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No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn - Book Review

BOOK REVIEW | | BY Michael Marien

No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn. Charles A. Kupchan (Prof of Int’l Affairs, Georgetown U; Senior Fellow, CFR).  A Council on Foreign Relations Book.  NY: Oxford U Press, March 2012, 258p, $27.95. 

Between 1500 and 1800, the West sprinted ahead of other centers of power in Asia and the Middle East.  Europe and the US have dominated the world since then, but preeminence of the West is slipping away, as China, India, Brazil, and other emerging powers rise.  This “logical sequel” to Kupchan’s The End of the American Era (Knopf, 2002) argues that the next world will belong to no one.  The Western way is not being universalized, largely because it emerged from social and economic conditions unique to the US and Europe.  “But neither is it being displaced by a new center of gravity or dominant political model.  Rather, the coming world will be both multipolar and politically diverse; it will consist of major powers that embrace distinct conceptions of what constitutes a legitimate and just order.”  Accordingly, if the emerging global turn is to occur peacefully, the West and the rising rest will have to forge a consensus on the ordering rules that define legitimacy and govern matters of commerce, war, and peace.


The world is on the cusp of a global turn, where “the emerging landscape is one in which power is diffusing and politics diversifying…[the emergent system] will be populated by numerous power centers as well as multiple versions of modernity.”  It is doubtful that any country, region, or model will dominate the next world.  The 21st century will not belong to America, China, Asia, or anyone else.  “Failure to foresee this global turn and adjust the West’s grand strategy accordingly would be an error of grave consequence.  This potential misstep is already in the making,” and could result in “a competitive anarchy” as multiple conceptions of order vie for primacy.

Amid global diversity, it is plausible and perhaps even likely that liberal democracy will continue to slowly spread, but not necessarily, because: 1) the shift in the global center of gravity is quickening, with the Chinese economy poised to surpass America’s within 15 years; thus, the global spread of democracy, if it occurs, “will take place much more gradually”; 2) over 100 countries are still ruled by nondemocratic regimes, and building institutional underpinnings of representative government takes time; 3) even as democracy spreads, the new regimes will not necessarily play by Western rules, e.g.: in the Middle East, more democracy may mean more political Islam and Arab states less willing to cooperate with the West than their autocratic predecessors; 4) even if emerging powers share Western values, they will spar with the West over matters of status and prestige, after having long labored under Western hegemony.

But the global turn toward a more level playing field is “unstoppable.”  In 2010, the top five economies in the world were the US, China, Japan, Germany, and France.  The top five in 2050, according to one projection, will be China, the US, India, Brazil, and Russia.  China’s GDP should match America’s by 2027, and then steadily pull ahead.  According to the World Bank, the US dollar will lose its global dominance by 2025, with the dollar, the euro, and the renminbi becoming co-equal in a “multi-currency” monetary system.  As economic capacity becomes more equal, military capability will eventually follow, e.g. China is modernizing its surface and submarine fleets, which may “well challenge America’s ability to maintain regional superiority.”  India is also pouring resources into its navy.


The advance of liberal democracy has not kept pace with the spread of Western-style capitalism and entrepreneurship.  Three main variants of autocracy are showing considerable staying power: 1) China’s Communal Autocracy: a mutually reinforcing partnership between the state and the private sector, where the middle class rapidly expands but democratization fails to advance; “for the foreseeable future, China’s brand of authoritarian capitalism may well outperform—or at least hold its own against—the democratic alternative” (NOTE: several other commentators refer to China’s arrangements as “state capitalism”); 2) Russia’s Paternal Autocracy: a more hierarchical relationship with a more submissive and passive population; the heavy hand of the Kremlin is largely welcomed by the citizenry and leaves little room for civil society (Russia’s “oil curse” is partly to blame for its failure to develop the high-tech know-how and manufacturing base so crucial to economic growth); 3) Tribal Autocracy of the Gulf Shiekdoms: traditions of tribal society run deep in the Gulf, and will act as a powerful brake on political reform for generations to come; leaders are drawn exclusively from royal families, and integration of Islam and Islamic authorities into politics is widespread.  A secularized, Western-style modernity in the Muslim world is thus at best a remote prospect.   “Some of these illiberal states will surely make the transition to democracy in the coming decades.  Many will surely not.  Whether communal, paternal, or tribal in nature, autocracies are poised to hold their own well into the coming global turn.”

