Whose World Is It Anyway?

Whose World Is It Anyway?

Mini Teaser: Charles Kupchan’s engaging new tome describes a world where global governance is collapsing and nations have only the barest common ground of agreement. But his analysis is marred by unworkable policy prescriptions and a static perspective.

by Author(s): Daniel W. Drezner

Charles Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 272 pp., $27.95.

[amazon 0199739390 full]IN 1990, G. John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan published a research article on hegemonic power in International Organization that originally garnered little notice but proved to be much beloved by scholars. In “Socialization and Hegemonic Power,” Ikenberry and Kupchan argued that hegemons maintained their status through more than brute force or the manipulation of carrots and sticks. Wise hegemons took care to ensure that they educated the elites of subordinate states in their substantive beliefs. In doing so, these elites would learn to accept the ideas that animate the hegemonic power. Their takeaway point was that, while material power mattered, deep levels of socialization permitted a superpower to rule through noncoercive means.

Since publishing that essay, Ikenberry, now at Princeton, and Kupchan, a Georgetown professor and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, have gone in divergent directions. The former has continued to write about American hegemony and the order that emanated from it. In After Victory, he pointed out the ways in which the United States used multilateral institutions to “bind” itself to a liberal global order. More recently, in Liberal Leviathan, Ikenberry argued that these institutions are sufficiently appealing to rising states like China and India that their elites would help support America’s animating ideas.

Kupchan has pursued a more idiosyncratic track. A decade ago, in The End of the American Era, he argued that American unipolarity was doomed and the European Union would emerge as a new global superpower. Clearly, that prediction has not panned out, so now he is back with a new and more pessimistic prediction. In No One’s World, Kupchan joins the chorus arguing that the distribution of power has shifted away from the West and toward the “rest,” meaning non-Western nations. More significantly, Kupchan argues that these rising powers will not embrace the same ideas that governed the United States and Europe during the creation of the post–World War II and post–Cold War worlds: “The Chinese ship of state will not dock in the Western harbor, obediently taking the berth assigned it.” The conditions that caused the West to embrace secular, liberal, free-market democracy are not present in very large swathes of the globe. Instead, according to Kupchan, it will be no one’s world: a mélange of competing ideas and competing structures will overlap and coexist. No one great power or great idea will rule them all.

No One’s World is an interesting and wide-ranging book. In a brisk two hundred pages, Kupchan covers an astonishing range of material, from the finer points of sixteenth-century religious doctrine to the political economy of modern African patrimonialism. He provides a useful corrective to the Pollyannaish notion that countries, as they get richer, will look more and more like the West. Unfortunately, Kupchan’s analysis is a snapshot where moving pictures are needed. The analysis in No One’s World has a static quality to it. A more dynamic assessment yields a vision that suggests Ikenberry might have time on his side. Perhaps the rest of the world has been more socialized into vital aspects of Western norms than Kupchan thinks.

KUPCHAN BEGINS No One’s World with a look into the past, recounting exactly how the West became the West. In 1500, it was far from obvious that Europeans were about to start writing the rules for the rest of the globe. The Ottoman Empire was surging into the Balkans and threatening to conquer the Austrian Empire. Chinese admiral Zheng He was voyaging far into Africa’s east coast; the Ming Dynasty seemed poised to expand its influence far beyond the Pacific Rim. The Aztecs were the hegemonic actor in Central America, as were the Incas in South America. Compared to these empires, the set of squabbling, decentralized and warring states in northwest Europe did not seem a likely candidate for global hegemony.

How did it happen? Kupchan isolates the preconditions in an abbreviated but informative history of modern Europe, and his story closely follows the traditional narrative of Western economic history. The Protestant Reformation broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly on political and ecclesiastical power, fostering toleration for entrepreneurial activities. Urbanization increased the power of merchants and traders at the expense of landowners and traditional nobility. Europe’s natural geography prevented any single ruler from eliminating other nation-states, creating a political competition that made it costly to retard or suppress innovation. Combined, these effects empowered key commercial interests possessing strong “horizontal linkages” with each other (a phrase Kupchan uses often). These newfound sources of economic influence forced political leaders to accommodate rather than repress commercial interests within their borders: “A growing bourgeoisie had established itself as an indelible feature of Europe’s political landscape, leaving monarchs and nobility no choice but to grant this new class a say in matters of governance.” The long-run effects of politically empowering this new class were a boost in economic dynamism and political liberalization in Europe. As Europe dictated terms to the rest of the world, these ideas and values spread to settler colonies and the rest of the globe.

