American University Fall 2020 Convocation Address by Amitav Acharya, Scholar-Teacher of the Year

A video of the speech and the convocation is available at:

The following is the text of my address to the Fall 2020 Convocation of American University, Washington DC. The speech was live online on Aug 21, 2020 at 1pm. The address is traditionally given by the winner of American University’s highest honor: the Scholar-Teacher Award. The address included images of the Acharya in Robben Island prison (where Mandela was held), President Kennedy’s Conmencement Address to American University in 1963, and images of Mandela’s biography and Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s autobiography.

A write-up on the AU Scholar-Teacher Award at:


Hello the newest members of the AU community. Greetings.

I am the child of a pandemic. My father was born in a small village in India in 1915. Those days, India, like many other poor parts of the world, was plagued by killer infectious diseases, including small pox.

My father was a small pox survivor who bore its scars on his face for his entire adult life. And he lost not one, not two, but six siblings to small pox.

But my father persevered. He went on to become the first person from our village to earn a university degree. In fact he got two: in Arts and in Education. He built a very successful life as a High School headmaster. It was because of my father that I chose an academic career.

Today, you are embarking on the most important journey of your life in the most challenging of times. 

Never before in history have so many students the world over begun a new academic year entirely on-line.

Yet, these unprecedented times are also a huge opportunity to prove ourselves.

Your success at AU will both reassure and inspire the world’s present and future generations.

Through my life’s experience, I recognize diversity and inclusion when I see it.

You will not be alone. We the faculty and administrators of AU will be there with you every step of your journey with us.

Among AU’s most cherished qualities is our commitment to diversity, excellence  and inclusion. I have no doubt about it.

The first American whom I remember is President John F. Kennedy. Not that I meet him. I was only one year old when Kennedy was assassinated. But I remember him vividly because there was a framed picture of him and the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in our home.

In 1961, a year before I was born, Nehru visited Kennedy in the US.

The two had much in common. Kennedy was the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy. Nehru was the leader of the world’s largest democracy.

Both were staunch liberal internationalists, passionately committed to promoting diversity and cooperation in the world.

My father was a huge fan of both leaders. He clipped and framed a news-magazine cover of Kennedy and Nehru taking a stroll in the White House lawns. You can find that picture on the internet.

That picture was my first impression of what an American looks like.

That picture first inspired me to study and teach international affairs.

And that American, President John F. Kennedy, is a big part of American University. It was on this very campus that President Kennedy gave the Commencement Address to the graduating class of 1963.

There Kennedy said, and I quote:

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

The outdoor podium from which Kennedy spoke is still there. I urge you to visit it when you are next in campus, I hope very soon.

Three decades after Kennedy’s AU speech, another great leader of the 20th century, another of my personal heroes, invoked Kennedy’s words. His name is Nelson Mandela.

In an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993, Mandela wrote that he would strive, and I quote,  

“To promote institutions and forces that, through democratic means, seek to make the world safe for diversity.”

Thus Mandela wrote the very words that Kennedy had uttered on this very campus. I repeat:

“To make the world safe for diversity”.

In 2011, I had the privilege of being appointed as the Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of International Relations at Rhodes University, South Africa. Rhodes is located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, where Mandela was born. Visiting Mandela’s birthplace as well as the Robben Island prison where he was imprisoned for 27 years, are among the most moving experiences of my life.

Even though I am no politician, the words and actions of John F. Kennedy, Jawaharlal Nehru and Nelson Mandela have profoundly shaped my own academic leadership.

My best opportunity to do so came in 2014. That year I became the first non-white person to be elected as President of the International Studies Association. This is the world’s largest and most respected association for faculty and students in International Studies. In my Presidential Speech, I put the pictures and quotes of Kennedy and Mandela on a single slide on the screen, along with their immortal words.

And there I urged the academic community to make the study and practice of international affairs “safe for diversity”.

These words apply to every field of study…in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and beyond.

Today, as we cope with a deadly pandemic, it is equally vital that we strive to respect our diversity and promote inclusion.

And there can be no better place to do so than our very institution, American University.

As scholars and citizens of the world, each of us should persevere, as did Kennedy, Nehru and Mandela – and as did my father in his own time and way – to make our world safer for diversity.

Welcome, to American University.

Irresponsible Superpowers Must Cooperate

Irresponsible Superpowers Must Cooperate

Amitav Acharya

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Governments that endured the SARS pandemic in 2003 were generally more prepared for Covid-19. Such pandemics emerge with little warning, challenging a global multilateral system largely structured around collective security and trade. Both diseases – linked with globalization, a complex phenomenon not easily reversed – offer lessons for global governance, signaling the need for adaptation and cooperation. “In recent years an array of emerging actors in a range of areas, including trade arrangements, climate change, humanitarian relief and health have contributed to growing fragmentation of global governance,” explains Amitav Acharya, distinguished professor of international relations at American University. The United States and China as leading powers each had missteps – the former abandoning global leadership and the second delaying global reporting. Angry exchanges of blame overshadow legitimate concerns expressed by each country. “The bottom line is that both the United States and China find the other’s conduct irresponsible and dangerous even as the world needs a norm of ‘responsibility to inform,’ as much as a ‘responsibility to protect,’” Acharya writes. He urges cooperation on global governance reforms to prepare for the new range of threats and, especially, a requirement for swift reporting of new and deadly diseases. – YaleGlobal


Irresponsible Superpowers Must Cooperate

Covid-19 response reveals that global powers and multilateral organizations need to improve their game on reforms, fact-finding, funding and more

Amitav Acharya

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

WHO and Xi

WHO is responsible for the delay? Director-General of WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 28, but the joint fact-finding mission did not start its investigation until February 16; the world expressed amazement after the country imposed a lockdown for the city of Wuhan in January


WASHINGTON, DC: In the Covid-19 pandemic, neither China nor the United States has offered a creditable performance, and this puts immense pressure on the multilateral system.

Most countries escaped SARS-CoV-1 in 2003. The virus hit 26 countries and only eight Americans tested positive for SARS, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States and many other nations were not prepared 15 years later when a new coronavirus emerged, much more threatening to lives and well-being. The SARS-CoV-1 virus infected just over 8,000 people worldwide and left 774 dead. By comparison, with SARS-CoV-2, nations report more than 3.1 million confirmed cases, with 225,000 deaths. As I wrote in 2003, such perils, rooted in globalization, cannot be defeated permanently.


Disruptors: Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was a preview for Covid-19, but many nations did not prepare (Source: US Centers for Disease Control and Johns Hopkins University)

Of course, pandemics are not the only threat confronting the world. But unlike armed conflicts where early warning is available, or climate change, which threatens lives in a slow motion, pandemics emerge unexpectedly. And that is a severe challenge for the global multilateral system, in place since World War II. That system was built around big multilaterals of the UN system, such as the International Monetary Fund; the World Bank; the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, later the World Trade Organization; along with specialized agencies like the World Health Organization, founded in 1948. Despite many agencies and tasks, the system was fundamentally geared for collective security, the foundational principle of the UN system, deterring and defeating aggression. The system must adapt to newer threats that can be far more deadly than war.

