Of a multiplex world

Print edition : October 16, 2015

Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia arrive for a show to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Beijing on September 3. Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS

The book is a useful contribution to the subject of world order but does not provide an adequate description of the real world.

A good many IR (International Relations) scholars in the United States hold the view, consciously or not, that there is an IR system resembling the solar system with the U.S. in the place of the sun and major powers orbiting around it. If some of them concede that the U.S. has already lost that position, the same scholars counsel the U.S. on how to regain it. One example, quoted by the author, is Fareed Zakaria, who in his book The Post-American World after acknowledging the decline of the U.S. gives advice to it on how to recover its position. In Amitav Acharya, Professor of International Relations, American University, Washington, we come across an author not at all nostalgic about U.S. hegemony.

He states clearly that the age of Western hegemony is over. Whether the U.S. itself is declining or not, the post-War liberal world underpinned by U.S. military, economic and ideological primacy, and supported by global institutions serving its power and purpose, is coming to an end. The question is what follows the end of the U.S. order. The book is a reasoned attempt to answer that question. The author considers and dismisses the possibility of a Chinese order. China lacks the military reach, the ability to provide public goods, and the “geopolitical restraint” in its behaviour towards other states in the region. The author rules out a reconstituted form of U.S. hegemony, too.

In the author’s view, while the U.S. will remain a major force in world affairs, it has lost the ability to shape the world order. The U.S. will be one of the anchors, including the emerging powers, regional forces, and a concert of the old and new powers shaping a new world order. He rejects labels such as “multipolar”, “apolar” or “G-Zero” and likens the emerging system to a multiplex theatre, offering a choice of plots (ideas), directors (power) and action under one roof. Before we examine the merits of the thesis, let us take a look at some of the arguments advanced by the author. Acharya calls China and Russia “emerging powers”. This is rather intriguing. China is a great power by any definition and it stopped emerging a long time ago.

In this context, it is useful to keep in mind the concept of National Comprehensive Power (NCP) that Chinese IR scholars have been putting across. NCP reminds one of Chanakya, who too had presented such a concept and elaborated on it in his Arthasastra. However, it is amusing to see Western scholars arguing that NCP is an original concept advanced by Chinese scholars. NCP is based on military power, economic clout, goodwill, and quality leadership, in short, a combination of hard and soft power.

With the establishment of the New Development Bank (formerly the BRICS Development Bank), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that the United Kingdom joined despite pressure from the U.S., and the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China is increasing its soft power by leaps and bounds. It is also a super financial power and it is increasing its military power. The author has uncritically followed the vocabulary used by think tanks in the West, which have failed to take note of the fact that China emerged as a great power a long time ago and is working hard to become a superpower and later the superpower.

Similarly, the author is wrong when he describes Russia as an “emerging power”. Historically, Russia emerged as a great power during the Napoleonic wars in the beginning of the 19th century, and emerged as a superpower as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and went back to its status as a great power when the USSR collapsed.

Some Western scholars wrongly argue that Russia’s entire budget is almost half of the budget of the U.S. and hence it need not be treated as a great power. We should bear in mind that the rather meek Russia under Boris Yeltsin has been replaced by an assertive one under Vladimir Putin. Russia alone has the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) relationship with the U.S. The author has more or less dismissed a variation of the idea of a bipolar world shared between the U.S. and China without seriously examining it. He examines and dismisses China’s claim to be a global hegemon with arguments not entirely convincing, as we have seen. A G-2 might not emerge, but it is a serious possibility that needs attention in any book meant to tell us what might follow the end of the U.S. world order.

The discussion on R2P (Responsibility to Protect) leaves out any mention of Canada, which hosted the International Conference on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2000. The author tries to suggest that it is an African idea with contributions from U.S. think tanks.

The author’s thesis about the multiplex world has some merit in it, but it is not an adequate description of the real world. He speaks of regional worlds, the most successful one being the European Union (E.U.). The book was written towards the end of 2013, and obviously the E.U. was less fragile then than it is now, as is evident from the mindless way the E.U., led or misled by Germany, has dealt with Greece.

The author does not mention the growing economic alliance between China and Russia, which have entered into a long-term $400-billion energy deal. Nor does he take note of the turmoil in the Arab World, which started as the Arab Spring in 2011.

IR scholars are inclined to see more order than there is, an error of the human mind mentioned by Francis Bacon in his famous theory of the four classes of idols, one of which comes from the marketplace. The author’s description of China and Russia as “emerging powers” reminds one of that idol.

All said, the book, written in a lucid style, is a useful contribution to the literature on the subject and reminds one of the scholarly obsession with theorising about order and remaining silent on disorder, permanent and pervasive, which is a sad indicator that even social sciences can get disconnected from ground realities and the human predicament.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is working on The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t.

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