At this juncture, Kupchan pivots to the rest of the world to see if it is likely to follow the Western path. He is doubtful. Looking at the developing world’s past, he concludes that the preconditions for liberal, secular democracy are not present there. The Ottoman Empire as well as myriad imperial dynasties in Persia, China, India and Japan all failed to evolve in the same way as Western Europe. Because “Islam is a religion of faith and law in which there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular,” political leaders were also religious leaders in the Muslim world, making it difficult for the commercial class to develop any kind of autonomy. In South and East Asia, the suffocating hand of the central government prevented the kind of horizontal linkages that might have enabled private citizens to amass political or economic power.

For Kupchan, the past is the future in the non-Western world. After arguing that these regions will acquire greater influence over time, he concludes that modernization will not lead to Westernization. “The problem is that the defining attributes of the West—liberal democracy, industrial capitalism, and secular nationalism—are not being replicated as developing regions modernize.” To be sure, Kupchan acknowledges that the “rest” has embraced capitalism, but in many instances it is a capitalism of a peculiar form: government owned, operated and incubated via sovereign wealth funds, state-owned enterprises, national oil companies and state-development banks. More importantly, this structure of capitalism has made it easier for these states to prevent the other two legs of the Western model from developing. Instead of liberal democracy, other polities are emerging as viable alternatives, including “paternal autocracy” (Russia), “tribal autocracy” (the Persian Gulf), “communal autocracy” (China), “theocracy” (Iran), and various forms of democratic facades in Africa and Latin America. In many of these governments, the fusion of religious and political authority is strong enough to preclude any openness to secularism or respect for minority sects.

At the same time that these new forms of hard and soft authoritarianism have emerged, Kupchan argues that the West itself has been sabotaged from within. The sovereign-debt debacle has revealed “the crisis of governability” in the European Union. As Kupchan shrewdly observes, “The problem is that Europe’s institutions and its politics are on divergent paths; its institutions are getting more European and its politics more national.” The situation is little better in Japan, as that country grapples with a two-decades-long financial crisis, a looming demographic crunch and the clean-up costs of Fukushima. Only in comparison to its allies does the United States look good. The 2011 debt-ceiling crisis and the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s are symbols of the dysfunctional nature of American governance. As Congress has become more polarized, the checks and balances of the Constitution have become choke points where reform goes to die. The result is a world in which no single state is powerful enough to erect global norms, and no coalition of states can reach a sufficient degree of consensus on the rules of the game.

Unless and until the Western political machine can revive itself, No One’s World concludes, the United States will need to pursue a policy of offshore balancing. More generally, Kupchan warns that “if a new rules-based order is to emerge, the West will have to embrace political diversity rather than insist that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government.” Instead, a standard of “responsible governance” would widen the number of possible stakeholders at the global level. Furthermore, Kupchan advocates a devolution to regional forms of governance in which Western institutions serve as a template rather than a substitute for local solutions. He concludes by observing that this strategy should appeal to Americans given the current domestic situation: “What the United States needs to do to restore solvency and domestic consensus—retrench—is also what it needs to do to make more room for rising powers.”

KUPCHAN IS competing in a crowded market for books of this ilk. Over the past decade, Niall Ferguson, Richard Haass, Fareed Zakaria, Ian Bremmer and many others have made variants of the triptych argument that 1) power is diffusing from the United States to the developing countries; 2) power is diffusing from states to nonstate actors; and therefore 3) global governance is going to be a horrible mess for quite some time.

Kupchan’s argument distinguishes itself from these other works on two counts. First, he displays some of the same strengths here as in his earlier work. In about two hundred pages of text, he manages to go from the breakup of the Carolingian Empire to what the world will look like in 2050 with clear, focused prose and argumentation. Try this at home; it is neither easy nor fun.

