It is an established article of faith in the discipline of international relations that in formulating their foreign policies, in selecting certain courses of action over others, and especially when it comes to the business of forming allies and selecting trading partners, states do so through a rational analysis of costs and benefits to be obtained from selecting one “partner” over another (Diego, 2010: 265).
States broaden their appeal not only through coercive means such as military or economic power, but also through means of persuasion; what is termed soft power. This paper deduces from this that there exists what may be called a contrast effect that renders one state more favourable to another as a choice of ally or partner than another specific state. Therefore, in line with such a logic, soft power can be said to be relative as well as relational; it is, in other words, a foreign policy instrument that should not be looked at as an absolute phenomenon but by way of comparing, and denoting that each state’s soft power advantage comes about due to the soft power of another state being diminished in the subjective perception of the appraising state. Observed in these terms, we can go so far as to deduce that the negative image of one state can help benefit that of another. Thus the concept of soft power can be said to include at least three actors at any given moment: the appraising actor, as well as at least two actors being actively compared to one another in terms of their appeal, or soft power, qua being a potential ally, a trading partner or any other relational role than can be entered into with the appraising state.
In order to make its case, the paper will conjure up the concept of soft power as articulated by Joseph Nye and as elaborated on by subsequent commentators, and then articulate the concept as it may pertain to the theses laid out in this paper. Secondly, the paper will explicate what may be said to be a contrast effect in the observed tendency of states to weigh their options and pursue, or abandon, one course of action over another, and therefore select some allies/partners over others. The paper will then synthesise these two notions and seek to show instances in history, and contemporary international affairs, that may be said to be proof of the argument being made. Finally, the paper will evoke and subsequently incorporate some possible scenarios that can be said to not fit within the thesis. By way of conclusion, the paper will offer discuss methods through which the thesis can be evaluated.
Soft power in context
Apart perhaps from the description of the international arena as anarchic, the concept of soft power has become one of the mainstays of international relations scholarship – and practice. Though there is some debate over the idea (Paruk, 2014: 57), it has enjoyed a near-unanimous acceptance amongst scholars. Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye in the wake of the end of the Cold War to describe the usage of diplomacy to attract and co-opt as opposed to coercion, what is traditionally understood to be hard power – military, economic sanctions and isolation. In Bound to Lead (1990), Nye wrote that “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” The concept was further developed in his subsequent Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004). In other words, soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of other states by appeal and attraction to one’s cause. Sources of soft power may include the attractiveness of a particular culture, the political ideals of the country or international policies, such as democracy and human rights championing, or indeed “policies that include the interests of others” (Nye, Creehan and Rahman, 2003: 46). Others have elaborated on this concept and added such phenomena as developmental models and trajectories as possible sources of soft power. Thus it may not be the wealth of a state that makes it more likely to get its way (that would be hard power), but the manner in which it has garnered it as well as the potential application of that model to other states’ own domestic settings. This is particularly said to apply to China, which has been lauded as a source of inspiration for the “global South”, which is in search of development along the lines of China (Monsoon, 2009).
Though the US and Europe are the soft power centres of the world (Nye, 2003), in The Charm Offensive (2008), Joshua Kurlantzick painstakingly details the manner in which China has been using its soft power to garner trade partners the world over. In the past twenty-five years China has increasingly harnessed and spread its cultural appeal in its places as diverse as Thailand and Africa. Through an investment of over a billion dollars, such media outlets as Language Exchange programmes, the Beijing Review magazine and the CCTV network have been established in order to foster foreign consumption of news and narratives from a Chinese political and economic perspective.
South Korea has also been on an active path to heighten and make the most of its soft power around the world. Among the most prominent of its moves is perhaps the usage of ‘gastro-diplomacy,’ through which South Korea has literally vied for “access to mouths” in places such as the US, Canada and Europe. Perhaps the Korean pizza waffle is the most salient exemplar of this; in under a decade, between 2000 and 2016, about 2,000 Korean pizza waffle restaurants have been opened in the US and Europe, as well as Africa. This has helped export a bit of Korea to the rest of the world. And it has had the added benefit of bringing in more tourists who want to see more of the country’s vibrant culture (Harthone, 2016).
There can be such a notion as “too much soft power”, however. As Nye, Creehan and Rahman (2003: 46-47) elaborated “Soft power, however, is not without its costs. It can create a backlash if there is a feeling of cultural domination or imperialism, and…it is worth noticing that US culture is not attractive in all parts of the world. For instance, in conservative Islamic states, there is much about Hollywood that is unattractive.”
There have since been criticism of Nye’s theoretical framework of soft power. For example, the historian Niall Ferguson discounted it as being “well, soft” (in Nye, 2003: 74). But one of the more sound criticisms came in Mingjiang Li’s 2009 book, Soft Power: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics. Li paid particular attention to Nye’s conceptualization of soft power, making the case that “soft power does not exist in the nature of certain resources of power but rather it has to be nurtured through a soft use of power” (2009: 3), and adding further that soft power “has to be intentionally cultivated through prudent use of all sources of power available in certain social relationships” (2009: 3). There has also been criticism that “Nye did not provide a clear line between the two, which leaves the definitions blurred. By way example they indicate that “if country A provides economic aid to country B without explicitly or implicitly asking for any favor in return, is that soft power or hard power for country A?”” (Paruk, 2014: 57). But these criticism, and almost very self-consciously, do not discount the existence of soft power but rather are perplexed as to how it may be said to work. The first point of criticism may be said to expand the concept of soft power and in no way disproves it, but rather, in much the same fashion as the present paper, looks into various other means through which soft power is incarnated. In responding to the latter point, Nye has stated that soft power is not a substitute for soft power, but the two may coexist and complement one another. For example, hard power was necessary in pushing back against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but attraction of moderate Muslims to the US’s course can only take place through soft power means (Nye, 2003: 76).
The contrast effect
Israel is lauded as the only true democracy in the Middle East. South Korea is seen in high esteem in its sharp distinction from its bellicose neighbour to the north in the form of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Germany has gained an image as a welcoming society since taking in the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees which its European Union counterparts turned away. And neutral Switzerland is much celebrated in light of the historically war-prone neighbours which surround it in continental Europe. The negative image of one state, or indeed more states, can make another seem rather more positive. That is the thesis of this paper. In selecting allies, for example, states do so through a continuous measuring and assessment of their present partner vis-à-vis a potential alternative. This is the case made by Henrickson, in a contributory chapter to the edited volume, The New Diplomacy (2005), when stating that “public diplomacy should therefore be thought of as a form of engagement – intellectual engagement, as well as political and social engagement. Minds, as well as hearts, must be won. The ‘power of the better argument’ should thus be considered integral to the concept of public diplomacy” (Henrikson, 2005: 71; italics added). And while it is indeed true that we live in an era of multilateralism, in which states tend to maintain diplomatic relations with all other states, and in the wake of the United Nations states tend to cooperate with almost all other states in the world, even if indirectly, nevertheless, there is also the inescapable reality that multilateralism has its limitations and global landscapes sometimes present scenarios in which states have to select one partner over another. For example, in pursuing regime change in Iraq, the United States found that that notion did not enjoy universal appeal, and was forced to go at it with minimal support from a “coalition of the willing”. Indeed, scarcely has the world ever agreed upon anything – from the Kosovo Question, to lack of cooperation in the Syrian crisis we are reminded of this even in our own modern world with its monuments to common ground. The United Nations is, apart from being a wishful notion, a kind of oxymoronic expression.
Pursuing the better of two (or more) evils…
In the late eighteenth century, the Russian Empire was engaged in several wars against Persia, in which among Russia’s allies were the small kingdoms of Georgia. In 1783, the chief kingdom of Georgia placed itself under Russia, and by 1881 its sovereign, King George XIII, reached the decision that Russia annex his territory (other Georgian principalities were soon taken over by Russia through conquest). With it being clear that domination by an external party was imminent, King George made the decision that he would rather have his territory be taken over by the Russians rather than by the Persians; a decision which may have been driven by Russia’s comparative appeal over Persia – the Russians, like the Georgians were Christian, and had a longer history of engagement and cultural confluence with Georgia, as opposed to the Persians who were Shiite Muslims (Seton-Watson, 1961:19).
