Global Governance Institute


Understanding the Emerging Multiplex World Order

1 July 2019

An interview with Professor Amitav Acharya, UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC.

Professor Amitav Acharya

Existing debates in International Relations (IR) and global governance are still Western-dominated, neglecting non-Western voices, experiences and agency. Do you think this is changing? Where do you see the biggest challenges? 

I think there is growing awareness of Western dominance in IR and global governance, both in the West and in the non-West, but this is not translating into sufficient action. Importantly, not everybody in the West wants to level the playing field. Indeed, some scholars have argued that American or Western dominance is beneficial to the field and not actually excluding or discriminating against anyone. Professor John Mearsheimer, for example, has called it a ‘benign hegemony’. I completely disagree with this view because there is a lot of gatekeeping going on and that is both a normative and an intellectual problem. 

There are some interesting surveys that illustrate this gap between awareness and action. For example, a 2014 TRIP (Teaching, Research and International Policy) survey found that over 70% of respondents, which included mainly Western scholars, agreed that IR is a Western-centric discipline.* So, awareness is high. But when you ask the same people whether this is something that should be addressed, numbers are much lower, in particular among American scholars. 

This is very disturbing because it undermines efforts to promote greater diversity. Diversity has become a priority concern for universities, journals and academic associations but this commitment is often very superficial and there is little progress when it comes to making real changes: reforming PhD programmes and training more Global South scholars, hiring more faculty from the Global South, changing text books, course offerings and literature lists, providing more citations to Global South scholars, accepting more journal submissions from the Global South, pluralising membership in academic committees, inviting more speakers from the Global South, etc. 

There has been a similar debate on the barriers facing women in the field. 

Yes, and a lot more needs to be done in this area, too. However, the debate on gender equality has advanced much more. For example, it is now fairly difficult  to have a so-called ‘manel’ (a man-only panel) without attracting criticism, but panels without Global South representation are still very common – and this is no longer because of a lack of qualified speakers. And, of course, getting recognition for their work is especially difficult for women from the Global South. Many of them feel that mainstream feminist IR scholarship is exclusive and does not reflect their voices. 

A point I would really like to emphasise here is that diversity is not just a normative concern but also a practical and an intellectual one. This is not just about getting more people to the table but also about getting new ideas on the table. In IR and global governance, many of the existing theories simply do not capture what’s happening in the world because they are derived from a very Eurocentric template. For instance, we talk about multilateralism as if it started with the 19th century Concert of Europe. Examples of multilateral practices outside the West are being routinely overlooked, although there are many, from the diplomatic practices of earlier civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia to the post-World War II Asia-African Conference. 

Similarly, dominant theories of regional integration have failed to take into account the history and culture of local communities. Consider, for example, the idea that the European Union (EU) should serve as a model for the rest of the world, which was especially prominent during the 1990s and 2000s. The EU’s efforts to promote its own model never worked elsewhere, even where other regions wanted to replicate it and where they were supported with finance and know-how. The model was simply too formulaic and the theories behind it did not consider local context. 

So that is why diversity and inclusion is not just a normative imperative but also an analytical and intellectual concern. The rest of the world is much bigger than Europe – both in terms of physical size and population and in terms of history and cultural heritage. If we do not bring the ‘rest’ in, our theories will fall short and lack explanatory power. 

Let’s talk about your book The End of American World Order. The first edition was published in 2014 and it documented the crisis of the US-led global liberal order, even before President Trump came into power (an updated and extended edition has been published in 2018). You also reflect on what will replace the current world order, suggesting that we are currently witnessing the emergence of a ‘multiplex’ world. How did you come up with this term and what does it entail?

The main reason why I introduced the concept of multiplex is because I did not like the term multipolar. Multipolarity is the conventional way of describing a world order that is neither bi-polar nor unipolar. But it is an outdated concept and it refers back to a very particular (pre-World War II) period in European history which is unlikely to repeat itself in the same way. I wanted to move away from this Eurocentric perspective, the sense of inevitable conflict and the idea of ‘going back to the future’. 

I also felt that multiplex conveys the notions of both multiplicity and complexity. Multiplicity refers to the growing number and diversity of actors involved in making the global order, including not just states but also international institutions, multinational corporations, non-governmental organisations, transnational movements, individuals and other non-state actors. Complexity refers to the growing number of transboundary issues, many of which are not completely new but have become more prominent and more urgent. These issues are complex in the sense that they are multidimensional, often unpredictable (think about the 1997 and 2008 financial crises, for example, or the Ebola outbreak), and impossible to be addressed on the national level alone.