Furthermore, unlike his contemporaries, Kupchan is willing to get down into the weeds of historical institutionalism in examining why the political economy of the West does not resemble that of the “rest.” He embeds his argument in deep historical context to explain why the more advanced developing countries will reject the American-led order. When Kupchan argues that neither China nor Russia will be altering its authoritarian regime anytime soon, he explains why through adept references to their past histories. In connecting the flourishing of the Western idea to the historical evolution of the West itself, he is better placed than most to conclude that China, Russiaand others will not be evolving in the same way.

One of Kupchan’s shrewder points is that modernization is not the same thing as Westernization, even in countries that seem to inherit a large number of Western traits. Indeed, if anything, it is a bit disappointing that No One’s World does not elaborate on this point. India, for example, is the advanced developing state that most resembles the West in its secular, capitalist democracy. Despite a strong affinity for Western ideas, the growth of affluence in the subcontinent has had some peculiar effects. For example, one would expect that the combination of economic growth and increased female-literacy rates would increase gender equality in that country. A recent study in the Lancet, however, revealed a startling finding: the very regions and households with greater levels of education and per capita income also demonstrated the highest rates of sex-selective abortions. These are the families that can afford sophisticated ultrasounds that determine the sex of the baby in time for an abortion. If this is a trend in Western-friendly India, one can only imagine the persistence of non-Western ideas and ideals in places like China and the Middle East.

Even the more controversial dimensions of Kupchan’s argument—such as his distinction between Christianity and Islam—have a cruel ring of truth. I will leave it to theologians to debate whether No One’s World’s blanket assertion that Islam is a creed of faith and law is 100 percent accurate. Still, in thinking about the cultural gap between the West and the Islamic world, one only has to contrast how Afghans responded to the accidental burning of Korans with their reaction to the recent massacre of sixteen Afghan civilians by an American soldier in Kandahar. The latter led to complaints and peaceful protests; the former triggered nationwide violence. A member of Afghanistan’s Ulema Council patiently explained to the New York Times: “To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties. . . . When something happens to their religion, they are much more sensitive and have [a] much stronger reaction to it.”

One of Kupchan’s more beguiling conclusions is that it’s not as simple as the West versus the “rest.” Just because the oecd economies are declining relative to the so-called brics states doesn’t mean that the latter shares a cohesive vision of the future world order. As Kupchan writes, these nations diverge profoundly “on many dimensions, including political culture, path of socioeconomic development, and religion.” The standard fear voiced in this genre is a rising China dictating terms to the West. For Kupchan, there’s an even greater fear—a world that lacks the ability to agree on any common goals beyond the lowest common denominators.

DESPITE THESE strengths, No One’s World falls victim to some of the common maladies that afflict the “big-think” genre. Kupchan suffers from a pathology that’s unfortunately endemic to foreign-affairs authors more generally—opining at length about what ails the United States. This is an occupational hazard of international-affairs writers, and it leads to some of the most painful prose in existence. These diatribes all sound the same—growing polarization, gerrymandering, declining education standards, crumbling infrastructure and so forth. It’s not that these laments are necessarily wrong, but they are banal. Most of these analyses rely on decades-old Introduction to American Government arguments that are obsolete, and most of the proposed reforms are politically unfeasible.

Unfortunately, Kupchan falls into these traps. His policy prescriptions are shot through with clichés and unworkable proposals. He notes approvingly that “programs of national service can be effective antidotes to social segmentation.” On the next page, he laments that “the U.S. government has no high-level official or agency charged with long-range economic planning.” While this statement would surprise the employees at DARPA, it’s even more surprising that Kupchan thinks “the West can also learn from China and other state-led economies the benefits of strategic economic planning.” He badly overestimates the advantages of such plans: as a rule, countries that apportion such a high percentage of their economy to investment inevitably indulge in massively distorted allocations of capital. This was true in the Soviet Union, Japan and now China—Google “ghost cities” to see why. An American version of the Japanese economic-planning agency MITI or its Soviet equivalent Gosplan would be expensive at best and harmful at worst. Kupchan then proposes lengthening the congressional workweek and parties holding “internet referenda” to avoid the pernicious effect of special interests. The kicker comes when, after Kupchan suggests a program of “progressive populism,” he advocates “establishing technocratic panels of experts and politicians tasked with generating pragmatic, results-oriented proposals.” Beyond the patronizing tone, this proposal encapsulates entities like the 9/11 Commission, Iraq Study Group and the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. The fact that the federal government did not listen to these “technocratic panels” suggests that such bodies might not be as effective as Kupchan would have you believe.

