Geir Lundestad, a Norwegian scholar, once categorized the American world order after 1945 as an “empire by invitation.” Its proponents have argued that by fostering multilateral institutions and allowing access to power for other states, the Americans legitimized a liberal order. Can China, India and other emerging powers be co-opted into this order?
Amitav Acharya, an Indian Canadian scholar who is president of the International Studies Association, thinks not. He foresees a world order based on regionalism and plural narratives. He offers the image of a multiplex cinema theatre, where rather than one film playing, there will be many equal choices under a common architecture. Hence, instead of pining for the American-led liberal hegemonic order, we should prepare to boldly go where no one has gone before.
The term “hegemony,” however, is an imprecise word. Sometimes it means having a preponderance of power resources, sometimes behavior of setting the rules for others and getting the outcomes one prefers. If there was a U.S. hegemony, it would have been from 1945, when the U.S. had nearly half the world economy as a result of World War II, to 1970, when the U.S. share of world product declined to its prewar level of a quarter of world product. Yet, during this period, the U.S. often failed to get what it wanted: Witness the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons, communist takeover of China and half of Vietnam, stalemate in the Korean War, Soviet suppression of the revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Castro’s control of Cuba and so forth. The reason was that the Soviet Union balanced American power until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
What are the alternatives to the American world order? Acharya’s multiplex theatre with multiple narratives and regional dialogues assumes an architecture without saying much about how it will be provided. So far, that architecture has depended heavily on American power. As I argue in “The Future of Power,” there are two great power shifts occurring in this century — power transition from West to East, and power diffusion from governments to non-state actors as a result of the global information revolution. This may or may not lead to democratization, but there are many patterns of power and the implications for world order remain uncertain.
Could China step in to provide the public goods that theorists search for? Certainly, China has benefited greatly from liberal institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, but China’s record is far from perfect. Nor are we likely to see global public goods provided by other emerging powers. Perhaps there is some consolation provided in the study by the American National Intelligence Council report, which estimates that the U.S. will remain the most powerful country in 2030, though it may need more help in providing global public goods such as security, prosperity, financial stability and coping with climate change. The American order is not yet over.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard and author of “The Future of Power.”