Eastphalia rising? Asian influence and the fate of human security.

Author:Kim, Sung Won

The question is no longer if the rise of China, India, and Asia will affect world politics. The question is how the migration of power and influence towards Asia will change global affairs and the nations and people affected by these dramatic shifts. Meanwhile, the soothsayers of international politics probe the consequences of China's and India's trajectories for the United States, world order, and even the planet itself. Most attempts at clairvoyance focus on how Asia's growing prominence might affect the distribution and use of material power by states. Power is important, but politics among nations also involves competition among ideas. The interplay of power and ideas defines the twists and turns of peace, diplomacy, and war, which affects the security and well-being of all people.

With power shifting toward the East, Asian preferences and ideas have a greater opportunity than ever before to affect world politics, potentially supplanting Western dominance and universal principles, known for centuries as "Westphalian" and "post-Westphalian" concepts, with a new "Eastphalian" alternative. Effectively, an Eastphalian international order would reinvigorate the concepts of national sovereignty and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states, first set forth in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and back these principles with increased material power and an Asian perspective. As a vision of world order, this new Eastphalian system challenges Western preferences for universal adoption of transnational principles, such as democracy, free market economics, and human rights. The conservatism of an Eastphalian approach could radically curtail the influence of Western power and ideas that have for so long dominated the fate of humanity.

The global economic crisis illustrates most concretely the potential for Asian countries to craft an Eastphalian system. The damage this crisis has inflicted on the United States and Europe has produced discussion of an "Asian model" or a "Beijing consensus" on economic policy. Past Western sermonizing about how other countries should follow Western models now seems quaint. As Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan put it, "The teachers now have some problems."

With Western societies suffering economic turmoil and Western ideas tarnished in the process, the growing importance of Asia allows the rising forces in this region to determine what mixture of power and ideas will shape international relations for the foreseeable future. The pan-Asian commitment to principles of sovereignty and non-intervention creates particularly interesting and difficult challenges for the future of the concept of human security--first floated in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War but facing a future where Asian attitudes and power loom larger. The potential for conflict on the scope and substance of the concept of human security between East and West is clear.

Asian concepts of coexistence, now backed by greater power, may transform the human security concept into a smaller, less ambitious idea shielded by sovereignty and advanced domestically through powerful and pervasive governments. The increasing international activities of China and India, in particular, signal the potential for a pan-Asian perspective on human security that would likely find support in other regions, such as Africa, where governments have long chafed under the inclination of Western nations to interfere in domestic affairs for various reasons, including the promotion of concepts like human security. This trajectory would adversely affect more universal and interventionist visions of human security, which have stimulated ideas such as the responsibility to protect individuals, communities, ethnic or religious groups, and entire societies from global threats or threats posed by their own governments. With a vision of human security rendered sterile by an emphasis on sovereignty and non-intervention, an Eastphalian order might effectively doom transnational efforts to alleviate suffering as an operative principle in world affairs.

China, India, and other Asian countries will not escape scrutiny as their power and influence grows. In fact, their increased importance will attract heightened interest in how Asian nations handle challenges to human security, such as the continued emergence of fast-moving economic, epidemiological, and environmental threats. However, the window of opportunity for China, India, and the Asian region to offer compelling visions for international politics, global governance, and human security may already be closing. As the world drifts into a multipolar system, heightening great power rivalries, the increasing intensity of such competition--between East and West, old and new powers, even between the rising Asian great powers--will lessen the importance of ideas because the struggle for power distorts everything, like a black hole in the center of an increasingly anarchic world.

Indeed, if China, India, and the Asian region cannot meet the challenge of persuasively imagining and effectively advancing human security on this new frontier of world politics, Asia's opportunity to shed its subordination to Western power and ideas and to shape global affairs will be wasted.

Eastward Ho!

Asia's opportunity arises primarily because of the shift of power eastwards, which creates possibilities that did not previously exist. Earlier shifts in power, such as the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as global forces, opened the international system to the spread of ideas, but, for most of the history of modern international relations, Western power and ideas have dominated.

Little did the war-weary Europeans who negotiated the Peace of Westphalia three-and-a-half centuries ago imagine that what they wrought would become a system that eventually encompassed the globe. In ending the Thirty Years' War, a bloody conflict fueled by power politics and vicious Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, European nations established a system of territorial states, each with control over their own peoples and domestic affairs. From this framework flowed the principles of sovereignty, equality of sovereign states, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, and consent-based law of nations.


European states did not, however, consider non-European peoples and governments to be worthy of membership in the Westphalian system. Through guns, germs, steel, and cock-sure prejudice, Western powers simply imposed their ideas on non-European civilizations and societies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, incorporating them, often brutally, into the Westphalian world. The British subjugated the diverse peoples of the Indian subcontinent and made British India the crown jewel of its empire. In East Asia, Western imperialism swept aside the traditional Sino-centric order and humiliated the once dominant Middle Kingdom.

This pattern of domination of world affairs by Western power and ideas continued even when Western countries began to deviate from Westphalian principles in order to advocate universal adoption of democratic forms of government, market-based economic systems, and protection of human rights. The West most clearly pursued this post-Westphalian strategy after the end of the Cold War--a historic transformation in the structure of international relations that left Western power and ideas unrivaled.

The emergence of China and India as great powers and of Asia as a center of increasing influence provides Asian nations, individually and collectively, with the chance to have a say in world affairs not dictated by, subordinated to, or structured with Western preferences. Material power may give Asian nations the space to engage in global politics not as long-suffering victims of imperialism but as global leaders with strong views on sovereignty, opposed to outside interference in their domestic governance and political affairs...

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