In Russia, the concept of multipolarity is usually associated with Yevgeny Primakov. Indeed, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation marked the start of the transition to multipolarity as a key trend in contemporary international life back in 1996. During his visit to New Delhi as Prime Minister in late 1998, Primakov proposed a plan of trilateral cooperation between Russia, China, and India (RIC) as a practical mechanism for promoting global multipolarity. Sergey Lavrov has also stressed Primakov’s outstanding role in developing the concept of a multipolar world.
Western international relations experts will hardly agree to give priority to the Russian scholar and politician. As a rule, they trace the emergence of the concept of multipolarity to the mid-1970s. The roots of multipolarity are found in the rapid rise of the economies of Western Europe and Japan, in the United States’ defeat in Vietnam, in the energy crisis of 1973–1974, and in other trends of global politics that do not fit into the rigid framework of the bipolar world. The establishment in 1973 of the Trilateral Commission intended to encourage and improve relations between North America, Western Europe, and Eastern Asia also reflected the idea that multipolarity was coming into being, if not already fact.
Chinese historians, in turn, can claim their own version of multipolarity (duojihua) that emerged in the early 1990s and can be traced to the theoretical works of Mao Zedong. In China, the world was expected to transition from unipolar to multipolar via a “hybrid” global political structure that combines elements of both the past and future world systems.
Regardless of how we date the birth of multipolarity as a concept and whom we hail as its pioneer, the concept clearly is not a recent invention, but an intellectual product of the 20th century. It would seem that over the decades that have passed since it was proposed, multipolarity should have evolved from a hypothesis into a full-fledged theory. As regards political practice, intuition suggests that, over the course of several decades, the multipolar world should have finally taken shape as a new global political system with relevant norms, institutions, and procedures.
Yet something clearly went wrong. The world is not behaving as the founders had predicted.
In October 2016, twenty years after Yevgeny Primakov’ policy article was published in the journal International Affairs, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin gave a speech at the Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, during which he commented, “I certainly hope that… the world really will become more multipolar, and that the views of all actors in the international community will be taken into account.” Six months prior to that, Putin noted the role of the United States in international relations: “America is a great power, today perhaps the only superpower. We accept this.” That is, even though a multipolar world is the desirable world system, presently it is too early to say that the “unipolar moment” has been completely overcome.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, following the general logic and even the style of Yevgeny Primakov’s narrative of 20 years ago, also spoke about the start of a transition to multipolarity and the completion of the process in some indefinite future: “… A change of eras is always a lengthy process. It will continue for a long time.” As an additional complication, Lavrov emphasized the staunch resistance of the proponents of the old world order: “There are active attempts to hinder the process primarily on the part of those who used to dominate the world, who wish to preserve their domination in new conditions as well, and, generally speaking, to enshrine their domination forever.”
This logic is hard to dispute. Yet some questions remain.
First, the historical experience of the previous centuries offers no examples of an old world gradually transforming into a new one over time. The changes in the world order that took place in 1815, 1919, and 1945 were not evolutionary, but imposed by revolutionary (forcible) means and stemmed from large-scale armed conflicts that had preceded them. The new world order was always built by the victors in their own interests. Of course, we may suppose that humanity has become wiser and more humane over the last 100–200 years, though not everyone would agree. Yet even if that is true, surely all attempts to “gradually” transition to a multipolar world would be the same as trying to alleviate the pain of a beloved pet dog by cutting off its tail piece by piece.
Second, if we take as given that the transition to a multipolar world will become an extended process spread over, say, five decades (1995–2045), this leads to the depressing conclusion that humanity will remain in the “grey area” between the old and new world orders until the middle of the 21st century. This “grey area” is clearly not a particularly comfortable or safe place. It is easy to predict that it will lack clear rules of the game, understandable and generally recognized principles of the functioning of the international system, and numerous conflicts between the emerging “poles.” The system may even split into individual fragments and its “poles” will become self-isolated in their regional or continental subsystems. Can we afford several decades in the “grey zone” without subjecting humanity to extreme risks?
Third, do we even have sufficient grounds to say that the world is moving towards multipolarity, even if this movement is slow, inconsistent, and sporadic? Could we, for instance, conclude that today, the European Union is closer to being a full-fledged and independent global “pole” than it was ten years ago? Can we assert that, over the last decade, Africa, the Middle East, or Latin America have made significant progress towards the status of a collective “pole”? Is it possible to say that as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) expanded, the group increased its capability to act on a consolidated stance on the international stage? If we are not yet prepared to give an unequivocal “yes” to all these questions, then we do not have the right to say that the world is steadily moving towards multipolarity.
Over the years, multipolarity has become like a distant horizon that keeps receding as we move towards it. Could we not, therefore, apply Eduard Bernstein’s famous saying that “the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing” to multipolarity? That is, could we perceive multipolarity not as a full-fledged alternative to the existing world order, but as a mechanism for correcting the weakest and most vulnerable elements of this order?
“The Concert of Europe” 200 Years On
Adherents of multipolarity like to cite the “Concert of Europe,” the Vienna System of international relations established in Europe in the early 19th century after the Napoleonic wars. This system was truly multipolar; it did indeed help preserve peace in Europe for a long time. Historians debate the precise date at which the system collapsed: 1853 (the start of the Crimean War), 1871 (the Franco-Prussian War) or 1914 (the First World War). In any case, after 1815, the 19th century was relatively peaceful for Europe, particularly when compared to the disastrous 20th century.
Could the “Concert of Europe” be repeated 200 years later, this time in the global, rather than the European, context?
Let us start with the fact that the members of the “Concert of Europe,” despite being very different states, were still comparable in power and influence militarily, politically, and economically. The cosmopolitan European elites remained largely homogeneous (European monarchies in the 19th century were essentially one extended family), spoke the same language (French), professed the same faith (Christianity), and were in general part of the same cultural tradition (the European Enlightenment). Of even greater importance is the fact that the members of the “Concert of Europe” did not have radical, irreconcilable differences in their views on the desirable future of European politics, at least until the rapid rise of Prussia and the subsequent unification of Germany.
Today, the situation is drastically different. The potential members of a unipolar system have fundamentally different political weight. The United States has a greater weight in today’s international system than the British Empire had in European politics in the 19th century. The global elite is heterogeneous, and there are profound differences in their cultural archetypes and basic values. In the 19th century, the differences between the members of the “concert” pertained to specific issues in European politics, to the “manual tuning” of the complicated European mechanism. In the 21st century, the differences between the great powers pertain to the very foundations of the world order, the basic principles of international law, and even more important questions such as justice, legitimacy, and the “great meanings” of history.
On the other hand, the Concert of Europe was so successful largely due to its flexibility. Great European powers could afford the luxury of promptly changing the configuration of unions, coalitions, and alliances to maintain the overall balance of the system. For instance, France was one of Russia’s main adversaries in the Crimean War. Just a year later, after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, Russia and France embarked upon a phase of active rapprochement, which resulted in Russia’s final break with Austria and Austria’s defeat in its 1859 conflict with France.
