Post-Western World?

What does a post-Western world order mean? Oliver Stuenkel’s Post Western World argues it means more continuity than change, and more cooperation than conflict. He argues, alarmism over the “rise of the rest”, and China in particular, is over stated, because the world order as it exists, is not a purely Western construct, although it has been Western-led and enforced. Rising powers, he claims, will behave no differently than their Western counter-parts, and, while projecting their power, will nevertheless support, more or less, the institutional framework of the international order.

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This book is accessibly written, makes an important corrective for problematically Western-centric readings of world order trends, and is worth reading by students and thinkers on international affairs and world order in general. I, and others, broadly agree there is less cause for alarmism than is sometimes thought in the prospect of a multipolar and non-Western led world order. I do not wish to engage in a minute academic review here, but want to raise two connected points. First, Stuenkel’s analysis unduly leans on “realist” assumptions. His analysis, for instance, privileges state power, and argues state powers generate their own soft power, which undercuts the sources from which states gather the contents of their soft power. States project soft power, but the content of what is projected has sources in political and social life beyond the state. Second, these state-centric and power politics biases preclude analysis of the sources and forces of change in international affairs. It leaves out the most interesting questions about the historical quality of the modern, liberal, and US-led world order, and the question of the emergence of new contentious ideas and revolutionary politics, be they post-liberal cosmopolitan ideas, or ecological and planetary politics, for instance.

It is fair to say, as Stuenkel helpfully points out, that the Western-led world order has not been as Western-centric as is commonly thought, and so its potential (if not confirmed) decline is not a cataclysm in itself. But, a post-Western world does not mean a predictable, unproblematic, or qualitatively, that is, historically, consistent world, for the West as well as the rest. Attention to the sources and forces underlying the historical character of world orders might distill a clearer picture still.

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