Leadership and Followership in Post-Unipolar World: Towards Selective Global Leadership and a New Functionalism?
Leadership and Followership in Post-Unipolar World: Towards Selective Global Leadership and a New Functionalism?
Shaun Breslin 0
0 Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick , Coventry CV7 4AL , UK
Despite a reduction in support for US global leadership (and an apparent reduction of desire to provide it), it remains unlikely that we will have a traditionally conceived of power transition where one power cedes global predominance to a challenger any time soon. Although power shifts really are occurring with more actors able and willing to provide leadership roles, this does not presage the onset of a multipolar order; at least as polar orders are typically understood. Rather, we see the transition to an order with multiple sites of authority that lacks the fixed and stable forms of alliances normally associated with polarity. David Mitrany's emphasis on the importance of functionalism might not provide a blueprint for the future, but does provide a way into thinking about non-polar forms of global governance, different and multiple sites of authority, and different forms of leadership within this global order. It also adds to the study of the capability and willingness of putative leaders, the importance of acceptance and followership in international relations.
Polarity global governance
In A Working Peace System, first published in 1943,1 David Mitrany laid out a
vision for a post-World War II global order where political differences should be put
aside in the search for effective forms of transnational governance that would not
repeat the errors of the past. Previous post-war settlements had resulted in the
establishment of organizations from the Concert of Europe through the Hague
Convention to the League of Nations that had abjectly failed to do what they were
meant to do and prevent the slide into another war; each arguably more bloody than
the previous one, and in the case of the two world wars, certainly more widespread.
With the development of useable nuclear weapons getting ever closer in 1943, then
there could be a real existential threat to mankind if the same pattern repeated itself
in the future.
The key, he argued, was to avoid the creation of cohesive and stable groups or
blocs of countries based on common ideological preferences and/or geopolitical
strategic considerations. Such organizations not only created the basis for polarised
rivalries that could lead to war, but were also in his view not very good governance
institutions either. Coming into being through formal legal treaties and agreements,
they would be by their very nature closed and rigid organizations that would simply
be unable to deal with real world technical problems that instead required
pragmatism and flexibility that spanned political divides. They would be:
rigid in framework, whether geographical or ideological; rigid in its
constitution, which has to be formal and unchallenged; rigid in its general
life, because of the limits and obstacles the constitution places in the path of
fresh common action
(Mitrany 1966, 155–6)
His alternative was to establish not a single form of governance, but multiple
different forms instead. This could be done by first separating out different issue
specific policy areas, and then by allowing the technicalities of each functional area
to dictate how best to deal with their distinct and issue specific challenges. Who
needed to be involved, the nature of cooperation and the way in which the
organization functioned, and even the lifetime of each institutional arrangement
should be defined by the agreement of technical specialists based on what was
needed to deal with the specific shared problem. Given that each individual issue
area would have its own set of discrete problems (and potential solutions) and affect
different sets of actors, no two issues were likely to require the same form of
organizational governance response. The result should be a wide range of very
different arrangements ‘‘organized separately—each according to its nature, to the
conditions under which it has to operate, and to the needs of the moment’’
In the event, of course, Mitrany’s ideas did not transfer into reality, and the
(bipolar) governance forms that evolved after 1945 went in exactly the direction that
1 There are different versions of what was originally a Chatham House pamphlet published in 1943. This
paper has primarily used the more commonly consulted later version
which includes other
works on functionalism by Mitrany and an introduction by Hans Morgenthau.
