The emerging multipolar order

Jan 27, 2008

Parag Khanna has, in essence, a précis of his forthcoming book in today’s New York Times Magazine. The article, entitled, “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony”, contends that American hegemony is already over, that we’re seeing the emergence of three new “empires”–complete with different imperial styles–centered around the US, the EU, and China. Khanna thinks the US needs to adapt soon to his new great game, in which the “second world’s” orientation will determine the global balance of power, and, among other things, abandon the us-versus-them attitude which undermines its influence and makes great-power concert-style management difficult.

Khanna’s put his finger on many key contemporary trends. Unlike Kagan, he doesn’t try to interpret the new struggle for influence in quasi-Marxist terms, i.e., as a great ideological clash between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Khanna understands that Kagan’s view, if it drives US foreign policy, will prove counterproductive to US power and influence.

I only have a few criticisms, and they are largely those of an academic reading a work intended for a popular audience.*

1. I don’t care for Khanna’s “marketplace” analogy, which downplays the degree to which geopolitical competition for influence among clients and other weaker powers involves coercion, domination, and resistance.

2. Khanna is too dismissive of the implications of Russian assertiveness. He’s right that the long-term trends–particularly demographic–don’t favor Russian geopolitical influence, but we should be careful about projecting too much based on current trends.

And right now, the Russians are unhappy and resurgent; their capabilities far outmatch most of their neighbors, and they’re starting to adopt more sensible development policies designed to diversify their economy.

3. I wish Khanna didn’t fall into the trap of implying that the Shanghai Coopertation Organization (SCO) is a big deal because it might be like NATO some day. The SCO represents a strategy of “public goods substitution”–from its counter-terrorism to its election-monitoring activities–that seeks to undermines US influence. I doubt it will ever be upgraded to a NATO-like entity, and focusing on that question misses its significance.

4. I think Khanna’s a bit too fast to declare the passing of US hegemony. This is less his fault than that of the “unipolar moment” crowd, many of whom overstated–and continue to overstate–the implications, as well as the degree, of American primacy.

American primacy never implied that the US could “make its own reality” or largely ignore resistance to its policies and position. US power depended, and continues to depend, as much on the micro-politics of its foreign relations as upon its raw military and economic might.

So while (a) the US has mishandled many of those micro-politics over the last decade, (b) current trends do point towards a power transition, and (c) the US faces serious counter-hegemonic challenges, we should be careful about equating diminished US primacy with some form of tripolarity.

That being said, the book is really excellent. I consider it one of the most important contributions to the debate over American grand strategy to make its way into the public sphere in quite some time.

UPDATE: Since Dan’s called me out on this, let me clarify: I think this is a much better book than most of its rivals in the same market niche, and puts some very important issues on the table. I wasn’t sure how to phrase my concluding praise, and opted for a possibly misleading statement about the “public sphere” as opposed to what might sound like a more backhanded compliment about, in effect, the “Tom Friedman/Benjamin Barber/Robert Kaplan genre.”

If I do get around to a review, I intend to make clear that the book actually contains a number of distinct arguments, that these arguments do not depend upon one another, and that some of them are much more persuasive than others. Or, as I wrote on another blog, the “three empires” vision of the world should be seen as a possible, but unlikely, future. The important part of Khanna’s argument is not, contra how many are reading it, the tag lines about the coming tripolar order and the central importance of a similarly-situated set of “second world states,” but the more significant insights about the changing terms of US hegemony and the myriad challenges it faces as a result of, for example, enhanced exit options for second- and third-tier states.

*I should probably note two potential sources of bias. Khanna, who is currently pursuing a PhD from the London School of Economics, is one my former students. A lot of my current work, moreover, is premised upon a similar view of contemporary power-political developments and trends–although not in terms of his claims about the coming tripolar order.


website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.