Could we imagine such flexibility today? Could we suppose that over the course of two or three years, Russia would be capable of swapping its current partnership with China for an alliance with the United States? Or that the European Union, as it faces increasing pressure from the United States, would re-orient itself towards strategic cooperation with Moscow? Such scenarios look improbable at best and absurd at worst. Alas, the leaders of great powers today do not have the flexibility that is absolutely necessary to maintain a stable multipolar world order.
At the end of our short historical sketch, we can ask another curious question. Why did the 1814–1815 Congress of Vienna result in a stable European order, while the 1919 Treaty of Versailles became meaningless 15 years after it was signed? How is it possible that the members of the anti-France coalition were capable of magnanimity towards their former enemy, while members of the anti-German coalition were not? Was it because George Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson were more stupid or bloodthirsty than Alexander I, Klemens von Metternich, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand?
Of course not. It is just that the Concert of Europe was created by autocratic monarchs, while the Treaty of Versailles was designed by leaders of western democracies. The latter were far more dependent on national public sentiment than their predecessors were a century earlier. And the public sentiments of nations that had experienced four years of suffering, unprecedented privations, and losses demanded that the Germans be punished in the harshest and most uncompromising manner. And this is what the victors ultimately did, thus planting the seeds of the global carnage that was to come.
Clearly, over the last hundred years, politicians have grown even more dependent on the smallest fluctuations in public opinion. Unfortunately, the chances of seeing new examples of Alexander’s magnanimity and Metternich’s insight today are slim. To paraphrase Pushkin, we can say that “political populism and multipolarity are two things incompatible.”
The “Gangsters” and “Molls” of the Multipolar World
A famous cliché in international relations (attributed to a variety of authors, from Otto von Bismarck to Stanley Kubrick) states that on the global stage, large states act as gangsters and small states act as molls. The concept of a multipolar world is geared towards the “gangsters” and ignores the “molls.” Not every state and not even every coalition of states has the right to claim the status of a “pole” in the international system.
The adherents of multipolarity believe that most contemporary states are simply incapable of independently ensuring their own security and economic growth, not to mention making a significant contribution to shaping the new world order. Thus, in both the current and future multipolar world, only a handful of countries have “true sovereignty,” while others sacrifice this sovereignty in the name of security, prosperity, or even plain survival.
At the time of the Concert of Europe, the “gangsters” could successfully control the “molls” who depended on them, and the number of “molls” was relatively small. Two centuries later, the situation has changed drastically. Today, there are about 200 states that are members of the UN, and then there are unrecognized states and non-state actors. Therefore, the majority of members of international relations in the new multipolar world has been assigned the unenviable role of extras or observers.
Even if we ignore the moral and ethical deficiency of such a world order, there are grave doubts that such a project is feasible, especially given mounting problems in current military, political, and economic unions and the sharp rise of nationalism that affects both great powers and small and medium-sized countries.
The adherents of multipolarity probably think that the “poles” of the new world order will form naturally, that the “molls” will rush into the arms of neighbouring “gangsters” out of love rather than by coercion. That is, they will be driven by geographic proximity, economic expediency, common history, cultural similarities, etc. Unfortunately, historical experience would suggest the contrary. French-speaking Flanders has for centuries fended off the obtrusive patronage of Paris; Portugal has for an equally long time striven to distance itself from the geographically and culturally close Spain; and for some reason, Vietnam has failed to appreciate the advantages of belonging to China’s “pole.” It would be best to not even recall the state of relations between Russia and once “brotherly” Ukraine.
If the “molls” are forced to turn to the “gangsters” for protection, they clearly prefer “gangsters” from a remote neighbourhood rather than from their own street. Generally speaking, such preferences are sometimes somewhat logical. And if this is the case, then “poles” can only be formed “voluntarily under duress,” as the Russian saying goes – and in the 21st century, such foundations have dubious stability.
One gets the impression that the Russian discourse about the impending multipolar world confuses the notions of legal equality (“equal rights”) and actual equality (identity as the ultimate equality). States cannot actually be equal to each other: their size, resources, and capabilities, as well as their economic, military, and political potential, differ too greatly. Yet the apparent inequality of states does not necessarily mean that they should also have different basic rights. There is the principle of all citizens being equal before the law regardless of the differences in social status, property, education, and talents.
Old Bipolarity Billed as New Multipolarity
The differences in the current situation compared to that of the early 19th century are too obvious to attempt to restore the “classical” multipolarity. It would seem that, in one way or another, the adherents of multipolarity also realize this. If we take a closer, more careful look at the discourse in Russia today describing the “new” multipolarity of the 21st century, the magnificent multipolar façade often disguises the same steel-and-concrete bipolar structure of global politics, reflecting the Soviet mentality that has not been entirely overcome.
The “new bipolarity” manifests in all kinds of ways. Consider, for instance, the “East–West” dichotomy, a confrontation between “maritime” and “continental” powers, a clash between the “liberal” and “conservative” worlds, or even the opposition between the United States and the rest of the world. Whatever its external manifestation, the essence remains the same, like in the old Soviet joke about a worker from a factory manufacturing prams who complains, “Whenever I try to assemble a pram, I end up with a Kalashnikov.”
We cannot say with absolute certainty that the world will never go back to the bipolarity of the 20th century. In any case, the possible bipolarity that could result from the impending U.S.–China confrontation is more realistic than going back to the multipolarity of the 19th century. Nevertheless, attempts to combine elements of multipolarity and bipolarity in a single structure is a doomed enterprise. These two approaches to global politics are too different in their basic paradigms. Multipolarity and bipolarity are two radically different worldviews.
Classical multipolarity cannot have any rigid divisions between those who are right and those who are wrong, between friend and foe, between black and white. Foes may prove to be friends, those in the right and those in the wrong may swap places, and there is an entire range of shades of grey in the spectrum between black and white. A bipolar picture, on the contrary, always tends to be Manichean, when friends are always in the right and foes are invariably in the wrong. Friends are forgiven whatever they do, and foes are never forgiven. The notion of the collective West that is popular in Russia is also a vestige of the Soviet mentality. In no way does this fit in with the declared “multipolar” picture of the world, but it is very convenient for constructing the opposing notion of a “collective non-West.”
Familiar stereotypes of the Soviet mentality stubbornly bring us back to bipolar logic and deprive us of the opportunity to take advantage of managing a complex multipolar construction even in those instances when such opportunities present themselves. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Russian policies in the Middle East are one such exception, as it is the Donald Trump administration that has been caught in the trap of a bipolar worldview there, while Russia, having taken the preferred position of regional referee, has thus far succeeded in manoeuvring among the various regional players. Russia has been less successful in the Russia–China–India triangle that Yevgeny Primakov had once promoted as the foundation of a multipolar world: the equilateral Russia–China–India triangle is slowly but steadily evolving towards a military alliance between Russia and China.