Also discusses Israel as a microcosm of the competing versions of modernity that the West will face in the broader Middle East (Orthodox Israelis are about 25% of the population, and their fundamentalist influence will grow over time due to their relatively high birth rates), and the “façade of democratization” in most African states.  Latin America is the one rising region that is most closely following the Western model of development over the past half-century, but is forging its own version of modernity: a left-wing populism that caters to a long-excluded underclass.


The West has entered a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth, political polarization, and self-doubt.”   In a globalized world, open and liberal democracies do not have as much control over their destinies as they used to.  Globalization has increased disaffection by widening the gap between winners and losers, and economic dislocation is fostering popular discontent.  If the West is to help guide the transition to multipolarity, it will have to rise to the occasion on two fronts: 1) it will have to recover its political and economic vitality and retain its cohesion; 2) it must embrace a strategy and a set of principles that forge a consensus between the West and the rising rest.

Recovery must involve reversing the renationalization of Europe (at a time when the project of European integration has begun to falter), overcoming political polarization in the US, restoring solvency by balancing resources and commitments, long-range economic planning in the US (targeting investments in infrastructure, higher education and human capital, and business development), greater oversight of the international financial system to tame volatility, and pursuing a “progressive populism” that channels public discontent to productive ends.  A stronger and more unified EU is needed, and electoral reform is needed in the US to revitalize democracy.


The political diversity of the next world suggests that “aiming low and crafting a rules-based order that endures is wiser than aiming high and coming away empty-handed.”  A sketch of the foundational principles of the next world includes: 1) responsible governance, rather than liberal democracy, as the standard for determining which states are legitimate and in good standing (societies should have considerable latitude in how they organize their institution of government and go about meeting the needs of their citizens); 2) guidelines for enforcing the new norm of “responsibility to protect” (although proliferation of NGOs and the information revolution are making borders more porous and eroding state capacity, states are fighting back and tightening borders); 3) maintaining legitimacy of the main multilateral institutions charged with global governance by reflecting the growing influence of emerging powers (the ongoing effort to bring more players into the tent is essential—but also makes it more difficult to arrive at effective decisions); 4) devolution of greater responsibility and capability to regional actors (“global governance has its limits; as the UN and G-20 have made clear, reaching consensus and taking effective action do not come easily”); 5) promoting a brand of globalization in which prosperity is shared more equally (e.g., by bringing down agricultural subsidies in the West) and guarding against protectionism; 6) managing geopolitical contests, especially the potential for a Sino-America struggle for hegemony that “is likely to begin during the next decade, not the current one”; 7) laying the domestic groundwork for a more modest concept of America’s role in the world (“the US still aspires to a level of global dominion for which it has insufficient resources and political will”)

In sum, “the diffusion of global power ultimately means the diffusion of international responsibility—from the Atlantic community of democracies to a broad array of states in good standing in all quarters of the globe.”  Proposals that envisage extension of Western institutions—such as a global NATO or a League of Democracies—are destined to fall woefully short.


A strong argument for the uncontroversial notion of growing multipolarity in the world, and for the more controversial view that democratization will proceed slowly, if at all.  ALSO SEE “The Age of Nonpolarity” by CFR President Richard N. Haass (Foreign Affairs, May-June 2008), on today’s world of increasingly distributed power; The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria (W.W. Norton, May 2008; updated paper edition, May 2012), on the “rise of the rest” over the past few decades and “new rules for a new age”; The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani of the National U of Singapore (Public Affairs, 2008);  After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World by Dilip Hiro (Nation Books, 2010), and Nobody in Charge: Essays on the Future of Leadership by the late Harlan Cleveland (Jossey-Bass, 2002), a prescient view on “the spread of uncentralization” and the need for a “practical pluralism, not a unitary universalism” for a workable world.

About the Author(s)

Michael Marien

Senior Principal, The Security & Sustainability Guide; Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science