By Rajesh Rajagopalan

The shape of the global order is largely a function of the prevailing global power balance.  Since 1945, this global order has been liberal mainly because it was established and managed by a hegemonic power that perceived an interest in a liberal international order.  Will the relative U.S. decline and the ‘rise of the rest’ lead to the decaying of this established order?  American decline has often been exaggerated, and the fate of the rising powers is far from certain.  Nevertheless, there are three conditions that could lead to the end of this liberal international order.

First, if a new hegemon – say, China – were to rise to replace the U.S., the international order would reflect the norms favored by the new hegemon and this might not necessarily be a liberal one.  But it is difficult to predict what kind of global order a new hegemon might create because that will largely depend on the kind of ‘myths of empire’ that are dependent on domestic politics rather than international imperatives.

Though it is possible (though far from inevitable) that another hegemon would rise at some point, this is unlikely to happen in the next two decades.  We have had two dramatic transitions in the global system in the last century, but both happened as a consequence of the collapse of major powers. The end of the Second World War saw the demise of not just Germany and Japan but many European great powers, leaving a bipolar order dominated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 converted that bipolar system into a unipolar one.

While there are plenty of predictions of other great powers rising, there are none that suggest the U.S. will collapse.  And short of that, what we are likely to witness are gradual rather than dramatic changes in the balance of power, and these will take a lot longer than two decades.  Hence, the possibility of a new global order framed by another global hegemon is not very likely in the immediate future.

The second possibility, more probable than the first, is the rise of several new powers such as China, India and Brazil who grow strong enough to share the stage with the U.S., even if they do not necessarily match the U.S.  Such a multipolar order could gradually erode the current international liberal order.  But this will not be because these powers do not share the norms of the current liberal international order, but because the coordination and management problems become greater as the number of great powers populating the international system grows.

This is why the debate about whether emerging powers are liberal is missing the point.  Even if we assume that they entirely share these liberal norms, a multipolar world will be one in which power contestations will make norm-maintenance difficult.  Contra Keohane, the global order will be a lot less cooperative, and a lot more conflictual and difficult to manage, after hegemony.

But the current unipolar order will become multipolar only if a number of new great powers rise, and the rise of great powers is notoriously difficult to predict.  Twenty years ago, Japan was thought to be rising as a new global power before Japanese growth began to fade.  Over the last decade, rapid Chinese and Indian growth has spurred similar expectations.

But most people seem to forget that China and India were thought to be rising powers in the 1950s too, before China’s Cultural Revolution and India’s economic stagnation took them out of the race for the subsequent three decades.  Maybe they will be luckier this time, but the enormous domestic challenges these two states still face should at least make us cautious in treating their rise as inevitable.

The third possibility has been little discussed but it deserves greater attention – the likelihood that the U.S. declines as a power with global managerial capacity but no other power rises to take up the slack.  This reverses many current expectations: instead of others rising to meet the U.S., the U.S. declines to meet the others at a much lower level of capability.  Such a system would not be so much global as regional, dominated by regional hegemons that are strong enough to control their immediate environs but who have insufficient capacity to act globally.

Such a region-based international order might be the most damaging — because it could spell the end of global norms in both the economic and the security realms.  Who would enforce nonproliferation or trading norms if no great power has the capacity to act globally?

In summary, then, the key indicators to look for are not whether rising powers share the norms of the current international order but how their potential rise – and U.S. decline – reshape the structure of global power.

Rajesh Rajagopalan is Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.