Overcoming the remnants of bipolar logic is a necessary but insufficient condition for a successful foreign policy. It would seem that the successful use of multipolar approaches promises tactical successes at best. Strategic victories are possible if multipolarity is abandoned in favour of multilateralism.
Searching for a Balance in Open Systems
If we agree with the principle of states having equal rights in the international system, we should abandon the fundamentals of multipolarity. Directly or indirectly, multipolarity assumes that in the future world there will always be states or groups of states with special rights. That is, the privileges of force will be enshrined, just like the victors of World War II enshrined their privileges when establishing the UN system in 1945. However, the experience of 1945 cannot be repeated in 2018: today’s great powers have neither the authority nor the legitimacy nor the unanimity of the countries that had made the decisive contribution to victory in the bloodiest war in human history.
For the international system of the future to be stable and durable, there should be no radical differences between the victors and the vanquished, between “regular” and “privileged” members. Otherwise, any change in the global balance of power (and such changes will occur with increasing speed) will necessitate adjustments to the system, and we will thus go through crises over and over again.
How can we talk about consolidating the privilege of power in the new multipolar structure if this power is diffusing at breakneck pace before our very eyes? In the time of the Congress of Vienna, power was hierarchical and had a limited number of parameters. Today, traditional rigid hierarchies of power are rapidly losing the significance they once enjoyed, not because old components of national power no longer work, but because multiple new components are emerging in parallel.
For instance, South Korea cannot be considered a great power in the traditional sense, because it cannot ensure its own security without help from others. However, if we look at the wearable electronics sector, South Korea is more than a great power; in fact, it is one of two “super powers.” South Korea’s Samsung is the only company in the world that successfully competes with U.S. company Apple in the global smartphone market. From the point of view of the country’s global brand, its flagship Samsung Galaxy S9+ carries more weight than Russia’s flagship S-500 Prometey missile system.
Non-material measures of a state’s power are gaining ever greater importance. A country’s reputation, its “credit history” – which is so easy to undermine yet so hard to restore – is becoming progressively more valuable. Stalin’s famous phrase about the Pope (“The Pope? How many divisions does he have?”) looks more like political antiquity than political cynicism.
If the notion of a state’s power is becoming more equivocal and takes into account an increasing number of parameters, then we inevitably face the problem of determining the new balance of power in global politics. Determining a multipolar balance of power is in general an extremely difficult enterprise even when the number of parameters used is rigidly set. For instance, what is a stable multipolar nuclear balance? What is multilateral nuclear containment? When the number of power parameters tends to infinity, the task of building a stable multipolar balance becomes impossible to solve. Attempting to balance an open system with a permanently growing number of independent variables is the same as attempting to transform a living cell into a dead crystal.
Multilateralism Instead of Multipolarity
A stable system of global politics assumes it will not be entirely fair to more powerful players, as it limits the interests of those players in favour of weaker players and the stability of the system as a whole. Any federative state redistributes resources from prosperous regions to depressive ones: prosperous regions are forced to pay more to preserve the integrity and stability of the federation. Or consider, for instance, that traffic rules in cities are far more restrictive to cutting-edge Lamborghini supercars. Lamborghini drivers are forced to sacrifice most of their “automotive sovereignty” to ensure safety and order on the road.
The future of the world order (if we are talking about order and not a game without rules or a “war of all against all”) should be sought in multilateralism instead of multipolarity. The two terms sound similar, but they differ in meaning. Multipolarity involves building a new world order on the basis of power, while multilateralism is based on interests. Multipolarity consolidates the privileges of leaders, while multilateralism creates additional opportunities for underachievers. A multipolar world is built from blocs that balance each other, while a multilateral world is built from complementary regimes. A multipolar world develops by periodically adjusting the balance of power, while a multilateral world develops by accumulating elements of mutual dependency and creating new levels of integration.
Unlike the multipolar world model, the multilateral model cannot rely on past experience, and in that respect it might appear idealistic and virtually unfeasible. However, individual elements of the model have already been tried in the practice of international relations. For instance, the principles of multilateralism — placing the interests of small and medium-sized countries in primary focus, prioritizing the common regulatory legal balance over the situational interests of the participants in the system — formed the basis for the construction of the European Union. Even though the European Union is not in great shape today and individual parts of this complex machine are clearly malfunctioning, hardly anyone would deny that it remains the most successful integration project implemented in the modern world.
For those who do not like the experience of European integration, it is worth looking for sprouts of new multilateralism elsewhere. Examples include the BRICS+ project and the “Community of Common Destiny.” Both initiatives attempt to avoid the over-complication, exclusivity, and rigidity of the European project by offering potential participants more diverse cooperation options. However, should these projects be successful, they will not bring the world any closer to “classical” multipolarity; on the contrary, they will take the world farther away from it.
The international community will have to somehow restore the regulatory framework of global politics that has been gravely undermined over recent decades, search for complex balances of interests at the regional and global levels, and build flexible regimes that regulate individual dimensions of global communication. Powerful states will have to make major concessions so that multilateral arrangements will be attractive for weak actors. A clean break will have to be made with the centuries-old relics of outdated mentalities, dubious historical analogies, and attractive yet meaningless geopolitical constructions.
The world of the future will be far more complex and contradictory than we thought it would be just 20 years ago. It will have a place for a multitude of diverse participants in global politics interacting in various formats. Multipolarity should go down in history as a justified intellectual and political reaction to the arrogance, haughtiness, and various excesses of the hapless builders of a unipolar world — nothing more and nothing less. With the twilight of the unipolar world, its opposite – multipolarity – will inevitably face its twilight as well.
First published in our partner RIAC
-  Primakov E. M. International Relations on the Eve of the 21st Century: Problems and Prospects. International Affairs. 1996 (10), pp. 3–13.
-  Curiously, at the turn of the century, the idea of multipolarity gained such traction in both the United States and Europe that Assistant to President George W. Bush for National Security Affairs Condoleezza Rice found it necessary to publish a lengthy article with detailed criticism of multipolarity as a concept of rivalry and potential conflicts, a concept that distracts humanity from tackling common constructive objectives. See: http://globalaffairs.ru/number/n_1564.
-  Seventh Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Qian Qichen stated that the world is still in a transitionary phase, and that the new model had not yet been completely shaped. However, an outline of international relations with one superpower and several great powers locked in relations of mutual dependency and strife has already emerged. This is the starting point of the system’s evolution to multipolarity. See Suisheng Zhao. Beijing’s Perceptions of the International System and Foreign Policy Adjustment after the Tiananmen Incident. / Suisheng Zhao (ed.), Chinese Foreign Policy. Pragmatism and Strategic Behavior. New York: East Gate Book, 2004, p. 142.
