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Does the international system become ‘flatter’ or more ‘uneven’ as a result of change? Critically assess this question focusing on two of the following four areas of change: the political character of states; economic growth; the spread of networks; revolutions.
The thesis of this essay is that change is producing an international system increasingly characterised by unevenness in the political character of states, but that the picture is more complicated for change in economic growth. This essay begins by examining change in the political character of states. It provides a brief historical overview of the development of the modern state system. It then expounds Fukuyama’s (1989) theory and explain the problems with it. It counters this with Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations hypothesis and argues that it suggests a political sector characterised by increased unevenness. Subsequently, this essay addresses change in economic growth. It begins by defining economic growth, and discussing the conditions for convergence, before presenting the neoclassical Solow growth model and its prediction of absolute convergence. It argues that the evidence contradicts this and shows conditional convergence. It argues that on a macro view, the international economy is uneven, but within certain groups it is flat; moreover, it argues that there are prospects for increased convergence and flattening.
This essay begins by examining change in the political character of states. The origin of the modern state system is traced by many scholars back to the Peace of Westphalia, 1648. Against the downfall of feudalism and empire, the Peace of Westphalia codified a number of principles that created formally equal sovereign states (Anievas, 2014, p. 136). Historical developments since then – the independence of the global South; the break-up of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires; and the collapse of the USSR; among others – have produced 195 sovereign states as of 2018. Thus, “in a basic sense… this is a flattening story” where units in the international system consist of the same kind of polity (Anievas, 2014, p. 137).
The most well-known proponent of a flattening world politically is Fukuyama (1989). He argues that liberal democracy will be the “final form of human government” (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 4); that after the 20th century defeat of fascism and communism, and given that the Islamic caliphate is not a realistic alternative, the universalisation of liberal, capitalist democracy would occur. (A liberal democracy can be considered a state with universal suffrage and the rule of law.) This thinking is evident in several strands of liberalism (though not all), such as democratic-peace theory and commercial liberalism (Brown, 2014, p. 113). On this view, the proliferation of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism are the main drivers of change in the international system. The result is a flatter, more homogenous international system devoid of conflict in the long run, firstly because fellow democracies do not fight each other, and secondly because of increased economic interdependence.
The problem with this hypothesis is that it does not appear to comport with reality. According to Freedom House (2018), it is true that 45% of 195 countries are “free”, while 30% are “partly free” and 25% are “not free”. However, this question concerns trends, and there has been a net decline in freedom every year since 2006, and 2017 was one of the worst years. After a period of gradual liberalisation, Myanmar engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the persecuted Rohingya Muslims. Hungary began showing authoritarian signs, while Turkish president Erdogan was successful in enacting constitutional changes that granted him more authoritarian powers. Beginning with the Brexit vote in June 2016, and Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016, there has been a populist uprising through 2017, in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Austria (Freedom House, 2018). Pre-existing undemocratic states, Russia and China, have increased repression, showing zero tolerance for political dissent. Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy would triumph in the long run, so this could be merely a bump in the road. But a twelve-year trend is hard to ignore, and this essay argues that alternative theories offer more explanatory power in a landscape that is increasingly uneven.
In direct response to Fukuyama’s utopian vision, Huntington (1993, p. 22) argues that after the ideological battle between liberal democracy and communism broke down, “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” This is his Clash of Civilisations hypothesis. States would align across cultural and religious identity, rather than ideology (like liberal democracy), and this would be the main driver for change in the international system. Huntington’s concept of a civilisation is problematic in that it arguably presents Islam and “Sinic” civilisation as monolithic cultures; indeed, he has been criticised for this. But in the important ways, Huntington’s theory predicts and explains an increasingly uneven world.
Liberal democracy does not appeal to developing countries with traditional cultures that are emerging out of meagre living conditions, and Western attempts to impose this upon them can create resentment over “Western imperialism”. Hence Huntington’s (1993, p. 39) idea of clashes between “the West and the rest”. Al-Qaeda and ISIL consistently point to Western intervention into Muslim countries and regime change as a motivator for their actions, while the very notion of an Islamic caliphate – contrary to Fukuyama’s prediction – has come to pass with ISIL’s creation. In the West, the recent populist uprising implies a retreat from globalisation and into local cultural identities; it has been stoked by the influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. Freedom House (2018) notes how Trump’s visits to fellow democracies have not emphasised their democratic ties, but their civilisational and cultural ties. Elsewhere, tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, respectively, continue, and Huntington (1993, p. 34) points to the ethnic cleansing and conflict in the Balkans. This is to name but a few examples.