The Cold War was an international order sublimely self-aware in its being characterised by the question of soft power as the two superpowers were looking to not only outspend, outwit and ultimately outshine each other so as to attract allies at the expense of the other, but also to out-embarrass the other for the same ends. Each sought to obtain new allies based not only on its own merits, what we may today refer to as soft power, that it thought itself to have, but also on the failings of the opposition. The anti-Soviet propaganda associated with McCarthyism was not only restricted to the US domestic front but also exported to other parts of the world, and even the USSR’s backdoor and satellite regimes, in Eastern Europe through the construction and sponsoring of radio stations such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (Urban, 1997).
It is clear from this that a state or any other international actor may see itself obtain soft power, or make gains in its soft power standing, without making any change to its own behaviour, but by there instead taking place a decline in the soft power of a competitor state or organisation. Indeed, some nations were founded on basis of the “contrast effect” and the relativity of soft power. For example, in the nineteenth century, in 1861, King Moshoeshoe of baSotho, predecessor to the present-day Lesotho, repelled by the prospect of annexation by the Dutch-settler republic of Orange Free State (Davenport, 1981: 105), asked that his territory be annexed by the British. The request was initially refused by the British High Commissioner Sir Philip Wodehouse, but in time events necessitated the incorporation of Basutoland and the kingdom gained protectorate status in 1868; while eventually all around it, the white supremacist South African regime enclosed and formed the eventual apartheid Republic of South Africa. Interestingly, and speaking to the significant soft appeal that the apartheid regime lacked but an ideal democratic South Africa possessed, plans were allegedly made for a union of Lesotho and South Africa after the dismantling of apartheid, but for various reasons these never came to fruition (Lemon, 1996: 263).
In the sections to follow, the paper will provide instances in contemporary international relations, which serve as examples of the relative nature of soft power. Each section will present the triadic relationship (A: X v Y) necessitated by the nature of soft power – the subheadings denote the appraiser actor as well as the two actors being weighed.
BRICS: Nigeria v South Africa
The African continent is on the main dominated by two economic giants – South Africa and Nigeria. When the decision was made to add an African country to the BRIC associaiton, then the four-state grouping of the fastest growing economies in the world, it was these two states which were obviously up for incorporation. No doubt, South Africa’s political openness, redistributive policies, human rights record, voluntary abandoning of nuclear programme and peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy were key contributors in the inclusion of the republic as opposed to its West African counterpart which at the time had a still lacklustre human rights record and was characterised by unpredictability and the memory of military involvement in political life. The choice of South Africa over Nigeria, or any other Sub-Saharan African country, as a BRICS partner was therefore motivated by “the soft power bequeathed by its peaceful transition to democracy” as well as strong institutions which gave it the mantle of being the “go-to partner in Sub-Sahara Africa” (Draper, 2011: 209).
Africa: EU/US/West v China/BRICS/East
If there is any continuity for Africa relating to trade between the Cold War and post-Cold War era, it is that Africa continues to sees itself as being in a position of dependency. Africa accounts for only about 2.4 per cent of global production and trade (Brazil alone in 2014 accounted for 2.8 percent [Roux, 2014: 178]), and most of this trade is from imports. Through the asymmetrically-determined architecture of international trade, African states are denied external markets. Since “the West” determines and sets the rules, African states have been goaded into accepting terms of trade that are unfavourable to their growth (Sasaoka 2006). For example, the increasing pursuit of self-preservation closed off any prospect that the July 2008 Doha Development Round negotiations of the WTO would conclude in a manner that would be beneficial to Africa – and it did not, as agricultural tariffs were only removed for one good, bananas, imported to EU countries and the US from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean (Shah 2013). Added onto this reality is the fact that EU and US governments subsidize the agricultural sector, in which Africa has a natural niche (or comparative advantage to use World Bank and IMF parlance [Shah 2013]). This means that diversifying the African economy will prove very difficult; indeed it already has because African producers find that they cannot compete with the much cheaply-produced Western products in the Western markets (Brass 2008). Furthermore, European and American multinational corporations also come to have a crowding out effect in domestic African markets (Wilkinson, 2014).
Through partnership agreements such the Cotonou Partnership Agreement which was signed in 2000, the European Union provides African countries with access to some of its markets and “asks for compliance with a given set of good governance norms and procedures” (Gokcekus and Suzuki 2013). The relations are asymmetrical as African countries quite clearly need the partnership more than Europe needs concessions from African countries. The asymmetric relationship has thereby given the EU the power to impose on African countries what they deem better governance practices; as did the World Bank and the IMF through structural adjustment programmes (Gokcekus and Suzuki 2013).
Such realities have made the continent’s leaders seek to pursue an alternative route, towards partners who would provide trade while not at the same time “enforcing” structural adjustments, which are deemed to represent an interference akin to “neo-colonialism”. The perceived alternatives have been BRICS, especially India and China. Who have increasingly come to become major players in the African scene. And in terms of soft power, “by contrasting their motives of ‘solidarity’, ‘mutual-benefits’ and a fairer international trade system with a more negatively viewed West with neo-imperialist intentions China and India have been able to portray themselves in a positive light whilst validating their rhetoric of ‘mutual gains’, ‘respect for sovereignty’ and ‘equality’ between recipient and donor” (McCarthy, 2011: 16; italics added).
The anti-West and anti-Bretton Woods turn in Africa is particularly salient of soft power because these states and institutions have more in their financial coffers, physical capital, and are clearly willing to dish it out to African states, and yet due to historical experiences with the Washington-based financiers, sub-Saharan African countries are increasingly opting to pursue a course quite intentionally meant to distance themselves from the organisations for the less financially-studded but clearly more attractive route of BRICS, and even regional organisations such as the African Union, ECOWAS and SADC (Roux, 2014).
Why do states pursue amicable relations with organisations and states that are not doing good for them as opposed to pursuing alternative allies as our understanding of soft power would suggest? Such a dilemma – as seen for example in the tendency of former colonies to pursue asymmetrical trade relations with their former colonisers (Miller, 1966), as opposed to arranging more balanced and mutually beneficial ones with other states with whom such a history does not exist – may prove anathema to the very concept of relative soft power, if not the idea of rational choice theory itself.
Nevertheless, we should note not only the informational paucity that may be at work, but also the subjective nature of the act of weighing options on the part of the appraiser state, as well as the expense of abandoning one course of action over another. Equally significant is the fact that the path from conception to action is a rather gradual one, whose outcomes are not usually constant; made more so by the asymmetrical nature of information. It is also possible that the variables external observers such as scholars take note of are in fact only a small portion of the calculus being performed by the policymakers of appraiser state.
There have also been cases of mixed appraisals of external states by different sections within the population, as well as among the policymakers themselves. This is true of the US-Iran relationship under the Obama Administration during which the President is argued to have had a divergent view on the Iran nuclear deal and indeed pursued a settlement with the Middle Eastern country in spite of opposition from Congress. Another is when the IMF loans which received considerable opposition from the Greek public were accepted by the government regardless; or indeed in the Philippines where the Duterte government has sought to propound a substantially more pro-China policy, whilst polls continue to show that the US enjoys the most favourable ratings in that country than any other populace in the world (Pew Global Indicators Database, 2016). The first lesson to be gleaned from this is the extent to which soft power is not a straightforward phenomenon, and one with many areas in wait for further elaboration and study, and the second speaks to the dilemmas presented by the confluences and divergences between domestic considerations and international aspirations as part of the great ongoing (and probably irresolvable) debates in international relations scholarship.
