The Debate | Opinion

Book Review: ‘Trumped: Emerging Powers in a Post-American World’

A new book examines global order in the 21st century.

By Joy Mitra for
Book Review: ‘Trumped: Emerging Powers in a Post-American World’
Credit: Flickr/ White House

Trumped: Emerging Powers in a Post-American World is an inquiry by international relations scholar Sreeram Chaulia into the emerging global order. Chaulia makes an enterprising effort to decipher and distinguish the global order’s superficial appearance from what it substantively stands for.

In the process, he challenges the widespread assumption held in Western literature on the subject of a receding U.S.-led global order, that the necessary antithesis of any U.S. withdrawal is a substitution of that space by a China-led order. He argues that this China-led world order is not a natural ramification of U.S. withdrawal and emerging powers have a role in this process.

Unlike the scholarship in the West, he ascribes agency to these emerging powers in determining the shape and structure of power distribution in the system. To that end the book focuses its attention on four independent states — namely India, Turkey, Brazil, and Nigeria — among the rising powers with the potential to autonomously shape the global order.

The introduction starts with two contrasting quotes that beautifully set the tone for an insightful study of U.S. engagement with the world and capture the transition in how U.S. perceives its own role in the world order.

The first is from President Franklin Roosevelt, exhorting the virtue of “international cooperation and the dangers of isolationism” in 1945; a second is from the current U.S. president, Donald Trump, and emphasizes “independence and national interest over global control and bureaucracy and patriotism over globalism.”

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Though the title may suggest that the project is heavily invested in an analysis at the level of individual decision makers like Trump, it in fact treats the onset of Trump as symptomatic of a broader phenomenon not limited to the United States, but cutting across the spectrum in the West.

To that end, Chaulia cites multiple historical instances of the United States looking inwards to outline its default predilections that are nationalistic, isolationist, and deferential to populism such that the U.S. in fact needs an external threat to come out of its more favorable dispositions. He traces the re-emergence of this  behavior in the 21st century to middle- and working-class constituencies in the West that have been disadvantaged by the earlier wave of globalization.

For the United States, a homeland-centric view defines its current global interests, resulting in actions that have led it to willfully vacate the space for other powers to fill. Its actions like reversing its stakes in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Paris climate change agreement are therefore not just a result of Trump’s own predilections, but ramifications of Trump responding to a changed character of the domestic political landscape, one that may outlive his presidency.

Elsewhere, the author also questions the liberal internationalist attributes of the current U.S.-led order to point out that U.S. instrumentalized liberal internationalism may coat its realist actions with a moral cover. And in essence it has instrumentalized the use of comprehensive national power toward its material interest devoid of any moral prism and at the cost of emerging powers.

In that sense, U.S. rhetoric is geared toward preventing a power transition in the system, with China as the challenger, and lacks the moral high ground that it so often claims without an iota of doubt. This leads Chaulia to his thesis where he ascribes agency to emerging powers in resisting the global structure, rules, and norms to advance their own position in the system, and argues that they are unlikely to play second fiddle to the United States or China. In essence, the absence of U.S. at the masthead does not result in an automatic passing of the baton to China, but could in fact lead to an emergence of a power matrix that is the sum of many regional orders.

The book does a fine job in taking the reader through a journey of U.S. engagement with the world at large and provides a deep insight into the drivers of change in the foreign policy landscape. Chaulia contextualizes the U.S. role and, even without a fully devoted chapter on China, outlines the challenges it must face as the challenger to the current system.

Chaulia’s greatest contribution to the debate on the global order — or rather the emerging global order — is to identify state actors that are not merely acting as swing states or balancers, but actively and independently shaping the structure in pursuit of their own ends. The conversation on global order is therefore not merely one between the status quo power and the main challenger, but a more democratized round-table.

If one were forced to pick holes in this very satisfying read, Trump’s characterization as a leader who wishes to abdicate the United States’ global leadership is perhaps an over-extension of his desire to reduce U.S. commitments across the globe. Trump’s idea of leadership, after all, is to preserve U.S. power at the expense of other states. In that sense, Trump still eyes a unipolar system with a current of de-globalization reinforcing the status quo.

Similarly while Chaulia praises Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his disruptive approach to foreign policy, he is unusually silent on Indian anti-Muslim sentiment and the simultaneous rise of majoritarian sentiment that seeks Hindu primacy at the national level. This is accompanied by a slow-growing economy, which effectively stymies the ability to build domestic capacity and the ability of the Indian state to operate autonomously in the global system in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives.

In the final analysis, to imagine the transitioning global order as a polygonal process is a fascinating thought. Equally fascinating is the fact that it is not easy to predict where this process may lead the world. A more multipolar world is not necessarily more democratic in its character. Along its current trajectory, it could be result in distributed anarchy — or worse: a mass of regional orders much less than its sum.

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Joy Mitra is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Eastwest organisation, New York and a former Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C. In addition, he is a consultant at Armed Conflict Location Event Database (ACLED) Project. All views are personal and do not reflect those of the organizations to which the author is affiliated.