he feared would be ineffective, and would also fail to keep the peace. It also seems
rather fanciful and na¨ıve to propose a Mitranyesque depoliticised future, and there is
no argument here that A Working Peace System provides a realisable blueprint for
global governance in the 21st century. Nevertheless, re-reading Mitrany and his
focus on functional approaches (and solutions) to managing transnational issues
remains a rewarding endeavour. In particular, it opens the door to thinking about the
nature of leadership and alliances that free us from some of the conceptual
constraints that can be imposed by dominant conceptions of both power transition
The beginning of the end of US global dominance that emerged from the end of
Cold War bipolarity has been identified (and subsequently rebuffed) on a number of
occasions over the years. If, as
argues, ‘‘this time its for real’’ and the
unipolar period is over, one possibility is a return to a new dichotomised global
order. However, the more often predicted endpoint of the current and ongoing
changing distribution of global power is a multipolar structure. Instinctively, this
seems to make sense given the number of increasingly powerful actors (and not just
states) that are competing with more established ones for influence and leadership,
the current distribution of power capabilities amongst them, the willingness (of
some) to lead, and the acceptance by others of (some) potential leaders’ aims and
ambitions. But while this suggests that the ‘‘multi’’ part of multipolarity is useful in
pointing to the increasing number of increasing powerful (statist) actors that are
emerging in the global order, the very same set of considerations (power capabilities
and so on) suggest that ‘‘polarity’’ part of the concept is problematic if it implies the
sort of stable and fixed alliances that are normally associated with polar global
Rather than fixed bloc-type alliances, we seem to be witnessing the rise of
multiple, overlapping and fluid constellations of power and interests that vary based
on the specific (functional in Mitrany’s words) issue at hand. And when it comes to
leadership, rather than seeking a single global leader—either actual or putative—we
instead need to focus on who has the capacity, desire and legitimacy to lead on any
given policy area. We also need to think flexibly (following Mitrany’s warning of
rigidity) about which are the most effective sites and/or levels of governance,
accepting that different leaders might simultaneously emerge in different hierarchies
(for example, different regional leaders) and/or the relationship between regional
and global leaders. Arguably even more important, it also requires us to focus on
how and why others attach themselves to these putative leaders; or put another way,
an essential component of studying leadership is to also study the sources of
2 Functionalism: Then and Now
While Mitrany was writing in a different era, had limited practical policy influence,
and might be seen to have been rather utopian in his thinking, his work helps us
think about the nature of the current global order in three main ways. The first refers
to the possibility that a form of institutional path dependency might obstruct the
emergence of new forms of effective collective action. Here we return to what
called the ‘‘Federal Fallacy’’, and the problem of rigidity created by
the formation of fixed organizations noted in the introduction; particularly (but not
only) regional ones.
2.1 Finding the Right Size and Fit
Here, Mitrany was specifically interested in questions of leadership and legitimacy.
The creation of these organizations, so his argument went, would lock in and
perpetuate the interests and authority of the major powers that promoted them. This
would not be palatable, he surmised, for those smaller less powerful states that
would find their sovereignty fundamentally undermined by joining organisations as
unequal partners. But while they might be wary of ceding sovereignty once and for
all, they could be more prepared to deal with individual governance structures on a
(Mitrany 1966, 163)
. This would allow them to not be dominated
by a hegemon, to selectively keep out of any arrangements that did not deem to be
effective, or where the price of losing sovereignty was politically unacceptable at
home, or where leadership in the organisation was not perceived to be legitimate (or
a combination of all of these considerations). Moreover, while major powers would
inevitably dominate a single federal organization, even small countries would find
that there were some areas where they not only had expertise and authority, but were
also perceived as having a comparative advantage by others. Thus, even the small
and less powerful might be able to exert leadership in some issue areas
More important, though, and the second way in which Mitrany’s relevance
persists, was the idea that these fixed forms simply did not always represent the
most effective site of governance. Once the membership of an organization was set,
and the way that it works was institutionalised, then it immediately lacked the
flexibility that was necessary to deal with a range of different challenges. For
example, a grouping established to deal with common security challenges might not
encompass the right mix of states and other actors best suited to dealing with
economic or environmental concerns. Or even considering economics as a single
entity might be problematic—the range of actors and the location of expertise
required to regulate shipping, for example, could be very different from that
required to find effective solutions to problems in financial flows. This is not to say
that a formal institution might not arise with its own constitution in the long term, or
indeed that the aggregate combination of functional arrangements might combine to
create some form of ‘‘constitutional’’ change
(Mitrany 1966, 55)
. But if this was the
case, then the new form should not be set in stone, but instead allow for flexibility
and change; for countries joining, leaving and/or re-joining as the need arises. And
members should also be prepared to close a specific institution down if it outlived its
use or circumstances changed fundamentally
(Mitrany 1966, 83)
. But the crucial
thing for Mitrany, was that if such a broader constitutional form did emerge, then it
should do so as a consequence of functional cooperation, and not become its
One conclusion of this way of thinking is that different types of issues require
regulation and organisation at different levels. Some might need to be dealt with in
true global settings, others at the regional level, and still others in ways that are not
shaped by geography and instead link commonly affected partners together
wherever they are. Another consequences is that even within a single given regional
area, different forms of governance might be needed to find the most effective
solution to the specific problem at hand. For example, as argued elsewhere
and Breslin 2011)
, the most effective environmental region often seems to be very
different from the security region, or the region of trade and investment. And the
final conclusion is that different actors can take the lead, and also be perceived by
others as effective and legitimate leaders, depending on what it is that needs to be
lead and governed; a conclusion that we will return to more than once in this paper.