In recent years an array of emerging actors in a range of areas, including trade arrangements, climate change, humanitarian relief and health have contributed to growing fragmentation of global governance. But none compares with Donald Trump, whose disdain for multilateralism is visceral. Under Trump, the United States abandoned responsibility to lead common responses to common challenges, whether on its own or through alliances and institutions.

Before the virus hit, the Trump administration proposed cutting $3 billion in global health funding, including $123 million for the World Health Organization for fiscal year 2020. At an 8 April White House briefing, Trump warned that the United States would “put a very powerful hold” on WHO funding and criticized the Covid-19 response: “They missed the call…They seem to be very China-centric.”

By rejecting travel restrictions, initially accepting China’s early denial of human-to-human transmission, and not declaring Covid-19 a global pandemic until March 11 – after 118,000 cases of infection in more than 110 countries – the WHO leaves itself open to criticism and investigations. Early warnings and fact-finding missions are critical in pandemics.

COVID Timeline

China remains a much stronger supporter of the existing multilateral system, at least in theory. But China has also moved to create parallel mechanisms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. The country, which has provided considerable bilateral aid to virus-stricken nations, first reported the coronavirus outbreak to WHO on 31 December. The WHO-China Joint Mission did not start until 16 February. It is fair to question whether an earlier mission might have provided timely information, prompting more action from the international community. According to a New York Times report, China held back on allowing a WHO mission, with sources blaming secretiveness, negligence, complacency and even a desire among Chinese scientists to produce the first publications on the new virus. WHO could have raised international attention, applying pressure for an earlier mission.

China also condemned Trump’s actions, such as ban on flights from China, as “excessive,” an example of how America “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic.” Yet the United States was not alone in banning flights, and Trump soon did the same for other nations. And the caution was warranted.

An angry Trump has suggested that if China was knowingly responsible, there “should be consequences.” The United States, the leading donor for WHO, is investigating whether the virus originated from a research laboratory in China, even though the organization suggests that no evidence suggests as much. Convincing proof is unlikely.

Still, any attempt by the United States to enter a confrontation with China would further destabilize the multilateral system, including global health cooperation. More US funding for global health would go to national and bilateral channels, or supporting a smaller health agency that might exclude China and other rivals.

The theatrics may have overshadowed efforts by others in the Trump administration to raise genuine concerns about China’s responsibility for transparency during the early stages of the crisis. As underscored by Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, any country first exposed to a pandemic, has “a higher moral obligation on communicating and transparency.” Whether China met that transparency test, she added, could be investigated once the pandemic subsides. China would likely resist any such multilateral investigation into its domestic affairs. Still, other nations could develop a framework, as she advises, and “figure out really what has to happen for first alerts and transparency and understanding very early on.”

The bottom line is that both the United States and China find the other’s conduct irresponsible and dangerous even as the world needs a norm of “responsibility to inform,” as much as a “responsibility to protect.”

The multilateral system cannot address transnational threats like Covid-19 on its own. Such threats are linked to globalization, which cannot be entirely reversed. Pandemics emerged and spread during the Mongol Empire’s much smaller scale of globalization during the 14th century. That plague probably emerged in China before killing half of Europe’s population, then spreading on to India, Africa and the Middle East – eventually reducing the global population by almost 100 million.

As I wrote of the 2003 SARS crisis, the origins of pandemics cannot be regarded as exclusively external or internal to the region: “Rather, they emanate from external forces interacting closely with the internal vulnerabilities of states.” Hence, reducing internal vulnerabilities is a crucial first step.

Countries and territories that have done the early creditable work in containing Covid-19 were those that invested well in public health and early alert systems, after being devastated by SARS: Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore – the latter experiencing a spike in new cases, mostly among migrant workers.

At the same time, highly exclusionary and inward-looking responses will not work in the long term and could impose severe economic costs. Closing national boundaries, as many nations have done, can only be a temporary measure. It’s noteworthy that SARS 2003 did not lead to such closures, mainly because of the disease’s lower transmissibility and absence of asymptomatic transmission, but also because the world was operating under a climate of trust and coordination with fewer populists.

Hence, old attitudes towards sovereignty and non-interference that prevent fact-finding and international monitoring must change, especially in countries like China that aspire to be leaders in global governance.

The multilateral system can also do better. For example, giving WHO more funding is not enough. Stronger mandates are also required. Instead of cutting funding and emasculating the organization, the United States and other nations should push for the UN Security Council to require mandatory reporting and allow WHO fact-finding missions within days of a major outbreak. National reporting on terrorism to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, now mandatory, could provide a model for pandemic preparations, with a shorter and incident-based reporting period.

The failure by any state to report outbreaks promptly and allow international fact-finding missions should be the equivalent of aggression. Most nations should readily agree after so many have endured thousands of human lives lost and trillions in economic losses.

Amitav Acharya is Distinguished Professor of International Relations, American University, Washington DC, and a 2019-20 fellow of the Berggruen Institute in California. He is the author of The Making of Global International Relations (Cambridge 2019); Constructing Global Order (Cambridge 2018); and The End of American World Order, 2nd edition (Polity 2018). 

This article was posted April 29, 2020.

Don’t Kill the WHO, but Make Its Reporting and Fact-finding Role Mandatory

China first reported the coronavirus  outbreak to WHO on 31Dec2019. Yet, first WHO mission to China began Feb16th. An earlier mission would have provided timely information & action by int. community? Early-warning & fact-finding critical here as in conflict zones

According to a New York Times report, China held back on allowing a WHO mission. Why? The reasons are explored in the article: Some have blamed it on the political system’s usual secretiveness and lack of transparency, negligence, complacency, scientific competition (desire among Chinese scientists to get the first publications on the new virus out),

In the meantime, Trump threatens further funding cut to WHO which was US$123 million for fiscal year 2020. At the White House briefing on 8 April, 2020, he said: The United States is “going to put a very powerful hold” on its funding of the WHO, adding “They called it wrong. They missed the call…They seem to be very China-centric…We have to look into that.”

Instead of cutting funding and fatally emasculating the WHO, the US and other nations should push for the UN Security Council to make it mandatory for states to report & allow WHO fact-finding within days of a major disease outbreak. It should treat failure by a state to report outbreaks promptly & allow WHO fact-finding missions equivalent of aggression

Terrorism reporting is now mandatory. The United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) can be a model, but shorter & incident-based reporting period for disease necessary.

“Understanding the Emerging Multiplex World Order”, Interview with the Global Governance Institute, University College London

Understanding the Emerging Multiplex World Order

1 July 2019

An interview with Professor Amitav Acharya, UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC.


Professor Amitav Acharya 

Existing debates in International Relations (IR) and global governance are still Western-dominated, neglecting non-Western voices, experiences and agency. Do you think this is changing? Where do you see the biggest challenges? 