Sometimes states have seemed to have no preference between one state or an alternative; something which may prove contrary to the argument being made in this paper. For example, after coming into power, Ayatollah Khomeini came to the conclusion that his newly declared Islamic Republic of Iran would uphold an alliance with neither the communist Soviet bloc, nor the capitalist West. Declaring them both to be “Satans”, he chose to pursue the policy of non-alignment. Do moves such as this – of states choosing none of the so-called options available to them – disprove the concept of relative soft power? No. To further elaborate on the Iran case, it is worth noting that the Cold War was between more than just two actors, but really between three; the excesses of both the communists and the capitalists proved unappealing to some and thereby bred a third actor in the Cold War struggle, the Non-Alignment Movement. This is an example of an instance wherein there is more than two actors being weighted in terms of relative soft power by the appraising actor. And it is also worth noting that in speaking of the two “Satans”, the Ayatollah, in precisely the relativistic outlook spoken of in this paper, differentiated between them and offered differential rankings with the US being the “greater Satan” and the Soviet Union being the “lesser Satan”. And is this outlook, this weighing of degrees of compromise that each relationship may bring as opposed to another, not the way that states – African states towards the US and China, Bangladesh towards India and Pakistan, or Turkey towards the US and Russia – are want to think of, though not necessarily go so far as to label, their potential allies and partners?
Conceptualising the war on terror as being really a war between moderate and extremist Muslims, Joseph Nye himself long stated that “the United States must adopt policies that appeal to moderates and must use public diplomacy more effectively to explain common interests to would-be allies in the Muslim world” (2003: 75), in other words it must heighten its appeal vis-à-vis the moderate Muslims who stood to gravitate towards the extremists if the US appeared too “hawkish” in its conduct of the campaign against terrorism; especially if the US invaded (as it was then still planning to invade) Iraq. In essence, much of what this paper has done is elaborate on the obvious. Realists have long argued that economic and military – that is to say hard – power is to be looked at in relative as opposed to absolute terms; such is the root of the security dilemma in many ways. The thesis argued here, that there exists such a thing as the relative nature of soft power, is one that is quite elemental in many scholars’ understanding of power in international relations; it has taken this paper to only articulate and raise some of the dilemmas it poses as well as explicates. To be sure, in showing that soft power is a dynamic and nominally a tripartite relationship, it has also raised the important dilemma of at what point can we state that an actor has lost its soft power appeal. In other words, what is the threshold point of soft power loss? A way, if only perhaps a complicated one, of resolving the dilemma would be for a set of indices which would measure the relative soft power of one actor in relation to another in the outlook of a given state.
Formation of the Political West -from the 18th century till today
The 18th – a century of change
In 1776 the American colonists threw off the British yoke and many people proclaimed with satisfaction, if somewhat relieved and anxious, the Independence of the American people, although they primarily came from Britain. Those who were against Independence made their way northwards to what became Canada. Following the loss of the American colonies, Britain had to quickly find a replacement to put its ne’er-do-wells and unhanged criminals, thus the rediscovery of Australia was timely.
It was the eve of the Industrial Revolution, which is generally acknowledged to have started with James Watt’s 1783 invention of the condenser for the steam engine. Apparently, Watt was walking across Glasgow Green to his office at the University when he had his ‘Eureka’ moment. He was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, which had been running for a few decades and featured such luminaries as David Hume, philosopher, and Adam Smith, who famously wrote the ‘’The Wealth of Nations’’, the ‘bible’ on economics. He was enticed back to Glasgow University from Oxford and, when asked why, he replied because it involved ‘less drinking and more thinking’!
Also, a few decades earlier Frederick the Great (Friedrich II) of the Hohenzollern family and a cousin of George I of Britain, was King of Prussia for about 46 years in the middle part of the 18th century, from taking over in 1740 until 1786. He was a highly intelligent man and able ruler, loved music and philosophy, corresponding with the distinguished French philosopher, Voltaire. He embraced the enlightened new ideas of the day. He was also a clever military strategist, improved the art of war, won the 7-years war against the Hapsburgs and expanded the boundaries of Prussia, by taking Silesia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and parts of Poland and Lithuania. He also improved the system of agriculture significantly, and bemoaned the fact that his land was generally poor. This was part of the European enlightenment, running in parallel with the Scottish and Frederick was a key figure of it. At the end of his days, he saw the major changes brought about by the 1776 American War of Independence and the ructions pending in France, the French Revolution as well as the birth of the Industrial Revolution.
The middle class was growing in Vienna towards the end of the 18th century, life was changing, such that Mozart tried out a new genre from the church music of Bach and Haydn. He felt that the people wanted the music to represent life more and he produced such wonderful works as the Marriage of Figaro to great acclaim. This was overshadowed by the exploits of Napoleon but when all is said and done it is the beautiful music that Mozart, and his successors such as Beethoven, wrote that has stood the test of time.
It was a time of great upheavals. The bloody French revolution, a revolt of the people with the end of the monarchy, which alarmed neighbouring countries, most notably Great Britain and the Hapsburgs in Austria. The rise of Napoleon, Emperor, whose troops conquered much of the land of Europe, dominated political affairs for two and a half decades. He attempted to conquer Russia in 1812, but he risked his supply lines for a comparatively short campaign and forgot these would be badly strained if extended, and was also caught in a terrible Russian winter. He had to retreat in a disorderly fashion back to France. He escaped from captivity and gathered his troops for one further showdown which took place at Waterloo in 1815. He narrowly lost the battle, thanks to a last-minute intervention by General Blucher of Prussia, which gave the victory to Wellington. After Waterloo, Napoleon was captured and exiled to the island of Elba where he died.
Early 19th century
The treaty of Versailles of 1815, which followed, coincided with the biggest volcanic eruption for 73,000 years at Tambora in E. Indonesia which redefined the landscape and left 36,000 dead and more. Two years of no summer and lost harvests and famine in China, N. Ireland, and northeast of the USA were three of the disasters which the eruption affected in many places across the world.
After the Treaty of Versailles, a number of definitive developments took place. It is an unfortunate aspect of war that some of the most significant advances are developed during a major campaign. From the Napoleonic wars, scientists and engineers had opened their minds to civilian possibilities from matters learned. That plus the follow up to Watt’s invention of the steam condenser, the first steamship in the world, called the Comet from Haley’s comet of 1809, made a successful maiden voyage in the same year on the River Clyde from Port Glasgow. Discussions took place from 1816 that the military requirements for revetments and buttresses and for better roadways and so on would have a growing civil use and a small group of British engineers got together and formed The Institution of Civil Engineers in 1819.
This was the first professional body in the world and gave rise to what became a major discipline. It was granted a royal charter in 1829 and the University of Glasgow began teaching the subject about the same time. In addition, in 1825 Robert Stephenson’s steam engine, the Rocket, successfully ran for 30 miles between Stockport and Darlington in the north of England, the first use of steam for land transport by rail. From then on, there was no stopping developments, their improvements, and new inventions. Railways and shipbuilding expanded exponentially. Glasgow grew to become the second city of the British Empire and for a century was the shipbuilding capital of the world.
The Americans still had a Civil War to go through in the mid-1850s before it began to see itself as one nation, the United States of America, although there was still quite a divide in attitudes between north and south, which has not been entirely resolved to this day. Great Britain meanwhile was at the peak of its Empire days, the biggest empire the world had ever seen, supported by being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. By the middle of the 19th century, several events had taken place. A young Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India and a great display of scientific and technical advances was held at an Exhibition in London in 1850 in a specially designed building, the Crystal Palace.
Medical advances were also taking place, but arguably the most important ‘discovery’, despite the perceived wisdom, was that cholera and typhoid were not miasmas, air borne, but were water borne. The building of piped water to the cities from upstream fresh water lakes commenced, the first in Britain being to Glasgow from Loch Katrine, which still operates to this day with some of the original pipework. This significantly added to the growth of cities across Britain.
