My H-Net Book Review of Acharya’s ‘The End of the American World Order’


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If you don’t know H-Net, you probably should. It is a great way to keep up to date with what is being read and discussed in the humanities and social sciences. They seem to offer mostly book reviews and roundtables. I find them particularly good in my area – the intersection of history and political science. H-Net has a general qualitative bent also, so its reviews are mercifully readable.

Over the summer, they asked me to review Amitav Acharya’s book, The End of the American World Order. Here is the link to review on the actual H-Net site. I have re-printed it below. In brief, he argues that the US is in terminal relative decline, and that a world order without a domineering American role must be discussed. He sketches a few (unconvicing) alternatives.

And being the child of the 80s and its so-bad-it’s-awesome film, what image of American World Order could surpass Stallone beating the crap out of commies while draped in an American flag? Awesome! Go Rocko! I remember cheering in my seat when Rocky beat Drago. We won the Cold War and kicked some russki butt! Hah! I think I was 12. Good times, which I guess Acharya is taking away from us…

The End of the American World Order by Amitav Acharya is a punchy, trenchant critique of liberal internationalist and American hopes for a ‘sticky,’ post-American liberal world order. At a lean 120 pages, the book can be read in a weekend – a blessing in itself – and it usefully crystallizes an emergent but rather disjointed critique of the US liberal order floating around op-ed pages and universities outside the West. Unlike so many researching hegemony or unipolarity, Acharya does not believe the US will bounce back from its troubles over the last decade, does not especially want that either, and tries to sketch out alternatives to US-led order. Ideas for a ‘post-American’ world have been floating around for awhile, of course, but much of that focuses on reconstruction – trying to prop-up the US-led system with a wider variety of stakeholders beyond just the West. This is captured, for example, in the (generally failed) effort to make China and other G-20 states into ‘responsible stakeholders.’

Acharya will have none of that and so enunciates a little heard rejection of standard liberal world order prescriptions. And he goes beyond that to try to sketch alternative futures too – specifically a global concert, or much thicker regionalism. Whether you agree or not, this whole effort is very valuable. As Acharya notes repeatedly in the book, Westerners, especially Americans, tend to assume that the alternatives to a US-led world order are all much worse. Acharya calls this out as ethnocentric and narrow – Americans reading other Americans and then pronouncing to the world (p. 130, fn. 69; p. 138, fn. 6) – and it is hard to disagree with him if we look at our IR (international relations) graduate syllabi. His whole book reminds us in IR, and the western foreign policy community in general, that we really do not know as much about the non-Western world as we should, particularly given that we often suggest non-Western states should do this or that, or should otherwise happy living under American hegemony. IR is far too heavily based on modern and Western cases,[1] and Acharya convincingly argues that this really limits our imagination for a post-American world order.

The book itself has six bite-sized chapters. This could easily be used for undergraduates. Between the introduction and conclusion, the four main chapters sketch: 1) the rise and fall of American post-Cold War hegemony; 2) the pleasing, self-congratulatory American myths about liberal hegemony; 3) the challenge of emerging states such as the BRICS or G-20 states to that order; and 4) the possibility of regionalism, specifically more coherent regional international organizations (IOs), to replace an American globalism in decline.

The argument moves quickly and covers a lot of ground. Indeed, the book’s biggest weakness is probably just how much Acharya is trying to cram into such a short volume. Many of his statements will provoke or challenge, and frequently they build on previously controversial arguments. In the end, there is such a cascade of contestable statements, one linked to another, that I imagine many IR readers will find themselves thinking, ‘hey, wait! flesh out point ABC before moving on to XYZ.’ Serious readers will almost certainly wish the book was longer.

The most controversial claim, of course, comes right off the bat – that the US is in sustained, irreversible relative decline, that unipolarity is ending as we speak, and that a post-American order will be needed shortly. Acharya clearly sees himself charting that future, but many IR theorists, not to mention just about every DC think-tanker, will stop him right at the beginning to argue that the US is not really in decline.

