This is an extract from Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran's new book: The New World Disorder and The Indian Imperative. Join our Book Club to discuss.
As we approach the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that the international liberal order is facing a moment of crisis. The political, economic and security fundamentals that underpinned it are invalid, with no consensus on others. Globalization is now being confronted by economic nationalism. Attempts are being made to close open borders. Strongmen politicians are leveraging multiple grievances—real and perceived— to legitimize populist rule. And international norms and institutions appear less relevant to managing the global commons. There is a sense that the global order is once again becoming more Westphalian—that the gains of interdependence are being undone. There is a visible reassertion of sovereignty—from democracies and otherwise. And above all, there is an uncertainty about what this century has in store for our societies.
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Within the punditry that seeks to understand why the world is as it is today, the overwhelming sentiment is that popular and populist leaders have undermined what was a well-meaning and well functioning international order. We intend to correct this narrative. From our perspective, the world has fundamentally been defined by the spirit of Darwinism: the ‘survival of the fittest’. The processes of global governance merely legitimized what was otherwise coercive state diplomacy. It provided a means to amass and maintain power and wealth without the use of military force. As our book will show, the crisis of global governance is, in many ways, a comeuppance for the custodians of the post-1945 world order. The story of decline does not begin with populist leaders trampling on an existing world order—although they certainly are. These leaders are the product of the contradictions that have always defined the liberal order.
Before we detail this any further, it is useful to set the context. Where are we now? For one thing, the guarantors that once evangelized the liberal international order are themselves being swept away by the undercurrents of these shifts. American elites remain dismayed that the US elected Donald Trump—an individual with no interest in global partnerships or liberal posturing. European elites are mortified by the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the National Rally, Viktor Orbán, and others who represent values ostensibly antithetical to those of the European Union (EU). Those who would stand for globalization and multilateral values, on the other hand, are struggling for relevance. Macron is fighting a wave of popular discontent over his ‘business friendly policies’, while Angela Merkel will have demitted office after fighting a losing battle against a populist resurgence in the EU. From the perspective of Western elites, the norms, institutions and partnerships that were so carefully crafted in the post-war period can no longer sustain their peace, freedoms or security. On the contrary, it is these very ideals that are seemingly the root cause of the problem. The wave of popular anger in the transatlantic community is directed at free movement and open borders; towards globalization and the volatility of interdependence; and towards the elites in politics, business, academia and media that support these policies. Local identity and sovereignty—both of which the international liberal order was thought to have subsumed—are reasserting themselves everywhere.
This domestic turbulence has also shaken the security foundations of the international liberal order—the transatlantic and transpacific partnerships of the United States. A core diplomatic mantra of the Trump administration appears to be irreverence for all that was revered. His administration has adopted economic and security policies that are bordering on hostile towards the EU and Japan. It has been relentless in compelling both to ‘pay more for their own defence’. More than this, Trump has also been willing to raise military tensions in these regions—with Iran in West Asia, and North Korea in East Asia. His willingness to use unilateral force and pressure in lieu of multilateral negotiations has caused much anguish in Europe, Japan and South Korea. More consequentially, perhaps, Trump has been more than willing to undermine the institutional frameworks of the global order—namely the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). He sees both organizations as captured by actors inimical to American interests that infringe on the absolute sovereignty of the US.
Amidst this turbulence in the West, there is also a resurgence of the East. The old empires and civilizations of Asia, especially China and India, are beginning to impress upon the world their size and weight. China, undoubtedly, is leading this charge. While the West is thinking local, China is going global. At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2017, President Xi emerged as the unlikeliest defender of globalization, stating, in a very statesmanlike fashion, that the international community ‘should adapt to and guide economic globalization, cushion its negative impacts and deliver its benefits for all countries’. More important, the Middle Kingdom is investing in infrastructure projects across Asia and Europe in an unprecedented effort to connect the two continents. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a multi-billion dollar geopolitical and geoeconomic thrust that will see China emerge as the chief arbiter of an Eurasian political, economic and security arrangement. In doing so, Beijing is steadily undermining the efficacy and legitimacy of the post-war alliance arrangements. In Europe, the China-led 17+1 arrangement is eroding the EU’s influence over its eastern borders. China’s aggressive naval build-up in the South China Sea (SCS) is displacing American military power in the Pacific, and sowing discord among the member states of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its investments in G7 nations like Italy have divided and derailed any potential Western response.