The expansion from the Industrial Revolution saw the emigration of many poor Irish and the Scots Highlanders, which took place mostly in the first part of the 19th century and flooded the expanding USA and Canada as well as the cities of Glasgow and Liverpool. The bases of some of the other major cities in Britain was founded then and expanded rapidly as new ideas with technological advances were encouraged, unfettered by the politicians ostensibly looking after the people’s interests! That would come later.
The Irish were forced to depart by a disastrous potato famine, with no sympathetic assistance from the British government, the lack of action resulting in great bitterness over the disaster, which has lasted to this day although more muted now. The Scots Highlanders were driven off land, which they had held for generations and replaced by sheep, more profitable use of land. Again, some bitter resentment but more directed to the landowners. The Irish mostly went to the US and the Scots to Canada and, for instance, gave rise to the province of Nova Scotia (New Scotland), a few, the more enterprising, taking some of the more developed aspects of the Industrial Revolution with them. The politics in Britain were changing, in response to the needs of new industries and systems they were generating.
2nd Half of the 19th Century
Meanwhile, the several independent principalities/states that occupied the lands of Germany finally were persuaded by Prince Otto von Bismarck of Prussia that they should amalgamate and form one country of similar peoples; hence Germany was born and Berlin became the agreed capital. The Kaiser, Wilhelm I, of Prussia, close relative of Queen Victoria, his aunt, was made titular head of the new Germany, which incorporated Prussia.
The German states really embraced the Industrial Revolution and quickly developed industries that were leaders in their field. At the same time so did the USA where there was a steady influx of Europeans getting away from poverty, persecution or simply hardship, as well as the Irish, to a chance for a better life. And the US thrived.
Prussia were at odds with the French and went to war in 1870. The French were expected to win but were unexpectedly trounced, which gave the ‘modern’ German army with its Prussian aristocratic leadership a boost to its confidence. One factor that was very important for subsequent events, such as the First World War, was that, in the amalgamation of states that led to Germany, the Prussian army was not controlled by the Bundestag, the civilian government in Berlin, but was solely answerable to the Kaiser in his role as King of Prussia
Come the 1890s, Bismarck was getting old and Hindenburg and Ludendorff were promoting the strength of the army, persuading the ambitions of the Kaiser, now Wilhelm II, who had succeeded from his father, Wilhelm I. Wilhelm II, whose favourite aunt was Queen Victoria, suffered from mood swings and was quite malleable in the hands of the army. A sideshow took place in S. Africa, except from the British viewpoint. This was the Boer War at the end of the 1890s; one ugly development during the war was put into later tragic effect by the Nazis, the concentration camp.
First half of the 20th Century
New ideas were stirring at the start of the new century. Women were restive and were pushing for recognition through the vote. In Britain they were called suffragettes. The new Germany was becoming more aggressive with the Kaiser in the hands of and influenced by the Prussian/German army. Germany was increasingly industrialising and thereby becoming a force in Europe. Queen Victoria died after the century dawned and her son, Edward VII, came to the throne as a middle-aged man and lasted for a decade. Karl Marx had published his principles of socialism, which appealed to the growing and better educated working class.
In the Far East, Japan, following the restitution of the Meiji dynasty in 1868, were also industrialising and signed a close cooperation treaty with Britain in 1903, arguably the most serious European power with Far East interests. (Grandfather, Scott Younger was appointed by Emperor Hirohito as the Hon Japanese Consul for Glasgow & W of Scotland, 1911-31). Meanwhile, the US had been recovering from the mid-century Civil War and been expanding and growing. The first decade of the 20th century saw Theodore Roosevelt as President and he embodied the ‘go get ‘em’ spirit, anything is possible.
Then we come to 1914-18, the First World War, started by the assassination of Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. After some political jockeying Germany mobilised its armed forces and moved against Poland which had a back- to- back treaty with France in turn bringing in Belgium and Britain. Four long years of senseless slaughter followed, those in authority not getting to grips with what had to be done, fighting a 20th century battle with tactics back in the 19th century. More deaths were caused by disease- rat-borne typhus- than bullets and then followed by the flu pandemic which ensued in 1919 and caused 20 million deaths. Europe was exhausted but it is worth looking at what was happening to the principal actors in the drama.
The US had adopted an isolationist stance, said it was totally a European fight and only joined the Allied cause when a leaked document showed that the Germans were trying to incite the Mexicans to take up arms against the Americans. The US involvement, in the last year of the war, tipped the balance in the Allies favour. Germany capitulated and ‘the war to end all wars’ concluded in November 1918. At the peace negotiations which followed much squabbling ensued, none of the protagonists showing much leadership. Onerous reparations were demanded of Germany which constrained their recovery and within a comparatively short time gave rise to the Nazi party and Hitler. The Japanese were treated poorly and the ultimate insult was the US insistence that the British rescind their 1903 treaty with Japan in 1923 which caused a big loss of face. The Japanese then started to look at the European powers that had colonial interests in the Far East at a time when prominent citizens of those colonised countries were questioning why they had to put up with their colonial masters. The European powers were surprisingly thin on the ground.
The US were running into domestic problems with a great economic depression and were not greatly interested in foreign affairs through the 1920s and 1930s. Meanwhile, socialism was taking root in Europe; in Russia, with the murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Lenin, a disciple of Marx and following a short interregnum, was busy preparing the way for the communist form of socialism, which lasts to this day.
The societies of the other main protagonists of the Great War as it was called, Britain and France, were going through a change, socialism’s ideas were gaining ground along with a determination that they should not countenance such a disruptive war again with such a loss of life. Women were finding a voice, particularly since they had had to undertake many jobs, that were formerly the preserve of men, during the war because the men were away fighting and dying. They were not going to be just housewives any more. That and the Labour movement with the ideas of socialism and the economic depression in Britain was leading to significant changes in society. Domestic issues prevailed in Britain as well; little attention was given to what was happening in Germany and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
The Allies had placed strict rules on German rearmament, but with all that was going on domestically and the changes taking place across Europe little attention was paid to what the Germans were doing. Hitler took advantage of this and from the mid-1920s, entrenched as Chancellor, with a nod of approval from Hindenburg, embarked on a rapid rearmament programme. He tried to see what reaction he would provoke by carrying out sorties in the Sudetan land of Czechoslovakia and finally annexing it. No adverse response! His planes were also active on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, a forerunner to WWII. Hitler was ready to expand the territories of the 100- year Third Reich.
Meanwhile, the Japanese had gone to a war footing having beaten the Russians off Vladivostock, and had successful interventions into Manchuria, northern China in 1931 and more notoriously at the city of Nanjing, where many of the citizens were massacred in 1937. Come the end of the 1930s they were ready to expand into Southeast Asia and this was triggered by the USA slapping a trade embargo on them, particularly with regard to oil, in 1941. This would have stifled their economy and their unspoken aims for expansion.
The USA, as stated above, through the 20s and 30s were absorbed by the Great Depression and mainly internal affairs and certainly did not want to be drawn into another world war of European making. They did not enter, only joining the Allies in early 1942 after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, by the Japanese on 7 December 1941, Day of Infamy! Before this they had supplied Britain with food and armaments, but that was all. It was the action by the Japanese which triggered the US response.
With the USA fully involved from 1942 with the Allies the odds had dramatically changed. It merely became a question of time before Germany would have to capitulate. Russia, who had originally ‘secretly’ joined the Nazis in 1939 until the Nazis turned on them at the end of 1940, were an ally of the Western powers, being supplied in part by them, originally so that they could keep the Nazis occupied on the eastern flank. Hitler had to win quickly over the Soviets. He didn’t, and the siege of Leningrad has gone down in history as an epic piece of resistance. Hitler had made the same mistake as Napoleon over a century earlier, trying to conquer the sizable Russian army in the middle of winter with unacceptably long lines of communication. Thereafter, it was a question of time once the US entered the war.
