Amitav Acharya Discusses Liberal International Order, “Rise of the Rest”

In the midst of the war in Ukraine, the rise of the Global South, and the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, how has the global order shifted? American University Distinguished Professor of International Relations (IR) Amitav Acharya discussed this question on Friday, Oct. 6 in his talk “Order Vs Reorder: What the Pandemic, War, and Rise of the Rest Mean for World Politics.” The talk was hosted by the political science department and sponsored by the global studies and peace and conflict studies departments, as well as the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility and the IR Club. 

Acharya was the first non-Western scholar to be elected to the International Studies Association, the largest association of IR scholars, for which he served as president from 2014-2015. He has written twelve books and published several journal articles in the field of IR. His research focuses on the way that norms and ideas influence the global order, especially in Southeast Asia. 

The talk began with remarks from Associate Professor of Political Science Emily Paddon Rhoads, who touched on Acharya’s IR scholarship, which has been influential in shaping the field. Prior to introducing Acharya, she quoted one of his articles published in International Political Science Quarterly in which he wrote that Global IR – a specific area of study pioneered by Acharya – should “help move [the] discipline to a new frontier which leaves behind arrogance and exclusion and where humility and learning drive one’s engagements with others.”

Acharya began the talk by explaining that the current world order, which is dominated by the West, has been around since the end of the Second World War. Alongside this global order, there has been a reemergence of China and India, as well as several postcolonial nations, as their economies have grown over the years and began to challenge the U.S.-centric world order. The “rise of the rest,” a concept created by Fareed Zakaria in 2008, emphasizes the role that these growing powers play in the shifting global balance. The goal of the talk was to show how this shift, as well as two key events — the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and the emergence of COVID – have also shifted the global order. 

From the end of the 1990s up to the election of Trump in 2016, Acharya explained, the world became infused with optimism for liberal, inclusive, international ideals, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This order was characterized by self-restraint and liberal institutions, such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization. In 2016, Trump marked a “turning point” in this system, as he pulled back from these international institutions in the name of “America First.”

“All his policies were symptoms of what he thought would benefit him electorally, rather than based in a deep-rooted, ideological belief. It was an electoral calculation,” Acharya said. 

The pandemic, Acharya stated, followed this trend away from the global liberal order by slowing trade, disrupting global supply chains, and closing borders in countries like China, Australia, and Singapore. This caused a rising skepticism surrounding globalization. Additionally, the war in Ukraine has influenced the global liberal order by introducing war into Europe, whereas most major wars and conflicts during the Cold War occurred in the global south. The war has divided much of the world. 

“Most countries in the U.N. General Assembly condemned the Russian invasion, but they did not join the sanctions that the U.S. and its allies imposed on Russia,” Acharya said. “They did not want to take sides. It’s one thing to normatively condemn an invasion, and it’s another thing to actually jump [on] the bandwagon and say … ‘we will revive the Western-dominated world order.’ That created another point of friction in that global order.”

Countries in the Global South started to question the U.S.-led order when they began suffering the “corrosive” consequences of sanctions and rising costs that arose from U.S. actions in the global context. 

According to Acharya, the long-term trend in IR is the “rise of the rest,” or the rise of countries in the Global South shifting the dynamic away from the West. Acharya pointed to a chart from the IMF highlighting this point and noting the fact that India has succeeded Britain, its former colonial master, economically.

Acharya concluded his talk by arguing that the result of these events will not be a multipolar world, where only a handful of countries dominate the world order, but rather a multiplex world driven by liberal ideals where more actors — regional, national, and non-state — influence the order as well.

In the midst of this shifting power balance, Acharya warned, people should not try to turn to the past to reinstate the previous world order but rather to embrace these changes.

“We should not be pining for the past. We should try to embrace the present and the future,” he said. 

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