In our original World Without the West essay (2007), we argued that emerging powers are preferentially engaging with each other — “routing around” the Western liberal order rather than joining it or trying actively to undermine it. This argument attracted two main criticisms. Consistent with realist theories of international politics, the first critique posits that what we’re witnessing today is simply the early stages of an eventual attempt to overthrow the liberal order. (We disagree, but we’ll save that one for another day.) On the other side of the spectrum, however, is the view articulated by Voeten that a combination of interests, inducements and constraints will lead countries like China to ultimately conform, more or less, to the way the United States and the West have done business for the last 70 years.
The crux of our disagreement with this liberal internationalist perspective largely revolves around two questions. Will Chinese-led multilateral institutions “really fundamentally challenge the existing order or have profound implications for China’s ties to global multilateral institutions?” And even when they have similar functional objectives — on issues like regional stability, counterterrorism or poverty alleviation — will their approach be sufficiently different from liberal practice so as to diverge from prevailing norms and institutions? Voeten thinks the answer is no to both these questions.
We disagree because we think it’s overly optimistic to assume that Chinese interests and behavior will conform quite so neatly to the post-WWII system. And, to put a finer point on it, we believe both logic and evidence are now frequently pointing in the opposite direction. The world already has an Asian Development Bank. It already has ASEAN. Institutions such as those are the examples of regime complexity and forum shopping that Voeten points to, intended to advance specific interests “while remaining firmly tied to the global institutional architecture.”
Voeten is right to point out that European and Japanese multilateral initiatives have had those characteristics. But we don’t think the developments we’ve long pointed to are just a matter of the Chinese and their compatriot members seeking marginal gains at the edges of a liberal international order. If pursuing similar objectives were the point of these new institutions, why would the Chinese bother to create them? Why would they exclude the United States, Japan and other Western powers? And why, in cases such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the BRICS mechanism, would they counterpose their mission and purpose to those of liberal institutions?
Chinese-led organizations are not all going to follow the mold of other multilateral initiatives. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was explicitly designed to complement and advance the state of the art of existing multilateral development banks, by adding political conditionality that ties lending to democracy and human rights. The United States was a founding member of the EBRD with the second greatest number of shares after the European Union; it was also a founding member of the Asian Development Bank. Neither characteristic is true of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
In contrast to those who predict a future of convergence and integration, we believe it is increasingly difficult to assume that the preferences of a rising and modernizing China regarding global order and global outcomes will come to be the same or at least broadly consistent with those of the United States. That’s the master assumption of the liberal internationalist mindset. Is it correct? The realist viewpoint says it probably isn’t — and expects that China will likely challenge the U.S.-led global order instead. We think the evidence of the last few years at a minimum ought to raise very large question marks around either of these views.
Minus those assumptions as a starting point, it’s easier to see Chinese initiatives for what they are: a strategic effort to route around Western world order ideas, institutions and rules. The point is to create an alternative set of ideas, institutions and rules that are aligned with a Chinese vision of how political economy and state power come together. And while that vision is very much a work in progress, our bet is that it’ll be sufficiently different from what you’ll find in “the West.” In fact, we think China and its friends in the emerging world have started espousing and living it.
Naazneen Barma is assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Ely Ratner is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Steven Weber is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Department of Political Science and the School of Information. The views in this essay are their own.