The US, with good numbers of troops, took charge of the Pacific arena, where they had been attacked by the Japanese and felt they had a significant score to settle. Japanese had run over most of Southeast Asia and were trying to get into India. They were stopped at Kohima, in W Burma, in 1944 on the way to India by a British/Indian army group, which successfully held a siege line for months and signalled the end of their expansion goals. Lack of food and long supply lines finally, after several months of trying, made the exhausted Japanese retreat. The dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1946 brought the Pacific War to an end and thus ended WWII.
The war in Europe had ended some 16 months earlier and the first stages of the Cold War boundaries between the Communist regime of Russia, henceforward to be known as the USSR, and the western powers had been drawn up, after a fashion! Russia had overrun much of Eastern Europe and these countries were absorbed into a USSR hegemony until the 1980s when many of these countries, such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, were given their liberty from the USSR yoke. In time they were granted membership of and integrated into the European Union.
Berlin was divided into 4 parts in 1945, each run by one of the four Allies, USA, Britain, USSR, and France. The east Germans hated the USSR domination and the communist rule and escaped to the west in significant numbers across the border dividing East Germany from the western powers, until the communist government of East Germany became very alarmed and built a wall, the Berlin wall, to stop the brain drain. This stayed in place up till 1989 when the USSR retreated, the Russians regime having changed, softened, earlier in the 1980s, and the reunification of Germany was enacted. The Russians had realised that they could not keep up with the US economically.
Back to the end of the WWII. The western powers did not make the same mistake as they had after WWI, when they had demanded reparations from the Germans for the damage and losses sustained, feeding into an underlying resentment. The USA had resources and offered $13 billion under a European Recovery Plan to the economies of Western Europe, effective 1948. The architect of the plan was Secretary of State George Marshall. The USSR was similarly offered but rejected it and did not allow any of its satellite states to participate either. They thought that communism was the right approach to government and considered that they would succeed over the western powers.
The USA, in particular, were strongly opposed to communism and feared its spread, which coloured its thinking for the following decades, and it realised that it would have to take the lead on this important political issue and would need the western allies to support. Consequently, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed to counter the spread of communism. It was a time when the UN was formed also, the successor to the League of Nations, the unsuccessful attempt after WWI to launch such a body, and the World Bank. The US was hence fully engaged with the world and this was signified by their hosting these organisations in New York and Washington respectively.
Back in the rest of the world, particularly the Far East, time was running out on colonialism. The US did not like colonialism, although they had slaves for over a century to run their tobacco and cotton plantations, not the same thing perhaps. Also the self-government movements that had been taking root and growing were vociferous in their demands, particularly in India and Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), helped by the interregnum of the Japanese involvement in many countries during the war years. Thus, in a short period after WWII the Dutch and British had started to grant independence, from 1947, particularly with respect to the Dutch East Indies and India, respectively. The French followed in 1955 in Vietnam, after their loss at the battle of Dien Bien Phu to the N. Vietnamese.
2nd Half of the 20th Century- from 1950 onwards
China had also embraced communism after the defeat of Chiang Kai Chek by the army of Mao Tse Tung. Chiang Kai Chek with his forces took flight to and set up a government in Taiwan, in 1949. Communist China over the years became a force to be reckoned with.
Gradually the newly independent countries settled down but there were still two wars to be fought, the Korean in the 1950s and the Vietnam in the 1960s into the early 1970s. Mao Tse Tung became the President of the Chinese communist party and leader of the country. He believed to really follow the communist path that he had to (re) educate the populace and so he moved the people – The Long March, in which millions died. In fact, more people died because of Mao, 20 million, last century, than died at the hands of Stalin or Hitler, each of whom did not care for human life if it got in the way of their plans.
The US were very concerned with the apparent power and rise of the USSR and initially, to a lesser extent, China. They gave full support to the S Koreans and the western allies joined them. The war was the first serious encounter between communism espoused by China and the western democratic countries, led by the US. With no obvious side winning a truce was agreed in 1955.
President Eisenhower’s 8-year tenure was in the 1950s and he was very familiar with Europe and the pressure and threats of communism having been the General in charge of the allied troops during WWII. He was pro NATO and fully realised the importance to that organisation of US involvement. He knew that to avoid the spread of the communist movement, either through the USSR in the west or China in the east, that the leadership of the US was essential. Similarly, the US spent a lot of effort preventing unwanted communistic ideas taking root in S. America, which they saw as their own backyard.
The US became increasingly involved in Vietnam, taking over from the French, throughout the 1960s but could not find a way to win, frustrated by the N. Vietnamese, Vietcong, with their series of underground tunnels. When General Westmoreland asked for additional troops, the US Congress realised that something was wrong and pulled the plug after a decade of increasing involvement with no end in sight. They withdrew the last troops leaving in somewhat of a shambolic fashion from Saigon in 1972; a strategic withdrawal it was not.
The US had fought this war for the then fear of communism spreading throughout Southeast Asia. President Soekarno of Indonesia, head of the largest of the Southeast Asian nations, as a result of his imbuing socialist ideas when in Europe in the 1930s, was sympathetic to communist China, but he was forced to resign in 1967 through poor management of his country, and the army, in the form of Soeharto, took over. The US were much relieved and this signalled henceforth a pro-western change of direction for a key country and arguably the end of the threat of the spread of communism – at the moment anyway.
The end of the1950s/ start of the 1960s saw some significant inventions which led to major leaps forward on several fronts. For instance, Baird’s 1930s invention of television had made great strides commercially, both the USSR and the US had successful first moves into space with the Americans being the first to put a man on the Moon, and the discovery of the properties of the silicon chip heralded the advent of commercially available computers leading to the digital age. Scientific advances were henceforward dramatic with computers. Society also changed. There were generations growing up who had not been directly touched by WWII. Pop music became a reality! The Beatles became a cult creating a step change just as Mozart had created a step change in music two and a quarter centuries ago.
The decade of the 1970s saw an unforeseen rise in the birth rate, such that the 3 billion population of the late 1960s grew to approaching 9 billion today. China caught onto it and reacted to the problem that a fast birth rate would cause in terms of demand outstripping food production. It forcibly introduced a one child policy, which led to another problem later on, an imbalance of the sexes. Indonesia with improved management of the economy under Soeharto, who rightly knew that the economy had to be handled by experts and allowed the Berkeley trained economists, the mafia as they were called, to get on with it. There was a steady acceptable growth rate, and the population was gradually lifted out of poverty, one benefit being increased longevity. The Indonesian government of the day advised its adults to restrict its families to two children – dua anak cukup. Notwithstanding, the Indonesian population, through sensible policies, had doubled to 200 million and the average longevity increased from a low of 47 years to 70 years over the 30 years leading up to the turn of the century.
The UK at last joined the European market on 1st January 1973, when Ted Heath was Prime Minister for a few years, an interregnum between Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. The 1970s were very difficult for the UK. It started when the price of oil went up by 4 times overnight and the economy was strapped. Heath instituted a 3-day working week, the miners went on strike and a general election was called with the catch phrase ‘who ran the country, the unions or the Government?’ The Labour party was elected but by a very narrow margin and with no overall majority. It called for Wilson to hold another election at the end of the year to increase the Labour vote. Heath resigned to make way for Margaret Thatcher and Wilson stepped aside for Callaghan. The economy remained in a mess. Europe was not foremost on people’s minds, although Europe had to contend with the oil price as well.
The years of Callaghan’s Government were very difficult, ending with a call on the IMF, which was greatly embarrassing. The Labour government had struggled with the economy and lost the election of 1979, which brought Margaret Thatcher to the fore, the first female prime minister in UK history. She served for the next decade.
Meanwhile, come 1980 Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and peanut farmer, had been defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan, a B movie actor who was re-elected to complete a stint of 8 years in the White House. The most significant issue in Carter’s years was his signing of an agreement with Deng Xiao Ping of China in 1979. The signing of the agreement was meant to bring a closer cooperation between the US and China. Reagan’s years were deemed a good term of office and he had a good working relationship with Margaret Thatcher.
