Trans-Pacific View

The End of American World Order

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View

The End of American World Order

Insights from Amitav Acharya.

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Amitav Acharya – UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C., and the Chair of its ASEAN Studies Initiative as well as author of The End of American World Order (Polity 2014, Oxford 2015) – is the 66th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Explain the difference between “U.S. decline” and “the end of American world order.”

By “end of American world order,” I specifically refer to the crisis and erosion of the international order that the United States had built and maintained after World War II, which some call the liberal hegemonic order, meaning a liberal order under U.S. dominance. As I have argued in my book, The End of American World Order, whether the United States is declining as the world’s No. 1 power or not is a matter of much debate, although this has less to do with who is in the White House than long-term structural shifts in the global economy and politics. The United States still leads in the world in terms of the overall military power, and relative economic power (defined more comprehensively than just overall GDP, and taking into account the role of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency). So we don’t have agreement on whether or to what degree the United States itself is declining. You can find equally persuasive arguments and evidence from both sides of the debate. But the United States is less and less able to get its way with the international community and shape and control the agenda of global multilateral institutions that it helped to create. U.S. leadership in the world has declined.

Hence the real question about world order today is not whether America itself is declining, but that the American world order is coming to an end. I think it’s a very important distinction and that the latter is happening. Furthermore, Brexit and Donald Trump, and the rising tide of nationalism and protectionism they represent, along with the erosion of liberal democracy in the West, signals the decline not only of liberal ideology but more surely of the liberal international order.

What key factors underpin the demise of the American-led liberal hegemonic world order?     

The first thing that everyone thinks of in answering this question is the rise of other powers, especially China and India. But they are not the only reason. We put too much focus on the so-called emerging powers. In reality, the developing countries, or what many call the Global South, are rising. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report of 2013, which is provocatively entitled The Rise of the South, the Global South accounts for half of world GDP, compared to one-third in 1990. The OECD has projected that by 2060, the GDP of the developing world, including China and India, would exceed that of developed OECD and non-OECD countries: 57.7 percent to 42.3 percent.

Another factor is the rise of new threats. American remains and will continue to remain the world’s leading military power. But today’s threats are much more complex and challenging to the United States than the old-fashioned military threat posed by nations. These include terrorism, ethnic conflicts, as well as conflicts induced by climate change. These threats are transnational in nature and no nation, however powerful can handle them on its own. The United States has to share leadership and resources with other nations, which necessarily undercuts its dominance.

Explain the impact of Asia’s regionalism, particularly with the rise of China and India, on international norms and governance.    

Asian regionalism is at a crossroads. ASEAN is weakened but not out. It still has a vital role to play in managing security in its own region: Southeast Asia. The ASEAN Economic Community is a very positive development and a credit to ASEAN. The outlook for ASEAN’s role in the wider Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific region is less rosy than before. I think the idea of ASEAN centrality was always overoptimistic. ASEAN is better off without a label that created unrealistic expectations about its mission and capacity in regional order management.

The most challenging development in Asian regionalism comes from China. Unlike in the past, China now is developing regionalism that more closely reflects its own interests and approaches, rather than simply following the lead of existing institutions. China has a three-pronged approach to regionalism. The first is to continue its engagement with ASEAN and ASEAN Plus institutions, like ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit. The second is to develop regional multilateral institutions that are based on the established rules of the game, but in areas where China has resources to contribute and leadership to flex. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) falls into this category. Both these above are consistent with the norms of “open regionalism” that are germane to East Asia and complement global rules and institutions. I do not agree that the AIIB is a parallel institution or an expression of Chinese hegemony that undermines the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), although some see it that way. While inspired by China, the AIIB is no more controlled by China than the IMF is controlled by the United States or France.

But there is another, a third category, of regionalism being promoted by China that could pose a challenge to open regionalism. This is the One Belt, One Road Program and the Silk Road projects. These are much more directly tied to China’s own interests and priorities, which are not identical to those of other big players in Asia, such as India or Japan. The projects are mainly negotiated and implemented bilaterally, with specific agreements with individual nations, many of which will be China’s allies or intended allies, rather than multilaterally.  Here, China calls the shots. They have a potential to aggravate regional tensions, such as India’s wariness about infrastructure projects being carried out in disputed Kashmir under the auspices of the new Silk Road initiative.

Another category of China’s initiative is the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA). It focuses on regional security, but has not yet got much traction, compared to China’s economic initiatives. This not surprising and it tells you that China’s neighbors take a pragmatic view of its initiatives. In economics, Chinese initiatives meet a gap in infrastructure development that is not met by the World Bank or ADB or bilateral aid channels. In security, existing regional institutions like the ARF are already performing with regional confidence building. In economics China is seen as a valuable development partner, while in security China is viewed as a challenge, if not a threat, to the existing system, bilateral or multilateral.