I think there is growing awareness of Western dominance in IR and global governance, both in the West and in the non-West, but this is not translating into sufficient action. Importantly, not everybody in the West wants to level the playing field. Indeed, some scholars have argued that American or Western dominance is beneficial to the field and not actually excluding or discriminating against anyone. Professor John Mearsheimer, for example, has called it a ‘benign hegemony’. I completely disagree with this view because there is a lot of gatekeeping going on and that is both a normative and an intellectual problem.

There are some interesting surveys that illustrate this gap between awareness and action. For example, a 2014 TRIP (Teaching, Research and International Policy) survey found that over 70% of respondents, which included mainly Western scholars, agreed that IR is a Western-centric discipline.* So, awareness is high. But when you ask the same people whether this is something that should be addressed, numbers are much lower, in particular among American scholars.

This is very disturbing because it undermines efforts to promote greater diversity. Diversity has become a priority concern for universities, journals and academic associations but this commitment is often very superficial and there is little progress when it comes to making real changes: reforming PhD programmes and training more Global South scholars, hiring more faculty from the Global South, changing text books, course offerings and literature lists, providing more citations to Global South scholars, accepting more journal submissions from the Global South, pluralising membership in academic committees, inviting more speakers from the Global South, etc.

There has been a similar debate on the barriers facing women in the field. 

Yes, and a lot more needs to be done in this area, too. However, the debate on gender equality has advanced much more. For example, it is now fairly difficult  to have a so-called ‘manel’ (a man-only panel) without attracting criticism, but panels without Global South representation are still very common – and this is no longer because of a lack of qualified speakers. And, of course, getting recognition for their work is especially difficult for women from the Global South. Many of them feel that mainstream feminist IR scholarship is exclusive and does not reflect their voices.

A point I would really like to emphasise here is that diversity is not just a normative concern but also a practical and an intellectual one. This is not just about getting more people to the table but also about getting new ideas on the table. In IR and global governance, many of the existing theories simply do not capture what’s happening in the world because they are derived from a very Eurocentric template. For instance, we talk about multilateralism as if it started with the 19th century Concert of Europe. Examples of multilateral practices outside the West are being routinely overlooked, although there are many, from the diplomatic practices of earlier civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia to the post-World War II Asia-African Conference.

Similarly, dominant theories of regional integration have failed to take into account the history and culture of local communities. Consider, for example, the idea that the European Union (EU) should serve as a model for the rest of the world, which was especially prominent during the 1990s and 2000s. The EU’s efforts to promote its own model never worked elsewhere, even where other regions wanted to replicate it and where they were supported with finance and know-how. The model was simply too formulaic and the theories behind it did not consider local context.

So that is why diversity and inclusion is not just a normative imperative but also an analytical and intellectual concern. The rest of the world is much bigger than Europe – both in terms of physical size and population and in terms of history and cultural heritage. If we do not bring the ‘rest’ in, our theories will fall short and lack explanatory power.

Let’s talk about your book The End of American World Order. The first edition was published in 2014 and it documented the crisis of the US-led global liberal order, even before President Trump came into power (an updated and extended edition has been published in 2018). You also reflect on what will replace the current world order, suggesting that we are currently witnessing the emergence of a ‘multiplex’ world. How did you come up with this term and what does it entail?

The main reason why I introduced the concept of multiplex is because I did not like the term multipolar. Multipolarity is the conventional way of describing a world order that is neither bi-polar nor unipolar. But it is an outdated concept and it refers back to a very particular (pre-World War II) period in European history which is unlikely to repeat itself in the same way. I wanted to move away from this Eurocentric perspective, the sense of inevitable conflict and the idea of ‘going back to the future’.

I also felt that multiplex conveys the notions of both multiplicity and complexity. Multiplicity refers to the growing number and diversity of actors involved in making the global order, including not just states but also international institutions, multinational corporations, non-governmental organisations, transnational movements, individuals and other non-state actors. Complexity refers to the growing number of transboundary issues, many of which are not completely new but have become more prominent and more urgent. These issues are complex in the sense that they are multidimensional, often unpredictable (think about the 1997 and 2008 financial crises, for example, or the Ebola outbreak), and impossible to be addressed on the national level alone.

In the book, I also use a metaphor from the world of cinema and film. I suggest that the world will be like a multiplex theatre where the audience has the option of choosing between many different movies, actors, directors, producers and plots. In the 1950s, your local cinema would only show one movie at a time. Nowadays, we have far more choice and we do not even need a physical cinema anymore, we can carry our Netflix with us wherever we go. Cinematic entertainment is much more democratic and demand-driven. Today’s world order is somewhat similar. In a multiplex world, we have the choice between different narratives. There is the traditional narrative – the ‘Hollywood plot’ so to speak – about how the liberal world order was created almost single-handedly by the US. But there are also different narratives about how other countries and regions all played an important role in the making of world order. So the notion of multiplex allows us to pluralise plots, actors, directors and producers. And while producers can create demand to a degree, most of the time they will cater to the changing taste of the audience.

So, we are making the transition from a hegemonic world to a much more pluralistic and decentred world. A multiplex world is politically and culturally diverse but economically and functionally interconnected. Order is produced not just by a handful of great powers but by a multitude of actors, including established powers, emerging powers and non-state actors, who can use both material and ideational resources. This is a world which is quite different from the world of Western dominance we have experienced for the past 200 (we might even say 500) years, so it indicates a significant transformation of the world.

How do you think multiplexity will affect discussions on the legitimacy of global governance? 

That is a very fundamental question. In global governance there has always been a concern over what I would call the legitimacy-efficacy paradox. Traditionally, it has been thought that if you have more legitimacy – more representation, diversity and inclusion – you risk undermining efficacy because the group of actors involved becomes too big, making it difficult to reach any kind of consensus. On the other hand, if you have only a small group of actors, as in the G-7/8 model, the outcome might not be acceptable to those who were not involved in the decision-making process. Today, effective responses to global challenges are needed more than ever but you can no longer have a bunch of Western countries basically take all the decisions. Whether the issue is human rights, peace and security, finance or trade – solutions in all these areas will only be acceptable if they are being made with the participation of Global South countries.

So a multiplex world brings these tensions to the fore. However, having worked on different projects on global governance and world order over the past years**, I am now more and more convinced that legitimacy is key to efficacy. The two are not mutually exclusive unless you take a very narrow, utilitarian view of efficacy. I believe that efficacy refers to something that works not just for a few major players, something that does not encounter too much resistance. I also think that new ideas and perspectives are important to ensure efficacy, so consulting with a wider range of actors is likely to lead to better and more sustainable solutions.