Nearly 3 years into office, Margaret Thatcher had a small war to contend with when the Argentinians tried to take over the Falkland Islands with force, the Malvinas, as Argentina called them. She handled this firmly, had the support of the US, and earned another term in office, which was being questioned because she had taken on the trade unions and was pushing a mandate to privatise several of the industries which the Labour governments had nationalised. She got on well with Reagan, as stated, each was all for government underpinned by capitalism and the private sector. Reagan completed his term of office in 1988; Margaret Thatcher had lost the trust of many of the senior members of the Conservative party and was forced to resign, making way for John Major, largely her protégé.
Much to people’s surprise he managed to win at the next General Election in 1992, possibly because John Smith, the Labour leader, had died, giving way to a largely unprepared Neil Kinnock, which meant the Conservatives were in office till 1997. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton had regained the presidency for the Democrats and was resident in the White House for 8 years till 2000, surprisingly beating the incumbent George Bush, Snr.
In the Bush Snr 4-year term of office started in 1988 when he took over from Reagan. Well into his term he began the US engagement in the Middle East, at the behest of the Saudis, when Sadam Hussein attacked and temporarily annexed Kuwait in 1991. The neighbouring countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, were concerned and sought US help. This brought the US into the problems of the Middle East and they have been there to this day albeit latterly they have indicated they want to withdraw.
But first we must look back at the complex structure of the Middle East, but we shall restrict this to post 1948, when the State of Israel was mandated. The history of the Middle East should really go back several millennia, to Babylon and earlier, and the subsequent interaction of the three main monotheistic religions.
Another sign that matters were changing came in 1956 when Col Nasser took over in Egypt and his attempt to take over the Suez Canal from the Anglo-French consortium that had run it for many decades, having built it. The French with British help sent in the troops and asked for American assistance. It was somewhat of a shock when it was not forthcoming, a warning that one had to get permission first when the Americans were to be involved. It was another lesson for the British and French that their influence in the Middle East was declining rapidly.
The Palestinians were less than happy when they were cut off from Jerusalem and even resorted to war. In 1967, the Arabs were confident about winning the 6-day war which erupted but were soundly beaten. The Palestinians lost some territory but, most importantly influence among the other Arab nations. The US had always supported Israel and this has been strengthened with the passage of time.
In Europe the USSR had been crumbling by the 1980s, Stalin was long gone. By the end of this period the Berlin Wall had come down, 1989, leading to the reunification of Germany, and most of the other satellite countries in the USSR hegemony were released from their ties to Moscow. Although Yugoslavia had not been under Soviet control it was a country that was made up of 3 separate parts, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. With the relaxation of any lingering Soviet threat, the three parts started to quarrel amongst themselves. It became quite serious in 1992 and lasted for three years, as neighbours who had lived comfortably side by side for years under Tito’s Yugoslavia, turned against each other because of background and/or religious belief. The Serbians were Greek orthodox Christians, the Croatians Catholic while Bosnians were followers of Islam, from the days when the land was run by the Ottomans, but with a significant number of people who considered themselves Serbs or Slavs.
This was a job for the UN to keep the peace, but they only had a mandate as peacekeepers. They went in with instructions not to interfere and watched while the combatants competed bitterly, no quarter given. The genocidal massacre at Srebinica by the Serbians was the last straw and the UN were then given the mandate to act with force, using units of the British and French armies. Peace was restored. The US was not involved except from the side lines and the subsequent peace process.
In the Far East, the nations of China, ASEAN, S Korea and Japan had been prospering. That is until 1997 when the Asian Economic Crisis struck, first in S Korea and spread to several countries most notably Indonesia. There the effect was dramatic, bringing about the end of the 30-year rule of Soeharto and a change in direction of the way Indonesia was governed to a more democratic manner. Vietnam was showing signs of opening up to western ways of governance although still espoused a single party state. It took the better part of five years to throw off the setback of the Crisis for Indonesia to recover to a growth rate of 5% but none of the countries of the Far East was affected to the same extent when an Economic crisis hit the US banks and financial institutions in 2008, spilling over into Europe, to a significant extent.
As stated above, before that the Middle East had embroiled the US, with forces from the allies, when Sadam Hussein of Iraq had attacked Kuwait in 1991. The regaining of Kuwait under UN mandate cleared the Iraqis but they were not pursued at that time beyond their border till much later. The US had become engaged and US forces presence in the region would continue.
The US and China in the 21st Century
In the 21 years of this century, the main protagonists have firmed up to be China and the US, the two largest economies in the world, the first following the dictatorial one-party communist path and the latter the US espousing the western democratic precepts of government.
China has been increasingly robust in internal affairs, for example its heavy-handed, sometimes brutal, handling of the Uighers and its dealings concerning Hong Kong where they have overridden the agreement signed with the British in 1997; one country two systems, which was supposed to last 50 years. They are showing signs of flaunting their disregard of international opinion for their actions in the S China sea where they have created islands in the building up sand banks, then claiming that these islands are China’s territory and establishing military bases on them. They pretend to take exception to when a foreign military vessel or airplane ventures close to the islands. These actions worry some ASEAN countries, especially those depending on the S. China Sea, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The US was shocked when the landmark building, the 100 storey Twin Towers, was subjected to a suicide attack with highjacked airliners on 11th September 2001. The world looked on in horror as the towers came crashing down and thousands of people lost their lives. The shock was made more appalling because it was the first time that the US had been successfully attacked in their homeland. However, the US quickly picked up the pace to reply, and responded with some force. They arranged support from the UN on the basis of weapons of mass destruction which they claimed the Iraqis had produced, but was unproven. It was not long before Saddam was caught and hanged. The US built up the troops and propped up the replacement government. The end of Saddam led to instability between the two main factions of Islam, the Sunnis and the majority in Iraq, the Shias. This widened as the years went on, the US not fully understanding the requirements for peace in an increasingly complex situation. The troops were withdrawn by 2011 just as Syria went into conflict and widened the base and the number of interested parties, particularly the Al Qaeda/ISIS extreme religious faction. In 2014 the Americans came back, although its main focus was on Syria and increasingly on Iran.
The first two decades the US were fully involved in the Middle East except for the three years they up wound their operations in Iraq after 2011. Syria became embroiled in civil war in 2011 when pro-democracy insurgents tried to overcome the government of Bashar al Assad which brought in ISIS and Al Qaeda and other factions, the Kurds, for instance. The United States was brought in and placed sanctions on the government. The conflict has created a huge refugee crisis, not yet resolved.
The main thrust of US actions, however, was in Afghanistan because of Al Qaeda and their involvement in the Twin Towers. They threw out the Taliban government in 2011, but the Taliban were patient, waiting until the US were ‘tired’ of their role as policeman, foregoing the development programmes that were running in the country. This came about in August 2021 when the Americans pulled their troops, much to the shock of the Afghan people and somewhat the surprise of the American people The country is left in disarray in the hands of the mediaeval religious Taliban and no future, until either they are deposed or an acceptable compromise is found that is suitable for all the people.
The Chinese see that the US is not focussing on world affairs, after a 4- year term of the unusual Trump presidency – a genius from his own perspective!!- followed by the occasionally forgetful Biden. The pandemic has not helped. Expect the Chinese to make use, from their own expansionist aims viewpoint, of this rather weak period of US government. They may try to take advantage of the situation with regard to Taiwan risking UN protests on the way.
Final thoughts of the day
These are of some concern. The issues are from a political point of view i) China is flexing its muscles and might risk a conflict escalation over Taiwan and beyond. They feel strong enough to test the US which is dangerous. ii) the US may not show the leadership qualities we in the western world have come to rely on, and become embroiled in domestic affairs. They have a tendency for isolationism. China is watching this carefully. iii) Europe is somewhat lacking in direction following Brexit, changes at the top, and the difficulties it faces in dealing with some of the new members to the east of the union. Perhaps the headquarters should be more central for the size of the EU as it has become rather than Brussels in the early days. iv) Britain remains divided after Brexit, dreams of a future in a trans-Pacific trade partnership – unlikely, and looks back to the glory days of the past, where they will remain, iv) ASEAN will need to deal with the Myanmar problem and the creeping dominance of China in the S. China sea; worrying. v) The Middle East, the home of the three monotheistic religions, will rumble on for a good number of years, leading to more refugee crises. vi) Afghanistan: The Taliban are trying to create a mediaeval/ archaic religious state- will they be allowed to do this’ll? vii) Sub – Saharan Africa; a lot to do in terms of aid, not just money, and another billion in population forecast by the end of the century. The younger generation are eager. viii) Australia: they are concerned that China/Chinese is/are buying so much property. China not happy with them that they have signed a pact with Britain and the US in recent days- AUKUS.
