EIA Interview with Amitav Acharya on the Multiplex World Order

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Amitav Acharya (Photo Credit: Creative Commons)

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello, and welcome to another episode in our Ethics & International Affairs interview series sponsored by the Carnegie Council. My name is Adam Read-Brown, and I’m the managing editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council’s quarterly peer reviewed journal published by Cambridge University Press.

With me today is Professor Amitav Acharya here to discuss some of the topics from his essay, “After Liberal Hegemony: The Advent of a Multiplex World Order.” This essay appears in the Fall 2017 issue of the journal.

Professor Acharya is Distinguished Professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC, and his books include the forthcoming Agency and Change in World Politics: Constructing Global Order, as well as Rethinking Power, Institutions and Ideas in World PoliticsThe End of American World Order; and Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism. He is also the editor of Why Govern? Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance.

Welcome, Professor Acharya. This is a very interesting time to be discussing world order, so thanks for joining us.

AMITAV ACHARYA: Thank you.

ADAM READ-BROWN: You begin your essay in the journal with this quote from Robert Keohane, who in his book After Hegemony wrote: “The dominance of a single great power can contribute to order in world politics in particular circumstances, but it is not a sufficient condition, and there is little reason to believe that it is necessary.”

So my first question for is: Was the United States once that single great power, and is it no longer?

AMITAV ACHARYA: There is no question that the United States was the single great power, the hegemon, after World War II, even though we were living in a bipolar world with the Soviet Union being the other great power or the other superpower, but really in terms of all the major indicators of power, except perhaps nuclear weapons, the United States was the global number one.

I don’t think the United States is in that situation. It wasn’t in that situation even in the 1980s, but what happened was after the end of the Cold War there was a moment of euphoria that the West or the United States won the Cold War, and we had all this talk about the “unipolar moment,” so the talk about a liberal hegemony came back, even though people had already—including liberals, like Keohane—accepted that the United States was already not in the same position it was in the immediate 20 years after World War II.

But the end of the Cold War kind of changed that. People forgot about that, and the United States was absolutely the sole superpower in the world, and the argument from liberals was that the liberal order that the United States built after World War II will not only continue but might even co-opt potential challenges like the rising powers of China or India.

So in that sense, I would argue that—the Keohane statement that global order doesn’t necessarily require a hegemon—you have to look at it with some qualifications. Hegemony may be sometimes useful for creating a new world order as the United States did after World War II, but it’s not necessarily the case that the world order created by a hegemon is always more stable and it will continue.

At the same time—and this is my key argument—that just because the hegemon has declined doesn’t mean that there will be total chaos and instability. I would actually buy some of Keohane’s line that the institutions that were created, they are changing—there is no question about it—and they are also declining. There are new institutions coming up, competing ideas, norms, and institutions that are now in play. But those institutions are also not going to disappear. They will also have some longevity.

So the challenge for policymakers today is how to reform them to fit the changing realities of the 21st century. We are not living in the 1940s or 1950s anymore, and these institutions that were created at that time are under stress. But how to reform them, how to change them, how to make them adapt to the changing distribution of power and also new ideas and norms that are coming up? That is the key challenge that we have to confront.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Yes. You mentioned that at the end of the Cold War there was this sense that liberal hegemony, this liberal order, could continue and flourish. What actually constitutes that order as it is commonly understood? What does that entail?

AMITAV ACHARYA: The idea of a liberal order is actually sometimes confusing. It has multiple meanings. It depends on who you talk to. The way I look at it, it is supposed to be rule-based, open—according to its proponents. It is open to anyone who wants to join it, and its rule base is transparent, and it’s anchored in multilateral institutions.

I think those who talk about a liberal order today—people like Professor John Ikenberry, for example, from Princeton University—put a heavy emphasis on multilateral institutions. But there are other elements, like economic interdependence and free trade and promotion of liberal democracy and liberal values such as freedom, transparency, and the like. So it’s a combination of factors.

