Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The End of American World Order

The End of American World Order
by Amitav AcharyaEnd of American World Order

Amitav Acharya’s argument is that the ‘American world order’ was never that American in nature, nor worldly in scope or even very orderly. Instead he predicts that regions and regionalism is the future, and this might actually better serve us all, the US included. At least I think that’s what he argues. The book for all its clarity of prose, feels half-formed. This is a placeholder book, hopefully pointing the author and other scholars towards important new approaches, but with the risk it might never be taken and thus this book will soon be forgotten.

One virtue of not being a ‘big name IR scholar’: I’m not expected to have a book out every time there’s a new fad in the discipline. A decade ago, if you were big, you had a book on Terrorism, then it was Iraq, then China, now the decline of the US.

I’ve long been an admirer of Amitav Acharya’s work. His book ‘How ideas spread: Whose norms matter’ was one of the best books on norms I read during my PhD and quite influential on my thinking. He has also produced a stream of strong articles in the leading journals around the world.

Yet I can’t help but feel this book is a ‘my thoughts on the world’ text, both in its lengths (a mere 117 pages) and the many initiated but unfinished thoughts that appear amongst its pages. The book is neither long enough to serve as a description of the currently changing international system, nor with a clear and striking enough argument to serve as a way of understanding that change. Instead the book ends with something of a call for a new story to be told, of how regions are increasingly important and non-great powers play a vital role shaping the world order. Both of which I’d strongly agree with, but as a reader I’m left to wonder why those important arguments (and the detailed evidence to substantiate them) were not refined into a different book, instead of the one that is now in my hands.

Acharya’s prose is clear, and even when walking you through the logic and arguments of other scholars he keeps the arguments highly accessible. If some random member of the public who largely ignored international politics happened to receive this as a birthday present, they’d be reasonably able to work through this book and come out much wiser for it. But that wasn’t its intended audience and more likely our random member of the public would never even flick through its pages.

There’s an interesting sub-theme running through this book. As everyone knows, Asia is rising and this is challenging traditional western ideas of how international politics works and even how we go about studying said politics. One small but growing trend is by Asian scholars who argue that the region has been judged by the wrong standards by outsiders who don’t understand what is occurring. In short, westerns can’t understand what is going on. Kishore Mahbubani is perhaps the most well known example of this critical trend, one which even if yet to clearly justify its case and uncomfortable reading for many western scholars, will be an important one to engage with. Acharya is far too conscious of American audiences to wholly embrace this trend, but he does seem to imply it at times in this book, as he has in other works.

If this trend ends up the growing pains of a serious contribution towards ‘Non-Western approaches to International Relations’ we will all be the better off for it. But if it’s just a form of Asian swagger, based on nothing more than economic growth and feelings that the region’s time has come (as it often does in Mahbubani’s work), then, like its prior British and US versions, we could well do without it.

This is an enjoyable read, but i’m glad I didn’t shell out the $31.95 (or a ridiculous $94.95 for hardcover) for it. I’m keen to see where Acharya’s thinking goes next, his work will continue to be on my must-read lists. But it feels more like this book is a placeholder, or a basecamp for future endeavours: Something to satisfy the publishers and keep his name in the ring as a thinker on the big questions of the day, while he (hopefully) begins the actual struggle to move his way towards a real and substantial new contribution.

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