Book Review: Still a Western World?

Sergio Fabbrini and Raffaele Marchetti (eds.), Still a Western World? Continuity and Change in Global Order (London; New York: Routledge, 2017). 162 pp., £110 (hardback), ISBN: 9781857438703.

Still a Western World? deals with a core issue in international relations theory and in the study of the contemporary international system: the factors that contributed to the formation of the present international order and the factors that may contribute to its change and continuity. The editors’ introductory chapter (“The Debate on Global Order in a Changing World”) summarizes the causal mechanisms that led to the stability of the international order from the main theoretical perspectives in international relations. Their summary serves to demonstrate that the notion of international order is a deeply contested one. Furthermore, the editors focus on the factors that help bring about order even under anarchy, an issue that is believed to be of great relevance in situations of political transition. They argue for the relevance of this by citing the end of the Cold War as a seminal moment that led to dramatic shifts in power distribution. Moreover, the steady process of the globalization of international affairs is also regarded as an important factor in this context.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the debate on the fundamental features of the contemporary international order and of the consequences of its possible change has been very lively. This edited volume is a valuable contribution to this debate due to the variety of perspectives it adopts (combining a systemic perspective with Western and national ones) and the outstanding profile of the scholars that have taken part in the project. The contents of the book pertain to two main topics: (i) the stability, or the instability, of the international order and (ii) the factors that complicate the international order.

A core issue that has recently received a lot of scholarly attention is whether the principles, rules, and political structures underpinning the international order are well functioning and stable, thereby keeping international conflicts under control. This book offers very useful contributions to this debate. On the one hand, the chapter by Robert Jervis (“Our New and Better World”) supports the idea that the international system has become more stable and peaceful after the end of the Cold War. The leading states of the system – namely the great powers belonging to the still well alive Western security community – do not compete for existential stakes and do not pose security threats to one another. This may well result in the proliferation of a variety of secondary conflicts related to milieu goals.

Yet, it is the lack of fundamental divides among the leading states of the system the most relevant novelty in international politics, by which large-scale wars have become extremely unlikely. Also Mario Telò is supporting the view the international order is not a stake. His chapter (“Regionalism and global governance”) focuses on the causes and consequences of current processes of regionalisation that are unfolding in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. He comments on the growing number and scope of regional arrangements and shows the rising relevance of bottom-up factors. Even though regionalism can be thought to be at odds with multilateralism and/or to be a defensive reaction to globalisation, Telò argues regionalism is a factor of the global order and contributes to the stability of the international system.

On the other hand, Bertrand Badie offers a more problematic assessment of the current international order. In Badie’s chapter (“Uncertain Global Governance”), the global order is not characterized by cooperative solutions bargained by sovereign actors who struggle to defend their autonomy; rather, it is characterized by rules and practices by which common international goods are pursued and shared values are defended. Badie comments on the four methods nation states have used to defend their sovereignty (concert of powers, condominium of superpowers, association, and connivance).

In the context of these cooperative practices, he suggests, global governance is a radically new phenomenon that results from four significant current trends: the inclusion of all political communities in international relations, the increasing intensity and symmetry of relations of mutual dependence, the growing relevance of common goods to the international agenda, and the proliferation and rising influence of non-state actors. Such a fundamental change in the stakes and factors of the global order, he concludes, cannot but meet resilience and be doomed to great uncertainty.

If the stability of the international order should not be taken for granted, it is important to know the factors that could cause uncertainty. This volume also offers useful insights into this topic. For instance, even if one agrees with Jervis’ claim about peaceful relations among the leading nation states of the system, one could nonetheless surmise that their perceptions about common threats and mutual relations may not be fully consistent. The chapter “Western Public Opinion Looking East” by Linda Basile and Pierangelo Isernia shows that Europeans and Americans who perceive China as a possible threat assess the transatlantic relations positively; but European élites, especially economic élites, and American élites alike think that Asia is more important than their transatlantic partners. At the mass level, moreover, European and American public opinion significantly diverges—the former considers the U.S. to be its main partner, but the U.S. does not think of Europe in the same manner.