This is hardly the place to resolve that huge debate, but I agree that Acharya’s treatment of it is too blithe and short. He may indeed be correct – my own inclination is similar[2] – but chapter 2, which covers this, is just 21 pages. Acharya’s primary causal mechanism is unilateral over-activity (p. 14). Unipolarity is not being undone by isolationist passivity or aggressive non-Western balancing. Instead, Acharya essentially applies Paul Kennedy’s notion of ‘imperial overstretch’: unipolar America, particularly under President Bush (II), has blundered a lot and is over-extended, provoking a lot of global resentment, damaging American soft power, and demonstrating that American hard power cannot actually change that much in tough places like the Middle East. Acharya seems to tilt toward Richard Haas’ notion of “nonpolarity”: the US may indeed have a large economy and military, but these traditional power attributes are just not that efficacious anymore.[3] And when one looks at the US fighting in Iraq today yet again, or the chaos that ensued the ‘successful’ Libyan operation, one can see his point.

But obviously many would disagree. The book would have benefitted from a much sharper contest with writers like Joseph Nye, William Wohlforth, John Ikenberry, the Kagans, and the many others who see US power as fairly enduring. One alternative interpretation is to argue, as Steve Walt often does on his blog, that American misadventures actually demonstrate how powerful the US is. American campaigns in the Middle East are luxuries that no other state, not even China, could afford. Neoconservatives would likely argue that America is far more resilient that Acharya permits. The US has been a great power since the 1880s and has bounced back from troubles repeatedly in the past. Liberals would retort that Bush was only one president and that Obama has sought to reverse American soft power erosion.

The next big controversial argument comes in the following chapter – that US hegemony has not been nearly as benign and liberal as Americans like to think. This is almost certainly true. We can all think of bad US behavior, from the mundane, such as not signing UNCLOS while simultaneously insisting that China follow it, to the abhorrent, such as support for Mobuto Sese Seko, or Abu Ghraib. And it is also true that triumphalist American ideologues do not like to hear this.[4] But once again, the response from neoconservatives and liberal internationalists is not hard to telegraph: Yes, the US has done awful stuff, but so have many other states, and all the challengers to the US in its great power history have been significantly more illiberal than America. Acharya would almost certainly agree that the world is a better place for the US victories in WWI, WWII, the Cold War, and the war on terror. Similarly with China in the future, I doubt that Acharya would prefer that China replace the US, even in the Asian region. Liberal hegemony may indeed be very American, reward America disproportionately, and give rise to offensive American gloating and self-congratulation, but such choices in world politics are always relative. Almost all of Acharya’s critics would say the alternatives to US power are much more unappealing.

Acharya’s response, in chapters 3 and 4, is to channel nonpolarity and argue that the alternative to the American world order is not a global hegemony of someone other than the Americans, but decentralization or perhaps multipolarity. In the place of the US world order, Acharya sees coming either a global concert – which would not just be a great power condominium, but include middle income and poor states as well – or a decentralized (‘multiplex’) world with organization coming organically from below in regional IOs.

Here again is big theoretical step guaranteed to provoke a heavy IR theory response. There is a lot of IR work suggesting that unipolarity makes the world safer, and that a global hegemon facilitates trade and growth.[5] Acharya is aware of theories like hegemonic stability but does not convincingly refute them. He is perhaps too anxious to unseat the American dominance to see how hard bottom-up, organic cooperation among middle income states is likely to be. He does not contend with the basic game theoretic insight, for example, that more players makes coordination harder to achieve. He does not address the well-known problems of collective action. He says nothing of free-riding or buck-passing. Theories of hegemony and unipolarity posit that one state can carry these costs and help push fractious, self-seeking players toward consensus. I am extremely doubtful a global concert or regional organizations could do this; they certainly do not do so today. It is hard to imagine global free-trade, which has done so much to alleviate global poverty, surviving the regionalism Acharya foresees.

Acharya speaks hopefully of ‘open regionalism’ and ‘inter-regionalism,’ but these are weak conceptual and operational reeds. Inter-regional organizations are few, meet rarely, and are talk-shops. And the theoretical work on inter-regionalism is heavily normative. Open regionalism is something of paradox. For regions to become genuine order-bringing agents, they will eventually need rules and boundaries. Otherwise they are just talk-shops. Indeed, one can see this in Asia, which has a surfeit of IOs, but they are all shallow. APEC, ASEAN+3, the East Asian Community, and so on may indeed bring together elites to talk and pose for the ‘family photo,’ and that is better than nothing. But are these talk-shops really ready promote deep cooperation that generates real costs and benefits? Indeed, I think Acharya is missing a major point of most non-Western IOs: they are not intended to provide rules, open markets to trade, facilitate tourism, and so on. They are firstly sovereignty-reinforcement platforms for post-colonial, frequently non-democratic, elites. Sovereignty requires social recognition, so standing on a platform with other leaders and states, reinforces one’s own stateness.[6]