A multiplex world is a G-Plus world, where leadership is shared and exercised by different groups of actors in different issue areas, depending on interests, expertise and capabilities. No country or bloc leads in every issue area. I think it is possible to create smaller groups that are legitimate – in that they represents a significant swath of humanity – and that still deliver efficacy. In my view, a good (though not perfect) example is G-20. G20 is very different from G-7/8; it has significant representation from the Global South and it is the first international institution where the Global South and the Global North interact as equals. G-20 was in fact quite effective in addressing the 2008 global financial crisis. It is by no means a perfect model and there are important concerns about representation – for example, Africa has only one seat in the G-20 – but it is much more legitimate than G-7/8 and is also more efficient when it comes to responding to financial crises. That said, G-20 does not fit the G-Plus model perfectly because it is still very state-centric. We now see new types of collaboration emerging in fields such as climate change and global health that involve not just states but also a range of non-state actors. These types of collaborations may have the potential of increasing both legitimacy and efficacy.

The debate on the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other rising powers has long focused on whether they are status quo powers that can be ‘co-opted’ into the existing liberal international order or revisionist powers that challenge the system as a whole – but you take a much more nuanced view. How do you see the role of the emerging powers in a multiplex world?

My approach has always been to avoid such binaries. First of all, I do not think emerging powers can be co-opted. Co-option as an idea was devised by proponents not just of liberal order but of liberal hegemony. The assumption basically was that China, India and other rising powers would support the US-led liberal order because they had benefitted so much from it. But the world does not work like that. It is politically not realistic to think that the new powers will simply accept everything the established group of powers have decided. And it is also institutionally impossible. The existing global institutions will have to change to accommodate new actors and new power constellations. The notion of co-option undercuts any idea of negotiation, change and concessions.

At the same time, I do not think the rising powers have the capacity or the unity to run the world on their own. The BRICS are a very diverse group of countries both in terms of political systems and economic development and there is also rivalry between some of the rising powers (e.g. between China and India). In addition, many BRICS countries and other regional powers such as Nigeria or Egypt do not have undisputed regional legitimacy and they are often tied up in regional rivalry and conflict. Countries such as China and India, for example, spend a lot of time looking after their neighbourhood and that takes resources and attention away from the global stage.

So we have a situation where neither the West nor the emerging powers can run lead the world on their own. They have to accommodate each other. The emerging powers cannot challenge the existing world order and multilateral system as a whole but they can disrupt and reshape. And the West cannot ignore, exclude or co-opt the emerging powers but it can negotiate space with them. I think this realisation has begun to sink in and it was reflected, for example, in the negotiation of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement where China, India and others played an important role. The election of Donald Trump may have disrupted this process but I believe sooner or later the West and the ‘rest’ will have to come to an understanding – a multiplex understanding – that neither can do without the other. This will put an end both to the hype surrounding the emerging powers and to any fantasies that the US will be able to revive the liberal hegemony.

To new students of global governance today’s world may appear extremely complex, confusing and sometimes frightening. Do you have any advice? 

Well, first of all, I do not think today’s world is really frightening. It is challenging, yes, but it is also very exciting. There are so many things happening and so many new areas of research. In the old days, if you studied global governance you might have been bored to death studying UN Security Council voting or something similar. Now you can do global governance and go to a village in India and look at how international donors, non-state actors and the local municipal government collaborate to address climate change, asking questions such as: what global implications does this local partnership have? Can it be replicated elsewhere? So this is now a fantastically rich field of study.

Of course, there are concerns about peace and security, pandemics and other issues but most of these are not new. I do not think the world is less safe than before, in fact, broadly speaking it has probably become more secure in some areas. So, I think the overall message is positive, or at least mixed. For those teaching global governance, I believe curriculum planning is very important: rather than exclusively focusing on traditional theories, we should make sure that students are also exposed to new and emerging ideas, themes and literature. From my own teaching, I know that the idea of a multiplex world is very exciting for students from both the non-West and the West, because they see new possibilities for themselves and opportunities to make a difference.

So if I were to give a sort of motivational talk to new entrants to the field of global order and governance, this is what I would tell the students: there are more themes and more topics to explore, more opportunities, and more possibilities for building new theories and concepts. It is a very exciting time for anyone studying global governance or IR more broadly.

* For a discussion, see, Amitav Acharya, “Advancing Global IR: Challenges, Contentions and Contributions,” International Studies Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (March 2016): 4-15.

** These projects have resulted in three books: The End of the American World Order (Polity, 2014; 2018), Why Govern? Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance(edited, Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Constructing Global Order: Agency and Change in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

In June 2019, the UCL Global Governance Institute (GGI) hosted Professor Acharya as a Senior Visiting Fellow. This interview was conducted by Julia Kreienkamp (GGI Research Assistant) during his stay.

Amitav Acharya is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC. His recent books include The End of American World Order (Polity, 2014, 2018); Constructing Global Order (Cambridge, 2018); Why Govern: rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance (editor, Cambridge, 2016); and The Making of Global International Relations: Origins and Evolution of IR at Its Centenary (co-author with Barry Buzan, Cambridge, 2019). His articles have appeared in International OrganizationInternational SecurityInternational Studies QuarterlyInternational AffairsForeign AffairsThe National Interest, and World Politics. He has contributed op-eds to Financial TimesWashington Post (Monkey Cage Blog), International Herald Tribune/New York TimesTimes of IndiaAustralian Financial Review, and YaleGlobal Online, and appeared in BBC, CNN, CNBC, and National Public Radio (NPR) and other media. He was appointed to be the inaugural Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of International Relations at Rhodes University, South Africa during 2012-13 and the inaugural Boeing Company Chair in International Relations at the Schwarzman Scholars Program at Tsinghua University during 2016-18. He has held fellowships at Harvard’s Asia Center and John F. Kennedy School of Government during 1999-2001, and was elected to the Christensen Fellowship at Oxford in 2013. He is the first non-Western scholar elected to lead the International Studies Association (ISA), the world’s largest and most influential association on international studies. ISA has honored him with two Distinguished Scholar Awards: in 2015 for his “outstanding contribution to scholarship on non-Western IR theory and inclusion in IR” and another in 2018 for “exceptional… influence, intellectual works and mentorship” in the field of international organization.

“Causes of China-US tensions go beyond trade” – Amitav Acharya, Interview with Global Times, 18 June 2019

“Causes of China-US tensions go beyond trade” – Amitav Acharya, Interview with Global Times, 18 June 2019.

Editor’s Note:

Due to stepped up trade frictions between China and the US, ties between the two giants tend to be tense. What is the nature of their conflict? Will the current China-US conflict lead to a new cold war? Global Times (GT) reporters Lu Yuanzhi and Bai Yunyi interviewed Amitav Acharya (Acharya), Professor of International Relations at American University, Washington DC. The distinguished academic shared his insights on these issues.

Amitav Acharya

GT:  What do you think is the nature of China-US conflict? The competition in the domain of economy and technology between the two giants, a superpower’s suppression of a rising power, social and economic contradictions that both countries cannot reconcile, or clash of two civilizations?  What is the basis of your judgement?

Acharya: No single factor or phrase can capture or explain the nature of the US-China conflict; it is a complex combination of issues and triggers. The most immediate trigger behind the current US-China trade war is economic and technological competition. From a long-term perspective, however, it is fueled by wider changes in the international system. It is important to avoid labels such as “new Cold War,” “clash of civilizations,” or “Thucydides’ trap,” or any catch phrases that risk turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. I would prefer to see the current tensions between the US and China as the result of three shifts: in power, order, and policy. And these are inter-linked.