-  Dugin A. G. Theory of a Multipolar World. Moscow, 2013, pp. 16–19.
-  President Vladimir Putin quite eloquently expounded this view of the world in his speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 2, 2017, “To reiterate, there are not so many countries that have sovereignty. Russia treasures its sovereignty, but not as a toy. We need sovereignty to protect our interests and to ensure our own development. India has sovereignty… However, there are not so many countries like India in the world. That is true. We should simply bear this in mind. India is one such country and so is China. I will not enumerate them all: There are other countries, too, but not many.”
Covid third world debt will outlast the virus – it should be relieved
In a year – or two or three – we will have mostly forgotten the pandemic. But the unprecedented third world debt the virus has created could last decades or longer and cripple the global south’s chances at development. Rich nations should seize this opportunity to nurture, not subjugate, the developing world, and re-establish their moral leadership through debt relief.
This will lessen the impact of the global recession by acting as a worldwide fiscal stimulus. It will also avert a humanitarian crisis in the developing world, and help industrialised economies’ growth by boosting export demand.
Global debt currently sits at $277 trillion dollars, or 356% of global GDP. As with any financial crisis, this is hitting developing countries the hardest.
Particularly increased borrowing in the global south will mean that those developing countries that have often had the lowest death rates will be faced with the longest enduring legacy of the coronavirus: crippling debt.
Rich nations, by contrast, will recover faster. They attract a lower risk-rating from international creditors, making it easier for them to borrow money. Countries like the US and UK are able to increase their taxes and raise the necessary revenue to service the debts – that tax infrastructure is often lacking in developing nations.
For them, debt carries a much heavier burden. Loans are seen as riskier, meaning the debts are secured against foreign currency. Developing nations are then more susceptible to weakening local currencies and global economic slumps, making it even harder for them to pay back the debt in the long run. It’s a vicious cycle that ultimately harms those nations’ as well as the industrialised world’s interests.
Developed nations need to grow their export markets by fuelling the emerging middle class around the world. That can’t happen when these developing countries are forced to prioritise repaying debt over investing in their own economies.
As COVID spread through the world in the spring, the G20 created an agreement that would allow 73 of the world’s poorest countries to postpone their bilateral debt repayments for three years. So far, 43 of the countries have applied for the initiative.
But it is not enough. One of the most vocal critics of the international response to developing-nation debt has been Ghana, whose Finance Minister openly said “The ability of central banks in the West to respond [to the pandemic] to an unimaginable extent and the limits of our ability to respond are quite jarring.”
The West can and should step up, to nudge regions like sub-Saharan Africa away from increasing China influence.
They can also lead the way in the fiscal innovation that often follows debt crises. For example, the global debt crisis in the 1980’s was solved when illiquid bank loans were turned into tradable “Brady” bonds, named after Nicholas Brady, the American Treasury Secretary at the time. Now is the time for another innovative American fiscal policy.
Most people assume that relieving debt would constitute a wealth transfer from the creditor to the debtor. However in the current economic climate, this is not the case.
By simply extending repayments, countries have a chance to implement the necessary economic reforms to start servicing that debt. This has worked in the past, as demonstrated in South Korea between 1997 and 1998. Donor countries like the US and UK will still get their money back – in fact, they may get it back sooner in the long-term, if they can delay or reduce repayments in the short-term.
Debtor countries want to do anything to avoid defaults and being seen as pariahs in the eyes of the international community, with Argentina, Ecuador and Lebanon being the most recent examples. Sometimes to help them achieve that, some debt relief is essential.
This argument was first made by Marriner Eccles, Roosevelt’s chairman of the Federal Reserve, in 1934. Eccles argued that if a country is in perpetual debt, there is never enough confidence amongst local business, industry and agriculture to make the necessary investment to kickstart the economy. This is known as financial distress; when the fear of the debt itself prevents economic recovery.
In most cases in history, it is only when the financial distress is eased through debt write-off that indebted country’s economies will start to grow again. However, it often takes creditors and policy-makers a long-time to reach this decision, leading to longer economic stagnation, and ultimately a longer period of time for the money to be repaid, if it is repaid at all.
If a country is unable to pay its debts, it must make up for this by exporting more than it imports, which harms the export capacity of creditor countries like the US and UK and destroys their manufacturing and farming jobs. If emerging markets cannot buy their produce, agriculture and industry suffers as a result.
The next generation of Western leaders are inheriting countries of low growth, high-unemployment and low demand.
Debt relief will allow them to trade debt repayment for international export demand, which will create jobs and show their increasingly disenfranchised post-industrial communities that they care.
It will also strengthen their image abroad and improve the standard of living for millions of the world’s poorest.
Human Rights and Democracy have been causalities of the COVID 19 Pandemic
“Today, we face our own 1945 moment,” the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, said as he opened the UN’s 75th General Assembly in September last year.
The General Assembly was taking place as the COVID 19pandemic, which began as a global health crisis had developed into an economic and social crisis. Now it is also fuelling a crisis for democracy and human rights. The scenes in Washington D.C in early January providing the perfect background tapestry to exemplify the shaky ground democracy now sits on.
The Secretary General’s speech in particular highlighted one important fact. A major crisis of any kind reveals existing fault lines and often acerbates them. This is true of the COVID 19 pandemic. The current pandemic is exposing inequalities in societies (we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat); discrimination and xenophobia; and regressions in democracy and human rights.
Currently there is considerable discourse on how the pandemic is negatively impacting on democracy and human rights. Based on the experience of previous crisis these concerns are wholly valid.
The most frequent form of global crises are financial ones (see analysis). Politics usually takes a right turn following financial crises. For example the gains of extreme right-wing parties were particularly pronounced in a number of countries after the global crises of the 1920s/1930s and after 2008. Governing too tends to become more difficult after financial crises. Government majorities shrink and parliaments fragment. People take to the streets too. The average number of anti-government demonstrations almost triples, violent riots double and general strikes increase by at least one third.
These crises present clear political opportunity. Vladimir Putin came to power in the 1990s as reformer following the financial crisis in Russia in the 1990s. Recep Erdogan followed a similar trajectory to power in Turkey.
In many cases, these trends tend to taper out as some kind of stability emerges. But not always and a crisis be it health, financial or political have always presented opportunity for malign intentions. Hitler came to power (democratically) by appealing to the middle ground. In 1933 the poorest people in Germany voted for his opponents, the Communist Party and the moderate left-wing Social Democrats. Most of the rest – lower-middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the unorganized workers, the rural masses, and the older traditionalists switched their votes from the mainstream centrist and right-wing parties- backed him.
Hard economic times usually mean hard times for democracy, particularly when it is new and fragile. According to an analysis by Adam Przeworski who charted Democracies between 1950 to 1990, when democracies face a decline in income, they are three times more likely to disappear than when they experience economic growth. While the chance that a democracy will wither is 1 in 135 when incomes grow during any three or more consecutive years. The message is clear. Recessions are bad for democracy. The economic disorder of the late 1920s and 1930s saw the end for a number of democracies in Europe and Latin America.
