Asking the Right Questions
If the United States is no longer the world superpower, some analysts predict an impending power vacuum. Yet Amitav Acharya opines that this line of thinking misses the point. "Americans and media analysts often argue, 'If the U.S. doesn't lead, who will lead?' Now, to me, asking the question in this way is part of the problem," he says.
If we're asking the wrong question, we may have a fundamental misunderstanding of the current international landscape. It's impossible for one nation to step in and solve the world's problems, he says. Instead, he suggests that the U.S. share responsibilities with emerging powers, such as Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia.
"The United States is part of the solution for sure, but it should encourage other countries to take up the burden of leadership. And they will not do that unless the U.S. actually tells them that we're not always going to lead. So we have to change the mindset," Acharya says.
Acharya, a professor in American University's School of International Service, explored some of these issues in his most recent book, The End of American World Order. Acharya sees the U.S. in relative decline, while still wielding considerable influence. His research falls under the AU 2030 area of global governance.
All the World's a Stage
Traditional "realist" international relations theory posits that with the decline of a global hegemon (such as the U.S.), we might move from a unipolar world to a multipolar order of diffuse power and numerous competing nation-states. If another nation rises to challenge the hegemon, we could have a bipolar world resembling the U.S.-Soviet, Cold War confrontation.
To Acharya, neither bipolar nor multipolar systems accurately reflect current realities. In an increasingly interdependent world—with digital communications, trade, tourism, and overlapping financial interests—there are a number of actors besides nation-states that factor into global governance.
Instead of "multipolar," Acharya uses the term "multiplex," with international politics echoing the experience of going to a multiplex movie theater. The audience has a variety of viewing choices, he explains. And many people are involved in the making of each film. "It's not just about power. It's also about ideas," he says. "With multiplex, the actors are not just great powers. They can also be international organizations, nongovernmental actors, and corporations."
Acharya says the multipolarity concept emanates from 18th and 19th Europe, a time of warring nation-states and colonialism. Multipolarity is less applicable in the 21st century. "European interdependence was basically a regional interdependence. Today we have global interdependence," he explains. "Power is widely dispersed today; whereas in the multipolar era, it was all European powers competing with each other."
Throughout his career, Acharya has discouraged Western-centric views of international relations. A scholar of East and Southeast Asia, he cautions against comparing this region to Europe or North America. While some scholars believe that a rising power will exert inordinate influence on its neighbors, Acharya argues just the opposite: regional forces will probably shape an emerging nation like China. "The prospect of Chinese hegemony is a lot less likely than what a lot of pundits have talked about," he says.
This is a region transformed, and Acharya doubts we'll see an ideological bloc in China's image. "In the 50s and 60s, Asia was a mostly authoritarian region, and there were very few real democracies. Today, democracies are almost equal to or even outnumber—depending on how you define them—the number of autocracies," he says.
Many Asian nations are now part of a framework of multilateral institutions, such as ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Intra-Asian trade has roughly doubled since the 1950s, he adds. "The region is more interdependent, and that creates constraints on what China can do." This subject may form the basis for his next book, he says.
Visiting the Ruins
The son of a school headmaster, Acharya was born in Odisha, India. He earned his Ph.D. in Australia, doing his doctoral dissertation on U.S. military strategy in the Persian Gulf. After a fellow professor invited him to visit Singapore, he shifted his academic focus to that area of the world. "I fell in love with Southeast Asia. And this is very important to my research. This is a very open, multiethnic, multicultural region," he says. "I saw that there was a lot of genuine interaction. And there was space for everybody."
He worked in Canada, Singapore, and England before eventually taking a position at AU in 2009. "Without the support of SIS and AU, I could not have pursued my very ambitious and multifaceted research agenda. It is here that I feel really at home," he says.
He now lives in Bethesda, Md. He's an avid camper, and he frequently travels around the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
That affinity for nature once inspired him to climb Mount Kinabalu, one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia. And Acharya maintains a connection to the region's culture. While Ancient Greeks spread their influence in the Mediterranean through force, he notes that Southeast Asian rulers voluntarily imported Indian culture and religion for political reasons. He delved into this topic in his book, Civilizations in Embrace.
Some of the early Buddhist and Hindu temples are still active, and he recently came back from a cultural excursion to Indonesia. "To this day, one of my single most important hobbies is to travel to the old ruins," he says. "Southeast Asia was really the laboratory for me to look at the transmission of ideas."