First, the economic rise of China is part of a broader global power shift away from the West. This has been going on for some time, with China and India, whose economic fortunes took a sharp dive with the rise of European colonialism a few centuries ago, reviving themselves steadily and in China’s case spectacularly, since the latter part of the 20th century. China is now the world’s second largest economy (in current dollar value terms) and many estimates see a general “rise of the rest” in the global economy. It should not surprise that the scale and pace of China’s rise is proving to be unnerving for the US and the West and has led to a rethink of the US’ policy of engaging China, thereby encouraging more hardline approaches.

Second, there has been a substantial erosion of the US-led liberal international order which has been around since the end of World War II. The liberal order refers to a system of rules and institutions devised by the US after World War II to legitimize its dominance and manage international order with itself at the helm. This order had been facing challenges well before the Trump presidency, as documented in my 2014 book, The End of American World Order, but the Trump administration’s policies have hastened it. One should keep in mind that Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election was to a large extent brought about by his ability to exploit populist concerns about the decline of the US and the need to “Make America Great Again.” Part of his appeal lay in presenting the existing liberal order of institutions and norms as being incapable of coping with the challenge from the rise of China and other powers in order to preserve the dominant position of the US and the West. This undercut the prevailing assumption, held by many Western leaders, analysts and people that the liberal order would be powerful and resilient enough to win the acquiescence of potential challengers like China, who may even contribute to its strengthening. The realization that this expectation was not materializing opened the door to a more nationalist and unilateralist US foreign economic and strategic approach to international relations under Trump.

This in turn produced the third shift, which is shift in policy toward China (and we should not forget, toward other emerging powers such as India and Mexico). This policy shift also reflects US domestic politics. The US is now under an administration whose ideology and foreign policy approach are drastically different from that of its predecessors. The Trump administration believes that the policy of engaging China pursued by previous presidents from Clinton to Obama was misconceived and has failed. Many Americans, though not all, are disappointed and disillusioned about this. China’s pursuit of a much more active global foreign policy commensurate with its rising power and resources, including through initiatives such as the Belt and RoadInitiative (BRI), further stoked American concerns and fears.

In sum then, the causes of the current US-China discord are deeper and more structural than just competition over tariffs and technology. It’s rooted in the transitional forces in world order, from the era of Western hegemony to the advent of what I have called a “Multiplex World,” a culturally diverse but interconnected world with multiple and overlapping nodes of power and authority.

GT: Do you think the current China-US conflict will lead to a new cold war, or something resembles Cold War? Some believe, with the beginning of the US overall cracking down on Huawei, the digital iron curtain is descending between the two nations. How do you think about this view?

Acharya: There is no question that the US-China relations today are far more strained than they were a few years ago. But invoking the metaphor of a “Cold War” obscures differences between the past competition between the US-led and the Soviet Union-led blocs and the current Sino-US relationship. No two historical epochs are exactly alike. The degree of economic interdependence between the US and China is much deeper and wider than that between the US and Soviet blocs, and this matters. Economic interdependence does not prevent war, but it does raise the costs of pursuing conflict over cooperation that should induce caution in both players. Also, the Cold War was fought between two blocs, this competition is between two individual powers; the US is not acting multilaterally against China and if anything, imposing tariffs against its own allies and friends.

GT: In view of current China-US relations, what major risks do you think the two states need to avoid? Do you predict the conflicts between the two would spread beyond the existing fields of trade and technology, or even head for a full-blown conflict?

Acharya: The most urgent need is to step back and avoid playing brinkmanship or further escalate the trade war. Second, engage in negotiations, without the threat of tight deadlines, to reach a mutually acceptable and sustainable economic relationship, which requires concessions and compromises from both sides. Third, ensure that there are lines of communication always open to manage and de-escalate any military engagements, including accidents.

GT:  Elections in 2020 are on the horizon. What impact will they have on addressing China-US conflict?

Acharya: It will be interesting to see if the eventual Democratic challenger to Trump comes up with an alternative vision or approach to the US-China relationship. Usually, US elections are mostly about domestic politics, but if the trade war continues, it is likely that the US-China relationship and the larger issue of reviving liberal internationalism will be an important factor in the 2020 elections as they straddle both domestic and foreign policy domains. Much depends on how far trade affects the US economy and whether the effects on US population are significant enough to affect voter attitudes.

GT: Do you think US elites’ vigilance toward China is close to the level of “red terror” against the Bolsheviks after the World War I and McCarthyism after the World War II? How consistent is the attitude of US government and elites toward China with that of ordinary US people?

Acharya: I believe ideology is a less important factor driving US-China relations than that between the Soviet Union and the US. During the Cold War, the Communist powers actively supported Communist rebellions against pro-Western governments through ideological propaganda and material support; this is not happening now. The US elite is divided over how to deal with China. While many agree that the US-China relationship needs to be recalibrated and reset, they differ especially over how to achieve such recalibration and change. One part of the US foreign policy community believes that the US-China competition can be managed differently, with the help of America’s allies and with the involvement of multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization.

GT: If China and the US enter a protracted confrontation, how will it influence world political order and sustainable global development?

Acharya: There are many moving parts and uncertainties here. If the trade war persists or escalates and spreads to other areas of the US-China relationship, the consequences could be far more severe for the world than the impact of the Cold War, at least economically. While the Cold War did not damage the overall economic strength of the US and its allies and might have benefitted them, the current US-China competition, if not checked by mutual restraint and compromises, could wreck the global economy and prosperity for a long time. Yet, there is a chance that after a period of rising tensions, cooler heads will prevail, especially if the signs of mutual damage are clear, and the situation is a stalemate, without a possibility of one side winning decisively. This might hit home the importance of coordination and cooperation. Under different leadership, there might be an urge to revive cooperation and multilateralism to avoid such conflicts in the future.

Last but not the least, since the end of World War II, the United States has been in a position of global hegemony or primacy, no matter whatever you call it. Naturally, it wants to keep it that way. It’s difficult for the US to reconcile itself to the idea of being eclipsed by another country. It is rare to find a foreign policy vision in the West that outlines how the US can lead or live in a world where it’s no longer enjoys global primacy. For China, there is a history of being No.1, at least in East Asia, which was severely undercut by the Western powers around the 19th century. And many in China want to see their country rise again to global pre-eminence. So it seems to me that this competing self-imagery of global primacy is part of the reason behind the current US-China conflict.



Click to access the-new-201cmultiplex201d-world-2.pdf

In this interview with Helen Suzman Foundation Researcher, Tove van Lennep, Amitav Acharya reflects on the internal crisis of the liberal world order and the advent of a new “Multiplex World” of multiple, crosscutting international orders. Although not all emerging hegemons are committed to progressive values, multiplexity does not necessarily imply a decline in global justice and commitment to human rights. The liberal international order functioned as a club of the West, under which democracy was promoted selectively and human rights abuses were rife. The weakening of the Club may create more openings for weaker actors, state or non-state, to play a greater role in global governance.