In the book, I also use a metaphor from the world of cinema and film. I suggest that the world will be like a multiplex theatre where the audience has the option of choosing between many different movies, actors, directors, producers and plots. In the 1950s, your local cinema would only show one movie at a time. Nowadays, we have far more choice and we do not even need a physical cinema anymore, we can carry our Netflix with us wherever we go. Cinematic entertainment is much more democratic and demand-driven. Today’s world order is somewhat similar. In a multiplex world, we have the choice between different narratives. There is the traditional narrative – the ‘Hollywood plot’ so to speak – about how the liberal world order was created almost single-handedly by the US. But there are also different narratives about how other countries and regions all played an important role in the making of world order. So the notion of multiplex allows us to pluralise plots, actors, directors and producers. And while producers can create demand to a degree, most of the time they will cater to the changing taste of the audience. 

So, we are making the transition from a hegemonic world to a much more pluralistic and decentred world. A multiplex world is politically and culturally diverse but economically and functionally interconnected. Order is produced not just by a handful of great powers but by a multitude of actors, including established powers, emerging powers and non-state actors, who can use both material and ideational resources. This is a world which is quite different from the world of Western dominance we have experienced for the past 200 (we might even say 500) years, so it indicates a significant transformation of the world. 

How do you think multiplexity will affect discussions on the legitimacy of global governance? 

That is a very fundamental question. In global governance there has always been a concern over what I would call the legitimacy-efficacy paradox. Traditionally, it has been thought that if you have more legitimacy – more representation, diversity and inclusion – you risk undermining efficacy because the group of actors involved becomes too big, making it difficult to reach any kind of consensus. On the other hand, if you have only a small group of actors, as in the G-7/8 model, the outcome might not be acceptable to those who were not involved in the decision-making process. Today, effective responses to global challenges are needed more than ever but you can no longer have a bunch of Western countries basically take all the decisions. Whether the issue is human rights, peace and security, finance or trade – solutions in all these areas will only be acceptable if they are being made with the participation of Global South countries.

So a multiplex world brings these tensions to the fore. However, having worked on different projects on global governance and world order over the past years**, I am now more and more convinced that legitimacy is key to efficacy. The two are not mutually exclusive unless you take a very narrow, utilitarian view of efficacy. I believe that efficacy refers to something that works not just for a few major players, something that does not encounter too much resistance. I also think that new ideas and perspectives are important to ensure efficacy, so consulting with a wider range of actors is likely to lead to better and more sustainable solutions.  

A multiplex world is a G-Plus world, where leadership is shared and exercised by different groups of actors in different issue areas, depending on interests, expertise and capabilities. No country or bloc leads in every issue area. I think it is possible to create smaller groups that are legitimate – in that they represents a significant swath of humanity – and that still deliver efficacy. In my view, a good (though not perfect) example is G-20. G20 is very different from G-7/8; it has significant representation from the Global South and it is the first international institution where the Global South and the Global North interact as equals. G-20 was in fact quite effective in addressing the 2008 global financial crisis. It is by no means a perfect model and there are important concerns about representation – for example, Africa has only one seat in the G-20 – but it is much more legitimate than G-7/8 and is also more efficient when it comes to responding to financial crises. That said, G-20 does not fit the G-Plus model perfectly because it is still very state-centric. We now see new types of collaboration emerging in fields such as climate change and global health that involve not just states but also a range of non-state actors. These types of collaborations may have the potential of increasing both legitimacy and efficacy. 

The debate on the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other rising powers has long focused on whether they are status quo powers that can be ‘co-opted’ into the existing liberal international order or revisionist powers that challenge the system as a whole – but you take a much more nuanced view. How do you see the role of the emerging powers in a multiplex world?

My approach has always been to avoid such binaries. First of all, I do not think emerging powers can be co-opted. Co-option as an idea was devised by proponents not just of liberal order but of liberal hegemony. The assumption basically was that China, India and other rising powers would support the US-led liberal order because they had benefitted so much from it. But the world does not work like that. It is politically not realistic to think that the new powers will simply accept everything the established group of powers have decided. And it is also institutionally impossible. The existing global institutions will have to change to accommodate new actors and new power constellations. The notion of co-option undercuts any idea of negotiation, change and concessions. 

