Trump, Xi and a post-Western World

14 March 2017

With two of the world's most powerful leaders, President Trump and President Xi, now planning to meet early next month, it's a good time to reflect on whether the West’s hold on international politics is in decline and the rising powers of the East are set to take over global governance leadership? And could this changing of the guard contribute to a fairer distribution of global wealth and power?

Combined image of President Xi and President Trump. Credits: University of Seoul (Xi) and Gage Skidmore (Trump) - Flickr.

In early 2017, these two leaders set out vastly opposed stances which will likely set the trend for the years to come: on the one hand Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the USA on a mandate of anti-globalisation and protectionism; on the other hand, President Xi of China spoke at the World Economic Forum in defence of globalisation (or at least not pinning all the world’s woes on to it).

Despite these differences and a rather bumpy start to their relationship, or perhaps because of them, President Xi is being invited to Trump’s so-called winter White House in Florida early next month.

In this blog, Tamahi Kato reviews Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers are Remaking Global Order, the latest book by Oliver Stuenkel, influential Brazilian academic, blogger and writer for the online international current affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region, The Diplomat.

Professor Stuenkel has specialised in analysing the rising powers and their impact on global governance, with recent books including The BRICS and the future global order and IBSA: the Rise of the Global South.

Growing canon of scholarship on the role of rising powers in global governance

“Post-Western World”, also the name of Stuenkel’s blog, is part of a growing canon of books describing the growing role and power of emerging powers, including the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), in global governance. (See my next review of The BRICS and beyond edited by Li which argues that the world order is experiencing a structural transformation from unipolarity to multipolarity.) IDS itself has contributed significantly to this overall body of work through the work of its Centre for Rising Powers and Global Develoment (CRPD).

In his book, Stuenkel warns that West’s analysts and policymakers who maintain a Western-centric worldview might well be losing sight of, and misunderstanding, what the coming multipolar world is bringing: not violence or danger, but, in Stuenkel’s view, a more democratic and effective world system to tackle global challenges.

The book seeks to describe some of the dynamics that are likely to shape the future and underlines the importance of adapting our perspective on global affairs to a truly multipolar reality.

Going beyond Western-centric world view and understanding the interplay of ideas

With the end of the Cold War, Stuenkel argues that a Western-centric version of history directs contemporary theory development in international relations. Non-Western actors are rarely seen as legitimate or constructive rule-makers and institution-builders, and their role in contemporary international politics often underappreciated.

Yet, without previous developments in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, Europe’s rise would not have been possible. In the same way, China’s return to the top in the twenty-first century is occurring, in part, due to the many advances generated in the West in the past two centuries.

So it’s important not to fixate on either the imposition or elimination of Western ideas. Instead, it is the interplay of ideas which will be the dominant dynamic in the future.

Rising powers are challenging global leadership and not the system that underpins global governance

There are three reasons why, Stuenkel’s book argues, fears that a non-Western dominated future will be chaotic, disorienting and dangerous are largely unfounded.

Firstly, the global South has a considerable stake in the rules and norms that underpin the current world order. Stuenkel argues that it is not the essence of the system that rising powers will challenge, but Western leadership, once they are in a material position to do so. New structures may emerge as the these rising powers create global rules and norms which will better project their power, just as Western actors have done before. Today, it is the US that can break the rules and go unpunished; however, such a “privilege” may soon be China’s and, possibly, that of other emerging powers.

Secondly, the economic rise of the rising powers, particularly China, will allow them to enhance their military capacity and, eventually, their international influence and soft power. They are likely to gain more friends and allies also have enemies, just as the West has done in the past. Additionally, the BRICS grouping, commonly dismissed by many analysts in Europe or the US as little more than an ephemeral oddity bound to disappear soon, is going from strength to strength. China will be hosting the 9th Summit BRICS Summit this year on a platform of solidarity, collaboration, and improved global governance.

Third, rather than directly confronting existing institutions, the rising powers – led by China – are quietly crafting the initial building blocks of a so-called ‘parallel order’ that will initially complement but may one day, challenge today’s international, Western-led institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the UN Security Council. Unless far more extensive reforms are implemented in these institutions, they will struggle to maintain their legitimacy in the face of the new institutions such as the New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Universal Credit Rating Group, and China Union Pay. 

Will multipolarity lead to greater international democracy?

Transition to genuine multipolarity will be bewildering to many. However, Stuenkel believes that it is likely to be far more democratic than any previous order in global history, allowing greater levels of genuine dialogue, a broader spread of knowledge and more innovative and effective ways to address the many global challenges we will face in the coming decades.

I am not quite so confident about this, considering that the past and current regimes of some BRICS countries have been autocracies, whose political culture and past might influence how they manage a future global order.

This review was commissioned by the Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development (CRPD), based at IDS. CRPD is at the forefront of research and practical analysis that helps connect governments, donors, civil society, and academia to explore new way to address global development challenges, with a particular focus on the BRICS and other increasingly influential middle-income countries.

Image: President Xi speaking at the Seoul National University in 2014 - credit: Jeon Han; Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland - credit: Gage Skidmore. Combined image was created by Gary Edwards - IDS.

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