TOVE: Beginning with the concept at the heart of this edition of FOCUS, what should
be understood by the “liberal international order”?

ACHARYA: This is a very fuzzy concept, as different people use it differently and there is no agreed definition. At its simplest, the liberal international order (LIO) means the US-crafted and -dominated system of multilateral institutions after World War II. But the concept has also been used to refer more generally to a “rules-based” system that is open  to all states. Another aspect of LIO directs attention to liberal values and norms, such as human rights, democracy and free market capitalism. These are not mutually exclusive; so, one might say that the LIO concept incorporates capitalism, democracy and  multilateralism under US hegemony.
TOVE: In your paper ‘After Liberal Hegemony: The Advent of a Multiplex World Order’  you argue that the current challenge to the liberal order is ‘as much, if not more, from  within as from without’. You view Trump’s ascent to power as a consequence rather than a cause of its decline. What then is responsible for the decline, or indeed, implosion of liberal hegemony?

ACHARYA: Several factors. One is the global economic shift, with the rise of non Western  nations led by China and India but also more generally East Asia. One consequence of this economic shift has been the transfer of industries and jobs to these rising economies. This has created a backlash against globalisation in parts of the US that relied heavily on traditional heavy industries. Trump was able to exploit this populist backlash against  globalisation and free trade to win votes in traditionally Democratic states of the US in the 2016 presidential election.

Another domestic factor was race. The Obama Presidency, the first black presidency of the US with its progressive policy on healthcare and commitment to diversity,  paradoxically triggered greater racial consciousness and polarisation in the country. This was exploited by the intellectual defenders of white supremacy which saw the Obama  presidency as having empowered black people and other minorities. Trump was unabashed in stoking these sentiments.

A third and closely related factor was the growing political and ideological polarisation within the US, especially between the two dominant political parties. This was fuelled by an increasingly partisan media. This cracked whatever consensus there  was on liberal values and created severe divisions over issues such as gun control, immigration and health care. Among other things, the confluence of these factors contributed to a serious internal crisis of the liberal order in the US. And while contributing to Trump’s success (however narrow the margin of his victory might have been), polarising factors were gathering force well before Trump announced his candidacy as President of the United States.
TOVE: In ‘After Liberal Hegemony’ you describe ‘a “multiplex world” in which elements of the liberal order survive, but are subsumed in a complex of multiple, crosscutting international orders’. Does the “multiplex world” you envisage promise more justice and equality? Or will emerging hegemons, unrestrained by liberal multilateralism and the United States, merely rearrange the current shape of global inequality and injustice?

ACHARYA: The “Multiplex World” concept stresses decentring of power and authority: a world without the hegemony of a single power or a single set of values. Multiplex also implies different layers of governance, global, regional and local, in addition to the traditional national level. The rise of non-Western actors (including global and regional powers) and, more generally, the growing importance of regions are hallmarks of the Multiplex World. These developments are bound to reshape the traditional architecture of multilateralism and global governance. This means a growing voice for the new actors. But one should not think only in terms of emerging powers, or even states; the Multiplex World concept also implies the rise of non-state actors and new types of international cooperation and governance mechanisms which are regional or based on hybridity, e.g. partnerships between states, international institutions and private actors.

The “Multiplex World” concept stresses decentring of power and authority: a world without the hegemony of a single power or a single set of values. Multiplex also implies different layers of governance, global, regional and local, in addition to the traditional national level.

While I would not draw any necessary correlation between multiplexity and greater justice and equality, the latter could be a possible outcome of the new ordering as the US and Western dominance of the world diminishes and the roles of a range of new actors become more consequential. Not all of them are committed to progressive values; indeed, some of the non-state actors can be reactionary and even destructive. And some of the rising powers could be parochial in defending their interests and values. But the  US was not always a defender of liberal multilateralism either. The LIO functioned as a club of the West, rather than a provider of universal public goods. The international institutions of the LIO were dominated by the West; their governance and decision-making were not all that democratic and sometimes not even transparent. So, the weakening of the Club may create more openings for weaker actors, state or non-state, and not just a handful of emerging powers, to play a greater role in global governance.

TOVE: What does the decline of the liberal hegemonic order and the emerging “multiplex world” imply for those states in which democracy is fragile and human rights abuses rife?

ACHARYA: I really don’t see a necessary link between the weakening of liberal hegemony and the rise of human rights abuses since these abuses, were fairly abundant during the heyday of the LIO which was rather selective and self-serving in promoting democracy around the world. Some may think that the end of liberal hegemony might embolden autocrats and human rights violators. And this is quite possible. But the logic is not so simple. Some states in the developing world – such as Indonesia and India – have their domestic reasons for adhering to elections and protection of rights; since the probable alternative of chaos and disorder will threaten economic growth and the stability of their governments. Repression has bad political consequences over a period of time, with or without external pressure.

In view of this, one consequence of the breakdown of liberal hegemony might be that the fate of human rights and democracy will be driven more by domestic than international factors. At the same time, norms and pressures for these values may come more from social movements and NGOs than from states. The European Union may be more consequential than the United States in championing these values. But generally, the importance of domestic forces will be stronger.

TOVE: Many fear that the global order is retreating into a state of anarchy or disorder. With the decline of US-assured multilateralism, what new form(s) could global cooperation and governance take?

ACHARYA: As I have already hinted, multilateralism was never US-assured, as you put it. The US pursued it selectively and showed more favour to ideologically like-minded  countries and countries that were strategically aligned to it. I argue that in the new world order, global cooperation will be more fragmented. I have coined the term G-Plus world, as an alternative to G-7, G-20 or G-Zero (to use international consultant Ian Bremmer’s term). G-pLus means a more complex form of global governance, where leadership can be exercised by different actors in different issue areas. Traditional multilateral institutions like the UN, World Bank and IMF are joined, but not replaced, by regional institutions such as the EU, the African union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as newer arrangements such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Chiangmai Initiative to I really don’t see a necessary link between the weakening of liberal hegemony and the rise of human rights abuses, since these abuses were fairly abundant during the heyday of the LIO which was rather selective and self-serving in promoting democracy around the world. Some may think that the end of liberal hegemony might embolden autocrats and human rights violators. And this is quite possible. But the logic is not so simple. Some states in the developing world – such as Indonesia and India – have their domestic reasons for adhering to elections and protection of rights; since the probable alternative of chaos and disorder will threaten economic growth and the stability of their governments. Repression has bad political consequences over a period of time, with or without external pressure. In view of this, one consequence of the breakdown of liberal hegemony might be that the fate of human rights and democracy will be driven more by domestic than international factors. At the same time, norms and pressures for these values may come more from social movements and NGOs than from states. The European Union may be more consequential than the United States in championing these values. But generally, the importance of domestic forces will be stronger.

TOVE: Many fear that the global order is retreating into a state of anarchy or disorder. With the decline of US-assured multilateralism, what new form(s) could global cooperation and governance take?

