Constructing Global Order – Book Review

Reviewed by Ulf Engel

Amitav Acharya, Constructing Global Order: Agency and Change in World Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Four years after his ground-breaking presidential address to the International Studies Association (ISA) in 2014, in which the author called for decentring the Western-dominated field of international Studies, Amitav Acharya has produced a monograph on global order in which the contours of a different way of practicing international studies are outlined. In this inspiring monograph Acharya systematically brings in the contribution of non-Western countries into global order making, the way that they have contested and redefined Western ideas and norms and contributed new ones of their own making. This book highlights how notions of sovereignty and security have been redefined and discusses what “a truly global order” could look like. And more so, it goes beyond the empirical contributions of non-Western states to global order by developing a conceptual framework on this topic.

Since 2009, the Indian born Amitav Acharya (*1962) is with the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC, currently as Distinguished Professor of International Relations and the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at the School of International Service. Previously he was a professor at York University, Toronto and University of Bristol, United Kingdom. He is also Honorary Professor at Rhodes University, South Africa, and Guest Professor at Nankai University, China. Amitav Acharya’s academic thinking has developed from a deep understanding of Asian security regionalism and debates around norms in IR (the catchword being norm localisation, norm diffusion, norm entrepreneurs, and normative contestation).[1] Taking seriously key implications of the post-colonial turn, the author then has ventured into critical reflections on regionalisms and South-East Asia’s role in global politics.[2] And the extension of these reflections to global politics and IR theorising marks the current phase of his extremely productive academic journey.[3] In terms of teaching, his approach these days translates into a regular under-graduate course on “Civilizations/Empires/World Order”, and a post-graduate course on “International Studies: History, Theory, Practice”. Acharya was the first non-Western scholar to be elected as the president of the ISA (for the period 2014–2015).

In his presidential address Acharya to the ISA in 2014, Acharya observed that international relations/international studies (he actually uses these terms interchangeably) “does not reflect the voices, experiences, knowledge claims, and contributions of the vast majority of the societies and states in the world, and often marginalizes those outside the core countries of the West”.[4] Eloquently he called for a “Global IR” to be characterised by “commitment to pluralistic universalism, grounding in world history, redefining existing IR theories and methods and building new ones from societies hitherto ignored as sources of IR knowledge, integrating the study of regions and regionalisms into the central concerns of IR, avoiding ethnocentrism and exceptionalism irrespective of source and form, and recognizing a broader conception of agency with material and ideational elements that includes resistance, normative action, and local constructions of global order. It then outlines an agenda for research that supports the Global IR idea”.[5]

Constructing Global Order is composed in seven chapters. Following the introduction on “Rethinking Agency and Change in Global Order”, Acharya lays out his vision on the future of international studies in five reflective and programmatic chapters: “Theorizing Normative Change”, “Provincializing Westphalia”, “Transforming Westphalia”, “Redefining Security” and “Regionalism and the Making of Global Order”. This is followed by conclusions. All chapters draw from the author’s previous writings published in journals such as International OrganizationInternational Studies Quarterly, and Third World Quarterly as well as a number of contributions to handbooks and other edited volumes.

Acharya develops seven major arguments: (1) the mainstream conceptualisation of the existing global order as an extension of the European, so-called Westphalian state system and an US-led liberal hegemonic order obscure the role particularly of non-Western states and societies in the building of global order. (2) The universal quality of many norms associated with the West is widely contested, especially when it comes to notions of “sovereignty” and “(national) security”. (3) In this context other actors, including non-Western ones, are formulating alternative norms. (4) Hence, non-Western actors command normative agency in their own rights (as evidenced, for instance, in the ways that they have contributed to and implemented the “responsibility to protect”, or R2P, agenda). (5) Mainstream IR theories often overlook or dismiss these alternative conceptualisations. (6) These insights call into question notions of a “seamless globality” or a single process of globalisation with homogenising effects. The many regionalisms are one key counter-factual example. (7) Diversity is seen as a necessary constant of “global order”.

Accordingly, Acharya concludes that the shift from a “Western-dominated hegemonic or quasi-hegemonic order” to “more complex, diverse, and decentered (post-hegemonic) world politics” is characteristic of the decades since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the changing nature of the global condition goes further, one may add. Of course, when looking at the historicity of what today is called “global order” and the rise of the global condition in the last third of the 19th century, it becomes obvious that ideas of Western, neo-liberal or whatever order always have been deficient. Rightfully, globalisation can only be conceptualised in its plural. And at the same time, it is imperative to consider the various globalisation projects of non-Western actors, not only – but strongly – the regionalisms which have developed in the Global South. In these regional integration projects, member states have responded, and are responding, to those parts of the global condition most relevant to them. They are doing so with a view to (1) enhancing the sovereignty of their member states, (2) integrating into existing globalisation projects, and/or (3) influencing globalisation processes by developing globalisation projects of their own. Acharya develops some compelling arguments along these lines. And in contrast to much of the debate on “global order” he makes a serious effort in defining what exactly this term is about – conceptually and not in its often-normative usage. As most of Acharya’s reasoning this is guided by a constructivist approach.

Adding a point of critique on this well-crafted book, which is actually not of the author’s making, but a fundamental dilemma of contemporary knowledge production on the global condition: the vast majority of publications this book draws on originates in the Western academy. Voices from the Global South are far and in between. Alternative, different, or simply complementary knowledge from the Global South still finds it difficult to make it into contemporary debates on Southern agency, globalisation projects and attempts to alter the global condition. According to the latest self-monitoring report of International Studies Quarterly, the flagship journal of the ISA, the overwhelming majority of submitted and published manuscripts still come from the USA, the United Kingdom and other (white) Commonwealth countries.

This review was first published by Connections: A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists.


[1] See Reassessing Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, Massachusetts, MA 2007 (co-edited with Evelyn Goh); Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia, London 2001; and The Quest for Identity: International Relations of Southeast Asia, Oxford 2000.

[2] The Making of Southeast Asia: International Relations of a Region, Ithaca, NY 2013; Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives on and Beyond Asia, London 2010 (co-edited with Barry Buzan); and Whose Ideas Matter: Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism, Ithaca, NY 2009.

[3] The End of American World Order, London 2014; Rethinking Power, Institutions and Ideas in World Politics: Whose IR, London 2014; Why Govern: Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance (edited volume), Cambridge 2016.

[4] Global International Relations (IR) and Regional Worlds: A New Agenda for International Studies, in: International Studies Quarterly 58 (2014) 4, pp. 647–659, here p. 647.

[5] Ibid.

Citation: Ulf Engel, Constructing Global Order – Book Review, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.06.2022,

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