For Huntington, all this suggests a world in which states are no longer the principal units of the international system in the relevant sense. States still populate the system and have formal equality, and on paper, are the entities that act. However, Huntington (1993, pp. 24-25) explains that, apart from in the past few centuries, states with similar cultures tend to join together, and that civilisations are the principal units that effect change in the relevant sense (de facto).
This essay does not go as far as Huntington in arguing that civilisations are the de-facto principal units of the international system, partly because it is an overly simplistic characterisation and because there are examples of alliances between states with different cultures that are best explained through the prism of power politics: the US and Saudi Arabia balancing against Iran, for example.
Rather, this essay argues that his theory explains the opening of fault lines between different cultures after the Cold War. It encourages focusing on identities and interests, to the extent that they are meaningful drivers of change, aside from structure and institutional processes (it is similar to constructivist thinking in that regard). It points to a recent past and future of increased religious and cultural conflict. The focus on cultural and religious identity, and not ideology, explains the trend away from liberal democracy and why non-Western states would be unwilling to adopt it as a political system. The system of formally equal sovereign states may still be present, but this is flatness in a superficial sense. The fracturing of the world along cultural lines predicts a system in which a range of states will exist. This is a story of increasing unevenness, and is a far cry from Fukuyama’s vision of a flattening world, with the spread of liberal democracy and democratic peace throughout the international system.
It is worth mentioning, briefly, that the Marxist theory of uneven and combined offers an account of increased unevenness in the political character of states. However, due to limited space, this essay restricts its focus to the Clash of Civilisations hypothesis as a refutation to Fukuyama’s theory. While uneven and combined development suggests a compelling interpretation of the evolution of the international system, the recent past lends the Clash of Civilisations hypothesis more explanatory power. Focusing on it is sufficient to conclude that there is increasing unevenness in the political arena.
This essay now moves on to examining change in economic growth. Economic growth is conventionally defined as gross domestic product, which is “the total value of output (of goods and services) produced during a period, usually a year” (Shipman, 2014, pp. 179-180). To factor in population size, this essay adopts GDP per capita (GDP divided by population) as the measure of outcomes. In this sector, a flattening world equates to convergence, and an uneven world equates to divergence. The conditions for convergence are as follows: (1) The lower the GDP per capita, the higher the GDP growth rate; and (2) countries’ per capita GPD are becoming less dispersed (Shipman, 2014, p. 208). The first condition is necessary, but not sufficient, for the second condition. It is required, but there are situations where a poorer country can achieve a higher growth rate, but the gap between it and a richer country can widen, due to the effects of compound growth. Poorer countries must have growth rates far exceeding rich countries over a long period to generate convergence.
The “Great Divergence” refers to the phenomenon beginning around 1800 where Western Europe and its former colonies industrialised and achieved significantly higher rates of economic growth than the rest of the world (Shipman, 2014, p. 186). The Asian Tiger economies experienced similar economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s and are now developed economies. The question is whether in recent years, poorer economies have caught up in GDP per capita, and whether this will continue.
The influential Solow Model of economic growth is a neoclassical “exogenous” growth model; that is, that the variables producing long-term economic growth – population growth and technological change (culminating in an increase of total factor productivity) – are determined outside it. It addresses the question whether an economy can achieve economic growth consistently simply by investing in its physical and human capital stock. In the short-term, investment, financed by savings, increases per capital growth: a country with a higher savings rate will therefore experience higher growth. In the long run, however, this breaks down. A larger capital stock is expensive to maintain and there are diminishing returns to human and physical capital (Shipman, 2014, p. 194). The economy settles into its steady state: it maintains a constant stock of capital and population. It does not experience further growth in the absence of technological change or population growth.
Neoclassical models such as this predict that poorer economies will grow faster than richer ones, catching up and converging around the same per capita GDP. As Shipman (2014, p. 205) explains, due to diminishing returns to capital, countries with a large capital stock have little incentive to invest further. Poor countries can enjoy large returns to capital, so investment is incentivised. Additionally, poorer countries have what Trotsky referred to “the privilege of historic backwardness” (Corry and Brown, 2014, p. 266); they can adopt the production methods and technologies of richer countries, promoting rapid growth. On this view, poorer countries should grow until they, too, reach their steady state and converge around the per capita GDP of rich countries.