ACHARYA: As I have already hinted, multilateralism was never US-assured, as you put it. The US pursued it selectively and showed more favour to ideologically like-minded countries and countries that were strategically aligned to it. I argue that in the new world order, global cooperation will be more fragmented. I have coined the term G-Plus world, as an alternative to G-7, G-20 or G-Zero (to use international consultant Ian Bremmer’s term). G-Plus means a more complex form of global governance, where leadership can be exercised by different actors in different issue areas. Traditional multilateral institutions like the UN, World Bank and IMF are joined, but not replaced, by regional institutions such as the EU, the African union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as newer arrangements such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Chiangmai Initiative to address financial crises. No single country may lead in every issue area. And there could be possibility for joint or shared leadership over issues such as climate change or refugees and global health.

Conflict and disorder are not new to our world; the LIO was rife with them, especially when it came to the developing world. And they will rise in some areas or regions and diminish in others. Generally, as I have pointed out in my essays and book (The End of American World Order, Polity 2014, 2018), we have a very mixed picture when it comes to armed conflicts. Some forms, such as inter-state war, have diminished; others, such as intra-state conflicts and civil wars, rise and recede. It has become clear, however, that there are some long-term factors that contribute to stability, including economic growth and development, poverty reduction and norms against international violence. Nobody can claim that the future will be peaceful, but the possibility of global disorder has been exaggerated by the proponents of liberal hegemony.
TOVE: Can the issues around ‘identity’ and the demand for recognition be considered a norm transforming national and international systems? Is this the form which nationalism takes in the early 20th century?

ACHARYA: One should not forget that identity can manifest itself at different levels; ethnic, sub-state, national, regional and even international. Identity can have positive and negative dimensions and consequences for international order. With the diminishing memory of colonialism, which was a shared basis of common identity in the developing world, national identities can become more forceful. But this is offset by the rise of common transnational challenges, such as climate change, where cooperation is essential to achieve desired outcomes. International and regional norms and mechanisms for “socialisation”, as well as transnational social movements, are still proliferating and can foster shared identity and blunt the edge of narrow and competitive national identities. In a Multiplex World, we will see multiple identities, both competing as well as co-existing and overlapping.
TOVE: How do we understand non-alignment in the developments currently taking place in the global system?

ACHARYA: Non-alignment was a response to the Cold War and it cannot exist in the same form now. But one enduring lesson of the non-alignment norm for the developing countries such as those in Africa today is not to take sides in great power competition, such as that between the US and China. In a Multiplex World, we are more likely to see multi-alignment or cross-cutting alignments. The key challenge is to ensure that these alignments do not generate competition or conflict and are geared to protecting the collective interests of the regions and the world.
TOVE: Finally, what are your reflections about Africa’s role in the evolution of the international system? Will Africa be a rule taker or a rule maker?
ACHARYA: I believe that Africa has potential to have more agency, or to make a greater contribution in shaping the future world order. The key to this is Africa’s economic development and its willingness and ability to carry out regional collective action; whether it is done through the AU or on some other collective basis. Of course, Africa is a vast region, with a tremendous diversity of cultures, and political systems. Generating effective cooperation is never easy, but Africa has much to contribute to humanitarian action, protection of the environment and global health. Africa should embrace G-Plus leadership, and develop greater cooperation involving states, international institutions, regional bodies and non-state actors.







My August reflections on ASEAN’s 50th anniversary

8 August 2017 is the  50th anniversary of ASEAN, the most successful regional organization of the developing world. To mark this occasion, I have written a number of essays and op-eds. Here are brief summaries and excerpts, along with publication details. Some are free downloads.

The first is a chapter, “The Evolution and Limitations of ASEAN Identity”,  in Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Socio-Cultural Reflections (Jakarta: The Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, 2017): 25-38. Available at:

In this essay, I argue:

…the identity of Southeast Asia as a region should not be confused with the identity of ASEAN as a regional organisation. Although the two identities can overlap and be mutually reinforcing, they also have different sources and distinctive trajectories. Southeast Asia’s regional identity predates ASEAN’s identity; it existed even when ASEAN was a group of only five nations. While ASEAN might have strengthened Southeast Asia’s regional identity, the latter has a wider basis. It was constructed by a combination of outside powers, foreign (at first) and local academics, regional political leaders, and civil society groups, while the ASEAN identity is mainly the creation of the region’s political elite. The Southeast Asian identity is more grounded in historical and socio-cultural factors than the ASEAN identity, which is more of an institutional, political, and strategic phenomenon and is fundamentally statist and elitist in nature. Hence, although both identities have their limitations, the Southeast Asian identity is potentially more robust and enduring than the ASEAN identity, and could outlive the weakening or unravelling of ASEAN. While the two identities converged after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the ASEAN–10, they have recently begun to diverge, due to growing intra-regional squabbles and great power competition. The challenge for the region’s policymakers and civil society is to ensure the convergence of the two identities with policies that sustain ASEAN’s unity and neutrality in the great power rivalry, while at the same time expanding ASEAN’s support base by seeking the participation of the people and the civil society of the region.”

A second essay is part of a book published by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia’s leading think tank. Amitav Acharya,”ASEAN@50: Reflections on Its Past, Present and Future,” in Asean Future Foreword (Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 2017). The chapter was noted in a recent op-ed in Malaysia.

The essay begins by highlighting ASEAN’s distinctive features and contributions:

“No regional organization in the world has a more culturally and politically diverse membership and yet has come as far as ASEAN has. Another outstanding feature of ASEAN is its shared or pluralistic leadership. Unlike some regional groups where one or two countries play the disproportionate role, such as France and Germany in the European Union (EU), ASEAN is not directed by one or two dominant members. There is no regional hegemon or wannabe hegemon within ASEAN, such as Nigeria in ECOWAS, South Africa in SADC or India in SAARC.

ASEAN has multiple leaders guiding it in different issue-areas. At different stages, Indonesia (ZOPFAN, which was an outgrowth of the original Malaysian idea of Neutralization of Southeast Asia) and later ASEAN political-security community), Thailand (sovereignty and “flexible engagement”), Malaysia (Neutralization of Southeast Asia), Philippines (civil society engagement) and Singapore (trade) have “led” ASEAN and charted its course. A third distinctive feature of ASEAN is that while none of its members are great powers, Indonesia included, it has attracted the deference and engagement of all the great powers of the contemporary international system. It is a very rare example in the history of international relations in which the strong are ruled (normatively speaking) by the weak; in marked contrast to the standard realpolitik which expects the strong powers to lead and the weak merely to follow. Finally, ASEAN is a regional institution with a global membership. Through ASEAN dialogue relations and “ASEAN plus” institutions, all the major players in the world are engaged with ASEAN on a regular, institutionalized basis.”

But the essay also highlights a number of challenges facing ASEAN.

