Reviewed by Siphamandla Zondi
The time is ripe for the correction of this deep-seated cognitive injustice committed by dominant discourses suppressing, denigrating, silencing or just neglecting perspectives and world views from outside the Western world. This results in a distortion of world history told only from a Eurocentric angle and thus robbing the readership and listeners of the rich diversity of discourses that have been taking place for centuries emanating also from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and so forth.
In the mainstream, the world is as Europeans imagined and sought to build, but in subaltern spaces it is a contested, complex and pluralistic world made by the dominant in the exercise of their hegemonic power but also by the dominated in the agency of their power of resistance, supervision, disruption and in their pursuit of liberation. The mainstream literature of the world and its orders assume North America and Europe as their locus of enunciation, thus willfully forgetting all the other discourses that emerge in other points of view towards world history.
In this book, Acharya opens up a lot of possibilities for decolonising the manner in which mainstream IR represents world orders and what they have entailed, so that it is not just the ideals of Europe that count but also the experiences of others affected by these orders. The book is not on the decline of the U.S., the subject that preoccupied US scholars a lot, but it is the decline and end of the US-led World Order. Scholars debating the U.S. as a sole superpower and its future are concerned about the U.S. as a hegemonic state, but Acharya's concern is broader and more interesting: it is the system of governance and power that has placed the U.S. in the position to influence or lead the world. This world order has had more impact on the world than the U.S. per se and it has more long term implications for the south than whether the U.S. will be the sole superpower or will share its "leadership" capacity with emerging global powers.
Acharya's concern is simple: whether or not the U.S. declines, the American world order is coming to an end and it is thus opening up an opportunity for the emergence of what he calls a multiplex world. This, which he also calls the American-led liberal hegemonic order built on the abiding sense of superiority and hierarchy with the U.S. as its current order, a world made of territorially bound nation-states, has started declining, but what is to come after it is not at all certain. So, a multiplex world is the ideal that Acharya envisages. We shall return to this ideal shortly.
Acharya does not neglect the whole debate about the decline of the U.S. as a superpower and its implications for the liberal international order, but he suggests that there is a bigger debate than this. He notes the debate in the mainstream is out of fear of change and worries about what hegemon or group of hegemons might replace the US, whether such powers would preserve or neglect the liberal hegemonic orientation of the world system. Acharya embraces and welcomes change rather fearing it; he sees a world beyond US-led Western hegemony as not just desirable but also probable. The debate about US hegemony gives very little space for imagining beyond the current international hegemonic order and hence the fear that the U.S. might be replaced by another hegemon without the assumed liberal credentials of the U.S. His extensive discussion of the decline of the U.S. as a global hegemon centers around showing that the unipolar moment was an illusion believed by U.S. scholars and politicians, promoted through the mass media, but without substance in realities of the post-World War II world.
The book contends that it is not just the unipolar moment that is coming to an end, but the whole liberal hegemonic order and its underpinnings. It sees this as entailing the decline of the normative power of American hegemony and the myths that it is built on. This means the end also of a world dominated by any single hegemon or a group of superpowers. While Acharya sees the rise of emerging powers from the global south as a significant development in this change, he does not foresee that these will take over from the U.S. because the liberal hegemonic order has reached its dead-end.
A chapter dedicated to the emerging powers demonstrates the complexities that accompany this emergence, showing that these powers are yet to demonstrate regional legitimacy, preparedness to present alternative visions either for the world generally or their global leadership. For Acharya, both the alarmist view dominated mainly by believers of the liberal hegemonic order and the view that proclaims a shift in global power as a result of the emerging powers exaggerate this emergence. In his view, these emerging powers do not represent or exhaust the possibility of an alternative, or post-hegemonic, world order.
The extent to which emerging powers would contribute to a fundamental change in the world order and the emergence of a non-hegemonic and alternative one is related to the orientation that they take towards the idea of a multiplex world. Such a world is not a multipolar world that western thinkers expect, which is a world founded on the same pillars as the current liberal hegemonic order in that it means that a number of global hegemons compete or cooperate to maintain the hegemonic world order.
This decentred, non-hegemonic, multidimensional world that Acharya implies by a multiplex world order has a number of features that are discussed at length in this book. The first is regionalism, especially the growth on interregional cooperation that has emerged in the past few decades. The second is the dynamic interface of nation-states, regional communities, non-state actors and international institutions because a multiplex world is likened to a multiplex cinema where there are many producers and actors, staging their own shows concurrently.
So, Acharya discusses how the American show in the theatre called the world is only one of the many films showing, it is just that the U.S. scholarship leads the rest of western scholarship in the illusion that it is the only game in town. There are many shows taking place at the same time and all of them are significant in the making of the world order that is emerging.
The book is written with great simplicity and clarity of argument that is pursued throughout. It would have benefitted from illustrations and tables including a geopolitical map illustrating the multiplex world discussed.
Scholars and students interested in international relations, international politics, world history, diplomatic students, U.S and western hegemony, global south studies, decolonial and post-colonial studies and regionalism should find this very useful. It is also recommended for those outside the academy who are interested in understanding the world around them and in appreciating the illusions that dominate our discourses today.