The issues from an environmental point of view can be put in two interacting headings, namely population and the planet. The population of the world is given in the following table from the 18th century onwards:
1700 – 650 million
1800 – 1,00 billion
1900 – 1.85 billion
1970 – 3.00 billion
2021 – 8.50 billion
2051 – 10.00 + billion
It can be seen that the human race went on an astonishing expansion spree in the late 1960s, and we have almost reached what some scientists believe is the maximum that the planet can safely hold, without upsetting the environment irrecoverably. This feeds, no pun intended, into the climate debate which is very much on everyone’s mind. But the question of population, which was of concern 10-15 years ago, has dropped from prominence and been replaced by what the population is perceived to have done and do today to the climate.
It is interesting to note that for 170 years of the Industrial Revolution, till 1960s, when the fuel of choice was coal, the CO2 in the atmosphere had barely increased from 310ppm to 340ppm. It then increased to 425ppm in 60 years – as a result of human population growth and activity? We must always remember that CO2 is a building block of life; should it fall below 150ppm then all life will die off.
The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) is a high-level body steering governments towards addressing the issue of climate change. They are political in scope and with a goal that brooks no inconvenient information. Their agenda is set. However, they have stated that the Climate is a chaotic system and may remain out of reach! They have taken an average global temperature for their global climate change models (GCMs) because of the sheer computing power required; however, the world does not turn on an average global temperature and we certainly don’t live in one.
One way to divide the world is according to regional climates and the 200+ countries of the world will see how they fit and the type of pollution they must address. In this way, their contribution can be directed to their climate and they can address matters of environment close to home; population, urban v rural, waste and pollution, land and sea (if relevant), water supply, (de) forestation, energy – type and efficiency, and so on. Small countries or groups of countries working together can make a significant contribution in this way. In terms of sustainable development, this falls in line with the bottom up principle1 and all can see what they have to do. The larger countries, which have a major part to play should divide their countries up into areas of similar climate and examine what best to do in each part. This would apply to Russia, the US, China, Brazil for instance, and the EU can group nation states together. Something has to be done.
Looking to the Future
Imagine this is 2050. The millennial generation will be in the onset of early middle age, assuming the trend of longevity and that we have mastered the need to put a brake on population growth. For someone born today, last century will just be ’history’. The millennial generation will be at an age where they are mature and expected to take on responsibility. What will be the tools that will be available to them?
Today we accept that we have entered the digital age and it is extending to many walks of life. It is also the early days of artificial intelligence, something that would only have been considered a fantasy 70 years ago when we had not properly entered the computer age. Artificial intelligence is real but can we turn robots to think like human beings; will they have emotional intelligence? What will be their needs? Very exciting but fraught with obvious dangers.
Then there is space and the need for the enquiring mind. It has taken 60 years from the first men up in space, but hundreds of satellites circling the globe checking everything we wish from weather events and so on. NASA use the satellites to monitor climate, giving us the most accurate data to date. But a select few of the world’s billionaires are trying out commercial flights. Will it be the precursor to daily flights to the moon or into space for the more well-to-do?
There will be, however, a billion or so still in poverty. A blight on mankind’s endeavours! What would Frederick the Great and the other distinguished luminaries of 18th century life think of life 3 centuries on? They would understand poverty but they would have been amazed at what mankind had achieved and what he was still aiming to do. The Sun, which is our main source of heat, is supposed to last another 1 billion years which gives us plenty of time to find alternative accommodation for ourselves provided we find ways to develop sensibly.
Afghanistan: Centre stage of the UN General Assembly
As each September, except last year’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of heads of government and state arrived in New York City to deliver grandiloquent speeches at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
And although this year some decided to stay at home and sent pre-recorded statements, almost a hundred world leaders met in the huge UNGA Chamber to dissect the planet’s most pressing challenges and threats.
Afghanistan itself did not take the podium, as the representative of the former government of Ashraf Ghani, who still holds Afghanistan UN seat, withdrew his name just before he was scheduled to speak.
Since the ‘World Cup of Diplomacy’ took place only weeks after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, and as the Spanish Prime Minister put it, “all eyes [were] focused, obviously, on Afghanistan.”
The gathering, held between the 21 to the 27 of September, provides a great deal of insight about what key global leaders think, intend and seek out of this new chapter in Afghanistan’s troubled history.
President of the United States, Joe Biden
For starters, Mr. Biden did little to hide his satisfaction for having led the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. “We have ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan … we’ve turned the page,” boasted the American president.
After that moment of pride, he acknowledged the humanitarian agony endured by millions of Afghans, indicating Washington’s and its allies’ intention to relief it, with a caveat. “The UN Security Council adopted a resolution outlining how we will support the people of Afghanistan, laying out the expectations to which we will hold the Taliban when it comes to respecting universal human rights,” reminded the 78-year resident of the White House.
Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov
Mr. Lavrov used his address to denounce what, on his view, are the West’s disastrous state building enterprises. “The chaos that accompanied [the US’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan] is a further demonstration of the rules [with which] the West is going to build its world order,” mocked the Russian Foreign Minister.
“In Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and in other hotbeds, all external actors must show an understanding of the cultural and civilisational specifics of society, reject politicisation of humanitarian aid, and assist in the creation of broadly representative bodies of authority that would involve all major ethnic, religious and political forces of the relevant countries,” warned Mr. Lavrov.
President of the European Council; representing the European Union (EU), Charles Michel
The former Prime Minister of Belgium voiced a degree of mea culpa on behalf of the EU.“The new situation in Afghanistan is a failure for the international community. And lessons must be learned from it. But one thing is certain: the end of military operations is not the end of Europe’s commitment to the Afghan people.”
“We want to avoid a humanitarian disaster and to preserve as many of the gains of the past 20 years as possible, in particular the rights of women and girls,” emphasized the Brussels diplomat, stressing the EU hopes for the future of Afghanistan.
President of China, Xi Jinping
In a pre-recorded video message, and without referring to Afghanistan once, the Chinese leader rejected state building adventurism. ”Recent developments in the international situation show, once again, that military intervention from the outside and so-called democratic transformation entail nothing but harm,” pointed Mr. Xi Jinping.
“We need to advocate peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom which are the common values of humanity,” he went on to say, using again the term democracy, a concept that the Chinese President would certain define differently that most dignitaries at the UNGA Chamber.
Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan
As the country with more at stake of developments in Kabul, Afghanistan’s uncertain future was also one of the central pieces of Mr. Khan’s UNGA speech. “There are two paths that we can take. If we neglect Afghanistan […] this will have serious repercussions not just for the neighbors of Afghanistan but everywhere. A destabilized, chaotic Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for international terrorists – the reason why the US came to Afghanistan in the first place,” stated the former cricket star.
In his address, the Prime Minister of Pakistan showed a considerable degree of trust on the pledges made by the Taliban since coming back to power. “What have the Taliban promised? They will respect human rights. They will have an inclusive government. They will not allow their soil to be used by terrorists. And they have given amnesty,” said Mr. Khan, even if in many instances the Taliban have not lived up to their word.
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi
On his first speech to the UN, Mr. Raisi told Western powers away from foreign adventurism.“What is seen in our region today proves that not only the hegemonist and the idea of hegemony, but also the project of imposing a Westernized identity have failed miserably. The result of seeking hegemony has been blood-spilling and instability and, ultimately, defeat and escape. Today, the US does not get to exit Iraq and Afghanistan but is expelled,” vented Iran’s new president.
