Much like countries, regions are man-made, prone to arbitrary borders reflecting the priorities of long dead statesmen. In the 19th century, French leaders discovered “Latin America” as they sought to expand their influence in the Western hemisphere. The American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan popularized the “Middle East” in a book that guided generations of naval officers. At the dawn of a multipolar world order, it seems likely that some “new” region might come to embody its anxieties and ambitions. Beyond Liberal Order, a recent collection of essays edited by Harry Verhoeven and Anatol Lieven, offers the “Global Indian Ocean” as the geographical unit ripe with insight for our age.
Much of the book highlights connections across national boundaries. Islam creates a common identity that enables the flow of migrants from South Asia to the Arab Gulf monarchies; those migrants in turn send home both remittances and new conceptions of their faith. The Indian diaspora in South Africa predated Mohandas Gandhi and will outlast the Gupta brothers, to say nothing of populations of Indian descent across the region (and indeed the world). Smaller islands play an outsized role: much of the region’s investment flows through Mauritius, while Diego Garcia and Bahrain provide regional bases for the US Navy. But for all these threads tying the region together, these nations still don’t share a common heritage analogous to Latin America’s history as Iberian colonies steeped in the Catholic faith or the Middle East’s Islamic and Ottoman past.
What they do share is a history of “thin hegemony” under British, and, since 1945, American influence. After the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the British allowed widespread labor migration within the Empire. But their rule remained, in Verhoeven’s words, a “patchwork of sovereignties” largely carried out by local intermediaries. When America became the dominant power after the Second World War, it never brought the region under its security umbrella as it had Europe and East Asia. As a result, countries in the region had less incentive and opportunity to conform to Western liberal norms. Instead, states surrounding the Indian ocean evolved into variegated forms, from the tumultuous democracy of India and the constitutional monarchy of Thailand to the junta in Myanmar and the collapse of the state in Somalia.
Western dominance seeded liberal rhetoric across the region, but even today those roots run shallow. Shandana Khan Mohmand’s essay on village-level politics in rural Pakistan shows how regular elections still reflect older social divisions between landowners and peasants. Areas where the British allocated most of the land to a few families remain less equal today, especially when that village sits far from urban centers offering alternative employment. Pakistani elections have grown more inclusive in the sense that the local zamindar considers the interest of traditionally marginalized groups, but the Pakistani government as a whole still operates largely on a clientelistic basis where the delivery of services remains contingent on votes. In contrast, Singapore eschews paeans to many liberal ideals while delivering effective and honest government. Whereas democratic leaders typically appeal to the preferences of their constituents with an eye on the next election, Singapore emphasizes “moral accountability” as opposed to the electoral variety. At least in theory, this removes serious political competition so that policy makers have the latitude to take unpopular action focused on practical results. That pragmatic approach extends to foreign policy: Singapore has free-trade agreement with the United States, while also hosting training programs for Chinese mayors. In the words of contributing author Chua Beng Huat, “Governance is, above all, an instrumental transaction.” While that might not sound noble to Western ears, Singapore found divergence from liberal orthodoxy much to its benefit.
In almost every chapter, the contributors situate a familiar idea in a novel setting that challenges pieties and assumptions in Europe and America. Few 20th century notions enjoy wider approval than self-determination. But Mike Woldemariam’s essay on the separation of Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1993 reads more like a well-orchestrated conspiracy than a Wilsonian triumph. The two primary rebel groups that overthrew the Derg in 1991 agreed to a seemingly peaceful partition of the country. But appeals to Western ideals convinced the US to support what amounted to a non-compete agreement between two authoritarian regimes. As Woldermain puts it “… the reciprocal support that each movement provided the other was crucial to the emergence of durable illiberal state-building projects.” Rana Mitter’s essay challenges conventional wisdom by taking an even-handed approach to China’s behavior in the region. Given its reliance on the Indian Ocean for both export markets and imported oil, China has an obvious and legitimate interest in ensuring its access to markets. Seen in this light, Chinese investment in the Pakistani port of Gwadar and a naval base in Djibouti seem more practical than ominous. In much the same way, one chapter questions the overall impact of microfinance in Bangladesh while another focuses on the internal diversity of different populations within the Gulf Arab states.
Other than Lieven, all of the contributors are academics. That expertise shines in their preference for the nuanced and the factual over familiar cliches. But they also occasionally lapse into jargon, assuming their readers are familiar with luminaries like Braudel or Foucault. To his credit, Leiven in the closing chapter chides academics in general for their outdated focus on colonialism and sanguine views on the efficacy of regulation. Still, the book might have benefited by including some voices with a background in business, politics or the military.
In the end, the nations comprising “Global Indian Ocean” are less a coherent region than a counterargument to prophecies of liberal convergence. Their true commonality isn’t so much their colonial history as their experience as post-colonial states. A few great leaders called their people to a tryst with destiny, but too often lesser men (and women) indulged in chauvinism with disastrous results. Today, leaders across the region rose to power not in resistance to foreign domination, but amid the rough-and-tumble of domestic politics. In a very real sense, many polities are still forming their national identities and shaping their social contacts. Their success and failures stand in stark contrast, and by example may well have a greater influence on their neighbors than an aspiring hegemon might suppose.