However, the evidence does not support this model in its current form. According to World Bank (2018) data, only two countries achieved over 10% growth in 2017: Libya and Ethiopia. Those achieving moderately fast growth at 5%, like Togo and Mali, due to compounding effects, cannot expect to catch up in terms of GDP per capita to developing countries; indeed, the gap may widen. Since 2011, Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has not exceeded 5% growth. There are also many countries languishing with negative growth: Congo, Timor-Leste and Chad, among them. It is not a story of absolute divergence. There are, of course, success stories in countries like India and China. But there are numerous examples that contradict the neoclassical picture.
What seems more plausible is conditional convergence; that is, convergence is conditional upon countries having similar structural characteristics. Drawing upon work from Barro (1994), it is evident that institutions such as the rule of law, property rights, relatively free markets, education and small and stable government have a favourable effect on growth. Similar countries in regards to these institutions can be expected to converge in per capita growth. Barro (1994) also notes that there is a weak, nonlinear relationship between democracy and economic growth. Authoritarian regimes can be consistent with economic freedom, which can explain why the Tiger economies converged with Western economies, and why China and India are growing rapidly currently. The OECD countries (excluding Turkey), with their similar institutions, tell this story. Human Capital & Conditional Convergence (2016)plots the OECD economies starting from 1960 on a graph, comparing GDP growth rate with GDP per capita. It shows an inverse correlation between starting GDP per capita and growth rate. Countries like Portugal and Spain experienced the fastest growth, with the UK, Canada and the US experiencing slower growth. It appears that the Solow growth model attains explanatory power within groups of countries sharing similar institutions.
Conditional convergence does not suggest flattening, but neither is it as uneven as complete divergence. Taking a macro view of the landscape, the international economy is uneven; however, within groups sharing similar institutions, it is flattening. There are prospects for increased convergence. Insofar as developing countries adopt the institutions highlighted above (i.e. not necessarily democracy), they may be able to experience rapid growth and eventually converge with the developed world.
In conclusion, this essay has addressed change in the political character of states. It has argued that Fukuyama’s “End of History?” does not comport with reality, and that the Clash of Civilisations theory is more applicable and displays an increasingly uneven political sector. It has addressed change in economic growth and whether economies are converging or diverging in terms of GDP per capita. It argued that the Solow growth model does not fit the data, and that conditional convergence is the story of the international economy; but that there are prospects for increased convergence.
- Anievas, A. (2014) ‘A world after its own image? The state system, capitalism and unevenness’, in Brown, W. Corry, O. Czajka, A. (eds) International Relations: Continuity and Change in Global Politics, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 133-172.
- Barro, R. J. (1994) Democracy & Growth, NBER Working Paper Series, no. 4909 [Online]. Available at https://search-proquest-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/docview/1690048353?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo (Accessed 19 December 2018).
- Brown, O. (2014) ‘Theoretical reflections: realism and liberalism’, in Brown, W. Corry, O. Czajka, A. (eds) International Relations: Continuity and Change in Global Politics, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 97-127.
- Corry, O. Brown, W. (2014) ‘Theoretical reflections: Marxism and network theory’, in Brown, W. Corry, O. Czajka, A. (eds) International Relations: Continuity and Change in Global Politics, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 259-289.
- Freedom House (2018) Freedom in the World 2018 – Democracy in Crisis [Online], Washington D.C., Freedom House. Available at https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FH_FITW_Report_2018_Final_SinglePage.pdf (Accessed 18 December 2018).
- Fukuyama, F. (1989) ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, Summer 1989, pp. 3-18 [Online]. Available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed 18 December 2018).
- Human Capital & Conditional Convergence (2016) YouTube video, added by Marginal Revolution University [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVWX4Xjl4Os (Accessed 19 December 2018).
- Huntington, S. P. (1993) ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, pp. 22-49 [Online]. Available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/20045621?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed 18 December 2018).
- Shipman, A. (2014) ‘Divergence or convergence in the international economy?’, in Brown, W. Corry, O. Czajka, A. (eds) International Relations: Continuity and Change in Global Politics, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 177-216.
- World Bank (2018) GDP growth (annual %) [Online]. Available at https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?year_high_desc=false (Accessed 18 December 2018).
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