Book review: “Emerging powers and global challenges”


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Original title in Portuguese: Potências Emergentes e Desafios Globais. Editora Fundação Konrad Adenauer, Rio de Janeiro, 2013

From a Western point of view, the rise of new powers such as China, India and Brazil is usually not seen as particularly helpful when it comes to addressing international challenges such as poverty, failed states, and large-scale human rights abuses. Gone are the times when the world's most pressing problems could be dealt with in a cozy setting of the G-7 - preferably around the fireplace, as Germany's Helmut Schmidt and France's Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had envisioned it when he created the grouping. Today's emerging powers, often called "irresponsible stakeholders" by the West, are commonly accused of posing obstacles to finding solutions that would effectively deal with today's challenges. Virtually all big questions of our time, when the bloodshed in Syria to climate change, are being discussed within this framework.

Yet what do thinkers in emerging powers themselves think about these questions? Paradoxically, despite the global character of the challenges the international community faces, those based outside of Europe and North America are rarely provided with the space and airtime they deserve to make their voices heard. Leading International Relations' journals such as International Organization and International Security continue to be dominated by US-American scholars (though some changes have recently taken place).

"Emerging powers and global challenges" (Potências Emergentes e Desafios Globais") seeks to fill this gap and assembled a group of scholars largely from emerging powers to provide a fresh perspective on some of the most daunting international challenges - ranging from climate change, conflict and nuclear proliferation to financial instability and global governance issues.

As the introduction makes clear, most authors agree with the central claim that multipolarization does indeed make things more difficult - yet not necessarily because of the way emerging powers behave, but rather because they - quite naturally - find themselves in very different positions than today's established powers. Cutting emissions is one thing for Germany, but quite another for India, where millions are moving into the middle class, a development that is said to dramatically increase per capita emissions.

An additional problem is that there is no common definition of emerging powers to begin with - whereas Russia is part of the BRICS, it strongly differs from other emerging powers in terms of its insertion into global structures - one may think of its nuclear status and permanent membership of the UNSC. As a consequence, some authors have simply excluded Russia in their analysis. Some included South Africa instead, whereas some only looked at China, India and Brazil.

According to Pu (Chapter 1), there are five phases in a continuously recurring cycle: It starts out with a stable order, in which the hegemon is in control of the global system. During this first phase, the hegemon’s central role is unchallenged, largely because the difference in power between the hegemon and the second- and third largest actors is very large. Due to the law of uneven rates of growth among states, non-hegemonic states eventually grow faster than the hegemon (as is happening now), and the power gap between the power of the hegemon and that of the rest shrinks. This development leads to the second phase of deconcentration and delegitimation of the hegemon’s power, since the existing structures no longer reflect the distribution of power adequately. The third step according to  Pu is an arms buildup and the formation of alliances, during which the rising powers – generally still weaker than the hegemon in direct comparison - attempt to develop ways and means to weaken the hegemon further. The process of deconcentration and delegitimation continues during this third phase, and the rising powers adopt a rhetoric that seeks to delegitimize the hegemon and the current structures. The fourth phase is that of resolution of the international crisis, often through hegemonic war, followed by the fifth phase of system renewal. Once this phase is complete, and a new order is built, we return to the first phase of stable order. Pu argues that the current international system is entering a deconcentration/ delegitimation phase.

Xiaoyu Pu's chapter thus provides a fascinating theoretical blueprint, and yet the author himself makes clear that historical evidence may be of limited use as today's order is quite different from previous structures - not at least due to the presence of nuclear weapons. He also argues that given that today's challenges are far more global than previous ones, our expectations of what the international system should be able to do have also changed, making comparisons difficult.

Chapter 2 on emerging powers and the future of global financial order is perhaps the one that makes the momentous shift of power away from established actors the most explicit: the authors call current developments "irreversible", yet they remain optimistic that institutions such as the newly created G20 can deal with many of the upcoming challenges. The chapter also provides an impressive overview over the growing importance of national development banks such as Brazil's BNDES, which already provides more loans than the World Bank. While the authors concede that growing intra-BRIC trade is set to increase the role of the Chinese yuan in global finance, they argue that the probability of more sustained BRIC-cooperation is low. The future of global financial order is thus "messy but manageable" - yet not without meaningful reforms of existing institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.

In chapter 3 on rising powers and nuclear non-proliferation, Swaran Singh points out that in wake of this continued relative decline of the US in last two decades, none of the rising powers have shown any revolutionary passion bent on overthrowing the established powers and their predominant liberal order. At the same time, most of the rising powers are seen as at least moderately revisionist, and they have shown intent of gradually becoming norm makers and not remain simply norm takers forever. Yet of all issue areas, the NPT can be said to be the most unequal and exclusive, thus having turned into a symbol of all that is wrong with international institutions - particularly for non-nuclear emerging powers such as India and Brazil.