Instead of keeping up the old and barren attempt to establish a formal and
fixed division of sovereignty and power, a division which changing conditions
continually puts out of joint, we would with a little insight and boldness
distribute power in accordance with the practical requirements of every
function and object
(Mitrany 1966, 84)
2.2 The Utility of Crises
The third continuing relevance of Mitrany’s promotion of functionalism revolves
around his understanding of the positive role that crises can play in driving
innovations that break down existing barriers to cooperation. The urgency of solving
a crisis means that policy makers are likely to put aside ideology, principle and
competition to simply do what has to be done to solve the problem at hand. The
classic example was the way in which Roosevelt responded to the crisis of the Great
Depression by simply doing what worked in each specific policy area and did not
worry too much about what this meant in terms of consistency across policy areas.
All that mattered was whether it worked or not
(Mitrany 1966, 56)
The evolution of Chinese security policy over the years also provides a good
example of how crises can bring about change. For example, the need to find
common solutions to the transnational spread of SARS in 2003 and bird flu in 2006
turned the security focus away from just security defined as guns, bombs and bullets
to new non traditional security challenges that were best met by multilateral
cooperation and partnership and dialogue
. Similarly the Asian
financial crisis played an important role in persuading policy makers across the
region of the mutual benefits of working together in an ASEAN ? 3 framework to
restore and guarantee regional financial stability. Indeed, we might suggest that
economic crises have pushed China and Japan to seek for cooperation within a
common regional framework, in contrast to the struggle to establish different
preferences for regional organisation (including what the region itself should
actually be) in more ‘‘normal’’ times.
Notably, the solution to these different crisis has led was not to seek for a single
regional solution, but instead to identify different regional partners depending on the
issue at hand. Thus while economic concerns pointed towards cooperation with
ASEAN and Japan and South Korea, new security concerns have pointed instead
the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, ASEAN Regional Forum, AsiaInfo
meeting, the Asia–Pacific Security Council, the Northeast Asia Cooperation
Dialogue and other multilateral security dialogue and cooperation processes
(Fu 2003, 40)
This might not be a truly functionally defined set of governance institutions, but
at the very least avoids the ‘‘federal fallacy’’ that Mitrany so feared.
3 The Changing Nature of the Threat: The Changing Nature of World
If the above discussion points to continuities between Mitrany’s functionalism and
the world today, there are of course also considerable differences between now and
then. And these differences explain why the nature of power transition, the nature of
world order, and the nature of leadership are also very different today than they
were for much of the 20th century.
Mitrany argued that his apparent utopian call for the depoliticization of
governance was not utopian at all, but based on historical evidence. He argued that
there was ample evidence that international cooperation was most successful when
international interactions had moved out of the control of foreign ministries and
into the hands of technical specialists. But if it was utopian, it is not surprising. A
Working Peace System was inspired by not just one crisis but a succession of them,
and the urgency of establishing a foundation for peace on a continent that had more
or less been characterised by its absence for most of the preceding century and a
half (at least). Even when major states weren’t actually at war, the fear of an
impending conflict providing an overarching context for European international
WWII was latest in a line of conflicts between the major European powers.
Arguably starting from the 1870–1 Franco-Prussian War, technological
advancements changed the nature of warfare
(Wawro 2003, 51)
.2 Whilst the search for a
lasting peace was of course important, there was a more immediate existential threat
(Haftendorn 1991, 8)
and the very real possibility that one or more European states
might be destroyed and cease to exist
(Goldgeier and McFaul 1992, 472)
. As Hans
, 7) noted in his introduction to the 1966 version of A Working
Peace System, ‘‘the old national states of Europe barely survived the Second World
War’’, and their chances of surviving a Third were even slimmer.
2 As a result, the Conference also took the first steps in establishing what was justifiable conduct in war,
which would later evolve into the Geneva Convention.
3.1 Cold War Bipolarity
This existential threat combined with (and built on) ideological competition
engendered strong perceptions of ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’, which in turn helped shape the
nature of the bloc-type bipolar order that emerged after WWII. To be sure, we need
to raise a number of caveats to soften the understanding of a stark bifurcation
between two opposing blocs with identical membership on all issue areas. First, the
correlation of different spaces within each side of the divide was never fully
complete. For example, some Western European countries came later than others to
what became European Economic Community (EEC) during the Cold War, and
some never joined. And the membership of the EEC never completely matched the
European membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Second, the example of NATO draws attention to different hierarchies within
large alliances. For example, Franco-German leadership within the emerging
European project existing under the overarching dominance of US leadership of the
broader Western non-communist bloc
(Hendriks and Morgan 2001)
. And notably,
German economic leadership within the European economic project was not
matched by leadership on security issues. Third, leadership was not autocratic, and
there was room for countries to adopt individual initiatives and agenda. Again,
Germany provides a good example here through the development of a form of
rapprochement with Eastern Europe through the Ostpolitik strategy after 1969
Fourth, some countries did try to follow an independent path and not ally with
either side—though even the different members of the Non Aligned Movement
tended in practise to depend more on one or the other side of the divide for their
economic and military support and interactions. Fourth, it was possible for countries
to defect—if not to join the opposition then at least to try and tread an independent
path, as was perhaps the case with Yugoslavia. Finally, China represents something
of a special case. Having defected from its semi-attached membership of the Soviet
bloc,3 China’s self-proclaimed leadership of the Third World was accompanied by a
willingness to exploit superpower rivalry between Washington and Moscow to
establish some degree of security dependence on the USA.