Equally significantly, China’s rise is being accompanied by an alternative proposition for global governance. Remember, China bears an enduring grudge against those who profess to lead the international order. China’s political histories are stories about humiliation, subjugation and suffering at the hands of outsiders. There is some disagreement in international affairs literature about exactly what change, and how much of it, China actually seeks. This line of thinking, however, misses the point. China is large enough that the influence of its domestic arrangements will be felt organically in other parts of the world. Beijing has only grown more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad under the presidency of Xi Jinping. And China is certainly exporting bits and pieces of this model. The most obvious manifestation is surveillance technologies that China’s massive technology companies are selling in developing countries around the world. China’s propositions are certainly international; they are infused, however, with Chinese characteristics. It is a proponent of globalization—but a morphed version that prioritizes state-led capitalism with the People’s Republic of China in command. Beijing favours international institutions, but seeks to subvert their original purpose. In the UN, for example, China has attempted to introduce human rights language that privileges and protects state interpretations, as opposed to more universal (read, in Chinese eyes, Western) international values.
The myth of the liberal order is caught between these shifts in domestic attitudes and the balance of global power. And it is crumbling under these pressures because it is unsuited to balancing internationalism and sovereignty, or to managing a more multipolar international system. Many write and speak about the international liberal order with rose-tinted glasses and a sense of nostalgia. This could not be further from the truth. It was hardly international— premised as it was on America’s system of post-war alliances. While it did guarantee sovereign equality, it is difficult to argue that decision-making authority was sufficiently diffused. Instead, important institutions were run by the largest and most powerful countries. The fabled Washington Consensus, meanwhile, privileged the commercial interests of a handful of geographies, often to the detriment of emerging economies, the environment and the blue-collar worker. Nor was this order truly ‘orderly’. If institutions could realistically impose limits on the unilateral actions of all countries, we would not have seen disastrous Western interventions in the Middle East. Perhaps, the only legitimate claim the international liberal order can truly have is to liberalism itself. It certainly helped that the victors of World War II were all open, democratic societies—even though much of the world was not. With the original guarantors of this order themselves in disarray, it is understandable why its resilience is fraying. The idea of global governance, then, was ultimately a consensus building framework for the global political, economic and security elite. As a popular right-wing Indian commentator tweeted, ‘The entitled elites don’t believe in the survival of the fittest but the survival of the fatuous, frivolous and the feckless.’2 In other words, pedigree, privilege and personal networks have defined who is at the high table—and more important, who isn’t. This may be a Trumpian statement to make—but as our chapters on development and cyberspace will show, both twentieth and twentieth-first century debates have been monopolized by small but vocal and influential communities. The backlash we are seeing today is driven by a groundswell of grassroots opposition to many of its central tenets and philosophies.
Where, then, does the world go from here? We look to India for answers and alternatives. It is not lost on us that it might seem opportunistic for two Indians to make a case for Indian leadership. But the appeal is too strong to ignore. A soon-to-be relatively wealthy, democratic, multicultural state with an instinct that privileges multilateralism and rules-based order, is the perfect antidote to the increasingly parochial and unilateral mood defining global politics. The rules-based order is shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements. Its identity as an Asian power gives it a sense of responsibility to ideate and execute equitable global rules that protect the interests of the marginalized. And its civilizational philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—the whole world is one family—have tempered its willingness to use force as a means to achieve its political interests. This is not to say that India itself is insulated from the disruptions underway around the world. We see strident nationalism increasingly defining the Indian political space as well. Nor is an Indian ‘rise’ inevitable—inequality remains persistent and social risks and economic mismanagement, as well as the risk of divisive politics, continue to daunt the nation. However, providing solutions for the world at large is a fine motivation for Indians to get our house in order. And India’s phenomenal transformation over the past seven decades gives us much to be optimistic about. Of course, we are conscious that Indian leadership is not an end in itself, but a means. The twenty-first century requires this new ethic in order to revive the legitimacy and efficacy of global governance. The rise of India must catalyse methods for governance that are more inclusive, democratic and equitable than before and its own national experience must temper the mercantilism embedded in today’s market-led growth and development models to one where markets are made to serve humankind. It may be time for a New Delhi Consensus, which is not a metaphor for Indian exceptionalism but a call for a more inclusive and participatory world order. This is the most pressing Indian imperative.
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