“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. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1154674.shtml

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: http://www.eria.org/ASEAN_at_50_4A.2_Acharya_final.pdf

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. https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/asean-deserves-a-pat-on-the-back-on-its-50th-anniversary-1.617979

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, www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/08/01/can-asean-cope-with-the-changing-world-order/, 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. http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1301295/time-for-thailand-to-step-in-and-lead-asean-again- 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: http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/donald-trump-president-does-it-mark-rise-illiberal-globalism

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: http://www.ftchinese.com/story/001071070/ce (English and Chinese translation)

https://www.ft.com/content/f175b378-dd79-11e6-86ac-f253db7791c6 (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.

Read More at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/11/the-end-of-american-world-order/

American Primacy in a Multiplex World

The National Interest, September 26, 2016

The real question about America’s role in the world today, as I have argued in The End of American World Order, is not whether America itself is declining, but whether the international order it built and dominated thus far, which some call the liberal international order or the American world order, will be enduring. The two issues are often conflated but, in fact, are different. Whether America is declining is debatable; the fate of the American world order is less so. As Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former foreign minister, recently wrote: “Looking back 26 years, we should admit that the disintegration of the Soviet Union — and with it, the end of the Cold War — was not the end of history, but rather the beginning of the Western liberal order’s denouement.”

Where does that leave the issue of American primacy? It depends on how one defines the term. Joseph Nye, one of the principal defenders of American primacy today, carefully distinguishes primacy from hegemony and defines the former as “a country’s disproportionate (and measurable) share of all three kinds of power resources: military, economic, and soft.” On that basis, he concludes that the United States will retain its primacy at least until the first half of the present century.

Read More at: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/american-primacy-multiplex-world-17841

Building Asian security

Amitav Acharya
East Asia Forum, 24 January 2016
A principal challenge to Asian security today is that the various approaches to the security order seem to be working at cross-purposes. Take the United States and China. Washington insists that its rebalancing strategy enhances regional stability. Sure enough, it is possible to see the military dimension of rebalancing as crucial to maintaining the military balance of power in the region. But the economic aspect of rebalancing — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) — excludes China and challenges United States–China economic interdependence.

Similarly, China professes a deep interest in enhancing regional economic interdependence. But its own initiatives, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road, challenge long-standing modalities of regional economic cooperation.

These developments call for a major rethink of existing approaches to security in Asia. The new approach to Asian security might be called security pluralism.

Security pluralism holds that security requires multiple conditions and approaches, rather than any single one, and maintaining a positive relationship among them. The major conditions of security pluralism are economic interdependence, stability in the balance of power, multilateral institutions, and ideological tolerance and accommodation.

Security pluralism is broader than the familiar Asian notion of ‘comprehensive security’, which refers to different dimensions of security without clarifying how they relate to each other. And unlike ‘cooperative security’ — which focuses on multilateral institutions — security pluralism recognises the importance of balance of power.

Yet security pluralism is not a purely balance of power system as it relies on other mechanisms. Nor is it a ‘security community’, which is marked by a collective identity that renders war unthinkable. Security pluralism is less idealistic. National identities and competition remain, but they are controlled by the interplay of interdependence, institutions, value pluralism, military equilibrium and a shared imperative for avoiding system collapse.

Security pluralism aims for a relationship of mutual accommodation among unequal and culturally diverse states that preserves the relative autonomy of each and prevents the hegemony of any or a few. In other words, security pluralism respects political and cultural diversity, but fosters accommodation among the great powers and their restraint towards the weaker actors, such as ASEAN members.

The architecture of security pluralism can be likened to an ecosystem. The components support each other and the loss or weakening of one would damage the others and endanger overall stability. For instance, economic interdependence acts as a check on security competition, contributes to state consolidation and regime legitimation, as well as encourages strategic and ideological accommodation. Interdependence also necessitates and supports regional institutions, which not only help to manage frictions, but also dampen great power rivalry.

Contrary to a popular understanding, ecosystems are not self-sustaining. Their stability requires careful and cooperative management. The following suggestions, though not exhaustive, deserve consideration as a source of policy ideas, from which specific recommendations can be derived.

First, it is essential to maintain the openness and inclusiveness of regional economic arrangements. More specifically, this means ensuring that the AIIB and TPP do not undermine economic interdependence and engender conflict. A forum of economics and security officials under the auspices of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation — which would include the United States — could be useful for this purpose.