We are in that moment now with current threats against the four main pillars of democracy – holding free and fair elections, upholding the rule of law, recognizing the idea of legitimate opposition and protecting the integrity of rights.
A global survey (Freedom House) of experts and activists on democracy and human rights, found by more than a fourfold margin they agreed that “overall, the coronavirus outbreak has been a setback for democracy and human rights in my main country of focus.” Some 64 per cent agreed that this negative impact would persist over the next three to five years, suggesting the setback for democracy may well outlast the health crisis.
There is much evidence to support this.
The pandemic is leading to a rapid expansion of executive power around the world. Countries from Hungary, the Philippines to Cambodia have all enacted legislation to deepen emergency powers. Hungary’s “Draft Law on Protecting Against Coronavirus” gives vast powers and although the act had a 90-day sunset clause, the government has already used the powers to make it illegal for transgender individuals to alter their birth records, hardly a public health priority.
Freedom of expression similarly has been restricted in many countries ostensibly to limit disinformation but often with nefarious intent. The Chinese government has censored information about its response and detained journalists who reported on the outbreak. In Thailand, citizens and journalists who criticize the government’s handling of the crisis face imprisonment. In Jordan, the Prime Minister now has the authority to suspend freedom of expression. Health concerns rightly have limited the number of public gatherings but suspicions abound of governments using legislation to limit or squash the right to demonstrate.
The crisis is also accelerating governments’ use of new surveillance technologies. China’s effective response to Covid-19 has increased global demand for its digital public health tools. These tools have been very effective as a public health mechanism but they provide governments with extraordinary abilities to track and monitor citizens. This technology poses a particular risk to fragile democracies and countries in the developing world, where independent institutions are weak.
One thing that fuels anti-democratic forces is the narrative that ‘autocracies’’ do better than democracies. This does not stand up to any rigorous examination. According to “10 rules of successful Nations” by Ruchir Sharma democracies dominate the list of countries with the steadiest growth. Together, Sweden, France, Belgium and Norway have posted only one year of growth faster that 7% since 1950. However, over that time all four have seen average incomes increase five to six fold. This is the stabilizing effect of democracy. Every large economy that has seen average income approaching $10,000 is a democracy. China with an average income approaching that number is trying to become a large rich autocracy. It would be the first.
Democracies generally remain the world’s wealthiest societies and the most open to new ideas and opportunities. When people around the world are asked about their preferred political conditions, the principles that underpin democratic societies emerge strongly.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan speaking in Greece in 2017 noted that Liberal democracy almost died in the 1930s, but liberal democracies eventually defeated Nazism, Fascism and Democracy. It is,he argued, arguably the most successful political system the world has ever seen.
However, a critical appendage to democracy is economic development coupled with social justice. What has consistently plagued the failed and failing democracies over the past decades has been bad governance. One thing that can help are independent institutions such as independent trade unions, organizations representing of business, civil-society organizations, institutions to support a free press, mechanisms to support human and political rights. These are critical countervailing forces, who can speak truth to power.
“Social partnership” the structured dialogue between trade unions and business and employers organizations has shown in 2020 just how invaluable a tool it is. It is doubtful that many of the momentous decisions would have been made without it, certainly not as swiftly or without rancour. The ability of representative organizations to mobilize the views of the real economy and put together proposals and solutions in hours and days should not be underestimated. It has been a critical tool in this crisis. The efforts of social partners have provided social ballast to societies, rocked by the voracity and suddenness of the virus. In all of the chaos, it was reassuring see key parts of society pulling as one.
Independent institutions from civil society, trade unions along with business groups can be critical gatekeepers in protecting democracy. There are many examples, such as the Tunisian ‘quartet’, which received the Nobel peace prize in 2015.
Promoting and protecting these institutions along with the appending rights that underwrite them, such as freedom of association, expression and assembly will increasingly need to be at the forefront of the work of development organizations and the wider UN system in the immediate years to come.
Aristotle and Alexander: Two Perspectives on Globalization
Even the Mayor in Gogol’s Inspector General, not being the sharpest tool in the shed, acknowledged that Alexander the Great was a hero, although he cautioned against proving this statement by destroying government property. Indeed, Alexander the Great was the first to attempt the heroic feat of uniting the entire ecumene known to Europeans in BC 334–323. Certainly, history knew great conquerors before Alexander, people who established vast empires, but Alexander laid down, if we may say so, both the material and the ideological and political foundations of a globalization project in classical antiquity. Alexander emerged as a thoroughly cosmopolitan ruler on a global scale.
It is a well-known fact that Alexander was tutored and mentored by Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of classical antiquity, who had a very important influence on shaping the personality of the future Macedonian king and inspired him to achieve great things. According to Plutarch, Alexander said he owed his father his life, and he owed Aristotle the dignity of his life. It is a lesser-known fact that the perspectives of the two visionaries on the specific paths for uniting humanity were not identical, and in the course of time, they began to diverge more and more. The direct and indirect polemics of Alexander and Aristotle did not cease with the death of the Great King. In some manner or other, it continued later as it engaged new participants, and it remains relevant even now. Today, as we are witnessing a clearly emerging crisis of globalization, and as particularist and traditionalist sentiments are gaining traction throughout the world, it would be useful to review this polemic once again.
A Breakthrough in Greek Thought
For a long time, Greek city-states viewed the idea of the political unification of Hellas as heretical, infeasible and generally absurd. The jealously guarded independence of individual city-states and their mutual cutthroat competition were seen as inherent traits of Greek civilization, the key source of its vitality and evidence of its superiority over adjacent barbaric states. Like the Italian cities of the Renaissance, Greek city-states rivalled each other in terms of the wealth of their citizens, the wisdom of their rulers, and the achievements of their architects, sculptors, orators, philosophers, poets, and playwrights.
Forward winds carried Greek ships like the spores of some fantastic plant along the entire coast of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. These spores produced amazing sprouts: new colonies that easily adapted to any local conditions, successfully cooperated with native tribes, and enriched the common Greek culture. No one saw any point in supplementing this undisputed cultural unity with a political union.
The situation began to change following the Greco-Persian Wars of BC 500–449. On the one hand, these wars led to an unprecedented rise in pan-Greek patriotism. On the other hand, they clearly demonstrated the imperfections of the structure of the Greek world comprised of city-states. Soon after its triumphant victories over Darius the Great and Xerxes, Hellas entered a protracted period of political and military confrontation between Athens and Sparta, fuelled up by generous infusions of Persian gold. The aging and weakening Persia did not want to risk a new invasion, but it artfully pitted Greek cities against each other, supporting the weak and threatening the strong, encouraging conflict and upsetting unions. This inglorious era concluded with the destructive Peloponnesian War (BC 431–404) that forever undermined the power of Athens.
