Book review: “No one’s world: the West, the rising rest and the coming global turn.” By Charles A. Kupchan.

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International Affairs, July 2013

Book review

No one’s world: the West, the rising rest and the coming global turn. By Charles A. Kupchan. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012. 272pp. Index. £16.99. isbn 978 0 19973 939 4. Available as e-book.

What will replace the western world order once the United States is no longer capable of exercising global leadership? Will China’s rise be ‘unpeaceful’ and prove to be disruptive, as John Mearsheimer argues, or will rising powers support today’s system that is ‘easy to join and hard to overturn’, as G. John Ikenberry predicts? Who will rule the world once the United States’ reign ends, and what will such a world look like? Is it a ‘post-American world’, a ‘Chinese world’, or simply a western world order under non-western leadership?

Rejecting such predictions, Charles Kupchan predicts that tomorrow’s world will ‘belong to no one’. Before elaborating on this claim, the author briskly moves through centuries of history to explain why the West was quickly able to develop economically and leave other, traditionally successful, regions behind, thus initiating western global dominance. While the world had historically been compartmentalized, with each region operating according to culturally particular and exclusive principles, the author argues that Europe’s rise helped create one single global system: as European powers conquered the world, ‘they also exported European conceptions of sovereignty, administration, law, diplomacy, and commerce’ (p. 65)—thus creating what we now call the ‘western world order’.

Kupchan writes that ‘remaking the world in its own image was perhaps the ultimate exercise of Western power’ (p. 66). The West’s capacity to define modernity caused generations of non-western thinkers to argue about whether there was a difference between modernization and westernization. Kupchan shows that in a few decades, at least three BRIC countries will be among the world’s five leading economies, and he predicts that there will be multiple versions of modernity. Not only do the characteristics of Brazil’s, India’s and China’s rise differ markedly from Europe’s, but their cultural DNA is different, too, he argues. At the same time, the author fails to explain how internal peculiarities affect countries’ strategy vis-àvis the global system. His assertion that ‘much of Latin America has been captivated by left-wing populism’ and that this represents ‘an alternative to the West’s brand of liberal democracy’ is controversial (p. 90). What exactly are the characteristics of the ‘West’s brand of liberal democracy’? Is Brazil’s democratic system fundamentally different from, say, Portugal’s? Kupchan also separates Latin America from the West without explaining what definition of the West he uses.

Possibly oversimplifying, the author speaks of the ‘West’ as if it were a cohesive bloc. In Kupchan’s eyes, Brazilian President Lula’s decision to meet Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad serves as proof that Brazil will not accept the Western Global Order. Turkey’s quarrels with Israel are supposedly evidence of Turkey’s “drift away from the West.” Yet the West is not a tangible group of countries, rather an idea that has shifted its meaning through the ages. In the same way, Kupchan overlooks a more complex reality when he argues that the West stands for liberal democracy and free-market capitalism alone, and that the non-West is made up of autocrats and state-led economies. During the economic crisis, for example, the US government massively intervened in the economy, and many parts of China’s economy are in fact entirely dominated by private sector actors. The countries most open to trade are not located in Europe, but in Asia (Singapore and Hong Kong). As the author analyzes ‘autocrats’ in Russia and China, ‘theocrats’ in the Middle East and ‘populists’ in Latin America, he makes a series of bold predictions yet leaves the reader guessing about what leads Kupchan to these conclusions. None of the ‘non-Western’ actors (and Kupchan reduces the West to the US and Europe) seem to establish genuine democracies – a claim likely to find rejection in many regions of the world.

One of Kupchan’s rather unconvincing arguments is that India’s voting behavior in the UN shows that “its interests and status as an emerging power are more important determinants of its foreign policy than its democratic institutions”, thus implying the United States’ democratic institutions are somehow more important to US policy makers than national interest. Yet the history of US foreign policy is littered with instances when strong partnerships with non-democratic regimes were established to promote US national interest – not at least in the Middle East where Saudi Arabia remains an important US ally. This highly US-centric argument paradoxically shows how difficult it will be for policy makers in Washington D.C. to adapt to a truly multipolar world in which the United States will be one among several large actors.

Several authors, such as Richard Haass, have argued that no country will be able to replace the United States as a global hegemon. Kupchan interprets emerging countries’ independent foreign policy strategies as evidence that they will undermine today’s global order. Though well-written, he overlooks that despite their growing strength, there is little evidence that countries such as China seriously challenge the norms and rules that undergird today’s system.

Finally, he argues that West should ‘restore solvency’ (recovering balance between resources and commitments) – i.e. scale back and come to terms with the West’s relative decline. This is an important observation, yet Kupchan could have offered more concrete advice to policy makers about how to manage such a difficult downward transition. His calls for less individualism and more civic engagement remain relatively general.

In the final chapter, Kupchan lays out a series of interesting ideas about what the New World Order could look like. He argues that “the West will have to embrace political diversity rather than insist that liberal diversity is the only legitimate form of government.” The author rightly observes that “even as the West does business with autocracies, it delegitimizes them in word and action.” In this essentially realist argument, Kupchan argues that while such a pro-democracy stance may be morally compelling, it was simply not pragmatic and made unnecessary enemies in the emerging world. While he says that democracies should continue to speak out against repression, this should not create obstacles to working with autocrats in a constructive manner. However, the author declines to specify at which degree of a dictator’s nastiness the West should switch from cooperation to condemnation.

Kupchan’s book is sprinkled with interesting insights and ideas (particularly in the last chapter), yet the ground he covers is too vast, forcing him to remain superficial and relying on generalizations when commenting on other countries’ domestic affairs. “The world”, the author says, “is headed towards a global dissensus.” The prediction that we’ll live in a world with competing naratives (rather than a convergence towards a Western narative) is an important starting point. Yet Kupchan could offer more specific proposals of how to behave in such a world.

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