Second, governments should avoid policies that prioritise offence over defence. This demands fresh attention in light of the growing Chinese military presence in themaritime sphere as well as the United States rebalance to Asia. Another important part of this is to develop mechanisms to avoid incidents and accidents in areas ofcompeting territorial claims and establish channels of communication between parties.

A multifaceted restructuring of regional institutions is also necessary. This includes creating more manageable priorities, avoiding duplicating tasks and developing Track II dialogues based on empathy rather than national advocacy. It should also addressmission creep in regional institutions and coordinating their activities closer with relevant global bodies, civil society groups and the private sector to address transnational challenges.

ASEAN centrality should not preclude giving non-ASEAN members more voice — and hence stake — in setting the agenda of ASEAN Regional Forum and the EAS and increasing their contribution to regional equilibrium.

And finally, there is a need to explore the common ground and promote mutual learning of the norms and practices of pluralism, restraint and cooperation in Asian and Western civilisations. This includes ideas such as democratic peace, liberal internationalism, strategic restraint, universalism and the ‘new model of major power relations’.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.


How the two big ideas of the post-Cold War era failed

June 24, 2015
Washington Post (Monkey Cage)

Two major prophecies about international order emerged as the Cold War ended. One was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, first outlined in an article in the National Interest in 1989 then elaborated in a book published in 1992. It pronounced total victory for Western capitalism and liberal democracy over all other competing ideologies and even predicted a boring future of peace and tranquility. The other was Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, first presented in a Foreign Affairs article in 1993 and then in a book published in 1996. He was decidedly pessimistic, predicting that the end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry would be followed by a new wave of conflict fueled by civilizational competition and animosity.

Both Fukuyama and Huntington might claim vindication in the recent turn of events. Many have interpreted the emergence of the Islamic State as evidence of the truth of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. On the other hand, in an article last year in the Wall Street Journal and in his book, “Political Order and Political Decay” Fukuyama who foresaw the end of great power rivalry but continued strife in the Third World, claims that his “end of history” thesis remains “essentially correct” even as he acknowledges that liberal democracies and civil liberties might suffer from “decay,” as may be happening in the United States. In a 2002 op-ed for the International Herald Tribune, now the Global New York Times, I challenged the Fukuyama thesis by arguing that liberal democracy in the United States and the West could be in “retreat” due to the attack on civil liberties in the name of the war on terror.

Despite my respect for the intellect of their protagonists, I argue that the two big ideas of the post-Cold War era have been proven to be not only mostly wrong, but also wrong-headed. Islam and the Islamic world have played a significant role in disproving and discrediting these ideas and not necessarily in the most predictable ways.


Let’s start with Fukuyama. The original end of history article pointed to the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” and claimed that the “triumph of the West, of the Western idea is evident in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” This was an ironic claim, since the defeated alternatives to Western liberalism, namely fascism and communism, were still Western ideas. So the end of history was really the victory by one set of Western ideas over another.

Fukuyama also predicted greater geopolitical stability in the world. For him, only “large states still caught in the grip of history” can produce and sustain big ideologies to challenge Western liberalism and thereby cause “large-scale conflict” in the international system. The only candidates for offering such a challenge after the end of the Cold War would be Russia and China, but both were embracing Western-style markets and even, to some degree, political openness, thus moving out of said grips of history.

Yet Russia and China might signal the “return of geopolitics” in the international system.

What about the Islamic world? Fukuyama dismissed the potential of Islam to offer a political alternative to either liberalism or communism. Certainly Islam, without a large or great power in its ranks, could pose no traditional Realpolitik challenge to liberalism. Yet history does not begin or end with the big ideas of big powers. The Islamic world is a massive demographic entity. There are 49 Muslim majority countries in the world, about one fourth of the total U.N. membership. The world’s Muslim population, at 1.6 billion, constitutes 23 percent of the total world population, with significant growth among its youth. Indeed, these demographic facts feature prominently in Huntington’s list of reasons for the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Adding China’s 1.35 billion to the equation means that about a third of the world’s population theoretically remain outside of the West’s triumphant ideology. Even an ardent believer in democracy, such as this author, finds Fukuyama’s claims that there are no “real alternatives” (what constitutes real?) to Western style liberal democracy and that “we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History” too sweeping, arrogant and deterministic.