But I think that when you talk about a liberal order in a more narrow, specific sense, I think there is a lot of emphasis on multilateral institutions, especially those that were created after World War II under U.S. leadership, and it is supposed to be the anchor of a rule-based international system.

ADAM READ-BROWN: You mention in your piece that the sort of scope and reach of this order has always been at least somewhat of a myth as it is commonly formulated. How so, and why is that important for understanding our current situation?

AMITAV ACHARYA: That’s a great question. In fact, that is one of the points that I heavily emphasize in my book, and it has actually struck, it has made an impression.

First of all, people talk about the liberal world order as if it is like a global order, and my argument is that it was never really truly a global order. So that is the first myth about the liberal order, that it was truly global. Many countries were outside of it, including China and India before the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping and Indian reforms a decade later.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the liberal order as it is is one of the international orders. There are other competing ideas. The Soviet Union during the Cold War had its own idea of what world order would mean, and it had a lot of resonance, not just in the Eastern European or communist countries but also in the Third World countries, the developing countries. A lot of people actually bought into—at least for a time—the Soviet Union’s idea of world order, which was very different.

The mythical aspect of the liberal order is the claim that it was anything more than a club of Western nations, a trans-Atlantic club—the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and maybe you can add Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. It was never really a global order.

Another myth about the liberal order was that it was anchored by consent and not by coercion, that everybody benefited from it and voluntarily accepted it. The use of force, interventions, so-called some of the “dark side” of the liberal order, was never really emphasized very much in the post-Cold War writings on that order. So the myth was that it was a benign global order that benefited everybody, and it had legitimacy to the extent that countries voluntarily accepted that.

That leads to another kind of related myth, that countries which had benefited from that liberal order—foremost of them would be China, but also other rising powers like India and Brazil—would be co-opted, they would somehow buy into the liberal order, and they will support it even when the liberal order is declining.

That is not a totally wrong argument, but I think the idea that they will be co-opted or they would simply accept the rules under the leadership of the United States, I think was a bit of a myth. We can come back to this later because where we see that today is that while the emerging powers did not want a rapid collapse of the liberal order, they also don’t want to leave that liberal order as it was under the U.S. hegemony, and that is one of the key challenges facing the liberal order today.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Speaking of challenges, you note that since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing, punditry, and general anxiety over the future of world order, liberal, mythological, or otherwise. But you argue that some of this anxiety is really misplaced, that Trump is a consequence, not a cause of the decline of the liberal order.

So where should we be looking for the causes of this decline?

AMITAV ACHARYA: When Donald Trump came into office, the election was a shock to a lot of people—I should say including myself—but one can say that one of the main reasons why Trump was elected is because some of the supposed benefits of the liberal order, including the benefits of economic interdependence, free trade, or even multilateral institutions, could not be sold to a large chunk of the American electorate, especially people who had been on the losing end of economic globalization, some of the Midwest and Rust Belt states, for example. They were no longer willing to accept that the liberal order was so much beneficial to the United States, and Trump exploited that sentiment.

So that’s why I say in my article that Trump is really the consequence, not the cause, of the decline of the liberal order because the causes were already evident, and those causes had to do with the fact that we had a global power shift, the rise of countries like China and India, but also generally of the developing countries in general. The global power shift is not just about one or two countries like China and India. The “Global South,” so to speak, also is relatively rising in terms of its share in global gross domestic product (GDP).

At the same time, we also see all kinds of problems in the Western club, the liberal club. The European Union has been in a fair amount of crisis with the Eurozone crisis and Brexit. The United States support for globalization actually has been declining; it has been proven in some of the opinion polls done before that, surveys done before the election.

So those signs should have been evident to the defenders of the liberal order, but because of Obama‘s success in restoring the American “soft power,” so to speak, people tended to forget, or they didn’t want to believe, that the liberal order was actually in crisis.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Right. So he comes in—Trump—as you say convincingly as a consequence, but then, of course, there are things that a president can do to exacerbate some of the things that we’re talking about. If we’re looking at elements of world order, whether liberal or otherwise, the maintenance of a world order, some of that comes from international security agreements, both bilateral alliances and multilateral agreements and organizations.