Despite its many contestable propositions, Archarya’s book is easy to recommend. The volume of work in IR, both empirical and normative, supporting the perpetuation of American global dominance is overwhelming. That Acharya has written this book at all is useful in that context. He picks up and channels a non-Western critique that is out there, but few of us see due to our Anglo-American hermeneutic circle. This critique will pick up steam in the coming decades, as American relative decline continues. Within a decade, China’s GDP will exceed America’s, and the US will increasingly need to find a way to live with wealthy, capable, nationalist states from the former third world.

American power is unlikely to crack-up; the US is not Rome in the 5th century, or the Ming suddenly facing the Manchus. China’s future growth is unlikely to be as robust as it has been; demographic, environmental, and political constraints will tighten. India is decades behind. The G-20 and BRICS have not shown great solidarity. But the long-term trends nonetheless favor Acharya’s analysis. As more and more states become wealthier, stabler, and more capable, America’s room to move will contract, and the pressure to change global rules will only rise. Acharya is probably wrong today about the end of the America world order, but time is on his side.


[1] Robert Kelly, “Defining IR: Is it Asia’s Turn?” International Relations and Security Network, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, July 30, 2012; http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Special-Feature/Detail?lng=en&id=150816&tabid=1453260368&contextid774=150816&contextid775=150815

[2] Robert Kelly, “Is there an Obama Doctrine?,” The Diplomat, September 22, 2014: http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/is-there-an-obama-doctrine/.

[3] Richard Haas, “The Age of Nonpolarity,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/63397/richard-n-haass/the-age-of-nonpolarity.

[4] Robert Kelly, “Agree with Heinlein’s ‘Citizens vs Civilians’? Then this US Military History is for You,” Duck of Minerva, June 24, 2013, http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2013/06/agree-with-heinleins-citizens-vs-civilians-then-this-us-military-history-is-for-you-book-review.html

[5] Ethan Kapstein, ed., Unipolar Politics, NY: Columbia UP, 1999; Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008.

[6] I make this argument at length in Robert Kelly, “Security Theory in the ‘New Regionalism,’” International Studies Review, 9/2, 2007: 197-229

2 thoughts on “My H-Net Book Review of Acharya’s ‘The End of the American World Order’

  1. I would pretty strongly agree with you that, while the relative share of American power and influence in the world is going to decline, that this decline is not terminal.

    The US does possess an overwhelming amount of well arable land, connected by navigatable rivers, considerable natural resources and a pretty solidly educated population. It also has no nearby Great Power rivals, and it dwarfs Brazil, the only possible contender/spoiler in the western hemisphere, by several orders of magnitude.

    The US relative decline will mean that the United States will no longer be able to impose their will on states from Lybia to Ukraine, it may also loose its “soft dominace” of western Europe (potentially creating a European Pole distinct from the US pole), and loose the advantadges associated with running the worlds reserve currency.

    I do not think that they would loose their soft dominance over Japan. The correlation of power between Japan and China does not favor Japan which creates a strong emphasis for Japan to balance against China by staying allied with the USA. Japans history, geography and domestic policies mean that they have no other great power allies available to help them against China.
    China of course is also a much more potent threat to US supremacy then Russia, let alone instability in the middle East (which is nearly no threat at all), is, so the US has strong incentives to maintain its alliance with Japan.

    This is different when it comes to the EU vis a vis Russia. The EU considerably outdoes Russia in everything but resources, nukes and potential for unified action. Russia has also, pretty consistently and despite some changes in leadership, sought good relations with the European Union. Absent US (and some of its special friends in the EU) interference, some mutually agreeable solution could be found.

    In addition, and in stark contrast to China and Japan, Russia and the EU have different avenues/locales for spreading their influence etc. Russia is focused on having a buffers between it and other great powers, and on shaping central Asia in a way it considers beneficial for herself.

    These goals partly clash with the EUs goals (there EU would very much like the buffers to be in their camp), but they can be reconciled, especially since Central Asia isnt excatly the natural expansion route for the EU.

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