Did the Arab Spring vindicate the Fukuyama thesis promoted by the neo-con ideologues of the George W. Bush administration, whose invasion of Iraq was legitimized as a means to promote democracy in the Arab world? No. The impetus for the Arab Spring came mainly from within Arab societies and had little to do with Western help. There is no direct link between the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Spring. By now, it is also clear that the Arab uprisings were more of a protest against corrupt and repressive regimes than a call for the establishment of Western style liberal democratic institutions. If they were, they have certainly failed in most places except Tunisia.

While it would be wrong to say that a single or consistent Islamic world view runs through Muslim states and societies, it is equally wrong to assume that they simply identify with or adopt Western liberalism. This should not be confused with an acceptance of the Hungtingtonian clash of civilizations. The vast majority of Muslims and Muslim nations who do not accept Western liberalism similarly have no sympathy for al-Qaeda or the Islamic State or other form of Islamic extremism. In fact, several are themselves targets of the terrorist groups.

Huntington’s clash of civilizations has gained support in recent years as the new paradigm of global conflict replacing the Cold War and identifying the threat against which the US and the West could focus and mobilize its strategic response. It reinforced the fear of Islam and might have offered an implicit justification for the United States invasion of Iraq. However, like Fukuyama’s, Huntington’s thesis has flunked its test in the Islamic world and elsewhere. Much of the Islamic world rallied to the United States after 9/11. Islamic states were far more critical and uncooperative when the United States under the George W. Bush presidency invaded Iraq in 2003, but this was because the invasion flouted international norms and disdained the UN Security Council. Now, some of the most prominent Islamic countries have joined hands with the United State to fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. At the very least, as I had argued in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, Huntington’s thesis underestimated the power of national interest, regime security and resilience of state sovereignty over civilizational affinities.

While some point to the conflicts in Middle East and Ukraine as proof of Huntington’s pessimism—and bearing in mind that Fukuyama too believed that conflicts other than those among the great powers would persist—recent and long-term trends in violence may come as a surprise. The 2013 Human Security Report finds that between the early 1990s (when both ideas emerged) until now, “overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.” The Armed Conflict Survey conducted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) paints a more negative picture, estimating a rise in the number of fatalities from major conflicts from 56,000 in 2008 to 180,000 in 2014. Interestingly enough, only two countries, Iraq and Syria, take up about half of deaths: approximately 88,000 of 180,000 in 2014. Even if one assumes that these two conflicts are civilizational in nature—rather than social, economic or political causes like repression—the evidence of a world on fire caused by a clash of civilizations is still limited at best. The IISS survey also confirmed that the overall conflict numbers in the world is still going down, from 63 in 2008 to 42 today.

More damning for the Huntington thesis is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the targets and victims of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremist groups are Muslims. According to the University of Maryland’sGlobal Terrorism Database, between 2004 and 2013, about half of all terrorist attacks and 60 percent of fatalities caused by terrorist attacks took place in just three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all with Muslim-majority populations and epicenters of the War on Terror. A 2011 report from the U.S. government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) estimates that “in cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism related fatalities over the past five years.” Contrary to Huntington’s thesis, the violence that occurs in the Islamic world is mainly a clash within a civilization. The above also applies to Ukraine. Here is a striking example. Huntington had predicted in his 1996 book, “If civilization is what counts, violence between Ukrainians and Russians is unlikely.” Obviously it does not.
Some of the long-term causes of international stability, according to the Human Security Report, include the end of colonialism and the Cold War, international norms against the use of military force except in self-defense or authorized by the UN, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and “peacemaking” operations to prevent and stop wars, enhanced state capacity in securing resources to promote economic development and address grievances in the Third World, and growing economic interdependence among nations. One other factor identified by the Report is “inclusive democratization” in previously authoritarian countries that contributes to non-violent conflict resolution and hence internal stability within these states.
It is clear that many of these factors, which are unlikely to disappear, cut across civilizational fault lines. They are not uniquely the result of Western ideologies and leadership but are actively supported by both Western and non-Western states and societies. For example, China and other authoritarian nations of East Asia led the way in building state capacity and economic growth and fostering economic interdependence. Countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia are among the world’s largest contributors to UN peacekeeping. Peace in today’s world is possible because civilizations can and do learn from each other and cooperate. This is a lesson of history that will never end. The only history that is rapidly ending is that of the relatively short period of Western dominance in the long march of civilization.