Since taking office, Trump has frayed quite a few nerves with his “America First” approach, which has included hedging on commitments to NATO, and now recently we saw him come out publicly with harsh criticism of the U.S. ally South Korea and its dealings with North Korea.

How do you see his administration dealing with these security concerns as fitting into this broader picture of the shifting international order?

AMITAV ACHARYA: Let’s start with Trump’s election rhetoric, “Let’s make America great again.” That is kind of a populist slogan that we can restore America’s position and influence in the world that had been damaged or undermined by the Democrats, especially Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. So he made that grand promise, and a lot of people believed in that.

My argument is that—and I made that immediately after the election in some interviews and in an op-ed in YaleGlobal, for example—Trump can aggravate the crisis, but he cannot rebuild America’s position back to where it was, let’s say, in the immediate post-Second World War period.

To make America great again, the question there is: Great again compared to what period? Take America back to the 1940s and 1950s, 1960s, or something else? So that is a big question. But to say that you can make the United States the hegemon, meaning having dominance in economics, military, and soft power, all of the above together, I think is impossible.

What Trump can actually do is some of the policies that you just mentioned. If he actually—and they were part of his election platform—pushes them to the logical end, he will actually accelerate the collapse of the liberal order; he will actually push the liberal order over the edge instead of making America great again.

He has, in fact, started doing that. One of his first acts was to rescind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He said he would review all the free trade deals and try to renegotiate them, so he is doing that with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Then, on international institutions he thinks America gets a bad deal from multilateral institutions, so he is now in the process of cutting the budgets of U.S. contributions to the United Nations and aid agencies, and also alliances.

Alliances are slightly different because alliances are in many cases, with the exception of NATO and a couple of other things, bilateral, and they are actually instruments of realpolitik rather than a pure kind of liberal world order. So I think liberals think of alliances as one of their own instruments, but actually a lot of realists think alliances are actually an instrument of realpolitik. But Trump also thinks alliances need to be made fair, that there should be a kind of fairer distribution of responsibility and burden-sharing.

But beyond that, he also seems to be kind of distrustful of the fundamental value of alliances, including bilateral and multilateral, so he has made statements that are harmful to the credibility of NATO, and his links to Russia make it even worse, because NATO allies, especially the new members of NATO, feel that the united security umbrella is no longer all that credible. In East Asia, we have problems with Japan and Korea.

But on that front we have seen also that, maybe partly because of the influences of Trump’s advisors, there has been a bit of a rethink. Alliances are not being undermined to the extent—especially in East Asia with South Korea and Japan—to the extent we had expected. But overall, some of the key foundations of the liberal order—like free trade and multilateral institutions—have been undermined by Trump’s policies.

Another area where Trump is actually undermining the liberal order is democratic or liberal values. These are also very important for the liberal order. The very election of Trump encouraged a lot of authoritarian leaders throughout the world, and not just in the developing world but also in Europe, the extreme right in Europe, the populist movements, leaders in Europe. Some of them did not succeed, like in France, electorally they didn’t succeed, but it certainly encouraged leaders in TurkeyEgypt, and throughout the world. I don’t think there is a lot of talk about democracy promotion from this administration. That, in a sense, is also undermining one of the key foundations of the liberal order.

To add this all together, what I see is that Trump promised to make America great again, but he is not going to make America great again by taking the standard liberal approach. He thinks he can do that through asserting American power, unilateralism, and some of the policies that are quite counter to the basic principles and institutions of the liberal order. But I don’t think he can do that.

