The West sees global governance. The emerging powers see anarchy. Discuss.

I wrote yesterday about a striking speech by a senior Indian security official on the state of current global governance efforts. The speech raises the question of how the major emerging powers perceive the existing global governance system. Menon, a former foreign minister, appears to view the current system as almost entirely ineffective, at least ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

I wrote yesterday about a striking speech by a senior Indian security official on the state of current global governance efforts. The speech raises the question of how the major emerging powers perceive the existing global governance system. Menon, a former foreign minister, appears to view the current system as almost entirely ineffective, at least in terms of its core purpose of restraining violence. I don't think many Western foreign-policy thinkers or senior government officials would share that grim view, although they would undoubtedly concede all sorts of problems and shortcomings.

I wrote yesterday about a striking speech by a senior Indian security official on the state of current global governance efforts. The speech raises the question of how the major emerging powers perceive the existing global governance system. Menon, a former foreign minister, appears to view the current system as almost entirely ineffective, at least in terms of its core purpose of restraining violence. I don’t think many Western foreign-policy thinkers or senior government officials would share that grim view, although they would undoubtedly concede all sorts of problems and shortcomings.

If there is indeed a marked difference between Western powers and the emerging powers (including India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and China)  in perceptions of global governance, what accounts for this? At the risk of generalizing wildly, I’d offer up two related explanations:

Hypothesis 1: Western leaders are still much more institutionally focused and legalistic than their emerging-power counterparts. They spend an awful lot of time thinking about structures and institutions. They use the Security Council actively and seek to advance resolutions there in a way that most emerging powers still do not. They believe in instruments like the International Criminal Court and care about its work.  Because of this institutional mindset, Western leaders tend to inflate the importance of these institutions  in actually providing order. For their part, the emerging powers see through the web of resolutions, statements, acronyms and structures and perceive the world in its essence, and they still see a world where the powerful pretty much do what they want.

Hypothesis 2: For a variety of reasons, including ideology and capabilities, major Western countries are much more likely to deploy forces beyond their borders than are the emerging powers. In places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti,  Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, and Libya, the West sees its missions abroad as serving a broad global governance purpose. Even when these operations lack formal legal backing (as in Kosovo or Iraq) or stretch the limits of what authorization they do enjoy (as in Libya), many in the West believe that they are acting in the spirit of the law and broadly serving the interests of global governance. And at a legal level, they have some reason to believe that.  Even those missions that did not enjoy support from the UN at the outset do now. (The occupying forces in Iraq and Kosovo were blessed by UN Security Council resolutions after the fact.)

The non-Western emerging powers, by contrast, see most of these deployments as exercises of naked force that serve narrow Western political and commercial interests. For political reasons, Russia, China and other Council members acquiesced to post-hoc blessings of these missions, but only because it was expedient to do so and not because they believe the missions were necessarily justified or constructive. A great deal of military activity that the West sees as helpful in building up world order, the emerging powers see as little more than the rule of the powerful.   

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

More from Foreign Policy

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.