Hence the growing popularity of pan-Hellenistic ideas, that is, ideas of city-states entering political and military unions, prohibiting wars between them, coordinating their foreign and trade policies. The famous Attic rhetorician Isocrates in his famous Panegyricus proposed the most general outline of the pan-Hellenism concept, but Aristotle gave it his trademark completeness and depth.
Pan-Hellenism certainly did not proclaim the task of building a Hellenistic empire based on the Persian model. The very thought of conquering vast lands that was typical of Persian kings or Roman consuls was alien to the worldview of citizens of city-states. By choosing as their model the barbaric Persia that they had repeatedly defeated, the Greeks would have betrayed the very essence of Hellenism. Most likely, they were pondering the creation of what would effectively amount to a classical-era analogue of the European Union based on the pluralism of values and political ideas of its participants, the partial transfer of “city-state” sovereignty to collegiate governance bodies, the voluntary self-restriction of the union’s most powerful members, etc. The unity of Hellas should have been cemented by the presence of a common threat and, as we would say today, by the existential challenge of the barbarian East.
Let us also note that the unification of the Greek world, in Aristotle’s opinion, did not presuppose an alignment of governance systems in individual city-states and did not require the uniformity of values (as is the case in the European Union today). The philosopher was not so much concerned with the specific forms of governance in city-states as he was with their quality, and Aristotle saw the main problem in substituting private interests of rulers for public interests. According to Aristotle, any “true” constitution could, under certain circumstances, degenerate into a “deviant” one: a monarchy could become a tyranny, aristocracy could become oligarchy, democracy could degenerate into ochlocracy (the rule of the mob). Credit where it is due—the Greek philosopher had a much broader view of governance than most contemporary western politicians.
“The War of Revenge” as a National Idea
The wise and calculating King Philip of Macedon made the right choice when selecting a mentor for his son and heir. Aristotle found a diligent and attentive student in the young Prince Alexander. It should be noted that at that time, as an independent state in the north-eastern periphery of Hellas, Macedon was under a powerful Greek cultural influence and actively participated in the pan-Greek political life. After Archelaus moved the capital from the secluded Aigai to the coastal Pella, the Macedonian court was frequented by eminent Greek thinkers. The great Euripides spent his final years there, and in Pella, he wrote and staged his famous The Bacchae. After the famous Battle of Chaeronea (BC 338), where Alexander’s father Philip the Great clearly demonstrated the superiority of the Macedonian phalanx over any other military formation of Greek hoplites, the king decisively established himself as the hegemon of Hellas.
No matter how open-minded he was, Alexander’s teacher remained primarily a staunch Greek nationalist. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote, “Those who live in cold countries, as the north of Europe, are full of courage, but wanting in understanding and the arts: therefore they are very tenacious of their liberty; but, not being politicians, they cannot reduce their neighbours under their power: but the Asiatics, whose understandings are quick, and who are conversant in the arts, are deficient in courage; and therefore are always conquered and the slaves of others: but the Grecians, placed as it were between these two boundaries, so partake of them both as to be at the same time both courageous and sensible; for which reason Greece continues free, and governed in the best manner possible, and capable of commanding the whole world, could they agree upon one system of policy.”
Aristotle could hardly be called a racist in the way we use this word today. He was willing to acknowledge the indisputable achievements of the creative genius of the Egyptians, Persians, and even Scythians. But the idea of the “Greek exceptionalism” was entrenched in his mind as firmly as the idea of “American exceptionalism” is entrenched in the minds of many contemporary conservative U.S. politicians. Having assessed the outstanding gifts of his student, Aristotle insistently called upon Alexander to promote the political unification of Greece so that the country could become the natural centre of the ecumene.
Aristotle believed that Hellas certainly should not abandon its mission civilisatrice, i.e., its consistent efforts to expand the habitat of the Greek culture, the Hellenic language, political paradigms, and the way of life of the Greek nucleus. He also understood that the complete “Hellenization” of barbaric tribes was impossible due to objective obstacles in the way of such Hellenization. Aristotle believed that the natural territory of the “Greek civilization” did not go beyond the coastal Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Going back to our analogy with the European Union, let us note that, unlike the EU’s strategists in the early 21st century, Aristotle clearly saw the risks and dangers of the uncontrollable expansion of the Hellenistic world into adjacent lands.
Aristotle never doubted the superiority of Greek culture and social structure over all the alternatives known to him. Consequently, he was unlikely to come up with the idea of a global synthesis of values and cultures and even more unlikely to be thoroughly captivated by it. Aristotle apparently did not have a particularly high opinion of Herodotus and was not interested in the history of the non-Greek world, which certainly negatively affected his perception of barbarians. We should also add that Aristotle was a staunch defender of individual rights and the monogamous family and an equally staunch opponent of despotism of any kind on the part of the state. Naturally, like most enlightened Greeks, he never dreamed of a “Hellenistic empire,” he only wanted to see a more harmonious alignment of the interests of independent city-states.
Apparently, at the beginning of his “glorious days,” Alexander followed roughly the same line of thinking as Aristotle. We could debate the degree to which the son of Philip, King of Macedon, and Olympias, the Princess of Epirus in the faraway periphery of Hellas, could be thought of as a “true” Greek, but his attachment to Greek culture cannot be denied. He can be said to have soaked up this culture since birth, and he sensed the great unrealized potential of the Greek world, like the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte, sensed the unrealized potential of France or the Georgian Joseph Dzhugashvili sensed the potential of Russia. Alexander carried a copy of Homer’s Iliad corrected by Aristotle and known as “The Iliad from the chest” on all his military campaigns and kept it under his pillow.
The idea of a “war of revenge” against Persia was primarily a national idea intended to unite the Greek world and lead it forward. Alexander only partially succeeded in the latter respect: the proud Sparta refused to take part in this tremendous undertaking. Many in Athens, including the implacable Demosthenes, secretly hoped for a crushing defeat of the Macedonian upstart, and up until the death of Darius III, tens of thousands of Greek mercenaries fought for Persia. We could suppose that, initially, Alexander’s motives were quite “Greek”: exacting revenge for the protracted Persian expansion, the feeling of the “Hellenic superiority,” the genetic contempt of a free Hellene for eastern barbarians. The latter feeling was probably particularly acute with the Macedonian king, since his political opponents frequently accused him of being of barbarian origins.
However, further down the road, Greek heritage became but one building block of a global empire in Alexander’s vision of a new global world. It was the most valuable and important one, true, but it was not the only one. The King quickly outgrew his own initial plans and his teacher’s paradigms: instead of a consistent Greek nationalist, he became the first cosmopolitan universalist of classical antiquity.