“…ASEAN’s current problems and challenges result from multiple sources: expansion of expectations concerning ASEAN leadership, and ASEAN centrality; the changing strategic environment with the rise of China, and growing US-China competition, and China’s shifting approach to regional engagement from ASEAN-centric to China-centric regional initiatives. Other sources of ASEAN’s weakness include continued adherence to sovereignty, non-interference, limited capacity relative to growing burdens, and questions over intra-ASEAN unity and cohesion. Faced with these challenges, ASEAN needs to find the right balance between state sovereignty and community-building, between indifference (non-intervention) and collective action and between the ASEAN Way of informalism and the need for greater institutionalization to make regional cooperation more responsive and effective in addressing regional challenges.”

The third essay is a commentary on “ÁSEAN Centrality: Myth of Reality,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol.39, no.2 (2017). pp.272-79.

The essay begins with clarifying a few myths about the concept of ASEAN Centrality.

“First, contrary to what many observers may think, ASEAN centrality is not an entirely novel or distinctive term. Rather it’s related to a number of similar concepts: ASEAN as the “leader”, the “driver”, the “architect”, the “institutional hub”, the “vanguard”, the “nucleus”, and the “fulcrum” of regional processes and institutional designs in the Asia-Pacific.”

A second popular misconception about ASEAN centrality is that it’s about ASEAN itself. More accurately, it’s really about the larger dynamics of regionalism and regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific and even beyond.

A third myth about ASEAN centrality is that it’s the exclusive handiwork of ASEAN members. It’s not… ASEAN centrality is as much a product of external players in Southeast Asia as of the ASEAN members themselves. In fact, one suspects that its emergence had more to do with dynamic of major powers relationships than to any projection of ASEAN’s internal unity or identity.”

I concluded the essay by arguing that ASEAN must seriously rethink its centrality.

“…the concept of ASEAN centrality has been somewhat ambiguous, ambitious and impractical from the outset. It has imposed serious burdens on ASEAN and raised expectations of its performance that the organization was not created to meet. It’s possible for someone, like this author, to be a firm believer in ASEAN but skeptical about ASEAN centrality. ASEAN has a critical relevance in dealing with issues in Southeast Asia which do not require the principle of ASEAN centrality in the wider Asia-Pacific security. The Association will survive the loss of ASEAN centrality. But if it wants to keep faith with the idea, then it must accept that ASEAN centrality must be earned than merely assumed, and that there can be no ASEAN centrality without ASEAN unity and ASEAN neutrality in dealing with great power rivalry. Unless ASEAN’s members take this seriously and respond accordingly, the days of ASEAN centrality may soon be over.”

I also wrote two op-eds on ASEAN. The first one, “Can ASEAN cope with the changing world order?,” East Asia Forum, 1 August 2017,, argues:

“The future of ASEAN and ASEAN-led multilateralism in the multiplex era will be more complex, messy and uncertain than in the bipolar era, the ‘unipolar moment’ or the old-fashioned multipolar system. A strategic approach to multilateralism must begin by recognising the limitations — and the possibility of obsolescence — of the existing ASEAN-led architecture, which faces major external and internal challenges…while it cannot entirely avoid getting involved in great-power rivalry, ASEAN needs to reconsider its role in the wider Asia Pacific, particularly its policy of engaging all the great powers on an ASEAN platform. Some degree of self-isolation, or strategy for avoiding a deep entanglement with great power geopolitics, has to be revived. ASEAN could also think of forging closer ties with Japan, India, Australia and the EU to create some strategic space between itself and Beijing and Washington.”

The other op-ed was published as “Time for Thailand to step in and lead Asean (again),” Bangkok Post, 7 August 2017. It’s a tribute to Thailand’s contribution to ASEAN, which is often unacknowledged. In this I write:

“Thailand has played a proactive and productive role that has been central to the foundation, consolidation and transformation of Asean. What is also remarkable is Thailand’s support for Asean has been maintained throughout its domestic oscillations between military and civilian rule.Now that Asean is facing another turning point in view of the escalating great power rivalry in Asia, will Thailand once again step in to move Asean forward? Thailand’s role is ever more important today given Jokowi’s Indonesia has scaled down its role as a leader of Asean. Thailand’s role in the creation of Asean, and its previous ideas for reforming Asean such as “flexible engagement”, mean that should Bangkok so desire, it can emerge as a major player in injecting Asean with a new sense of purpose and vitality to ensure its continuing relevance. This remains a major challenge for Thai governments.

To conclude, while I remain a firm admirer and believer in ASEAN, I also think ASEAN, like any international institution which has been around for a while needs to adapt to the realities of a changing world order, which I call a Multiplex World.

Donald Trump as President: Does It Mark a Rise of Illiberal Globalism?

Amitav Acharya, YaleGlobal Online, January 22, 2017

The liberal international order which supports protections for individual freedom, as led by the United States, is in crisis. The threats are both external from authoritarian governments and internal from disgruntled populists who sense a loss of opportunities. The United States is signaling a withdrawal from its role in fierce protection of the liberal international order, argues the author of “The End of American World Order,” Amitav Acharya. “A major question about the future of the liberal order is whether [Donald] Trump’s victory might encourage authoritarianism around the world,” he writes. “Such an authoritarian wave may not materialize or last long. But there is little question that Trump’s victory has given democracy’s foes a reason to pounce.” Acharya anticipates new forms of globalization emerging in what he calls a multiplex world: from Asia, with more regional arrangements and greater emphasis on development and infrastructure investment than trade. Civil society and corporations may replace nations in leading with global governance to resolve the world’s biggest challenges. – YaleGlobal

Read More at:

The emerging powers can be saviours of the global liberal order

Amitav Acharya

Financial Times, January 19, 2017

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in which he denounced protectionism and defended globalisation, suggests that China is positioning itself to fill the void in global leadership likely to be left by the Trump administration.

Since the election of Donald Trump as US president, there has been great concern about the future of the liberal international order. Mr Trump’s victory in November raises an important question: will the emerging powers defend the existing arrangements or will they give them one final shove over the edge?

Read More at: (English and Chinese translation) (English)


The End of American World Order Insights from Amitav Acharya.

The Diplomat, November 10, 2016

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Amitav Acharya – UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C., and the Chair of its ASEAN Studies Initiative as well as author of The End of American World Order (Polity 2014, Oxford 2015) – is the 66th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Explain the difference between “U.S. decline” and “the end of American world order.”

By “end of American world order,” I specifically refer to the crisis and erosion of the international order that the United States had built and maintained after World War II, which some call the liberal hegemonic order, meaning a liberal order under U.S. dominance. As I have argued in my book, The End of American World Order, whether the United States is declining as the world’s No. 1 power or not is a matter of much debate, although this has less to do with who is in the White House than long-term structural shifts in the global economy and politics. The United States still leads in the world in terms of the overall military power, and relative economic power (defined more comprehensively than just overall GDP, and taking into account the role of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency). So we don’t have agreement on whether or to what degree the United States itself is declining. You can find equally persuasive arguments and evidence from both sides of the debate. But the United States is less and less able to get its way with the international community and shape and control the agenda of global multilateral institutions that it helped to create. U.S. leadership in the world has declined.

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