On August 2, 2023, APARC Southeast Asia Program Director Donald Emmerson participated in a virtual discussion as part of a series on "Reinvigorating Commitment for Democratic Resilience and Good Governance," hosted by the Women in Foreign Policy, a program collaboration between the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) and the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.
The text of Emmerson's introductory remarks is included below. You can also watch Emmerson's additional comments throughout the discussion via the video recording embedded below following the text.
Remarks by Donald Emmerson
In discussions of global affairs, including this one, it is always useful to distinguish between structure and agency: between embedded distributions of power that may be hard to change and the roles of individual and collective actors who can and may cause, alter, postpone, or prevent such change.
Last year, in 2022, for the first time, our planet’s population reached 8 billion and our global economy exceeded 100 trillion US dollars in value. But observers disagree about the current structure of world affairs.
Two dichotomies are competing for attention. Some leaders prefer a vertical and mainly economic contrast between the developed “global North” and the less developed “global South.” Last month India’s prime minister Modi told the US Congress that “the global South is the way forward” and some say he hopes to lead the “global South” in reforming the world’s current geopolitical structure.
U.S. President Biden has in the past offered a horizontal and partly ideological contrast between “Western democracy” and “Middle Eastern autocracy.” But his aversion to despotic rule in Russia and China suggests a broader rejection of “Eastern autocracy” even though he doesn’t use that term.
As for structure and agency, these two bits of economic and political geometry — North-South and West-East — are problematic. The world is not divided into four neatly circumscribed, internally homogenous, and traditionally identified blocs.
Consider the association of the North and the West with economic growth and wealth, as opposed to the more impoverished South and East. The Gini index of inequality runs on a scale from zero, or complete equality, where everyone has the exact same income, to one hundred, where one person gets all of the income in the world. In recent decades, inequality among individuals within countries has increased slightly, but inequality between countries continues to fall and is now down to its lowest level in well over a century.
One analyst concludes accordingly, in an article optimistically entitled “The Great Convergence” in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, that in global terms income is more equally distributed than it has been in more than a century. (See Branko Milanovic, “The Great Convergence,” Foreign Affairs, July-August 2023.)
If this trend continues, it will become even harder to lump countries into blocs according to where they are on a map. Meanwhile, however, for multiple reasons including history, geography, demography, culture, and political economy, the five richest countries by GDP — the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and India, in that order — together account for more than half of Global GDP. Interestingly, China with 18 percent of the world economy is still behind the United States, which has 25 percent. But the structural lesson is that a stable future global order cannot be unipolar or bipolar, or reflect the primacy of any single region. It must instead be multiply, plurally — I’m tempted to say democratically — led.
That morally and empirically constructive outcome is certainly endangered by structural differences. But by far the most imminent threat to the world stems from the expansionist agency of certain key leaders — Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, Xi Jinping potentially against Taiwan, and Donald Trump against democracy in America.
Let me end by focusing very briefly on Trump. A recent New York Times poll of registered voters shows 43 % supporting Biden and the exact same number — 43 percent — supporting Trump. Trump was impeached twice by one house of Congress, surviving only due to Republican objection in the other house, and has been indicted three separate times on criminal charges involving campaign bribery, security violation, and electoral subversion.
The election won’t be held until November of next year, so it is far too early to predict an outcome.
But it is not too early to argue that success in multilaterally fashioning a suitably stable, democratic, and prosperous global order will require structural cooperation between regions led by honest leaders capable of constructive agency on behalf of justice, prosperity, and peace.