Looking back, the decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and September 11th, 2001, was a time of optimism, even western triumphalism, around the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” and following the culmination of the third wave of democratisation. The United States was the undisputed economic and geopolitical hegemon. Pax Americana reigned. The European Union was expanding and deepening. China was growing strongly, but had yet to come of age as a global power.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 29 December 2022 ***
Divergence among leading powers over the US’s military response to September 11th, namely the Iraq invasion, was a harbinger of challenges ahead. Later, the era of hyperglobalisation reached its zenith on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. By 2011, esteemed political scientist Ian Bremmer had coined the phrase “G Zero World” to describe the lack of global leadership in the face of US retrenchment.
Perhaps the most striking geopolitical development of the first two decades of the 21st century is the rise of China. Joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 turbo-powered its export-led growth model. It will soon account for a full fifth of the global economy. Western optimists assumed WTO entry heralded continued liberalisation, future democratisation, and China’s assumption of a leadership role in the global community. On the contrary, under Xi Jinping China has taken an authoritarian turn and begun to flex its military muscle. Through its Belt-and-Road initiative, it projects soft power further afield.
How the rise of China is accommodated to an increasingly disunited global community, and what this means for western values, is the theme of an important new book, Global Discord, by Paul Tucker. Seeing great power confrontation as inevitable, pessimists — or realists — often draw the parallel between the rise of China to challenge US hegemony and that of late 19th-century Britain versus rising Germany, or of Sparta challenging Athens in classical Greece — the so-called Thucydides trap. By contrast, Tucker suggests as a better comparison the Anglo-French duel for supremacy during the “long 18th century”, between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815: a “confrontation between two great peoples-cum-powers holding to different views about how political life, domestically and internationally, should be organized.”
Global Discord follows twin tracks, theory and practice. As a point of theoretical departure, the author describes the traditional dichotomy in international relations, between realists and liberal idealists, or between Hobbesian and Kantian approaches, respectively. He finds a degree of synthesis in the natural-law jurisprudence of Grotius and Locke, that is the application of the concept of natural law to international relations, such as that of a “just war”. Drawing on David Hume, and the lesser-known Bernard Williams, he then extends from domestic to international politics the concept of political legitimacy, considering politics, economics and ethics holistically rather than allocating them to separate spheres. Above all, he emphasises avoiding the trap of wishful thinking.
By way of practical applications, Tucker treats in turn the global monetary, trade, investment and financial system. These deep dives cover, respectively, the International Monetary Fund, the WTO, preferential trade and investment treaties, and the Basel-based Bank of International Settlements. What is missing, however, is a deeper consideration of the global security apparatus, whether the workings of the United Nations Security Council or military alliances like Nato.
Tucker sketches four broad scenarios for the future of the global order: Lingering Status Quo, Superpower Struggle, New Cold War, and Reshaped World Order, albeit these need not be mutually exclusive. The latter may be the first best outcome, he argues, but, at the time of writing, the US and China are engaged in the second and edging ever closer to the third. Further economic “decoupling” may well accelerate incipient deglobalisation. For open economies like Ireland and the European Union, this poses a strategic quandary, and a need to balance values with interests.
The West should remain open to co-operation, Tucker argues, including with powers steeped in values alien to our own while refusing to take “excessive risks with order and legitimacy back home”. We cannot acquiesce to any international regime that could jeopardize our core values of rule of law, democracy and constitutionalism: “the integrity of our way of life”. The Brexit referendum is cited as an example of the “tug of war” between elite and popular opinion around political legitimacy.
In essence, in the absence of a hegemon or balance of power, there is a need for a stable self-enforcing equilibrium based on shared norms, internalised via well-designed — and reformed — international institutions. To function and endure, such an equilibrium must “be regarded as legitimate by sufficient of the population of states, and by all powers”. Thus, the West cannot presume to impose its norms and values on China and expect a stable world order. Rather, it should revert to a more pluralistic than absolutist prosecution of liberalism, and one “tempered by realism”.
Importantly, Tucker does not present the challenge as a clash of civilizations along the lines of Samuel P Huntington. We should not mistake China’s ruling Communist Party for Chinese, let alone Asian, civilization. The author points to the shared Confucian heritage of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all functioning liberal democracies. Thus, the conclusion is one of cautious optimism.
Global Discord is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the prospects for 21st-century geopolitics, and possible trade-offs facing the West.