The bottom line is that making America great again involves keeping the United States as the number one power in the world, but not only number one, kind of in the dominant position, able to create, maintain, and call shots in multilateral institutions, having global influence, having respect and legitimacy, having what Joseph Nye would call “soft power.” I don’t think Trump is able to do that or will be able to do that with the policies he has pursued. I think he has already started pushing the liberal order over the edge. In fact, he has hastened the collapse of the liberal order.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Amidst all this, one might expect, as you alluded to earlier, that rising and regional powers might be welcoming this shift away from the U.S.-led global order. What are we actually seeing in the near term?

AMITAV ACHARYA: I think the emerging powers are in a bind. In a sense, it’s a question of circumstances. This crisis in the liberal order comes at a time when the emerging powers themselves are under some distress. With the exception of China, which is still rising economically, and India, which is doing fairly well economically, other BRICS countries like Russia, Brazil, South Africa, they have been in deep economic crisis, in fact in recession.

So when this happens—when somebody like Trump comes in and they see a very frontal assault on the existing order, they get a bit nervous. There are a lot of things about the order they do not like. They don’t think it’s fair to them, they think it’s still dominated too much by the West, the West has too many privileges in institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) or the World Bank. They want to reform those institutions. They want to have their own voice and be their own influence. But at the same time, they don’t want to see a precipitate collapse of that order, which is signaled by Trump, both his election in itself and also by some of his policies. So they are kind of in a dilemma.

What they are doing is—led by China in this case – they actually are stepping into defend certain elements of the liberal order that they have benefited most from, and that is trade. So Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Davos in January 2017 and put himself as a champion of globalization and free trade. And I think he means it because China cannot afford to see a collapse of existing trade regimes, at least not a rapid, dramatic collapse. China also doesn’t want to see the collapse of the United Nations system.

But at the same time, when you say that it doesn’t mean that they want to leave those institutions or the system that is in place, the liberal order that is already in place, as it is. So I think their response is a short term response. They want to preserve stability, and they want to keep the institutions and the system of free trade and globalization, which has benefited China and India tremendously. They want to keep it, but at the same time they want to see reforms and also assert their own influence and voices as they have been doing for some time, China with the creation of new multilateral institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or BRICS generally with their New Development Bank (NDB) and China’s Belt and Road strategy.

But while these are not frontal challenges to the liberal order, but they are also not accepting the liberal order under U.S. leadership. So it is partly a question of smoothing the transition and avoiding a crisis of collapse, and slowly making changes that will give those emerging powers more clout. We are going to see that for the next five years, or a decade, or even in the longer term.

ADAM READ-BROWN: This brings us really to the ultimate question at the heart of this discussion, which is: We’ve got this liberal order that is delaying and fragmenting and being propped up in certain ways and not others. What comes next?

AMITAV ACHARYA: What comes next is the million-dollar question. There are many different formulations about it, but the most common one, as you know, is multipolarity. After the unipolar moment, we have multipolarity, but people generally also see that after the decline of the liberal order and the rise of other powers we will see a multipolar world. There are other formulations also. Some people say polarity will disappear, and we will have an a-polar or non-polar world. But I think “multipolarity” is the most common term that is being used.

I disagree with the notion of multipolarity for a number of reasons. First of all, multipolarity—the kind of point of reference for a lot of writings on multipolarity is what happened before World War II in Europe or in the international system generally, so late 19th century, early 20th century period. At that time multipolarity is often associated with crises leading to war.

I think the circumstances today in the early 21st century are very different from the circumstances of the early 20th century. For one thing, there is a greater number and variety of actors, of many more hues and colors. So the multipolar world of the past was basically a world of great powers and states. Today the actors in international relations, the actors that matter, are more than just states or great powers. We have non-state actors, both good and bad, and we have international institutions. There were very few of those before World War II; there weren’t lots of them. We have also multinational corporations.

A big change is that the nature of interdependence has changed. In the 19th century, or before the First World War, we also had economic interdependence among the major powers—between Britain, France, and Germany, for example. But the rest of the world was actually dependent on Europe rather than interdependent because a lot of the rest of the world was colonies of Europe and some of the United States.