But with these caveats in mind, we can suggest that the last time the World was
characterised by a bipolar division, the fundamental nature of alliances were more
or less fixed and set across issue areas. By and large, countries that came together
stuck together and stayed together, and almost by definition, being attracted to one
of the poles meant a repulsion of (and rejection by) the other alternative pole. If a
country decided to ally itself for security reasons with the USA, it was highly
unlikely (to say the least) that it would seek to ally itself with the Soviet Union on
other issue areas.
3 Semi-attached because despite a reliance on Soviet economic and military support in the early days of
the PRC, China never joined either the Warsaw Pact or COMECON.
3.2 The Power Transition From Unipolarity
While it is always difficult to quantify different degrees or extents of power—
perhaps even impossible—the highpoint of US unipolar power was arguably at
some point near the turn of the millennium. After the end of the Cold War Japan’s
rise to global dominance had failed to materialise, strong state alternatives to
neoliberal capitalism had been discredited in the form of a economic crises in Asia
and elsewhere in 1997 and 1998, and the rise of China was yet to be seen as a real
and significant challenge.
, 8)—one of the strongest proponents
of US unipolarity—even saw the US response to September 11th as a sign of a new
source of American power that ‘‘accelerate[d] the realignment of the current great
powers, such as they are, behind the United States’’.
What Krauthammer saw as a source of strength ultimately turned into a cause of
friction, and since then a variety of different forms of intervention in the Middle
East and North Africa have done much to reduce the appeal and force of American
preferences and authority within the global order, and done ‘‘irreparable damage’’ to
the Responsibility to Protect principle and liberal international principles more
. It is fair to say that while there was more to the global
financial crisis than just politics and policy in (and global leadership of) the United
States, it has nevertheless contributed to a general feeling and understanding that en
epochal change is imminent (if not already upon us). And decision by President
Trump to take the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement has been seen by many as
‘‘the day that America’s global leadership ended’’
On the other side, whilst again being all but impossible to quantify,4 the rise of
China and others has clearly changed the distribution of power and also arguable
hierarchies of power. For example, there seems to be a fairly widely held view that
previous asymmetries in power capabilities between Europe and China (or at least
some parts of Europe) have flipped, with China now occupying the predominant
position. It is not just that there has been a shift in material resources and
capabilities, but that the European way of managing transnational challenges was
found wanting; not just the way in which the Euro crisis came about in the first
place, but in the difficulty of developing a common and effective response to it over
a relatively long period
(Jones, Kelemen and Meunier 2015)
. As a result, there is a
broad consensus that as a result of the crisis, ‘‘the United States and China are the
two most important states in the international system’’
(Foot and Walters 2011, 1)
So is the old unipolar order over? In thinking about change to the current global
order, studies of the consequences of China’s rise are often informed by previous
power transitions and the search for similarities and differences that might explain
whether the next transition can be a peaceful one or not.5 Moreover, considerations
of power transformations are often based on the search for the moment where
country A replaces country B. As Kupchan (2012, 182) reminds us, these ‘‘ordering
moments’’ have typically historically been brought about through ‘‘post-war
4 For a good collection that does a good job at trying to assess the extent of Chinese power from different
perspectives in different areas, see
5 See, for example,
settlements’’. Though there was no formal treaty to mark it, the end of bipolarity
was also a post-war ordering moment of sorts.
Despite the various sources of a decline in support for US positions and
preferences noted above, we are still missing a clear single ordering moment that
marks the end of the old unipolar system and the creation of a new one. Moreover,
the nature of the ongoing power transition means that we are unlikely to see a single
ordering moment that is (hopefully at least) brought about by one side defeating the
other; either militarily or in the way that the Cold War came to an end. There may
indeed be some point in the future when China replaces the US as the global
predominant power—perhaps even a unipolar one—and ‘‘rules the world’’
. But for the time being at least, the dominant concern is not so much what
might happen in a new sinocentric order, but how the current order is incrementally
being revised and reconfigured rather than replaced by something new. And rather
than change in the global system being marked by a single overarching ordering
moment, it might make more sense to look for a range of different ordering
moments in different issue areas.
