The Financial Times‘ Gideon Rachman recently told his readers about a profoundly unsettling experience. A group made up of “plenty of eminent people” from the West, including former prime ministers and billionaires, traveled to Beijing to meet China’s President Xi Jinping. There, according to the writer, the foreign grandees were lectured, “treated a bit like a class of schoolchildren.”
We stand at the cusp of a historic shift of power away from the West toward Asia, and the consequences are increasingly being felt in global politics. With the day when China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy appearing on the horizon, the West is slowly losing the remarkable capacity to set the agenda on a global scale, something we have become so used to that it has become hard to imagine global affairs with a West no longer dominant. For more than a century, an extreme concentration of economic power allowed the West, despite representing a small minority of the world’s population, to initiate, legitimize, and successfully advocate policy in the economic or security realm. To most observers, non-Western actors hardly, if ever, played any constructive role in the management of global affairs.
As a consequence, the future of global order—no longer under Western rule—is generally seen as chaotic, disorienting, and dangerous. As Randall Schweller, an influential scholar at Ohio State University predicts, the only alternative to U.S. leadership is “banality and confusion, of anomie and alienation, of instability without a stabilizer, of devolving order without an orderer.” Indeed, the vast majority of International Relations scholars believe the relative decline of U.S. power will have profoundly negative global consequences.
Yet our understanding of the creation of today’s order, its contemporary form and predictions about the future, are limited because they seek to imagine a “Post-Western World” from a parochial Western-centric perspective. Harvard University’s Graham Allison calls the last one thousand years “a millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world.” Such views dramatically underestimate the contributions non-Western thinkers and cultures have made, and how much the West depended on foreign knowledge, technology, ideas, and norms—such as from China and the Muslim world—to develop economically and politically. They also disregard the fact that non-Western powers have dominated the world economically for much of the last thousand years.
Our Western-centric world view thus leads us to underappreciate not only the role non-Western actors have played in the past and play in contemporary international politics, but also the constructive role they are likely to play in the future. With powers such as China providing ever more global public goods, post-Western order, most likely some kind of “managed rivalry,” will not necessarily be more violent or unstable than today’s global order.
Indeed, rather than directly confronting existing institutions, rising powers—led by China—are quietly crafting the initial building blocks of what we may call a “parallel order” that will initially complement, and later possibly challenge, today’s international institutions. This order is already in the making; it includes, among others, institutions such as the BRICS-led New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (to complement the World Bank), Universal Credit Rating Group (to complement Moody’s and S&P), China Union Pay (to complement Mastercard and Visa), CIPS (to complement SWIFT), the BRICS (to complement the G7), and many other initiatives.
These structures do not emerge because China and others have fundamentally new ideas about how to address global challenges or because they seek to change global rules and norms; rather, they create them to better project their power, just as Western actors have done before them. They partly arose because of the limited social mobility of today’s order and because of existing institutions’ incapacity to adequately integrate rising powers. As part of a hedging strategy, emerging powers will continue to invest in existing institutions, recognizing the strength in today’s order, but they will seek to change the hierarchy in the system to obtain privileges so far only enjoyed by the United States. Furthermore, eluding the facile and overly simplistic extremes of either confronting or joining existing order, the creation of several China-centric institutions will allow China to embrace its own type of competitive multilateralism, picking and choosing among flexible frameworks, in accordance with its national interests — just like Western powers have done for decades.
Western hegemony is so deeply rooted and ubiquitous that we think of it as somehow natural, reducing our capacity to objectively assess the consequences of its decline. Fears about a post-Western chaos are misguided in part because the past and present systems are far less Western than is generally assumed (the world order already contains many rules and norms that emerged as a product of clashing Western and non-Western ideas). And while the transition to genuine multipolarity—not only economically but also militarily and regarding agenda-setting capacity—will be disconcerting to many, it may be, in the end, far more democratic than any previous order in global history, allowing greater levels of genuine dialogue, broader spread of knowledge, and more innovative and effective ways to address global challenges in the coming decades.
Oliver Stuenkel teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, Brazil. His new book, Post-Western World, has just been published by Polity Press.