So today we don’t have that kind of colonialism, and also interdependence today is much more global. You can look at the membership of the G20. The G20 was the result of in a sense financial interdependence and the crisis of that interdependence. So we have countries like Brazil from the southern tip of Latin America, we have South Africa from the southern tip of Africa, we have India and Indonesia from the southern tip of Asia, then we have China, we have Turkey and Saudi Arabia, we have Europe, you have North America, Australia. It’s a global interdependence and that binds groups like the G20. That was really not there before the Second World War. People always hearken back to that era as a point of reference on multipolarity.

We also have more in our supply chains, trends of production that were not there in the previous century, especially before World War II. So the quality of our interdependence is different.

To sum up, multipolarity is not just about the number of powers in the international system—one is unipolar, two is bipolar, and more than two is multipolar. It is also about the quality of interactions and the quality of relationships among actors. And those actors are not necessarily only great powers.

But because of this very fundamental transformation that has happened in the past 50–60 years—and part of the credit has to go to the liberal order, whether we think it is going to continue or not—things have changed so dramatically that to invoke a term that was specifically derived from the past to explain the present to me is not accurate, it’s misleading. So I call this new emerging world order a “multiplex” world. A multiplex world has—there are many ways of looking at it, but you can say there are multiple consequential actors and complex global interdependence. But it’s also more decentered. It is kind of a post-hegemonic world.

Now the idea of a global hegemon to me is passé. It was never very common throughout history. We had regional hegemons, we had empires, but a global hegemony was only possible in two periods—once under Britain and once under the United States.

I don’t think that we will have a global hegemony of that sort. China is certainly not going to be able to provide that kind of hegemony or become that kind of hegemon. The United States is not going to go back to that situation. The multiplex world is kind of decentered or a post-hegemonic world, a world without hegemony, but still with a complex global interdependence, and interdependence again coming not only just from trade but also from finance, from production networks, from global challenges like environment or pandemics that also create a sense of interdependence.

The multiplex world will also have a lot of regional orders or regional institutions which are not always effective, but they do matter, especially in affecting regional security in different parts of the world. So it’s a much more complex, more messy, but certainly more decentered but at the same time interconnected world. And I don’t think “multipolarity” can capture that. Multipolarity generally goes back to a number of great powers calling the shots, often leading to conflict and war like the First and Second World Wars.

The multiplex world is a kind of new phenomenon, and it may be quite unprecedented. When you look back in history, it is hard to find another example of a period in history where you have a global sort of system created by globalization, a global interconnectedness at the same time with multiple types of actors, including great powers but other kinds of actors, all interacting to produce both conflict and stability. It is a brave new world. I call it actually, borrowing the Star Trek metaphor, “where no one has gone before.”

ADAM READ-BROWN: Right. In this brave new Star Trek world, do you see the liberal order—you mentioned that there are likely to be these sort of regional orders that continue with no overarching global order in the same way that we thought of the maybe mythological liberal order, but does the liberal order then become one of those sub- or regional orders that continues along to a certain degree? Does it just become a contracted, sort of simplified version of itself? How does that fit in here?

AMITAV ACHARYA: That’s a great question. I have never implied or never said that the liberal order is going to disappear or become extinct. I’m clarifying that more in my essay for Ethics & International Affairs but also the second edition of my book The End of the American World Order. The liberal order will continue as one of the orders. So whether we call it international or regional—in Europe, it will be more visible on a regional basis. But it will also have an international impact. But I don’t think it will be the global order, a single overarching dominant or hegemonic order. That is over. So it will have to complete with, it has to negotiate with other types of orders, including regional and international orders.

For example, what China is doing today with China-led institutions or initiatives like the Belt and Road initiative or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank . . . also in the security field, China has a number of initiatives in the region. China also is involved in Africa and Latin America. There is no question that China, while professing support for the existing liberal order, is also building a different kind of order. If it cannot change the liberal order sufficiently to its liking, it will promote its own conception of international order.