Furthermore, a weaker US is not the same thing as a weak US.
persuasively argues that Washington is no longer able to freely impose its
preferences on the world as it once did in the past. Nevertheless, if we think in terms
of which country has ‘‘the largest single aggregation of power’’
(Haass 2008, 45)
is still difficult to look too far beyond the US.6 Changing the world and establishing
a new order as the globally predominant power is one thing; pushing for change and
trying to exert leadership in some areas) from a subordinate position is something
3.3 Bipolarity 2.0?
One alternative to a unipolar order is the return to some form of bipolarity. And the
idea that the US and China share some sort of special co-responsibility for providing
global public goods—or perhaps more correctly, should develop some form of
coleadership—does have some adherents
. While the original conception
of an emerging G2 was largely rejected in China, subsequently the idea of a bipolar
relationship of sorts was discussed as Chinese analysts considered what Xi Jinping’s
concept of a ‘‘new type of great power relations’’ might look like in practise. But
even when the term bipolarity is explicitly used to refer to some form of new
relationship and new world order,7 it does not sound like the previous bipolarity of
the Cold War era; one where groups form as camps and blocs in fixed relationships
in common opposition to the alternative pole.
This is partly because the existential threat that created the ‘‘Us’’ and ‘‘Them’’ of
the Cold War is no longer the major driver of international alliances that it once
was. To be sure, the threat of interstate (nuclear) war does establish the overarching
is right to argue that the popular response to the global financial crisis might have
exaggerated the extent and speed of the demise of US global power (and its replacement with Chinese
7 For details of when it is, see
Zeng and Breslin (2016)
framework that largely conditions relations in other issue areas in some parts of the
world; in South Asia for example. But in general, there is no overwhelming
geostrategic security consideration that forces countries to choose between
supporting one of two alternatives, and rejecting and opposing the alternative on
all other issue areas.
Indeed, in many respects (and in some issue areas), there simply are not two polar
opposites to choose from. China’s embrace of the capitalist global economy might
not have entailed the wholesale adoption of western neoliberalism. But it clearly
hasn’t create a diametrically different polar opposite form of Chinese economic
activity from the type that dominates in other countries. And crucially, dealing with
China does not create an exclusive relationship; there is certainly nothing about
having economic relations with China that precludes also having economic relations
with the US or anywhere else. Nor does building a security alliance with the US
preclude having strong economic relationships with China, as is the case with a
number of Southeast Asian nations. Whereas the nature of the Cold War resulted in
exclusive relationships, the nature of the contemporary global capitalism
4 Multipolarity or Multiple Sites of Authority?
While the focus on China as the most likely challenger to (or co-leader with) the US
is entirely understandable, the distribution of power is more fragmented and uneven
than a conception of a single power shift between two powers suggests. And while
the rising powers share some traits and objectives, and five of them share an
acronym and an institutionalised relationship, they do not constitute a single group
or bloc. The paths to prominence of the rising powers are fundamentally different,
they occupy different power positions, and draw on different combinations of
sources of power
(Kingah and Quiliconi 2016)
. Even those who share Chinese
dissatisfaction with the existing order do so with different degrees of enthusiasm
, resulting in ‘‘intellectual disarray’’
(Kupchan 2012, 183)
promotion of a variety of different governance preferences by different actors
. The result is a rather complicated and competitive environment—
perhaps even a messy one—where different preferences are articulated and
promoted in different issue areas by an increasing number of actors.
So if unipolarity is coming to an end—or has already ended—and bipolarity
seems overly simplistic, what of the idea of a turn towards multipolarity? If we think
back to Mitrany’s understanding of the best way of constructing international order,
add to this a conception of the changing nature of the current global order, bring in
the importance of legitimacy and followership, and a slightly different picture of
changing configurations of power and influence in a post-unipolar global order
begins to emerge. This understanding moves away from the connotation of fixed
alliances that is—or at least was in the past—associated with polarity and instead
points Mitrany’s (1966) argument that different actors can have legitimacy and take
leadership in different issue areas—rather than one actor emerging as an accepted,
legitimate and effective leader across all issue areas.
So rather than power transferring from an old hegemon to a new one, or even to a
group of different new poles in the global order, different sets of actors appear to
have different levels of authority, and different abilities to attract supporters and
allies, depending on the specific issue at hand. Rather than talk of multi polarity, it
is more useful to think of multiple sites of authority where there are different nodes
, with different putative leaders competing for
followership in the global order
4.1 Power Beyond the State
A further reason for challenging (simplistic) assumptions about multipolarity is that
it places too much emphasis on states—or states alone—as the potential sites of
power (and thus polarity). And while states are clearly still central to the study of
global power, they are not the only actors. For example, you don’t have to think that
the era of the nation state is dead as
Ohmae did (1995
) to nevertheless accept that
non-state actors and ‘‘private authority’’
(Hall and Biersteker 2002)
components of global power structures.
