mercoledì 29 novembre 2017

The Post-Western World and the building of a parallel international order

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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.     

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O. Stuenkel, Post-Western World. How Emerging Powers are Remaking Global Order, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. 

giovedì 1 giugno 2017

The subjectivist individualism of modernist men

The French Revolution of 1789 brought into existence the new revolutionary world and laid the grounds for the advent of liberal modernism, which finds today in Western democracies – specifically in the United States – its clear manifestation. The French Revolution, which followed the American revolution of 1776, built a new European society based on different foundations. Instead of being founded on the medieval traditional institutions of Church and monarchy, Europe was now going to be founded on democracy; instead of being founded on God it was now going to be founded on man. The French Revolution did its best to pull down the throne and the altar. Before the Revolution, during the Middle Ages and the early modern age, Church and state were closely united. After the Revolution, the modern man, i.e. the revolutionary man, turned away from the traditional institutions and began worshipping the principles of the Enlightenment: he now believed in rationalism, humanism, liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Following the philosophical principles of liberalism, modern men replaced objective reality with subjectivism. This process led to individualism and to the destruction of social bonds and collective identity. The root of the modernist problem is the singular man replacing individually the collective traditional reality of the pre-modern world based on the communion between religion and monarchy. The modernist mind does not conceive tradition and is led by a sort of mania to reform and to change. What typically distinguishes the mind of a modernist is skepticism: modernists do not attack just one truth, but all truths, and thus their problem is not that they do not believe anything, but that they believe everything. In other words, the modernist mind is relativistic in the sense that every subjective reality can bear a portion of objective truth. Skepticism and relativism lead modern minds to believe that objective truth begins to change from one moment to another and from one person to another because truth and belief are subjective and cannot be real per se.
The modernist mind, which has been thoroughly influenced over the last two centuries by European philosophy – specifically by thinkers like Descartes and Kant –, follows, often unconsciously, a philosophical system that undermines all truths. In particular, Immanuel Kant has influenced in a decisive way the liberal modernist way of thinking. Kant changed the relationship between the mind and reality, putting into effect the so-called “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy. In astronomical geography, the Copernican Revolution introduced by Copernicus, in questioning whether the Sun moves around the Earth or vice versa, had stated that the Earth revolves around the Sun, thus undermining the previous Ptolemaic geocentric model. Kant followed Copernicus’s model to investigate whether reality turns around the human mind or whether the mind turns around reality. In other words, Kant asked which goes around which: is it reality or is it the singular human mind? Does the object tell objectively what it is or is it men telling subjectively what the object is according to their own opinion? Does the object turn around men’s mind so that they can affirm it is whatever they want it to be, or is it men’s mind that turns around the object so that, though seeing it from different perspectives, it can still affirm it is the same object? Common sense would answer that it is the human mind that turns around the object and submits to reality: reality tells to the mind what an object is, and it is not the mind to tell reality what it is. However, surprisingly, Kant affirms the opposite. For the Prussian philosopher, it is not the mind that turns around reality (objectivism), but it is reality that turns around the single mind (subjectivism). In his philosophical thought, Kant built a system to enable men’s minds to escape from reality. This system enabled men to pretend that their minds are the master of reality. Per Kant, it is the mind that makes objects what they are, so that objects are no longer what they are per se: an object is not an object per se, but men decide what it is. Furthermore, this philosophical system that affirms that men’s minds control reality is selective since it is used arbitrarily, that is when it is useful to deny a specific objective reality.[1] In other words, the principle of the mind controlling the reality is used when men refuse to adopt an objective truth, but is not applied when adapting to daily objective realities like the need for eating, sleeping, working, etc. Therefore, this system may undermine all speculative principles that men wish to reject by affirming that reality depends on one’s mind and not on objective truth.
The Kantian subjectivist system represents the theoretical foundation of modernism and liberalism. It is a system of liberty that liberates the mind from anything it wishes to be liberated from, because it unhooks minds from objective reality. Modernists believe that things are true as far as their mind assert they are so, not because they are true (or false) independently of their minds, which dominate things: subjectivity comes before objectivity and all reality is at the mercy of the modernists’ own – often diverging – ideas.
The Kantian system of liberalism adopted by modernists is based on two fundamental principles: the negative principle of phenomenalistic agnosticism and the positive principle of vital immanence.
Phenomenalistic agnosticism is the doctrine claims that phenomena are the only objects of knowledge or the only form of reality and that all things consist simply of the aggregate of their observable, sensory qualities. This principle states the lack of knowledge beyond the phenomenon. Per Kant, men can reach the appearances of an object with the senses, but their mind cannot know what is behind the senses. In other words, behind the appearances men do not know what things are, since it is the mind that fabricates what things are. Men see the appearance of things through their senses, but do not know the essence of a thing in itself, i.e. the noumenon or Ding an sich; their mind cannot know anything that goes beyond the appearance of things, i.e. the phenomenon. The mind follows the knowledge snatched by the senses, but focuses only on the appearances where the sensory knowledge stops. Therefore, if the mind is unable to know the essence of an object, it is automatically cut off from the possibility of unfolding the essence of reality. The individual uses his mind to fabricate for itself its own knowledge: it exploits the appearance of things, then works out its own system of knowledge, and transposes its own system onto the appearances giving them an identity. Kant builds reality on the basis of the appearances. The Kantian man, who is the present-day post-liberal, fabricates with his mind reality on the basis of the phenomena that its senses perceive. His knowledge originates from the inside, not from the outside. If a human being stares at a sunset, his visual sense gives him the appearance of a sunset, but his mind should make him understand that the phenomenon of the sun setting is an effect of a cause, not just a senseless and disconnected event of nature: if his mind cannot go beyond the appearance of the sunset, then it will not be able to understand the causal relation between objective reality and subjective perception of it, and it can no longer read behind the appearances.      
On the other hand, the positive principle of vital immanence is the psychological process of the human consciousness unfolding itself from within and giving its own interpretation of the world. In other words, vital immanence is what still persists inside humans once they have wiped out through phenomenalistic agnosticism the possibility of knowing objective reality beyond the senses. Since the human mind cannot know anything that goes beyond the phenomenon, the heart, i.e. the individual emotions and feelings, will replace it in grasping reality: the emotions will feed from within the mind, taking its place. Thus, the truth of the liberal, modernist man originates from within: it is immanent and subjective. So being things, each individual possesses his own subjective truth and bears his own vision of reality: his heart and needs build the Weltanschauung he prefers most. Subjectivism, which is the superimposition of the subject over the object, is the core of post-liberalism and modernism. Subjectivism makes the object depend upon the subject, instead of making the subject depend upon the object. It follows that a mind governed from the inside cannot pick reality at all and is destined to live in a world of appearances fabricated by its own.
Modernism coincides with the application of the philosophical system of subjectivism. Thanks to subjectivist individualism, liberal societies are characterized by disconnection, atomization, alienation, and lack of collective identity and common sense.     

The tomb of Immanuel Kant, Kaliningrad (Koenigsberg)

[1] For instance, atheists use the Kantian subjectivist principle to deny the objective reality of God’s creation. 
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