Of course, the fate of transatlantic relations depends largely on the goals and policies pursued by the leader of the Atlantic Alliance. The chapter by Walter Russel Mead (“The American Perspective on Global Order”) suggests that contemporary U.S. foreign policy has become highly uncertain. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S.’s international relations are believed to have benefitted from the exceptionally peaceful coexistence of the domestic schools that traditionally compete to influence foreign policy. On the contrary, 9/11 is believed to have widened the divide between these domestic schools. Both Jacksonian nationalism and Wilsonian idealism supported military operations, whereas Jacksonian opposition to rising government expenditures and Jeffersonian fear of external engagement opposed them. In Mead’s view, Bush Jr.’s grand strategy was not effective in enabling these schools to arrive at a consensus. Obama’s efforts involved reaffirming the country’s position as an international leader while, at the same time, reducing its foreign presence in the Middle East and Europe and stimulating trade and economic relations in Asia. Thus, tensions with partners and allies soared, and the Jacksonian tradition, to which Obama was unable to speak, became a domestic force against the country’s international relations and the foreign policy élites. Therefore, the contributions made by the U.S. toward the establishment of the global order cannot be taken for granted.

Vittorio Emanuele Parsi’s chapter (“The European Perspective on The Global Order Crisis”) also suggests that the European Union’s (EU) ability to effectively contribute to the global order has recently weakened. Parsi emphasizes the role the EU played in the establishment of the Western liberal order, to which it mainly contributed as a civilian and economic actor. However, the 2008 global economic crisis undermined the cohesion of the EU and its ability to manage internal economic and social crises. Notwithstanding the enormous contribution the EU made to the political transition in Central and Eastern Europe in the ’90s, a more complex external environment and a more inward-looking EU seem to combine to undermine the EU’s international political credibility as well as its contribution to the global liberal order.

Sergio Fabbrini further complicates the international roles of the U.S. and the EU by focusing on their policy-making process. In his chapter (“Dysfunctional Domestic Politics: Dilemmas for the U.S. and the EU in a Changing World”), Fabbrini underlines the dysfunctions that make U.S. decision-making incoherent and that of the EU inconsistent in the context of the international crises of the 2010s. As for the U.S., the radicalization of political competition in the context of a divided government resulted in uncertainty and paralysis. For the EU, the intergovernmental character of policy-making led to the division of its member states and the formation of directoires. The international roles of the leading nation states of the Western order have been severely weakened by domestic processes also.

If one looks at the main emerging powers, other factors that may lead to international disorder can be noted. In “The Chinese Perspective on Global Order,” Shaun Bresline and Silvia Menegazzi maintain that China presents a mixed posture toward the international order. The country has traditionally maintained a low profile by prioritizing domestic issues and economic development, while, at the same time, integrating into and benefitting from the (Western) international order. More recently, however, China has been following a full engagement policy characterized by (i) its rising assertiveness at the regional level and (ii) its contestation of the decision-making of universal organizations (e.g., the IMF) and of universal political principles (e.g., human rights) at the systemic level. Therefore, one can neither speak of a revisionist posture nor of a status quo posture. Overall, China accepts the international order as a means to safeguard its position, but, at the same time, along with the differential growth of its power, it affirms the principles and rules of the Chinese view of the global order.

Similarly, in “The Russian Perspective on Global Order,” Richard Sakwa maintains that Russia cannot be considered a status quo power. While the U.S. and its allies conceived of the end of the Cold War as a victory, and accordingly dealt with Russia as the defeated enemy, Russia affirmed its parity with U.S. Russia did not reject the Western international order (that in fact led to many benefits for the country), but it rejected the view that it had to change its identity to take part in it. The resulting neo-revisionist Russian posture has thus become a factor that led to the post-1989 instability at the regional level and, possibly, at the global level.

In summary, one might think that international politics, which is currently characterized by peace, is challenged by several factors nonetheless. Moreover, the idea of what the international order should be is contested. Raffaele Marchetti further highlights this fragile nature of the contemporary order. In “The Role of Ideas in Global Order,” he regards nation states as great powers based on their ability to frame normative models of the international order. He also shows that the great powers do not share the same master frames about the international order. It is difficult to ascertain all the relevant factors that may cause disorder; it is also difficult to clearly relate them to one another. This volume strives to fulfill both these aims and gives a vivid sense of why and how the (Western) international order is such a puzzling issue in contemporary dynamics.

Marco Clementi, Università di Pavia

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