Power transitions, global justice, and the virtues of pluralism.

Author:Hurrell, Andrew

Broad comparisons of international relations across time--of the prospects for peace and of the possibilities for a new ethics for a connected world--typically focus on two dimensions: economic globalization and integration on the one hand, and the character of major interstate relations on the other. One of the most striking features of the pre-1914 world was precisely the coincidence of intensified globalization with a dramatic deterioration in major power relations, the downfall of concert-style approaches to international order, and the descent into total war and ideological confrontation--what T. S. Eliot termed "the panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." Today's optimists stress the degree to which globalization appears much more firmly institutionalized than it was a hundred years ago, the rather striking success of global economic governance in responding to the financial crisis of 2007-2008 (compared to, say, the Great Depression), and the longer-term trend within international society to move away from major-power war. Pessimists are less sure. They worry that we have had to re-learn just how unstable global capitalism can be, both in terms of the wrenching societal changes produced by economic success and of the political strains produced by slowdown and recession. And they point to the abiding or resurgent power of nationalism in all of the core countries in the system, the return of balance-of-power thinking (above all in Asia), and the renewed salience of major power politics. (1)

This article focuses on a third dimension--the decline of Western dominance. Western dominance was, of course, an absolutely fundamental feature of the world in 1914; and it is central to contemporary claims about what has changed and what is changing as a result of the "provincializing of Westphalia" and the "de-centering" of an originally Western order. From this perspective the tectonic plates are indeed shifting. Both the international political system and the structures of global capitalism are in a state of flux and uncertainty. Power is shifting both to particular states (a change that is captured in such popular phrases as "Superpower China," "India Rising," and "Brazil's Moment") and as part of a much more general diffusion of power, which is often linked to technological changes, to changes in the global economy, and to new forms of social and political mobilization. The financial crisis sharply underlined the relative strengths of the newcomers. There are very strong arguments that this diffusion of power represents the most powerful set of challenges yet to the U.S.-led global order. And many of these challenges also raise questions about the longer-term position of the Anglo-American and European global order that rose to dominance in the middle of the nineteenth century, around which so many conceptions and practices of power-political order, international legal construction, and global economic governance have since been constructed.


There are broadly two ways in which a global order might come into being. One is via the coming together on more or less equal terms of a series of regionally-based systems, whether made up of states, empires, or other political groupings. The other is by the global dominance of what was originally a regional system. It is this latter model that stands behind global order in the twentieth century, with the expansion of an originally European international society on to a global scale--first, through the globalizing force of capitalism and the immense transformative impact that it has had on the regions and societies that are drawn into a deepening system of exchange and production relations; second, through the emergence of an often highly conflictual international political system, which, as Halford Mackinder argued, came to see the entire Earth as a single stage organized for the promotion of the interests of the core powers of that system; (2) and third, through the development of a global international society whose institutional forms (the nation-state, Great Powers, international law, spheres of influence) were globalized from their originally European context in the course of European expansion and the subsequent process of decolonization. (3)

Alongside early twentieth-century discussions of the impact of the industrial revolution and economic imperialism there ran a continuous preoccupation with moral, cultural, and civilizational factors. These played a crucial role in determining the status of "great nations" and who was to count in the international pecking order. Within Europe, Marx, Mill, Hegel, and many others had all believed in a hierarchy of nations. For all these thinkers it was axiomatic that only some nations possessed the necessary moral character for greatness and for playing a historically progressive role; and that the West alone represented rationality, progress, and universal history. (4) It was in relation to the non-European world that differentiation and hierarchy were clearest. Hence the widely-held belief in the concept of civilization and in a hierarchy of races; hence the elaborate debates as to the principles, criteria, and "standards of civilization" by which non-European states might be accepted as sovereign members of the "society of states" or the "family of nations"; (5) and hence the idea of Europe as the unique site of a universal and universalizing modernity, in which, as David Ludden suggests, the economic divergence between Europe and the rest soon became a "global cultural phenomenon." (6)

A central part of the problem of global order in the twentieth century revolved around the struggle of the non-Western world, the Third World, or (later) the Global South against these structures and relationships of inequality. To be sure, both recent historiography and postcolonial theory have complicated our understanding of what the rise of the West involved and how Western dominance should be understood. But what Hedley Bull termed the "revolt against Western dominance" was central both to patterns of peace and war and to understandings of international and global justice. (7) For Bull, this "revolt" unfolded through a series of struggles--for equal sovereignty, for racial equality, for the end of empire, for economic justice, and for cultural liberation. Moreover, the broad direction in which history had been moving through the twentieth century seemed clear. By the 1970s empires had all but ended; the United States and USSR were experiencing serious limits to the utility of military power in Vietnam and Afghanistan; and Western capitalism was in crisis. Commentators pointed to the diffusion of power and the challenge posed by the Third World to Western order; to the tensions within the capitalist core, as Keynesian orthodoxy unraveled in the face of social conflict, low growth, and high inflation; and to the way in which North/South cleavages were shaping the politics of new global issues, such as the environment, resource scarcity, and nuclear nonproliferation--as well as to how these cleavages were prompting a call for greater international justice. (8)

By the end of the 1970s the dominant response to these challenges crystallized around a determination to re-assert U.S. and Western power. One major response was to foster, encourage, and enforce an aggressive phase of liberal globalization, especially of financial globalization. And yet it was precisely the intensification of economic globalization that helped to create the conditions both for the successful emerging economies of today and for the current challenges to U.S. and Western power and authority. The other central feature of the U.S. and Western approach was to revive a policy of active and aggressive interventionism across many parts of the developing world. Again, while this may have been a successful element in the eventual victory of the West in the cold war, it also helped to foster, or deepen, or shift the character of many of the conflicts that are proving so intractable to Washington today, especially those in relation to the Islamic world. Seen in terms of both these responses, the "long 1970s" become more important in understanding where we are today while the end of the cold war rather less so.

But this longer-term continuity was disguised by the apparent nature of post-cold war international society. In the 1990s global order was widely understood through the lens of liberal internationalism or liberal solidarism. Globalization was rendering obsolete the old Westphalian world of great power rivalries, balance of power politics, and an old-fashioned international law built around state sovereignty and strict rules of nonintervention. Bumpy as it might be, the road seemed to be leading away from Westphalia--with an expanded role for formal and informal multilateral institutions; a huge increase in the scope, density, and intrusiveness of rules and norms made at the international level; an ever-greater involvement of new actors in global governance; a move toward the coercive enforcement of global rules; and fundamental changes in political, legal, and moral understandings of state sovereignty and of the relationships among the state, the citizen, and the international community.

The West had won the cold war. Those states of the old Third World that had previously challenged the Western order would now become increasingly enmeshed, socialized, and integrated within it. The challenge of the Third World had been tamed, if not rendered obsolete. The nature and dynamics of power were changing. Many argued that soft power would now outstrip hard coercive power in importance and that concentrations of liberal power would attract rather than repel or threaten, lust as the example of a liberal and successful European Union had created...

To continue reading