In the coming weeks, observers from Moscow to Brasília will look towards the United States, where voters face a stark choice between two radically different presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton embraces liberal hegemony while Donald Trump proposes a more isolationist model, which downgrades heretofore key concepts as US foreign policy such as democracy promotion and the maintenance of security alliances. Irrespective of their differences, the winner will be the first US president in a post-western era, where the United States no longer enjoys the hegemonic privileges that shaped the post-Cold War era.
Managing that relative decline and articulating a strategy in such a post-hegemonic era without looking weak to the domestic electorate will be the most complex foreign policy task any US president has faced in the past decades. Clinton, in particular, is most likely to preempt any talk of US decline by adopting a hawkish foreign policy – which will present major challenges to BRICS countries, especially China and Russia.
Transitions of power are the most conflict-prone times in history, and we now stand at the cusp of a historic shift of power away from the West towards Asia, and the consequences are increasingly being felt in global politics. The West is slowly losing the remarkable capacity to set the agenda on a global scale, something we have become so used to that it has become hard to imagine global affairs with a West no longer dominant. For more than a century, an extreme concentration of economic power allowed the West, despite representing a small minority of the world's population, to initiate, legitimize, and successfully advocate policy in the economic or security realm. To most observers in the West, non-Western actors hardly, if ever, played any constructive role in the management of global affairs.
As a consequence, from Washington to Brussels, the future of global order— no longer under Western rule—is often described as chaotic, disorienting, and dangerous. Indeed, the vast majority of International Relations scholars in the United States believe the relative decline of US power will have profoundly negative global consequences.
Yet the West’s understanding of the creation of today’s order, its contemporary form and predictions about the future, are limited because it seeks to imagine a “Post-Western World” from a parochial Western-centric perspective. Harvard University’s Graham Allison calls the last one thousand years “a millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world.” Such views dramatically underestimate the contributions non-Western thinkers and cultures have made, and how much the West depended on foreign knowledge, technology, ideas and norms to develop economically and politically. They also disregard the fact that non-Western powers have dominated the world economically for much of the last thousand years.
Western-centrism leads us to underappreciate not only the role non-Western actors have played in the past and play in contemporary international politics, but also the constructive role they are likely to play in the future. With powers such as China providing ever more global public goods, post-Western order, will not necessarily be more violent or unstable than today’s global order.
Indeed, rather than directly confronting existing institutions, rising powers—led by China—are quietly crafting the initial building blocks of what we may call a “parallel order” that will initially complement, and later possibly challenge, today’s international institutions. This order is already in the making; it includes, among others, institutions such as the BRICS-led New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (to complement the World Bank), Universal Credit Rating Group (to complement Moody’s and S&P), China Union Pay (to complement Mastercard and Visa), CIPS (to complement SWIFT), and the BRICS (to complement the G7), and many other initiatives. Notably, Russia is part of most of these initiatives.
These structures do not emerge because China, Russia and others have fundamentally new ideas about how to address global challenges or because they seek to change global rules and norms; rather, they create them to better project their power, just as Western actors have done before them. They partly arose because of existing institutions’ incapacity to adequately integrate rising powers. As part of a hedging strategy, emerging powers will continue to invest in existing institutions, recognizing the strength in today’s order, but they will seek to change the hierarchy in the system to obtain privileges so far only enjoyed by the United States – something that Russia has done repeatedly over the past years. Furthermore, eluding the facile and overly simplistic extremes of either confronting or joining existing order, the creation of several new institutions will allow policy makers in Moscow to pick and choose among flexible frameworks, in accordance with its national interests — just like Western powers have done for decades.
While the transition to genuine multipolarity—not only economically but also militarily and regarding agenda-setting capacity—will be disconcerting to many in the West, it may be, in the end, far more democratic than any previous order in global history, allowing greater levels of genuine dialogue, broader spread of knowledge, and more innovative and effective ways to address global challenges in the coming decades.
Oliver Stuenkel teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, Brazil. His new book, Post-Western World, has just been published by Polity Press.