What regional or global ordering might replace the American World Order?

I have called the emerging world order a “Multiplex World.” The key feature of such a world order is that power and leadership are increasingly dispersed. Power asymmetries remain, but the ability to create order and provide public goods in economics and security lies not just in the hands of a single power, or a group of great powers, or nation-states, but also with a variety of other actors, such as transnational social movements, corporations, regional organizations like the EU, and foundations (like the Gates Foundation). The power to disrupt order is also dispersed; inter-state conflicts no longer threaten it as much as intra-state conflicts or conflicts linked to non-state actors such as extremist groups.

This is a very different world than the immediate post-World War II period when the United States emerged as the world’s dominant power. It is also not the multipolar world of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Traditionally, multipolarity meant having multiple great powers in an international system. Order is produced by their competition and cooperation, mainly the former. Today, not only we have more actors, but thanks to globalization, the world is much more genuinely interconnected and interdependent than ever before, whereas before the World Wars, interdependence was really about the rest of the world’s dependence on European colonial powers.

To sum, up, a Multiplex World combines multiplicity and complexity. It’s a world of multiple actors in global affairs that are nonetheless bound by complex forms of interdependence.

The fact is that today’s world faces challenges that are much more complex and transnational in nature, but its underlying power structure is much more dispersed, while there is greater mutual linkages and dependence among nations around the globe, make it impossible for any single nation, including the U.S., to lead and manage it on its own. This is the structural shift heralding the end of the American World Order.

Let me offer an example. The traditional architecture of global governance was dominated by the big multilateral institutions, created and dominated by the U.S. and its Western allies, such as the UN, IMF, World Bank, and the WTO, and various UN-linked organizations like the WHO, UNHCR, etc. They are no longer the only game in town. Others in the fray are regional organizations, private sector groups, foundations, civil society groups, and different combinations of them. New institutions like the G20, which brings together countries from both the North and the South, on a more equitable footing than the UN Security Council or the IMF. The new system is messier, and many of them operate outside the control of governments or global inter-governmental organizations. They are not beholden to American objectives and authority.

A Multiplex World is a more regionalized world, not necessarily with stronger formal regional intergovernmental organizations, but with more regional level interactions of all kinds, formal, informal and featuring both state and non-state actors. Some of this will complement, while others will challenge the authority and role of the old global institutions.

How should President-elect Donald Trump define American leadership amid the end of American world order?

It’s unlikely that Trump can reverse the decline of the American world order, which is rooted in long-term structural factors, such as the dispersion of power, the rise of complex transnational threats, and the fragmentation of global governance. The election of Trump makes no difference.

An American president can do better by recognizing the realities of the Multiplex World, where different countries and actors have varying influence in different issue areas. China plays a vital role in stabilizing the world economy, while the U.S. remains the key actor in the global security management, although there is a danger that Trump will use it recklessly or responsibly. The emerging powers are increasingly influencing global trade and climate negotiations, relative to the traditional West.

No power can impose its will or lead across all areas. China has more ability to shape the global economy than global security. The United States has more influence on global security than on global trade or climate change negotiations. The EU is a major norm-setter in world politics. This also ensures that no great power, in pursuing its interests and approaches in one issue area, can ignore the interests and initiatives of another in the same or other issue areas without inviting backlash and undermining success in areas where cooperation is needed.

The nature of cooperation might change; formal alliance-like groupings like NATO or like-minded groupings like the G7 might give away to more issue-based and ad hoc coalitions. The United States and China compete in East Asia for security, but cooperate on the world stage in ensuring economic stability and climate protection.

In this world, the United Sates has to lead with, rather than dictate to, other nations. It should find creative ways to share leadership, rather than insist on leading in every area. I want to stress that shared leadership is not the same as self-reliance, whether on the part of the U.S. or its allies, or disengagement, as Trump seems to advocate, although it remains to be seen how he goes about conducting foreign policy. But it is a more complex, nuanced, engagement, which I would call strategic decentering, the term first used in my recent The National Interest article.

Turning to Asia, much depends on how the new administration’s policies actually evolve. It’s too early and we know too little. But Obama’s “pivot” is dead now, along with the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. U.S.-China relations will have less focus on human rights and more on trade imbalance and currency issues. But the real impact of Trump’s election on China would depend on how the U.S. policy in China’s neighborhood changes, including the fate of U.S. alliances, which becomes more uncertain under Trump, who has threatened to pressure allies into paying more to maintain them. If these alliances weaken, there will be greater temptation for Japan to go nuclear. ASEAN could expect less admiration from and engagement with the U.S. than under Obama. ASEAN centrality and Asian regionalism as a whole will be put to a severe test, relative to unilateral and bilateral approaches that China favors. The dispersion of power and its management associated with a Multiplex World would accelerate.