The West and the rising East face global dissensus

In this insightful and honest look at global powers past, present and future, Charles A Kupchan comes to the conclusion that a new standard for responsible governance must be established.

Despite facing protests in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin still won March's election with an overwhelming majority. Pavel Golovkin / AP Photo
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If there is a consensus that the age of western hegemony is passing, there is almost as much unanimity that the baton of leadership will be taken up this century by the East, either in some collective, continental sense or, more specifically, by China. This results in much foreboding in some quarters, particularly in the US, where academics such as Aaron L Friedberg (a contributor to these pages) have warned that superpower confrontation in the Pacific is a danger the West must prepare for as an increasingly assertive Middle Kingdom readies to take its “rightful place in the sun”, as a previous emerging giant, Germany, put it at the turn of the 20th century. Others, such as Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani, can hardly contain their glee, as the title of his last book suggests – The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.

Charles A Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and the director for European affairs on the US National Security Council during Bill Clinton’s first four years in power, has a different take: what is approaching, he argues in this cogent and extremely valuable book, is No One’s World – a state in which no particular country will bestride the globe. He backs this with plenty of figures: among them, the World Bank’s prediction that in only 13 years’ time the US dollar will have lost its dominance and become part of a “multi-currency monetary system” alongside the euro and the Chinese renminbi. Crucially, this means that no sole form of governance will prevail either. The view of Robert Kagan, co-founder of the now-defunct Project for the New American Century, which is widely shared by both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, that “liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms of government are not only illegitimate but transitory”, is dead wrong, according to Kupchan.

"States around the world are on very different political trajectories," he writes. "The divergence is a function of profound variation on many dimensions, including political culture, path of socioeconomic development and religion. The next world will not march to the Washington Consensus, the Beijing Consensus or the Brasilia Consensus. It will march to no consensus – the world is headed toward a global dissensus."

At first glance, that does not sound terribly reassuring; and those who cling to the belief that liberal democracy is not only the panacea for every country’s ills but is also the unique, morally acceptable form of government will find it a gloomy conclusion indeed. Not so, however, Kupchan who, while clearly a believer in the West’s values and political systems, is that all too rare beast: an American who understands and respects that different countries may follow non-democratic models that still enjoy the consent and approval of their constituent peoples; and that those models may have advantages from which the West could learn lessons.

If those are novel and probably rather lonely opinions to express in North America and Europe, the subsequent consequences also place Kupchan in interesting company. For what follows from his arguments – that “the United States still aspires to a level of global domination for which it has insufficient resources and political will”, and that “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made clear that attempts to pursue regime change and nation-building are bottomless pits” – is a retrenchment by America, a voluntary withdrawal from its self-appointed role as the global policeman ever-ready to step in either to sort out another country’s troubles or to impose its own will. Kupchan is a pragmatic liberal but no fault would be found with his stance by paleoconservatives such as the maverick Republican (and Tea Party favourite) Ron Paul, who has consistently voted against foreign military interventions in Congress and regards most, if not all, such actions the US has taken since the Second World War as having been illegal.

If, however, he shares a degree of the realism that still informs older, wiser Republican foreign policy analysts, such as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George HW Bush, Kupchan comes to his conclusion by way of a path that is rooted in his admiration for the West’s liberal traditions. He quickly takes the reader through the history of how the fragmented and shifting states and empires of medieval Europe arrived at the bargain of representative government, with warlike monarchs being forced to offer increasing political influence to the bourgeoisie whose money they needed to fight their battles; and of how the ferment of the Reformation led not only to the necessity of tolerance – some 40 per cent of Germany’s population died during a conflict over religion, the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648 – but also to a new “intellectual boldness” that produced the scientific and industrial revolutions that paved the way for a West that had languished behind the civilisations of the East to overtake and then dominate them.

It is precisely because he identifies western liberal democracy as having emerged from this history – a particular set of circumstances that were not experienced in other parts of the world – that he understands why efforts to export the model have “stumbled so regularly”. If to an extent aspects of the western order have been successfully globalised, he writes, it was “not because of the intrinsic appeal of the order on offer, but because that order was embedded in the West’s global primacy. Confronted with overweening economic and military might, the rest had little choice but to acquiesce to the West”.

And when these other countries did not have to submit, other models that some would argue were more appropriate for the societies in question have proved to have considerable lasting power. He thinks three types of autocracies are here to stay – communal (China), paternal (Russia) and tribal (the Gulf states) – because they all make efforts to deliver stability and economic progress to citizenries who to a greater or lesser degree are deemed to agree with the legitimacy of their governmental systems. Some commentators have asked whether Kupchan’s argument still stands given the unrest in Russia over the last seven or eight months. But when Vladimir Putin can still win an overwhelming majority in a presidential election, as he did this March, it should be clear that the serious discontents of a vocal minority should not be taken as a sign that the country as a whole is on the verge of rejecting the social contract on which his style of rule is based. Acceptance of diverse political models brings Kupchan to a very significant conclusion. For states to deal safely with the coming multipolar world, he argues, “responsible governance rather than liberal democracy should be adopted as the standard for determining which states are legitimate and in good standing”. Not only is this eminently sensible, it also provides a useful distinction for democratically elected politicians who are criticised for being pally with “dictators”.

Tyrants who ill-treat their populations, regarding them as little more than a means to stock up a healthy Swiss bank account when they are not torturing or murdering them, are out. Benign autocrats who look after and who have the respect of their peoples are in. To be sure, the line between the two might not always be easy to draw – Bashar Al Assad was once touted as a reformer who would open up Syrian politics and society but, equally, it would often be clear on which side of the divide a leader fell.

The kingdoms of Bhutan and Tonga, for instance, both absolute monarchies until relatively recently, would have been welcomed in the councils of Kupchan’s new world order. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, however, would not – even after he claimed to have given up trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction (a fascinating question would be how to deal with those leaders who started off reasonably well, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a hero of the 1973 war against Israel, and Ferdinand Marcos, the first Philippine president to be democratically elected twice – but who later fell into tyranny and corruption).

Kupchan is a true believer in liberal democracy and he worries when democratic processes yield results that he regards as illiberal – of Kuwait, for instance, he grumbles: “The concrete benefits of its more open political system have been less than apparent. Islamists and tribal conservatives have of late dominated parliament.” It is all the more commendable, then, that he is able to see that those who do not share his beliefs are not labouring under some “false consciousness” but that, through the weight of history, culture and tradition, might be genuinely attached to other values and systems of governance. This is a rare insight in itself. But it is also one that a West so sure of its moral supremacy must come to share if the transition to No One’s World is to be peaceful and not characterised by even worse war, destruction and chaos than that which plagued the 20th century.

Sholto Byrnes is the editor of Think, the quarterly global trends, international affairs and thought leadership magazine of Qatar Foundation, and a contributing editor of the New Statesman.