The most obvious example is the power of major corporations. If we return to
China for an example, then it is clear that the way in which China’s state elites
chose to re-engage the global economy from the 1980s had a significant impact on
global trade and investment flows. It was also used as evidence that ‘‘China is
becoming a fourth pole in the international system’’ as way back as the early 1990s
(Kristoff 1993, 62)
. But if this was an example of China’s emerging power to
change the world, it was a power that China could not simply wield on its own. It
was also built on the investment and production decisions of major global
companies, many of them headquartered in the US and Europe, and we might even
argue was predicated in some ways on the purchasing habits and preferences of
consumers in the west. If this is power, then the ability to change how, where, and at
what cost global production occurs is at the very least shared between the (Chinese)
state and major global companies. And of course, non-state economic actors like
major hedge funds and major banks, have the ability to move money in and out of
economies at the touch of a button in ways that have resulted in more than one
major economic crisis
Not only do major companies have considerable power to decide what type of
economic activity takes place where, private actors are also key players in the
evolution of governance forms in some areas. For example, private credit rating
agencies have played a key role in economic governance for many years through
their evaluation of the creditworthiness of national economies that can have huge
implications for the nature of global financial flows. These evaluations can also
‘‘discipline’’ political elites intro following the sort of economic policies that will
result in a good rating
. In Southeast Asia, private actors have been
engaged by individual countries and by ASEAN as an organisation as partners in the
search for effective forms of governance over policy arenas like air-borne pollution
and haze, and the regional palm oil industry. This can include private actors actively
lobbying for new forms of governance that serves their interests, rather than just
being coopted by national or regional policy makers
(Breslin and Nesadurai 2018)
Moreover, there is more to the non-state sector than just companies and
corporations. For example, thinking back to Mitrany’s emphasis on the importance
of technical specialist, students of governance and policy transfer have long
emphasised the importance of transnational epistemic communities of
professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular
domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that
domain or issue area
(Haas 1992, 3)
When it comes to thinking about global leadership, this suggests the importance
of focussing on those ‘‘policy entrepreneurs’’ that play a key role in advocating and
spreading ideas and norms relating to global regulation through these networks
(Seabrooke and Wigan 2013)
. While this can take the form of the network
representing the interests of one state or another—a means of transnationalising
state power—it can also in some cases lead to the network establishing some form
of identity and influence in its own right
Engaging with policy networks inside and outside Europe has become an
important way in which the European Union (EU) seeks to spread its governance
norms and preferences. In some areas, this has created a leadership role of sorts for
these European networks. For example, despite the fact that there is some suspicion
in places that Europe tries to occupy a ‘‘moral high ground’’ when it comes to
environmental issues, there is a wide acknowledgement that Europe has
considerable capacity on environmentally related scientific issues. So here, any leadership
(and legitimacy as a leader) that Europe has in the environmental realm is partly a
result of the deliberate promotion of environmental strategies by the EU, but also
partly a result of the expertise of European networks of scientific communities.8
This knowledge base—as articulated through the relationship between scientific and
policy communities—might give the EU normative power and a leadership role on
the environment, but it is power and leadership that derives in large part from the
expertise and perceived legitimacy of non-state actors.
4.2 Regions as Actors
The above example of the EU and transnational networks highlight the role that
regions can play as the originators and deliverers of preferred values and policies
that have significance and influence beyond the regional sphere itself. Here, it is
important to distinguish between regions as actors, and regions as a means through
which states exercise power and promote their interests. Put another way, does a
region have an interest and/or ability to act that is not simply a reflection of the
interest of the dominant regional power?
To be sure, the ‘‘actorness’’ of different regions varies considerably, and not all
have the ability or desire to be global actors, let alone leaders. Despite it’s various
ongoing problems, the EU remains the most obvious example of a region that has
not only developed an identity as an independent global actor
, but has also deliberately tried to externalise its governance preferences,
8 On European environmental leadership, see
though with different levels of success in different policy areas
. In some areas (like the environment), it has been identified
as exercising global leadership
. But the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) too has been identified as playing an independent leadership role
beyond its borders
, albeit in the broader Asian region rather than
globally. Other regional bodies have also in some ways been forced to become
global actors through the way in which the EU has established interregional
relations with them to discuss (and spread) European ideas over how best to provide
transnational governance and global public goods
(Soderbaum and van Langenhove
2006; Mattheis and Wunderlich 2017)
Even when regional organizations do not possess much actorness (let alone
provide leadership) beyond their borders, they importantly remind us that power and
leadership can be exercised at different levels or places. At times, and on some
issues, the region might be perceived as a more effective or more legitimate (or
both) site of governance than the global level. This is particularly so where the
global level is seen as representing the interests and goals of ‘‘some’’ (which often
simply means the West) rather than all. The decision to create the Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank might be a case in point here.