So the liberal order will have to compete with that. It has to negotiate with that. It has to enmesh with this complexity, which I call a multiplex world. The multiplex world could well be a world of different types of orders. And they’re not necessarily colliding, but they have to negotiate and accommodate with each other and coexist with each other, but they can sometimes collide, too, if they’re not managed properly.

ADAM READ-BROWN: This is making me think about what you said earlier in the discussion about the fact that the liberal order, though this is not as often discussed, has been deeply entwined with coercive elements in its history, so I wonder to the degree that we’re going to have these coexisting or sometimes conflicting orders, is there a high likelihood that the liberal order continues to “not play nice” in the sandbox because it’s so deeply entwined with these sorts of imperialist and colonialist tendencies?

AMITAV ACHARYA: Yes. That is actually an important factor. The liberal order has baggage. That baggage has to do with coercion, intervention, and also imperialism. It also has a lot of good things, but the proponents often emphasize the good things and try to overlook or downplay the bad things. So that baggage will be in the minds of a lot of people, and that is one of the reasons why I say that the emerging powers are not going to wholeheartedly embrace the liberal order just because they have benefited economically from it, because that baggage is already in their mind. That baggage is in the mind of China for sure, the history of what China calls its “humiliation” at the hands of Western powers.

But I think what we are going to see is that the liberal order continues to have some of its ideas and institutions in place. The emerging powers trying to challenge, modify, and reform it in the first place and put forward ideas and institutions, that could actually significantly alter some of the key features of the liberal order.

But there may be a phase where the Western powers, including the United States, will accept that reform to the extent that satisfies the emerging powers, and the emerging powers then will also play the role of observing status quo, in the sense that they will accommodate the remnants of the liberal order. That is the best-case scenario.

But it is also possible that we could not have this compromise and that emerging powers, especially China, will go on building their own idea of an international order. Particularly also at the regional level they will build regional orders. So we could have different types of outcomes.

But what is going to happen for sure is the nature of globalization is going to change, the nature of global governance is going to change, and these are some of the key themes of my book. For example, people talk about Globalization 2.0 at a time when the United States—under Trump at least—has moved away from globalization, and part of the U.S. electorate doesn’t trust globalization as beneficial. So China is pushing for a new type of globalization. There is some basis to that. Maybe we will see a different type of globalization. We won’t see the end of globalization, but we will see a different type, which may be driven more by the emerging powers rather than established powers, and China’s Belt and-Road, if it is successful, might actually contribute to that.

We might actually see a globalization that is driven more by South-South linkages rather than North-North or North-South linkages. In fact, trade among the Southern countries—the Global South countries—is increasing. Investment flows among the Global South countries and is increasing relative to the North-South trade and investment linkages.

We might also see more respect for state sovereignty because countries like China and India do not—they are still bound by this old traditional notion of sovereignty and nonintervention. Whereas the old liberal order, as you say, was associated with coercion and imperialism.

But I want to make a very important qualification here: I am not saying that China or India will eschew the use of force or coercion. In fact, I’m arguing in my book that China is likely to move away from this strict non-interference policy—as it starts investing all over the world in a big way—to protect its investments. But at the same time, it’s not going to do things like promotion of democracy or regime change, which are also more acute forms of intervention. And I don’t think that globalization led by Asian powers is going to go parallel the way Europe created globalization and imposed its version of globalization through empire and colonies. So we will have differences.

Global governance is going to also fragment; it’s already fragmenting. We will have new actors including regional actors, including non-state actors, not all of which are beholden to American power and purpose, so they will offer it outside the American interest or influence, so to speak.

So we will see a lot of changes in this multiplex world, but at the same time some liberal elements will continue except that it has to confront the challenges, accommodate those challenges, so negotiate with it rather than simply say, “We are going to be there, and the liberal order is going to be able to co-opt all of these challenges,” which was basically the wisdom a few years ago.

