3 February, 2014Issue 24.2AsiaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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The Coming Global Order

Emily Williams

Charles A. Kupchan
No One’s World: The West, The Rising Rest, and The Coming Global Turn
Oxford University Press, 2013
272 pages
ISBN 978-0199325221

A little over 20 years ago, Francis Fukuyama, responding to the collapse of the Soviet Union, argued that we had reached the “end of history” and that Western liberal democracy would be universally enshrined as the final form of government. American dominance—economic, political, and cultural—seemed unshakeable, and it was assumed that all other political forms would eventually fall by the historical wayside due to the innate superiority of the Western model. Just twenty years later, Fukuyama’s prediction seems laughably premature. Today, we are more likely to hear about the inevitable rise of China and East Asia than any continued domination by the north Atlantic. Oft-repeated are the famous words of Napoleon Bonaparte, who said of China, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. Numerous books argue that this fate is now upon us, the fear of the Chinese ‘dragon’ palpable in their titles, ranging from Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World (2009) to James Kynge’s China Shakes the World (2006).

Charles Kupchan’s book presents an alternative thesis. We are, he acknowledges, at a global turning point: the period of America’s unrivalled dominance is over and China is on the up. Against the simple transition, so often envisioned, from the Washington Consensus to the Beijing Consensus, however, Kupchan argues that a far larger structural change is underway. Rather than global power being concentrated in one or two centres as it has been for much of modern history, Kupchan predicts a future where power is diffused: hence, his claim that we are moving towards “no one’s world”. The “American Century” may be over (although Kupchan does not think the complete decline of American power is inevitable), but there is no reason to believe that the “Chinese Century” is beginning. Rather, he argues, the future will not be dominated by any one centre of gravity or dominant political mode, but will instead be multipolar and politically diverse.

For Kupchan, this future is not something to be cheered (or lamented), but rather something to be accepted. The purpose of the book, then, is to convince policy makers of its inevitability so that they begin to take concrete action. Kupchan believes that if the West can halt its own decline, and accurately grasp the historical changes going on around it, it can have an important, perhaps primary, role in shaping the new order of things. The book, then, is both descriptive and prescriptive: describing why the coming world will belong to no one, and prescribing the way for the West to operate most effectively in this new world.

Kupchan’s early chapters give a potted global history, outlining the rise of the West and argues convincingly that the West’s dominance in modern times has been the result of a unique confluence of events, which produced what is often called ‘modernity’: industrial capitalism, secular liberal democracy, and cultural pluralism. He argues that the rise of the West was largely the product of the weakness of Europe’s political institutions and the long period of religious wars, which over time produced a relatively independent middle class operating in an environment of hard-won religious tolerance and political pluralism.

Kupchan’s careful historicization of Western development highlights that it was not an inevitable process that can and will be repeated elsewhere. Instead, it was the product of the specific material conditions of Europe. He analyses the Ottoman and Chinese Qing empires, and argues that their highly centralized and hierarchical institutions of political control engendered more order and stability than in Europe, thereby preventing the emergence of the “socio-economic dynamism that was Europe’s greatest asset.”

Unfortunately, for a book centred on the ‘West’, Kupchan never explains what the West consists of, and slides between different conceptions of it throughout the book. In his historical sections, the West is really Western Europe, with America included by virtue of its cultural connection. In the prescriptive chapters, the West is largely the United States and the European Union. It can be geographical, referring to those states bordering the north Atlantic, or value-driven, referring particularly to liberal democracy, and so including Japan. Middle powers such as Canada, the Scandinavian states, Australia, and New Zealand must be assumed to be included in his conception of the West, but they rarely feature. Eastern Europe’s diverse history belies easy categorization, and is largely ignored. Kupchan’s concern is really with the United States and the core states of Western Europe: France, Germany, Britain, and perhaps Italy, but this is dressed up in the larger term the ‘West’, a concept which flattens the very different experiences of the countries that are included in it.

Kupchan’s lengthy discussions of history are crucial to his argument that differing historical experiences have produced divergent political and cultural institutions, which have resulted in plural ‘modernities’, not a single universal ‘modernity’. Kupchan outlines four alternative political forms which he says will compete with liberal democracy in the next international system: autocrats, dominant in China, Russia, and the Persian Gulf; the theocrats of the Middle East; African strongmen; and Latin American populists. His account of these alternative political orders is fluid and his willingness to devote serious attention to these often denigrated political forms is admirable, but his ambitious desire to incorporate the whole world into his account means that inter-regional differences tend to get lost in the over-arching narrative of coherent alternative political forms. For Kupchan, there is no reason to assume that these forms lack staying power, therefore any coming international order will have to find a more flexible way of incorporating them.

At this point, Kapchun shifts from description to prescription. While acknowledging that global power may be shifting away from the West, he argues that it can still play a leading role, if only it can rise to the occasion on two fronts. The first is recovering its political and economic vitality and retaining the historical cohesion of the north Atlantic. This revival is at risk due to the “renationalization” of Europe and the political polarisation of America, both of which threaten to render the West less effective and less relevant to global developments. Secondly, the West needs to develop a strategy and set of principles for forging a consensus with the emerging powers that is strong enough to govern the new order.

The key idea on this second front is that the West must reject the long-held belief that liberal democracy is the only route to political legitimacy. Rather, he proposes the idea of responsible governance as the key to international recognition, regardless of the institutional forms used to achieve this governance. In the new order, any state that meets basic standards for protecting its citizens will be granted legitimacy, and given a stake in the global order. The question of who determines whether a state has met Kupchan’s criteria is never addressed, although one assumes that it will continue to be the United States.

Kupchan notes that most changes of hegemonic political order—usually at the end of war—have been marked by the establishment of new rules and mechanisms that will govern the coming order. No such re-ordering took place at the end of the Cold War: continuity of global institutions, rather than change, dominated; the new order was governed by what was sometimes called ‘status quo plus’. For all his talk of a global turn, what Kupchan seems to be calling for might be called ‘status quo plus plus’. This is no Bretton Woods moment: what Kupchan really envisions is that the Western world will open up decision-making structures to reflect the growing influence of emerging powers, rather than overhaul those structures themselves. The UN Security Council needs to be enlarged and more weight needs to be given to emerging powers in global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (steps that are already underway), but the basic soundness of these institutions for governing the coming order is never questioned.

Whether this is because Kupchan retains a belief in the viability and legitimacy of the institutions that emerged in the post-war period, or simply because he cannot imagine the new institutions that might more democratically incorporate other countries, is unclear. Certainly, his final chapter, in which he sets out the rules for managing “no one’s world”, is markedly more vague and more abstract than the previous chapters. It’s also surprisingly short: the description sections of the book take up the first 150 pages, with prescription given only 50 pages. This is a shame because while Kupchan’s histories are well-conceived and illuminating, one feels that the main purpose of the book is to provide policy prescriptions for the US and EU governments on how to operate in the coming world. But on a number of issues, where clear policy positions would be valuable, Kupchan is suddenly circumspect. He argues, for example, that the US and EU need to strike a balance between engagement with and containment of China, but he offers no real clues on how that balance is to be achieved.

No One’s World is a valuable contribution to the debate about the coming global order, offering an alternative future vision that avoids scaremongering about the Chinese or lamenting the West’s lost greatness. He argues that the West’s rise was predicated on an ability to countenance change and welcome diversity, and that this is what is called for again. This call for inclusiveness and pragmatism should be welcomed.

Emily Williams is a doctoral candidate in Humanities and Culture Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London