Referring back to Mitrany, a conceptual problem emerges around the very basic
question of identifying exactly what the region is in which a leader does or should
operate. Even within the same geographic space, there can be a number of different
regional sites of governance, and therefore regional leadership. Using China as an
example again, we can identify China’s participation in (and in some cases
leadership of) a wide range of different governance projects that have been
described as being ‘‘regional’’. These include sub-regional projects in East and
Southeast Asia (ASEAN-China Framework Agreement on Cooperation; Greater
Mekong Subregion); still emerging financial trilateral cooperation between China,
South Korea and Japan; collaboration alongside Korea and Japan with ASEAN
(ASEAN Plus Three, the Chiang Mai Initiative); a separate exclusive bilateral
relationship with ASEAN (The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area); a proposal for a
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that would expand the ASEAN plus
three definition of region to include New Zealand, Australia and India; an even
wider concept of region as Asia Pacific rather than just East Asia (APEC); an
entirely different concept of region built on relations with former Soviet States to
the north and (north)west (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization)’ and a still
evolving and unclear conception of territory and space built around the AIIB and/or
the one belt one road initiatives. We could also further complicate matters by adding
in China’s participation in a non-geographic based organization in the shape of the
BRICS (Brazil Russia India China South Africa).
What does all this mean for understandings of governance and leadership in a
post-unipolar world? One very simple conclusion is the importance of reiterating the
significance of multi-level governance perspectives on authority, organization and
leadership. And perhaps more important, noting that it is often not a case of
identifying if governance is provided at the global or regional level (or somewhere
else), but that forms of governance can and do exist at different levels at the same
time; sometimes in potentially conflicting ways, but also often in ways that
complement and support each other. The promotion of regional environmental
solutions by the UN might be one example of such complementarity
, and the role of the African Union in providing peacekeeping
functions on the African continent might be another
. So the region
can be thought of as both a check on the creation of truly global forms of
governance on some issues, and at the same time a building block towards it on
other issues. Moreover, this understanding of different sites of governance means
that different countries and actors can pursue and provide leadership on the same
issue at different levels at the same time.
Another related conclusion is the need to identify leadership (or potential
leadership) across a range of regions within any given geographic area rather than
just focussing on one manifestation of region. Or put another way, a country that
might be a regional leader on one issue might not even be conceived of as being part
of the region at all when that region is defined by another set of issues and concerns.
And finally, defining what the region is—or perhaps more importantly, could or
should be—can be a significant source of power and leadership itself. If we return to
the above example of China’s different regional identities and interactions, then
Chinese preferences for an East Asia region (defined as ASEAN plus Three) might
in part be because China can exert more influence in this region than in an
IndoPacific region (that includes India and Australasia) favoured by others
. Or to put it another way, the ability to lead or not is often shaped or
constrained by who or what you are trying to lead.
4.3 Followership in a Non-Polar World
The third and final challenge to the understanding of polarity brings us back to
assumptions about divergence in power capabilities and political alliances based on
different issue/policy areas. The core argument at the heart of this paper is that
bloctype polar alliances across issue areas are unlikely to be the dominating
characteristic of global order in the foreseeable future. Of course some alliances
may be more sustainable and across the board in nature than others. Japan’s refusal
to join the AIIB, for example, might be taken as a signal of a rather comprehensive
and enduring Japan-US relationship across issue areas. But at the same time, the fact
that the UK led a move by other traditional US allies to join the AIIB might tell
another story about the weakening of previously more comprehensive sets of
relationships. And the fact that those same western liberal actors have been much
less keen to follow attempts to establish China’s basic position and understanding as
the basis for discussions on cybersecurity, for example
, suggests that
it is not a case of a new holistic bloc-type relationship replacing an old one.
If this understanding is correct, then clearly we need to try to identify the
different positions that might provide the basis for leadership on any given issue
area. The next step is to consider the extent to which they might be transferred from
preferences to real leadership; to concrete proposals and initiatives (and/or
organisations) that others are prepared to join. Here, it is useful to think of a
tripartite distinction between willingness, capacity and acceptance—particularly,
but not only, of those emerging powers that are widely thought to be challenging the
nature of the existing global order
(Kingah and Quiliconi 2016)
That powers (either rising or established) actually want to lead should not simply
be assumed. For example, the US was reluctant to assume full global leadership in
and after WWI, and at least part of the appeal of the Trump presidential message
was the promise to reduce international contributions and place ‘‘America First’’.