A Student Who Went Beyond His Teacher
Most likely, we will never learn when exactly Alexander began to move away from Aristotle’s orthodox paradigms. When the iron hand of the Macedonian king united the crumbling Greek world, his teacher could only be happy for his student, even as he would chastise him for his excesses and his unreasonable cruelty—especially for razing the rebellious Thebes and selling all its inhabitants into slavery (although formally, the decision to destroy the splendid city was made not by the King of Macedon himself, but by his Boeotian allies). When the “war of revenge” against Darius started, the teacher would also be pleased with his student: on the whole, the great design proceeded according to Aristotle’s plan.
Most likely, the King of Macedon wanted his teacher to join him in his march east. Aristotle, however, preferred to remain in Athens and sent his nephew Callisthenes to accompany Alexander. Callisthenes became the first chronicler of Alexander’s empire. The dramatic fate of this outstanding, although apparently extremely vain and difficult person is the best characteristic of the way Alexander changed as his tremendous enterprise was coming to fruition.
Gradually, the new lord of Asia was drifting away from his teacher’s designs. Apparently, the “point of no return” was passed when, following the first victories at Granicus (BC 334) and at Issus (BC 333), Alexander rejected Darius III’s suggestion that they amicably divide the Persian Empire along the Euphrates with its western part being transferred to Alexander. If the interests of the King of Macedon had been confined to the Mediterranean, he would have done well to accept this generous offer without hesitation. While his father, Philip the Great, posited the immediate goal of taking Asia Minor away from Persians, Alexander was offered Syria, Phoenicia and Egypt to boot. What could be a better conclusion for a “war of revenge”?
Such an end to the war would have been a well-deserved triumph of the King of Macedon. Alexander could have returned to Pella and become the single ruler of the entire Eastern Mediterranean. He could have imposed his terms on the Greek League of Corinth. In this situation, Darius himself would have been Alexander’s junior, rather than senior, partner. Aristotle would have certainly approved of such a resolution. However, for the future lord of the world, confining himself to the Mediterranean would have meant abandoning his historical mission. He blankly refused Darius’s proposal, did not listen to his advisors, and marched further East—towards Persia, Bactria, Sogdia and India.
Even during his Egyptian campaign (BC 332), Alexander demonstrated a clear intention to achieve at least a harmonious co-existence of Greek and Egyptian cultures. At most, he wanted to bring about a fruitful synthesis of the two cultural traditions. In Egypt, he demonstrated not merely religious tolerance, but a willingness to adopt local gods into a new universalist pantheon of the future empire. The King of Macedon assumed the title of Egyptian Pharaoh and proclaimed himself the son of Amun. His proclivity towards syncretism was subsequently manifested in all his campaigns, including his campaign to India. Curiously, Alexander entrusted the principal positions in the government of the new province not to his faithful, yet somewhat simple-minded Macedonians, but to the experienced Egyptians and shrewd Greeks. This is a characteristic manifestation of the king’s typical meritocracy. Finally, at the shores of the western channel of the Nile delta, he founded the city of Alexandria, which would soon become perhaps the most vivid symbol of ancient globalization, a sort of a Singapore of classical antiquity.
Then came the historic Battle of Gaugamela (BC 331) that put an end to the dispute between Alexander and Darius III over the dominion of Asia. Then came the triumphant entrance of the Macedonian army into Babylon and Susa, the Persepolis fire, which was probably deliberately set on Alexander’s orders (BC 330), and the official end of the “war of revenge.” Henceforth, the new king of Asia was not the destroyer of Persia, but its liberator, not an implacable foe of the Achaemenid Empire, but its legitimate heir. Alexander finally shook off the remnants of Aristotelian pan-Hellenism and pressed forward to new, heretofore unknown frontiers.
Every year, Alexander lost something of what we would today call his Macedonian, Greek or broadly Mediterranean identity. Even for the centre of his empire (the traditional concept of “capital” is hardly applicable to Alexander’s state), he chose Babylon, and not some Hellenistic city on the Mediterranean coast. After landing on the eastern coast of the Hellespont, he would never come back to Europe—not to Greece and certainly not to Macedon.
Eastern Despotism or Enlightened Ecumenism?
The many Greek critics of Alexander reproached the king for yielding to the temptation of becoming an eastern despot, thereby discarding both the austere ways of his Macedonian ancestors and the sophistication of the Hellenic culture for the sake of the eastern luxury and the pomp of Persian customs. Were such rebukes justified? Certainly, eastern luxury exerted its corrupting influence on Alexander, although, as far as we can say, despite his generous gifts to his inner circle and his liking for great feasts, he remained generally indifferent to material wealth throughout his life. More likely, he would be vulnerable to the flowery eastern flattery, just as he would be, though, to the sophisticated praise lavished on him by his Greek coterie.
In any case, Alexander appears to be primarily motivated not by human weakness, but by his desire to make humanity happy through a synthesis of East and West, Greek and Persian (as well as Egyptian, Bactrian, Indian and other) cultures. Hence mass marriages and his own marriage to the Bactrian princess Roxana. Hence his desire to encourage migration flows between the most far-flung regions of his steadily growing empire. Hence his willingness to create a truly universal pantheon. Hence his “meritocratic” staffing policies. At some point, the king ceased to be both a Macedonian and a Hellene and became a man of the world, or, rather, an “overman of the world.” While Aristotle could understand and even welcome Alexander’s forsaking of his Macedonian identity, his forsaking of his Hellenic identity automatically transformed Alexander into an implacable opponent of the philosopher.
This is what Plutarch, who was favourably disposed towards Alexander, said: he “did not, as Aristotle advised him, rule the Grecians like a moderate prince and insult over the barbarians like an absolute tyrant; nor did he take particular care of the first as his friends and domestics, and scorn the latter as mere brutes and vegetables; which would have filled his empire with fugitive incendiaries and perfidious tumults. But believing himself sent from Heaven as the common moderator and arbiter of all nations, and subduing those by force whom he could not associate to himself by fair offers, he labored thus, that he might bring all regions, far and near, under the same dominion. And then, as in a festival goblet, mixing lives, manners, customs, wedlock, all together, he ordained that everyone should take the whole habitable world for his country, of which his camp and army should be the chief metropolis and garrison; that his friends and kindred should be the good and virtuous, and that the vicious only should be accounted foreigners. Nor would he that Greeks and barbarians should be distinguished by long garments, targets, scimitars, or turbans; but that the Grecians should be known by their virtue and courage, and the barbarians by their vices and their cowardice; and that their habit, their diet, their marriage and custom of converse, should be everywhere the same, engaged and blended together by the ties of blood and pledges of offspring.”
Back in his day, King Philip offered Greek cities the kind of relations where there would be no victors or vanquished, first and last, leaders and followers. Alexander offered the same to Persians and other conquered peoples. Clearly, both the father and the son saw themselves as supreme arbiters and guarantors of such a union. However, while the father set himself the task of uniting Hellas (and here he was quite at one with Aristotle), the son dreamed of uniting humanity, and in such a union, Greek civilization could at best claim to be primus inter pares. Individual people would inevitably pay for this union by abandoning their individual freedom: certainly in the name of a great goal.