But the Iranian leader also exhibited scepticism and concern about the new Afghan rulers. “If an inclusive government having an effective participation of all ethnicities does not emerge to run Afghanistan, security will not be restored to the country,” said Mr Raisi referring to the country’s third larger ethnic group, the Hazaras, a mostly Shia minority in Afghanistan long persecuted by radical elements of the Sunni majority.
India Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi
Mr. Modi sent several indirect messages to Islamabad, a common neighbour of India and Afghanistan. “Countries that are using terrorism as a political tool have to understand that terrorism is an equally big threat to them. It is very important to ensure that the soil of Afghanistan is not used for spreading terrorism and terrorist attacks,” said Mr. Modi.
The Indian Prime Minister urged action to tackle the lamentable humanitarian situation in the embattled country: “the people of Afghanistan, the women and children there, the minorities there, need help, and we have to discharge our responsibility.”
President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
As most of his non-Western counterparts did, Mr. Erdoğan used the UNGA podium to scold the countries involved in the Afghan invasion and its ill-fated outcome.
“We witnessed in Afghanistan that problems cannot be solved by imposing methods that do not take into account the realities and the social fabric on the ground. The people of Afghanistan have been left alone, abandoned to the consequences of instability and conflicts that last more than four decades,” vented the Turkish President.
Amir of the State of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani
Given the oversized role of the tiny but affluent State of Qatar in Afghanistan, the UNGA speech of the Amir generated a substantial amount of attention. And similarly to the Turkish leader, Mr. Al-Thani sent an unambiguous message to the US and its allies: “Afghanistan is not a matter of victory or defeat but rather an issue of failure to impose a political system from outside. Regardless of intentions, efforts made, and money invested, this experience in Afghanistan has collapsed after twenty years.”
On the human rights-humanitarian aid question, the Emir encouraged the world to hurry up, no matter what. “We emphasize the importance of the international community’s continued support to Afghanistan at this critical stage and to separate humanitarian aid from political differences,” warned the ruler of Qatar.
During his speech, UK’s Boris Johnson did not refer to developments in Afghanistan, as his talk was entirely devoted to global warming and the November COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.
Yet, the Italian-led G20 virtual meeting of foreign ministers about Afghanistan in the sidelines of the UNGA showed that the perilous humanitarian and human rights situation in the country, as well as Kabul diplomatic limbo, are today one of the top geopolitical priorities for leaders worldwide.
International Relations Amid the Pandemic
We could rest assured that COVID-19 will be defeated, sooner rather than later. The excessive angst and fear we currently feel will gradually subside, while our science will find effective antidotes so that people could look back on the pandemic years as a ghastly dream.
At the same time, it is also clear that a post-pandemic world will be quite different to the world we knew before. The argument that the world needs a massive shake-up to move to the next stage of its development has been quite popular ever since the end of the Cold War. Some prophesied that this would come as a result of a profound economic crisis, while others argued that a large-scale war may well be on the cards. As often happens, though, what turned the world on its head came as if out of nowhere. Within a short span of just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on all the many contradictions and setbacks of our age. It went on to outline the trajectory for economic prosperity, scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements going forward, opening up new opportunities for self-realization and fulfilment. The question pertinent today is: Who will be able to best exploit the new reality and take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up? And how?
COVID-19 has also left its mark on the current architecture of international relations.
At the turn of the century, it was mired in crisis. The end of the Cold War towards the late 20th century effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from the bipolar world order established in the wake of the Second World War to a model that had yet to be created. A bitter struggle would unfold as to what the new world order had to be, with the issue still unsettled today. A number of states, as well as non-state actors, willing to take advantage of this uncertainty in global affairs and redistribute the spheres of influence in the world is what it ultimately boils down to. In a sense, such a scenario should have come as no surprise since the contradictions between the profound changes encompassing the public domain and the rigid model of international relations established in the mid-20th century by the powers victorious in the Second World War had continued to grow in recent decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a stern and unprecedented test of strength that has revealed the limits of the current architecture of international relations. Previous crises—be they financial turmoil, struggle against terrorism, regional conflicts or something else—were, in fact, temporary and rather limited in their implications, however severe they were. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every country in the world, regardless of their political regimes and social conventions, economic prosperity and military might. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world as well as the growing risks and challenges; and if ignored, they could plunge the world into a descending spiral of self-destruction.
The pandemic continues, which means we are yet to draw a final conclusion on its consequences for the system of international relations. That being said, a number of tentative conclusions are already taking shape.
Point 1. Globalization, despite its obvious side effects, has already changed the face of our world, irreversibly making it truly interdependent. This has been said before; however, the opponents of globalization have tried—and continue to try—to downplay its consequences for modern society. As it happens, they would like to think of globalization as little more than an episode in international life. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, it is nevertheless incapable of changing the familiar landscape of the world. The pandemic has lifted the curtain on what the modern world truly looks like. Here, state borders are nothing more than an administrative and bureaucratic construct as they are powerless to prevent active communication among people, whether spiritual, scientific, informational or of any other kind. Likewise, official borders are not an obstacle to the modern security threats proliferating among states. The waves of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on all countries. No nation has been able to escape this fate. The same will also happen time and again with other challenges unless we recognize this obvious reality to start thinking about how states should act amid the new circumstances.
Point 2. The international system withstood the initial onslaught in spite of the incessant fearmongers prophesying its impending collapse. Following a rather brief period of confusion and helplessness, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, G20 and other global and regional organizations got their act together (albeit some better than others), taking urgent action to contain the pandemic. This proves that the system of international relations that was constructed after the Second World War still functions, although it is far from perfect or devoid of shortcomings.
In a similar vein, the fight against the pandemic has demonstrated that many international structures are increasingly out of step with the modern reality, proving incapable of mobilizing quickly enough to make a difference in our ever-changing world. This, once again, pushes to the fore the issue of a reformed United Nations system (and other international institutions), while the issue is progressively getting even more urgent. Moving forward, the international community will likely have to face challenges no less dangerous than the current pandemic. We have to be prepared for this.
Point 3. As the role of international institutions in global affairs weakens, centrifugal tendencies gain momentum, with countries—for the most part, global leaders—starting to put their national interests first. The global information war surrounding various anti-COVID-19 vaccines is a prime example of this. Not only has it seriously upset successes in the fight against the pandemic, but it has also added a new dimension to mutual distrust and rivalry. The world has effectively fallen back to the “rules” of the Cold War era, when countries with different socio-political systems were desperate to prove their superiority, with little regard for common interests such as security and development.
Pursuing such a policy today is fraught with grave consequences for every nation, since new security threats care little for borders. The recent events in Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for us all, showing that any serious regional crisis, even in a most remote corner of the world, will inevitably have global implications. Therefore, we are all facing a stark choice: either unite against these new challenges or become hostage to the various extremists and adventurers.
Point 4. Some political leaders have been quick to use the challenges of the pandemic as a pretext to strengthen the role of the state at the expense of fundamental democratic principles and binding international obligations. This may be justified or even necessitated at a time of the most acute phases of a severe crisis, when all available resources need to be mobilized to repel the threat.
However, one gets the impression that some politicians are increasingly in the groove for these extended powers and would very much like to hold onto them, using the likelihood of new crises as a justification. This line of thinking could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a new model of international relations to be established in accordance with the modern reality, where states would be expected to pool their efforts in the interests of global security and development.
Point 5. As always happens in times of profound crises, the international community is looking to major powers and their leadership for guidance. The future course of history in all realms of life, naturally including international relations, will hinge on what these countries choose to do, deciding whether solidarity prevails over national egoism. President Putin’s initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members could be a good starting point to foster understanding and seek new ways of moving forward. We cannot keep putting off a frank and thorough conversation about the future world order, as the costs of new delays could be too grave for everyone to handle.
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