In The End of American World Order, Amitav Acharya engages in core debates of International Relations; hegemony and world polarity. This is, needless to say, an extremely complex subject, and consequently, a formidable academic challenge. Perhaps the main strength of the book is that Acharya is not intimidated by the daunting challenges he faces. One of the main virtues of the book is that his deconstruction of the American World Order (AWO) myths is serene and rigorous without resorting to simplifications and without employing the often dogmatic anti-imperialist metanarrative.
This is particularly well illustrated in Chapter 3, where he deconstructs the nature, benevolence and future of the AWO, and by doing so he exposes its multiple and sometimes ignored contradictions. For instance, he highlights the fact that US dominance is not built around consent but, like other orders, is imposed through coercion. Acharya does not deny that the AWO has had positive outcomes (particularly in Europe) but he claims that we should also acknowledge its too often neglected negative effects such as its historical baggage supporting authoritarian rule, its interventions against democratic regimes during the Cold War or the Bush doctrine based on hyper-unilateralism. Thus, even though the US order is referred by some scholars, such as Ikenberry, as ‘American-led hegemonic liberal order,’ Acharya reminds us that Washington has been forced to sacrifice ‘liberal norms such as human rights and democracy […] in the interest of superpower geopolitics’ (p. 38). Another myth he deconstructs relates to the framing of history and geopolitics in western-centric terms. As a result of this western-centric frame, it is often forgotten, he claims, that the American-led liberal hegemonic order was geographically rather limited during the Cold War. In other words, it was essentially a US-UK-West Europe-Australasian configuration that did not include key (regional) actors such as China, India, Indonesia, Egypt or the Soviet Union. Given this limited geographical reach, he asserts that until the end of the cold war, the AWO can be considered an international order but not the worldorder.
The collapse of the USSR led to a “unipolar moment” that was celebrated by American pundits but that, according to Acharya, is about to be replaced by a new order: ‘unipolarity is vanishing sooner than its proponents had forecast’ (p. 107). The reasons for this do not only lie with the irresponsible adventurist unilateralism pursued by the George W. Bush administration but are also due to the regional and global dynamics of the 21st century that inevitably undermine polarity. One of the central arguments of the book is the paradox that is caused by the fact that even if the US is not in decline, the American-led World order is ‘US dominance of the world will decline, even if the US itself does not’ (p. 108). Contrary to the dominant perception (held by both realists and liberal-institutionalists) that the end of US unipolarity would lead to instability and disorder in the international system, Acharya argues that multipolarity ‘does not necessarily spell chaos’ (p. 18). To describe this post-hegemonic era, the author uses a multiplex cinema metaphor, where there are several films being shown at the same time on the different screens. While this may be an original illustration to depict a changing world where the centers of power are more diffuse and less controlled by the US, the metaphor is not self-evident, lacks clarity and does not account for power dynamics. In addition, the metaphor seems to neglect the fact that in multiplex cinemas, movies are not screened randomly but a manager is ultimately responsible for deciding which movies will be screened, in which sessions and for how long. This manager figure does not fit well in a metaphor that attempts to portray a decentered non-hegemonic world.
Bringing the metaphor forward, Acharya concludes that a multiplex world, which may develop into two potential scenarios, will replace the AWO. The first approach, which he labels as the ‘global concert model,’ would be based on a sort of great power club where the US shares its power with emerging states. This collective hegemony is not exempt from competing relations among great powers but they, nonetheless, develop institutional frameworks in order to preserve global stability. The second approach, which he refers to as the ‘regional world model,’ is clearly the author’s preferred scenario since it fits better in his multiplex narrative. According to this approach, order would be established through a multiplicity of regional actors that commonly address transnational perils and work not in opposition but in compatibility with the UN. That is, a regional order where the US does not abuse but rather shares power with other actors, with more democratized and representative multilateral institutions, with a significant contribution to order from emerging powers, respectful towards the autonomy of weaker actors and complementary to the UN. There are multiple limitations with the model envisioned by Acharya. For example, there is a wide range of factors that need to align for this new peaceful multilateral order to succeed and consequently there are plenty of contingencies that may jeopardize and ruin the author’s idyllic prognosis. Furthermore, his vision shares the same sin with the catastrophist picture of inevitable chaos (if the AWO collapses) he challenges throughout the book; both are based on speculation.
At any rate, the book’s strengths clearly outweigh its shortcomings. It represents a fresh and original contribution to the debate on the decline of US hegemony and its consequences for global stability. It is the sort of book that readers interested in global affairs should keep in a handy place in their libraries, particularly as the tectonic plates of international politics shift.