Why we are underestimating today’s global order
Western nations, and the United States in particular, are proud of the global order they have created after World War II. Rightly so: for the past 65 years, the Western World Order has provided great political stability, unknown prosperity and low levels of conflict, and it successfully helped prevent nuclear war. Major political changes such as the demise of the Soviet Union, then the world’s second most powerful country, German reunification and America’s temporary ‘unipolar moment’ were all successfully absorbed by the system, providing continued predictability amid economic growth and growing welfare for humanity (the recent economic crisis does not change this overall assessment). It is these highly successful institutions, created by visionary leaders seeking to avoid past bloodshed by extrapolating Western institutions internationally, that make up the Western World Order. While liberal thinkers had begun to articulate the basic outline of such a system (made up of a dense web of institutions and treaties) centuries earlier, it was only after 1945 that this system actually came to pass, putting a revolutionary idea into practice that would change the nature of international relations forever.
Yet since the end of the Cold War, a much more fundamental transformation is taking place, and power is shifting from the United States and Europe to emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil. For the first time since the creation of the Western World Order, power will be with those who did not actively participate in the creation of the rules that undergird the system. There is a growing awareness that the West is losing the capacity to control global affairs, tackle challenges or define the international agenda.
This inevitable trend will alter the nature of global order, and the big question is how this will play out - what will the 'Post-Western World' look like? The critical question that fundamentally shapes analysts' predictions is how strongly the system depends on its creators, particularly the United States. A powerful group argues that the system cannot function without a strong global manager. In a recent article in Foreign Policy ("After America"), Zbigniew Bezezinski, national security advisor under U.S. President Carter and respected foreign policy analyst, argues that
no single power will be ready (...) to exercise the role that the world (...) expected the United States to play: the leader of a new, globally cooperative world order. More probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers, in a setting of international uncertainty and even of potentially fatal risks to global well-being. Rather than a world where dreams of democracy flourish, a Hobbesian world of enhanced national security based on varying fusions of authoritarianism, nationalism, and religion could ensue.
Identifying the United States as an 'indispensable nation' to uphold global order, he continues saying that
another consequence of American decline could be a corrosion of the generally cooperative management of the global commons -- shared interests such as sea lanes, space, cyberspace, and the environment, whose protection is imperative to the long-term growth of the global economy and the continuation of basic geopolitical stability. In almost every case, the potential absence of a constructive and influential U.S. role would fatally undermine the essential communality of the global commons because the superiority and ubiquity of American power creates order where there would normally be conflict.
This analysis curiously disregards the characteristics that made today's global order so great in the first place, severely underestimating the power of the system: As Princeton Professor John Ikenberry frequently argues, today’s institutions are "easy to join and hard to overturn". They are unique in that they are flexible and built on rules and democratic ideals – more importantly still, they have ‘intra-institutional mobility’, which means that member countries can rise - and wane – within the institutions, a process that will allow them to continue their existence and functioning even once their founding countries no longer play an important role. Rather than seeking power outside of the institutions, emerging powers regard institutions themselves as loci of concentrated power – and the capacity to work through them to influence others and gain legitimacy – as an essential vehicle to global power status.
When analyzing China's, India's and Brazil's foreign policy behavior (and disregarding confrontational rhetoric directed towards a domestic audience), we realize that Ikenberry is correct at first glance. For example, emerging powers are eager to assume responsibility in the IMF and the World Bank, they are emerging as important donors of development aid, and they proved to be constructive actors during G-20 summits.
The same is true regarding security, an area where the United States' decline is thought to have the worst consequences. Who would have thought only some years ago that the Chinese navy would be patrolling the Gulf of Aden in the global fight against piracy? Who would have imagined Brazilian soldiers maintaining order in Haiti? Thousands of Indian soldiers support peacekeeping missions in dangerous regions across the globe. With their growing economic interests, emerging powers' willingness and capacity to turn into the new managers of global order will grow further. And just as the global order survived disastrous decisions by the old guardian (e.g. the Iraq War), it will survive future mistakes made by China, India and Brazil. The West may not always be happy with decisions made in Beijing, New Delhi and Brasília, and new powers' management style will differ from that the world is used to. But the fundamental rules that undergird today's system - the best we have ever had - will be upheld. Rather then fretting about the end of its supremacy, the West should be proud that the system it invented will live on in the Post-Western World.