The End of American World Order

  • Published

The End of American World Order by Amitav Acharya. Polity, 2018, 224 pp.

The second edition of Amitav Acharya’s notable book comes with an enviable sense of urgency. Euroscepticism abroad and a prevalent isolationist bent in US politics have brought the future of the liberal world order into doubt. Archarya’s argument is that this move away from a perceived global system is related to, but is not the cause of, a larger dissolution of the US-led world order. In sum, the text argues that the decline of the so-called American or “liberal” world order marks a necessary point of transition. As the “rest” of the world continues to grow, many elements of the international system developed by the US are falling in importance or do not command the same reverence among increasingly powerful non-Western states.

Contrary to arguments that the current system needs firm leadership—think Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass’ recent work—Acharya argues that the international system is headed for a more dynamic, pluralistic future. While economic gain garnered through interdependence will continue to make international cooperation possible, this will come by way of a more robust set of regional and localized organizations. He points out that the inevitability of this multiplex world stems from the fact that Western power has already precipitously declined, that most of the world did not benefit from (but were in many ways coerced or rendered unstable by) the current order, and that there are no clear hegemonies (defined as the states that have the military, economic, and cultural power to create interstate orders) with the capacity to stitch together a truly global order. Arguments that this world will inevitably be both fractured and conflictual are, in Acharya’s approximation, Eurocentric and downplay the potential of a multiplex order to be largely stable.

The power of Acharya’s work is that it provides both a stunning and convincing alternative perspective on the nature of global order. His work is decidedly different from, and thereby enriches, the debate often found both within the scholarly and popular worlds regarding the US’s role in a changing international system. The text outlines a number of harsh truths to the conventional understanding about how widely, deeply, and effectively faith in the contemporary system is felt beyond the West—but without assuming that the very real economic ties wrought by globalization will simply dissolve. It is, for that reason, a very striking exercise in theorization without many peers in what has become a rather stilted and reactionary debate about global order within international relations. For this reason alone, the text is worth reading by anyone interested in international affairs.

The key drawback of the text, which I fear will undermine the argument for many readers of SSQ, is how little attention is given to the changing nature of the global security landscape. Of course, the text is an exercise in international relations theory with an interest in global order, but it seems to entertain a division between security affairs and other realms of international politics that is out of step with the interconnectedness of contemporary global issues. Though Acharya entertains a willingness to grapple with the changing nature of (in)security and what that means for international order, the text is primarily interested in governance. The problem is that issues threatening to divide or undermine regional organizations are increasingly interconnected and not easily separated. Emergent security threats like cyberwarfare and nonstate forms of terrorism and warfare are lashed directly to issues of development, trade, and economics in ways that a multiplex world may find difficult to address. I am perfectly content to take Acharya’s argument that the bias against regionalism and faith in the liberal order are artefacts of Western approach’s and Eurocentrism, but I find it difficult to imagine a multiplex world that can survive without some level of coordination on complex issues that actually goes beyond current forms of global engagement. The relationships between climate change, civil conflict and state fragility, and the tensions created by the migrant crises in North American and Europe figure as a good example of future security politics—but make a multiplex world difficult to imagine as stable. Even so, I think security studies scholars and military professionals should read Acharya and take his argument seriously as a means to broaden how they think about global order and begin disentangling ways of thinking that are heavily Western-centric from the changing character of security threats.

This text is equally as important as its first edition and essential reading given the seemingly growing fragility of contemporary international institutions. It’s a lucid and hard-nosed look at the reality of the American World Order, which, as Acharya points out, never really integrated the world so much as the US sphere of influence and attention, is both pragmatic and timely. However, the text’s lack of engagement with the changing nature of security threats, specifically cyber- and hybrid war, is weak spot.

Jack MacLennan

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."