The Great Recession of 2008, election victories for Trump and Brexit, recent forecasts of continued slower growth for the United States, Europe and Latin America: All are signs of a major change underway.
The rise of the Asia-Pacific region supposedly marks the world’s shift into a “post-Western order.” This theme was at the center of this past weekend’s Brazil + China Challenge Forum 2017 which took place in Beijing at the launch of the three-day BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, that brings together leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
International relations scholars sometimes treat the notions of “order” and “system” as synonyms. However, to better understand the unfolding changes, it would perhaps be useful to mark a difference between the two terms. “Order” is a sort of X-ray of how the flows of power, wealth, and prestige (or soft power) are currently distributed worldwide. “System,” meanwhile, refers to the ensemble of institutions and norms built and led by the dominating powers, so as to reflect the interests and the vision that emerge from the current “order.”
The post-World War II order featured the United States as the hegemonic power. It wasn’t just because the US became the biggest military power: It was also due to its economy representing half of the world’s GDP, as well as the cultural influence that expanded to all corners of the world. In more ways than one, American interests would wind up blending with those of Europeans after 1945. It’s from this convergence that the contemporary meaning of the word “West” was extracted.
Going beyond geography, the word “West” refers to the following criteria: market economy, representative democracy and the rule of law. And the norms and institutions of the “system” — the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, NATO, et al. — were created in accordance with this “order.”
Therefore, when we now ponder a “post-Western” world, the questions we should be answering are the following two: Do the United States and Europe still hold dominant positions, as far as military, economic prosperity and values are concerned? And are Western institutions in decline?
In terms of the “order,” interpreting a transition to a post-Western world order is no easy matter. As far as political and military might go, the United States and the NATO remain unchallenged, either in terms of conventional force or of dissuasive power.
’”No alternative is emerging to fill the void.”
Of course, the “Nuclear Club” includes countries that are potentially or openly enemies of the West (Russia, Pakistan and, obviously, North Korea) and the fragmented damage inflicted upon the West by terrorism is disturbing. Still, so far, nothing has emerged — either in the form of a nation-state or of an international pact — to compete with or even threaten NATO, despite the well-known Trumpian criticism aimed at it.
In terms of wealth, there is no doubt about it: The West has clearly seen its position affected by the rise of the “Rest.” The emergence of China, India, and others supporting actors from Southeast Asia have reshaped geo-economics.
Regarding prestige and soft power, the West’s decline is plain to see. And yet, no alternative with a clearly-defined and potentially universal framework is emerging to fill the void. The “American Dream,” for instance, is at no risk of being replaced by some kind of “Chinese Dream,” Beijing’s propaganda notwithstanding.
To be sure, in the “systemic” scope, it’s undeniable that the rise of the Rest, and particularly of China, brings with it the creation of a family of new institutions reflecting the new realities of economic capabilities. But even then, the New Development Bank of the BRICS, and the different institutions recently created under Chinese leadership in the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia are not there to replace the ones designed during the West’s long domination.
Instead, they are aimed at increasing the range of options available to finance development, a field in which, even so, the needs are far superior to the sources of investment.
The contemporary order — and system — are still both too fluid. For all the West’s decline, there is no Chinese, or Asian, or other emerging hegemony set to replace the established paradigm. What we are faced with, instead, is a “polymorphic” dimension in which the main players (the United States and China) and a series of non-negligible supporting actors (Russia, Germany, Japan, India) are engaged in a game where neither the rules nor the outcome are clear to see.