‘Anxiety about the future is part of the Western condition,’ John Bew, professor in history and foreign policy, told an audience at King’s College London on Tuesday.
Bew was speaking at his inaugural lecture for the university about his emerging study into the Anglo-American view – or rather views – on ‘world order’, as well as their pursuit of it in relation, or sometimes opposition, to the interests of both Britain and America.
His contention is that the pursuit of world order has been a ‘historical force’ in both the British and American empires, most notably in setting up the rules that have somewhat governed international affairs since the Second World War.
Bew emphasised that ‘world order’ was not merely imperialism or self interest pursued under another guise. Indeed, he argued that at times national interest clashed with visions of world order, including in the interwar period that led to the failed League of Nations.
What with the rise of China as an economic rival to the US and president Donald Trump attacking or eschewing many of the conventions of global governance, any notion of world order clearly has relevance in foreign policy discussions.
In the case of both Britain and the US, Bew claims that their shared understanding of Roman history made them fearful of barbarians approaching the gate.
The Chinese may be more sophisticated than ancient barbarians, but the country’s championing of its own form of capitalism still presents an alternative, and perhaps a threat threat, to the US-led Western view of how things should be run.
One audience member at the lecture raised the notion of more regional or multipolar governance, which looks a plausible successor to US dominance in the short term.
As Bew acknowledged, not everyone thinks the end is nigh. Citing the technological growth and raising living standards flagged by the likes of the academic Steven Pinker, Bew said: ‘There’s a very good argument that the world is not in crisis … but it’s certainly a conceptual crisis.’
That conceptual crisis has alarmed politicians and officials from Canberra to Warsaw. Whatever book Bew produces from his study, it should be worth a read.