In chapter 4 on emerging powers and South-South development cooperation, André de Mello e Souza points to a paradox: South-South cooperation has increased dramatically over the past decade, yet we still know very little about it. The author provides an excellent overview over each rising powers' activities as an "emerging donor" - including their motivations and points of views vis-à-vis existing rules and norms established by traditional donors. He concludes that South-South cooperation does not provide a conceptual challenge to existing norms of development aid - rather, he implies that emerging donors should follow many of the lessons established donors have learned over the past decade, and make their programs more transparent and easy to understand.

In chapter 5 on emerging powers and peacekeeping, Maxi Schoemann from South Africa emphasizes the need for cooperation amongst emerging powers, with specific reference to peacekeeping, and more broadly, peace-making. The BICS (she excludes Russia from her analysis) have all turned into major contributors of troops to UN peace operations. She observes that emerging powers appear to assume that such participation is required as evidence of their international ‘good citizenship’ and of their international leadership credentials. This would seem to be a fairly recent criterion for measuring the leadership qualifications of states in the international system. Schoeman also writes that emerging powers agree on the importance of participating in peace operations, and they seem to agree that moving from Chapter VI operations to Chapter VII operations – peace enforcement – is contentious and dangerous, and undermining of the hallowed international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-intervention. Yet they have all been softening their approaches from strict non-interventionist to an approach akin to non-indifference – Brazil in Haiti (where India and China also have committed peacekeepers), South Africa in voting for Resolution 1973 - there is thus, according to the author, real potential for cooperation between emerging powers.

Chapter 6 by Lydia Powell from India provides an overview of India's position regarding climate change, the author points out that the divergence in the articulation of the climate issue and the contradictions in the fair allocation of the carbon mitigation burden in the current negotiating framework have led to a fragmented climate regime allowing the formation of climate blocks in much the same way as it has in global trade negotiations. Powell argues that focusing on per-capita emissions makes little sense in the case of India: the poor in India are already ‘green’ as they consume little or no fossil fuels directly or in the form of electricity. This is a status that they are neither aware of nor proud of and would only be too happy to get out of, if given a choice. High economic growth rates are seen to be necessary to reduce levels of absolute poverty in India and provide electricity to over 400 million people who have not been linked to the electric grid and modern cooking fuels to over 800 million people who use traditional biomass as fuel for cooking. "Development is the place that everyone in India is trying to get to, to complete themselves."

This very same paradox is a key theme in chapter 7, in which Romy Chevalier compares Brazil's, India's and South Africa's role in global climate negotiations. Contrary to Powell, the author strikes a decidedly more optimistic tone and calls for stronger cooperation among the three (using the IBSA platform) to share knowledge and best practices on how to reduce emissions. Notably, she also argues that by coordinating their positions, the IBSA countries could improve their weight during international climate negotiations.

In the final chapter on emerging powers and the future of global governance, Thorsten Benner alerts that the liberal institutionalists’ expectation that emerging powers will be ‘socialized’ into existing liberal order and become ‘responsible stakeholders’, (…) gladly tak(ing) their pre-assigned seats as “responsible stakeholders” in a Western-built global order” will most likely turn out to be frustrated. He also points out that the term ‘responsible stakeholder’ has a patronizing ring to it, unlikely to move the debate forward. Contrary to Huotari and Hanemann, Benner argues that the G20 yet has to bear fruit, and that its creation does not change its overall assessment that we have been through a ‘lost decade’ which failed to produce effective global mechanisms.

Since emerging powers’ views on how to address global challenges are not fully aligned, cooperation between emerging powers and established powers is bound to occur on a case-by-case basis. Yet even here, the authors remain skeptical. According to Benner, “there is simply not the level of trust among established and rising powers that is needed for diffuse reciprocity to work to a sufficient degree.” Yet some space for optimism remains. Huotari and Hanemann, for example, conclude that “rising power's bounded strive to change global financial and monetary structures represents a huge opportunity to increase the legitimacy of global governance” and to induce “an era of productive frictions and fruitful governance competition.” The challenges of achieving such a scenario are no doubt formidable – yet the costs of failing to do so make the continued study of the matter indispensable.

Read also:

Towards democratic internationalism in a post-exceptionalist era?

Who will make the rules in tomorrow’s world?

Resenha: “O Brasil, os BRICS e a Agenda Internacional”