Welcome to the World Without the West

"What is happening is a concerted effort by the emerging powers to construct parallel multilateral architectures that route around the liberal order, and will likely reshape international politics and economics in fundamental ways."

It’s become standard practice for U.S. officials to describe the future of Sino-American ties as the central drama of international politics. In early November, just ahead of President Obama’s summit with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Secretary of State John Kerry told an audience in Washington that, “The U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential in the world today, period, and it will do much to determine the shape of the 21st century.” National Security Adviser Susan Rice took to the Twittersphere shortly after touching down in Beijing in September to reiterate the oft-repeated phrase that, “Most major global challenges of 21st century cannot be addressed effectively without U.S. and China working together.”

This isn’t just diplomatic courtesy; it’s a core signal of how American foreign-policy makers see the world. The dominant framing in Washington is that the United States and China will in the final analysis sink or swim together, and carry most of the rest of the world with them. If the two powers manage to get their relationship right and cooperate effectively, things go well; if they don’t, then the coming decades will be difficult to navigate for just about everyone.

There’s an academic foundation to this worldview. It assumes that rising powers, now as in the past, face a clear choice when they confront a prevailing international order that was established by a previous generation of great powers. They can either assimilate into the international order or challenge it. As a result, Washington’s China policy has aimed to encourage the former as much as possible, while preparing to limit damage in case China chooses the latter. This logic has formed the basis of America’s hedging strategy toward China for more than two decades.

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In an essay in the National Interest magazine in the summer of 2007 (“A World Without the West,” July/August 2007), we argued that these academic theories were dangerously inadequate and that the consequent mental map was wrong. We reasoned that emerging powers, and China in particular, would most likely neither challenge, nor assimilate to the U.S.-led order, because neither of these options is remotely attractive. Why would the Chinese government embrace a liberal system that largely runs counter to its domestic and international interests? And why pick a fight with the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world and its many wealthy and powerful friends? To see China as boxed-in to choosing between two unattractive options was to take imperfect academic theory too seriously, and, even worse, to misinterpret the behavior of rising powers.

Looking beyond this false choice, we noted that rising powers were instead beginning to build a “World Without the West” that “routed around” the existing international order. Upon closer empirical inspection, it was increasingly clear that the emerging powers were preferentially deepening ties among themselves in economic, political, and even security domains. In so doing, they were loosening in relative terms the ties that bind them to the liberal international system centered in the West.

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This argument made a lot of people uncomfortable, mostly because of an endemic and gross overestimation of the reach, depth and attractiveness of the existing liberal order.

Now, seven years later, the World Without the West has come into full view. The biggest story in international politics today is not whether Beijing will be seduced, incentivized, or even compelled to sign onto or buy into the existing international system. Nor is it about how the United States and China are headed into a downward spiral toward World War III—although, as areas of competition intensify, the traditional (assimilate vs. challenge) mindset forces analysts, wrongly, to see conflict as the only and likely alternative. What is happening instead is a concerted effort by the emerging powers to construct parallel multilateral architectures that route around the liberal order and will likely reshape international politics and economics in fundamental ways.

The latest and most vivid example of this dynamic is the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which aims to provide an alternative to the iconic Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their regional sibling, the Asian Development Bank. The AIIB is Beijing’s brainchild and will likely remain firmly in China’s control. India and twenty other developing countries have already signed up as founding members.

But the AIIB is only one of many emerging international institutions that are routing around the Western-led order and, according to a recent comprehensive study of these trends, are “complementary or parallel to existing ones, rarely challenging them head-on.” Other examples include political organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation (SCO), the BRICS mechanism, development initiatives such as China’s New Silk Road and economic groupings such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The list goes on.