Beyond the portrait of the United States, there is a static snapshot element to much of the analysis in No One’s World. Unfortunately, the post-2008 world moves rather quickly, so some of Kupchan’s photos already look faded and dated. Claims about sustainable authoritarianism might have seemed sensible eighteen months ago, but they look far wobblier following the Arab Spring. Kupchan correctly observes that the Arab Spring does not mean that the Middle East will transform itself into a beacon of Jeffersonian democracy, but that’s not the point. The uprisings across the Middle East—as well as Russia—demonstrate that these authoritarian regimes are far more brittle than Kupchan presupposed. Furthermore, the ways in which these movements have played out expose a deeper flaw in Kupchan’s historical analysis. The Cairo uprising showed that the horizontal linkages that Kupchan sees as unique to the West are increasingly present in authoritarian states as well. If these linkages exist, then the preconditions for liberal democratic transitions are also present. No One’s World is right to bring up the religious dimension, but beyond the Middle East this does not appear to be that severe of an impediment.

This doesn’t suggest that the rest of the world will move ineluctably toward democracy. Still, many of the regions that Kupchan highlights as being “different” from the advanced industrialized world are not really all that different. It is true that most democracies in Latin America and Africa do not currently resemble the Madisonian democratic ideal. On the other hand, the same conclusion would have been reached after examining a snapshot of southern Europe in the 1970s or East Asia in the 1980s. Indeed, one could have made the same arguments about an absence of horizontal linkages, the heavy hand of the Catholic Church, and the ways in which the state had centralized economic and political authority. The fact that these countries now resemble their democratic allies suggests that the past is not destiny.

The moment one realizes that democracies evolve over time, Kupchan’s argument seems even more static. No One’s World assumes that either the strongman or populist variants of democracy will perpetuate themselves. If anything, the opposite seems to be true: the more extreme versions of Latin American left-wing populism are imploding, while Brazil looks more and more like a conventional secular democracy. Even countries as closed off as Myanmar seem willing to embrace myriad aspects of the Western model. Kupchan is certainly right that the rest of the world will not automatically migrate toward the West. But the migration will likely be greater than he thinks. A world in which China and Russia are the global “outliers” looks very different from the one depicted in No One’s World, which posits a much more heterogeneous assemblage of regime types.

Even if Kupchan is correct about the persistence of different domestic regimes across the globe, his presumption that global governance is fracturing is equally problematic. True, the shifting distribution of power will likely make forums such as the UN Security Council more inert. Still, it is interesting to assess how the key institutions of global economic governance have performed since the 2008 economic crisis. It is true that the G-20 has bogged down recently, but it acted quickly and in concert during the immediate aftermath of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Contra expectations in 2008, the International Monetary Fund became a more important and better-capitalized institution, and the World Trade Organization has preserved the existing state of economic openness. Indeed, these global-governance structures have performed well enough to revive global output and trade levels despite initial falls that exceeded those of the Great Depression. Despite the financial crisis, the World Bank reports that for the first time in modern history, extreme poverty has fallen in every region of the globe. If these are examples of what can be accomplished during global dissensus, then it doesn’t seem like that big of a problem.

Of course, one explanation for this is that on a welter of issues, there is a policy consensus at the elite and mass levels. Global public-opinion surveys demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for economic globalization across the major economies—as well as positive attitudes toward existing global-governance structures. There are similar levels of consensus on issues like combating terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation. Kupchan is right to observe the absence of consensus on democracy promotion, but that is a small part of the global-issues menu. If the benefits of globalized capitalism are agreed upon by both established and emerging great powers, then Ikenberry’s arguments about the persistence of the status quo institutions trump Kupchan’s pessimism.

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest.

Pullquote: According to Kupchan, it will be no one’s world: a mélange of competing ideas and competing structures will overlap and coexist. No one great power or great idea will rule them all.Image: Essay Types: Book Review