At the same time, I do not think the rising powers have the capacity or the unity to run the world on their own. The BRICS are a very diverse group of countries both in terms of political systems and economic development and there is also rivalry between some of the rising powers (e.g. between China and India). In addition, many BRICS countries and other regional powers such as Nigeria or Egypt do not have undisputed regional legitimacy and they are often tied up in regional rivalry and conflict. Countries such as China and India, for example, spend a lot of time looking after their neighbourhood and that takes resources and attention away from the global stage. 

So we have a situation where neither the West nor the emerging powers can run lead the world on their own. They have to accommodate each other. The emerging powers cannot challenge the existing world order and multilateral system as a whole but they can disrupt and reshape. And the West cannot ignore, exclude or co-opt the emerging powers but it can negotiate space with them. I think this realisation has begun to sink in and it was reflected, for example, in the negotiation of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement where China, India and others played an important role. The election of Donald Trump may have disrupted this process but I believe sooner or later the West and the ‘rest’ will have to come to an understanding – a multiplex understanding – that neither can do without the other. This will put an end both to the hype surrounding the emerging powers and to any fantasies that the US will be able to revive the liberal hegemony. 

To new students of global governance today’s world may appear extremely complex, confusing and sometimes frightening. Do you have any advice? 

Well, first of all, I do not think today’s world is really frightening. It is challenging, yes, but it is also very exciting. There are so many things happening and so many new areas of research. In the old days, if you studied global governance you might have been bored to death studying UN Security Council voting or something similar. Now you can do global governance and go to a village in India and look at how international donors, non-state actors and the local municipal government collaborate to address climate change, asking questions such as: what global implications does this local partnership have? Can it be replicated elsewhere? So this is now a fantastically rich field of study. 

Of course, there are concerns about peace and security, pandemics and other issues but most of these are not new. I do not think the world is less safe than before, in fact, broadly speaking it has probably become more secure in some areas. So, I think the overall message is positive, or at least mixed. For those teaching global governance, I believe curriculum planning is very important: rather than exclusively focusing on traditional theories, we should make sure that students are also exposed to new and emerging ideas, themes and literature. From my own teaching, I know that the idea of a multiplex world is very exciting for students from both the non-West and the West, because they see new possibilities for themselves and opportunities to make a difference. 

So if I were to give a sort of motivational talk to new entrants to the field of global order and governance, this is what I would tell the students: there are more themes and more topics to explore, more opportunities, and more possibilities for building new theories and concepts. It is a very exciting time for anyone studying global governance or IR more broadly. 

* For a discussion, see, Amitav Acharya, “Advancing Global IR: Challenges, Contentions and Contributions,” International Studies Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (March 2016): 4-15.

** These projects have resulted in three books: The End of the American World Order (Polity, 2014; 2018), Why Govern? Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance (edited, Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Constructing Global Order: Agency and Change in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

In June 2019, the UCL Global Governance Institute (GGI) hosted Professor Acharya as a Senior Visiting Fellow. This interview was conducted by Julia Kreienkamp (GGI Research Assistant) during his stay.

Amitav Acharya is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC. His recent books include The End of American World Order (Polity, 2014, 2018); Constructing Global Order (Cambridge, 2018); Why Govern: rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance (editor, Cambridge, 2016); and The Making of Global International Relations: Origins and Evolution of IR at Its Centenary (co-author with Barry Buzan, Cambridge, 2019). His articles have appeared in International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, and World Politics. He has contributed op-eds to Financial Times, Washington Post (Monkey Cage Blog), International Herald Tribune/New York Times, Times of India, Australian Financial Review, and YaleGlobal Online, and appeared in BBC, CNN, CNBC, and National Public Radio (NPR) and other media. He was appointed to be the inaugural Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of International Relations at Rhodes University, South Africa during 2012-13 and the inaugural Boeing Company Chair in International Relations at the Schwarzman Scholars Program at Tsinghua University during 2016-18. He has held fellowships at Harvard’s Asia Center and John F. Kennedy School of Government during 1999-2001, and was elected to the Christensen Fellowship at Oxford in 2013. He is the first non-Western scholar elected to lead the International Studies Association (ISA), the world’s largest and most influential association on international studies. ISA has honored him with two Distinguished Scholar Awards: in 2015 for his “outstanding contribution to scholarship on non-Western IR theory and inclusion in IR” and another in 2018 for “exceptional… influence, intellectual works and mentorship” in the field of international organization.