There also remains some doubt the extent to which China is prepared to take on all
of the burdens and responsibilities that go with leadership
Despite a more active role in recent years, the promotion of ‘‘a new type of great
power relations’’ by the Chinese leadership has at least something to do with
establishing the limits to what China should be expected to do as a great power that
is still also a developing country with many domestic problems still left to be
resolved; problems that must take primacy over the provision of global public goods
(Zeng and Breslin 2016)
Capability is important too. Other countries might have wanted to do something
about the development finance gaps in Asia, but did not have had the resources that
China had available to start up the AIIB. However, there is more to capability than
just material resources. If we think in terms of ideational and normative capacities,
we can ask if a country or any other actor has not just a set of new ideas, but also the
means to articulate and disseminate them to others? And here in some ways capacity
and acceptance should be seen as two sides of the same coin; unless a putative
leader is prepared to force and bully its leadership on others, its capacity to lead is in
large part dependent on others’ desire to let it, and their willingness to align
themselves to a leader.
As noted a number of years ago before the rise of China and the other BRICS
were being seriously studied:
a leader-centered approach seriously distorts how we understand the nature of
leadership in international politics. Focusing on the traits, interests, and
capabilities of leaders and would-be challengers may tell us a great deal about
which states are bound to be the most powerful in the international system at a
particular historical conjuncture. But that approach tells us little about
leadership, because it tells us little about the dynamics of followership—in
other words, what drives followers to follow
(Cooper, Higgott and Nossal
Evidence suggests that the inclination to follow often appears to be dependent on
whether the leading power incorporates elements of the putative follower’s interests
and positions into its own agenda
. So if effective leadership (other
than through coercion and force) is dependent on followership, this perhaps suggests
the need for a stronger focus in the future on the followers than much of the recent
scholarship on the role and goals of rising powers has found space to encompass.
With the benefit of hindsight, the current apparent turn to a fragmented non-polar world
might only be a temporary phenomenon. After all, what appeared to be an
inevitable Japanese rise to some form of global economic leadership in the mid to
late 1980s did not turn to be inevitable at all, and all of the current crop of rising powers
have domestic governance challenges to deal with that could result in a reduction in
their willingness and capability to provide forms of leadership in the future. Or they
might do things as they continue to rise that reduce their legitimacy as a leader in the
eyes of putative followers. Or alternatively, we might simply be in an interregnum
before the creation of a new polar world order (of whatever type) under new leadership.
For the time being, though, the argument here is that we will continue to live in an
era characterized by ongoing and complex negotiations leading to the reformulation
of alliances and relationships in a global order where an increasingly weak and
potentially less globally inclined US nevertheless remains the predominant global
power. And while Mitrany’s preferences for a functional world do not provide us
with a simple and clear roadmap of how to construct such a functional world, or what
the subsequent global order might look at, his emphasis on functionalism does
provide us with a useful way of thinking about alternative non-polar forms of global
organization; including forms that are not uniquely the preserve of states and state
actors as participants and potential leaders (in some, if not all, issue areas).
A functionally inclined world with issue based alliances rather than blocs and
camps provides an opportunity for a variety of actors to promote themselves as
leaders; not necessarily global leaders per se, but leaders on a specific issue area. It
also allows for them to gain followership on some domains from those who might
find themselves in diametrically opposite alliances on other issue areas. When
combined with an understanding of governance beyond—or is that beneath—the
global level, then the consequence is a messy and fragmented set of different
(sometimes, but not always) overlapping governance and leadership forms and
agendas. And it is a world that arguably places more of an emphasis on the
preferences of putative followers than the dominant focus on the preference of
potential challengers and leaders often allows for.
Despite the emphasis here on discrete and separate policy areas, it is important to
accept that each policy domain is not hermetically sealed from what happens in
others. In particular, the acceptance by others of a leader in one area can be heavily
influenced by perceptions of how that putative leader has acted in other functional
areas (either as a leader or not); particularly if the rising challenger power emerges
from outside the heartlands of the liberal Western world. In terms of the way in
which some governance initiatives are perceived at least (and ultimately not
surprisingly), the political and ideological differences that Mitrany thought should
not be a consideration when developing effective forms of governance really do still
have a key role to play today. This makes the task of building even selective
leadership in some policy areas more difficult than is the case for established
(liberal) powers whose fundamental commitment to existing order is less likely to
be undermined by something that they do (or don’t do) in one policy arena.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
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Shaun Breslin is Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He is also
co-editor of The Pacific Review, and a Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences. His research
focuses on the political economy and international relations of contemporary China, with a side interest in
comparative studies of regional integration.
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