy of the U.S. is being challenged by China or India.

Decline of the U.S. world order

The centre of global economic power is fast shifting with the growth of economic and security interdependence. Though many still disagree with Amitav Acharya’s thesis, the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies upholds the inherent argument of the abrupt decline of the U.S. Making a distinction between the U.S. decline and the decline of the U.S. world order, Amitav Acharya holds the view that this development has taken place irrespective of the decline of the American nation.

The U.S.-led hegemonic order is dependent on the notion of superiority, hierarchy and universal presence. What is clear is the end of the empire though the U.S. undoubtedly plays a “central role” in the world: “But the idea that the hitherto ‘American led liberal-hegemonic order’ or American World Order will persist, even in a ‘reconstituted’ form, is questionable. This is because a key problem in debating the persistence of the American World Order … is that we can genuinely disagree about what might persist, and what its form might be. Myths about the old order abound.”

Questioning the reality of the existence of a U.S.-led liberal hegemonic order, he raises doubts about the authenticity of those who really benefited from it: “Some of the claims about what that order actually represented, how far it extended, and the benefits it produced, while not unfounded, are selective and exaggerated.”

While the past of this order remains a questionable issue, its future is also replete with problems. However, “any reconstituted American hegemony has to change a lot, and accommodate, rather than co-opt, other forces and drivers, including the emerging powers and regional groups. It has to adapt to a new multilateralism that is less beholden to American power and purpose.”

Pax Britannica or Pax Americana are concepts of the “single power” global hegemony experienced in the past. And one does not have to go along with the alarmist view that the decline of the U.S. power is a harbinger of some global catastrophe or a bleak future. As succinctly and optimistically argued by Amitav Acharya, this decline, indeed, could very well be an unsurpassed saviour for both the U.S. and the rest of the world.