In his book Post-Western World. How Emerging Powers are Remaking Global Order, Oliver Stuenkel introduces some innovative arguments regarding the future of world politics from a quite uncommon perspective for Western mainstream analyses. The chief thesis of the research claims that the understanding of the creation of today’s international order is limited, since it depicts a post-Western world from a closed-minded Western-centric standpoint. In this context, non-Western actors are barely perceived as constructive rule-makers and institution-builders, because the West is widely conceived as the sole actor entitled to enhance the norms by which the international system is disciplined. However, Stuenkel suggests that the study of the future’s world order needs to undertake the inevitability of a bipolarization between the United States and China or even of a multipolarization due to the emerging of the BRICS countries. The end of the unipolar world – which represents a historical fact – implies a more overarching international analysis that overcomes the traditional Western-centric perspective and a more balanced reading of the distribution of global power. The chief aim of Stuenkel’s work is to show on one hand that most observers – both Western and anti-Western – tend to exaggerate the role the West has played in the past and, on the other, to discuss on how to adapt to a multipolar world order.
The book is organized in six chapters. The first chapter considers the origins of Western-centrism from a historical outlook. Specifically, it describes the nature of global order prior to the rise of the West, claiming that an international order was already in place before; it analyzes how Europe began to advance and rapidly overcome other actors starting from the 16th century, ultimately dominating the world four centuries later; and it evaluates how Europeans – and Westerners in general – believe that Westernization and modernization are synonyms.
The second chapter deals with the rise of the rest and with the likely end of the unipolar system. The principal statement here is that in the coming decades the world will face a condition of “asymmetric bipolarity” in which the United States will keep their leading position in terms of military power, whereas China will embody the world’s first economy. Nevertheless, the author questions whether this kind of bipolar system will be peaceful, durable and stable, but he also rejects the idea – often shared in the West – that the imminent post-unipolar world will be necessarily chaotic and instable. The third chapter examines soft power. After highlighting that soft power uses attraction and persuasion rather than force and coercion in foreign policy, and that its allure relies on a country’s culture, political ideals and policies, the author states that emerging powers are seeking to transform hard power into soft power by implementing three key areas: cultural diplomacy, international legitimacy/agenda-setting capacity, and attraction of each society.
The fourth and fifth chapters illustrate the main international initiatives and institutions proposed by non-Western countries – particularly China – aimed at crafting a parallel global order. These institutions and international regimes are divided into several sectors: finance, trade and investment, security, diplomacy, and infrastructure. The finance sector includes the analysis of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS-led New Development Bank (NDB), the BRICS Contingency Reserve Agreement (CRA), the global infrastructure to internationalize the yuan, China International payment system (CIPS), China Union Pay, the Shanghai Global Financial Center (GFC), the Universal Credit Rating Group, the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateral (CMIM), the ASEAN+3, and the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO). The trade and investment sector analyzes the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). The security sector deals with the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the BRICS national security advisors (NSA) meeting. The diplomacy sector includes the BRICS Leaders Summits, the BRICS and IBSA working groups, and the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA). Finally, the infrastructure sector introduces the projects of the Silk Road Fund/One Road-One Belt (OBOR), the Nicaragua Canal, and the Trans-Amazonian Railway.
Finally, the sixth chapter draws some conclusions on the coming post-Western world. A key thesis by the author is that non-Western actors do not seek to undermine Western institutions and create a new world order, but rather they wish to forge parallel institutions that emulate Western leadership. Moreover, emerging powers do not question the foundations of Western liberal order, and agree with issues such as international institutions, cooperative security, democratic community, collective problem solving, shared sovereignty, and the rule of law: in fact, all these elements are necessary for rising powers to develop economically.
The key arguments of the book are the following. First, a Western-centric worldview leads to underestimate the role of 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. The book argues that a post-Western order will not necessarily be more violent than today’s global order.
Second, the economic rise of the rest, specifically China, will allow it to enhance its military capacity and it will inevitably entail an increase of its international influence and soft power – since soft power is easy to generate from a large hard power base.
Third, emerging powers are crafting a parallel international order, with several institutions and international regimes that represent an alternative to Western-led ones. The book argues that, rather than directly confronting existing institutions, rising powers – primarily China – are quietly building a parallel global order that will initially complement today’s international institutions.
Finally, the creation of new parallel institutions is the main strategy that non-Western actors use to better project their power. This alternative order is already in the making, but its structures do not emerge because China and others bear new ideas on how to address global challenges, but rather they create them to project their power, emulating what the West has already done before. The book claims that, as part of a heading strategy, China-led emerging powers will continue to invest in existing institutions and embrace most elements of today’s “liberal hierarchical order”, but they will seek to obtain the “hegemonic principles” so far only enjoyed by the United States. The creation of several China-centric institutions will allow China to embrace its own type of competitive multilateralism, picking and choosing among flexible frameworks, in accordance with its national interests, thus slowly institutionalizing its own exceptionalism and enhancing its policies autonomously by becoming increasingly immune to Western threats of exclusion.In conclusion, Oliver Stuenkel depicts an interesting future scenario by using lenses that see beyond Western-centric rhetoric, giving for granted the rise of a post-unipolar – and thus post-Western – global order. Being a Brazilian scholar – therefore a citizen of one of the BRICS –, the author points out a very detailed analysis of the main issues that emerging powers will have to deal with, which are often miscalculated in Western academic and intellectual environments. Overall, his book is a valuable and appreciable tool to understand the perception that the non-Western world has of itself and of the West, and, mostly, a useful guide for the West to not overestimate itself and underestimate the rest.
O. Stuenkel, Post-Western World. How Emerging Powers are Remaking Global Order, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.