ADAM READ-BROWN: So what you’re describing sounds in many ways somewhat chaotic. With all these crosscutting orders really is there no order at all? What can we look at when we’re thinking about the stability of a multiplex order or the instability of a multiplex order?

AMITAV ACHARYA: Yes, very important question. I get that a lot. My position, especially after the publication of the first edition of the book was challenged by a lot of people, and people said I was being too optimistic about the prospect of a sort of post-American stability in the world, of stability of a multiplex world.

I try to clarify my position in the second edition of the book, and I would like to do so right here. I do not say that the multiple world will be free from disorder or instability. No order is free from instability. The liberal order has plenty of instability. It has relative stability in the West in [inaudible] Europe, but the rest of world was full of conflict and violence and genocide and all kinds of disorder. So it will be in the multiplex world.

The first key point that I would like to make is just because the United States sees that the liberal order is in decline or that the American-made liberal order is in decline doesn’t mean we are necessarily going into a period of instability. And this is where I go back to the argument that we started about Keohane’s statement, that order maintenance doesn’t necessarily depend on a hegemonic power, here I mean a globally hegemonic power.

One reason for my position is that the United States is not going to disappear from the face of the Earth, and Trump may not stay as president after his first term—or maybe even before, who knows?—so there will be a change in leadership in the United States, and a new president may have ideas that will reengage the United States and the world, and I am fairly optimistic that that might happen, although I may be wrong.

But also, the emerging powers—if you look at the behavior of China and India, there are a lot of elements that are disturbing, especially when it comes to China. China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea or in the border dispute in the East China Sea, these are troublesome and are reasons to worry, but generally China also is playing a constructive role in maintaining the institutions and globalization. It is not actively going around undermining the elements of order that the United States built, it is just creating some parallel institutions and trying to probably in a sense leverage that into inducing reform into the existing order.

I think the emerging powers are generally playing a constructive rather than spoiler role—some people call them “spoilers.” I don’t agree with that. I think they are generally constructive.

Also, we have some long-terms factors in peace. The long-term trends in conflict are actually surprisingly positive. There is ongoing economic interdependence which is still a factor; the United Nations—the role of United Nations peacekeeping, plus regional institutions are increasingly active in peace and security, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union. They all go into this.

So stability and order will depend on multiple factors in a multiplex world rather than the overarching dominant leadership of a single power—the United States. And that doesn’t necessarily mean chaos and disorder because of all the factors I just mentioned.

Nobody can predict the future, nobody has a crystal ball, really. Academics are terrible in making predictions, and I’m not venturing that the 21st century will have no major wars or will be a Kantian paradise. But I also don’t think that one should be unduly pessimistic that because an American-led order is in decline all hell is breaking out and will break out, and we are doomed to chaos.

In a sense, my optimism is only to that extent, if I may put it that way. I don’t think the decline of the American-led liberal hegemony is necessarily going to lead to total chaos and disorder, not the least because the United States will continue to play a role, all the Western countries will continue to play a role, the emerging powers are actually playing generally a constructive role, and some of the international institutions that were created will endure or they will reform. And I think the world might come together when there is a real crisis. Agreements will still be possible.

A lot of agreements happened despite American indifference or opposition. I think the Paris climate change agreement is an example. After Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, a lot of other countries, including U.S. corporations and states, jumped in to support that.

So this is a very different world, and the key message is that you can’t sort of identify one single factor or one single actor or hegemonic power as the sort of central variable here in explaining peace and conflict.

ADAM READ-BROWN: On that somewhat optimistic note, I’m sorry to say that our time is up, and we do need to stop here.

Once again, I’m Adam Read-Brown. I’ve been speaking with Professor Amitav Acharya, whose essay “After Liberal Hegemony: The Advent of a Multiplex World Order,” appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Ethics & International Affairs. That essay, as well as much more, is available online at www.eiajournal.org. We also invite you to follow us on Twitter, @EIAJournal. Thanks for joining us, and thank you, Professor Acharya, for this wonderful discussion.

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