The king never spared himself, and it would have been strange to expect him to be willing to spare others. It would be fair to say that Alexander’s conquests resulted not so much in liberating the defeated as they did in enslaving the victors. Both the former and the latter were to become assistants to the king, obedient conduits of his divine will. And this applied not only to the top military and political elite of the empire, but also to the thousands and even tens of thousands of Greeks and Macedonians whom Alexander left to man the remote garrisons at the edge of the ecumene with little chance of going back home.
Aristotle, who was observing Alexander’s activities from faraway Athens, could not have liked this. Perhaps he could have forgiven his student for inevitably restricting the freedoms of his subjects, but he could never forgive him for abandoning pan-Hellenism. The consistent implementation of Alexander’s grand plan would inexorably lead to Aristotle’s beloved Hellas dissolving within an entirely new, universal global civilization. Even in purely demographic terms, the mass movement of the most ambitious, energetic and promising young people from Europe to Asia “in search of luck and rank” threatened long-term negative consequences for the development of Greece, which would be doomed to depopulation and a wretched existence on the outskirts of the empire.
Additionally, the endless territorial expansion of the Greek culture inevitably resulted in its simplification and vulgarization—from the universalization of the classical Greek language and its transformation into the imperial “koine” to the degeneration of the classical Greek architecture. Even a cursory comparison between the huge and luxuriant Hellenistic buildings in the East and the best architecture of “the High Classical period” in Greece convincingly shows that size does not always matter. Alexander, like many despotic rulers before and after him, succumbed to the temptations of gigantomastia and approved colossal and often tasteless projects. This trend in construction was continued by the Diadochi, who succeeded Alexander.
Aristotle, of course, kept a keen eye on his student’s movements. Aristotle may have been far away, but his nephew Callisthenes kept a detailed record of Alexander’s campaigns and, taking advantage of his position close to the king, never missed an opportunity to remind him of the exalted ideals of pan-Hellenism. Callisthenes’s escapades led first to mutual bitterness and then an outright disagreement. Alexander’s first chronicler initially fell into disfavour and then found himself in chains. He did not come back from the Indian campaign—he either died of some disease, or was killed on Alexander’s orders.
We could only guess at Aristotle’s reaction to the lavish collective wedding Alexander held in Susa for his Macedonian comrades-in-arms and the daughters of the Iranian nobility. This ceremony went against the philosopher’s basic convictions concerning the cultural incompatibility of the Greeks and the Persians, a person’s right to their own choice, and the monogamous family (many Macedonian veterans had wives and children back home). In this particular instance, Alexander acted not as an enlightened ruler, but as a detached stock-breeder experimenting with a new human breed for his empire.
The Greek philosopher must have been even more horrified by the events that took place in Opis, when, after a mutiny of his Macedonian veterans, Alexander said he was ready to disband his old Macedonian army. Having transferred military command to his former enemies, he ordered a new army to be assembled from the people of the East, including a phalanx, a cavalry, and even a squad of royal guards. Of course, the Macedonians were forced to beg the king for forgiveness, but his willingness to entrust his fate and the fate of his state to Asians would have made any pan-Hellenist shudder.
Aristotle had enough common sense not to quarrel with the almighty king. Historians state that he even accepted Alexander’s highly generous gift of 800 talents for his studies. However, the ideological differences between the teacher and the student were too apparent to be hidden. When Alexander died, Aristotle was among the people suspected of having poisoned the Great King. The accusations levelled against the philosopher remained unproven and did not have any serious consequences for him. But it is quite possible that when Aristotle learned of his student’s death, he breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe humanity, at least its Greek part, was ready for Aristotle’s philosophy, but humanity, and particularly its Greek part, was clearly not ready to implement Alexander’s political programme.
Particularism Strikes Back?
It’s hard to say how world history would have developed had Alexander lived a long life. He would probably have annexed Arabia without much difficulty and within a very short time. Preparations for the campaign had almost been completed. He would probably have set his sights on the Western Mediterranean, where Syracuse, Carthage, and Rome would hardly be able to stop the victorious march of the great commander and where his conquests would likely have prevented the destructive Punic Wars in the future. Sometime later, Alexander would have probably set his sights on the East again and continued the unfinished conquest of India, he would have also explored the basin of the Indian Ocean that had always beckoned him. We cannot rule out the possibility of Alexander, in his thirst for global domination, reaching the western borders of China, which was at that time riven by non-stop internecine conflicts of the Warring States period.
One thing is clear: regardless of the geographical priority of his future campaigns, Alexander would have never gone back to the ideas of pan-Hellenism and Aristotle’s philosophy. He would have continued to build and strengthen his cosmopolitan empire, mix peoples and ethnicities, found new cities, and strengthen trade routes. We can suppose that the genius of the great king would have manifested itself in his state-building just as vividly as it had been manifested in his many victorious battles. However, fate dictated that Alexander spend most of his supernatural creative energy on destroying the old instead of building the new.
The great conqueror died at the age of 33 without completing many of his undertakings and without cementing the foundations of his universalist empire. The forces of particularism gradually began to overpower the ideas of universalism. Less than 20 years after Alexander’s death, the great empire collapsed into independent states locked in a fierce confrontation with each other. It is worth noting that the great empire eroded fastest in its eastern outskirts—India, Bactria and Sogdia. The centre of the post-imperial political activity was clearly shifting westwards, from the heart of Asia to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt became the principal areas of Greek colonization and the main centres of Hellenism in Asia.
To some degree, we can say that Aristotle ultimately vanquished Alexander. Or, in other words, Philip of Macedon vanquished his great son. The boundary between East and West was not eliminated, but shifted from the Aegean Sea to the Euphrates. The Hellenistic states of the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt) and the Seleucid Empire (Syria) succeeded where Greece failed: they overcame the local polis particularism. European immigrants moving to Alexandria or Antioch no longer thought of themselves as Athenians, Spartans, or Macedonians: they were all Hellenes sharing a common culture and historical tradition. However, neither the Seleucid Empire nor the Ptolemaic dynasty succeeded in harmoniously melding western immigrants and eastern residents in the same “melting pot”: in all states of the Diadochi, Hellenes formed the privileged class of people engaged in governance or commerce who mixed little with the native population.
However, Aristotle’s plans for Greece itself did not materialize either. The city-states never formed any kind of a European Union of classical antiquity. Their political strife and military conflicts continued, and Greece itself became a venue for confrontations between larger Hellenic states. One hundred years after Alexander’s death, the Roman Empire started to meddle in Greek affairs with increasing impudence, and in another 50 years (BC 146), the Roman province of Achaea was established in the territory of Greece.
Naturally, the influence that Alexander’s project exerted on the ancient world was not limited to the emergence or decline of specific states. Elements of Hellenism as a way of life and a cultural phenomenon became firmly entrenched throughout the vast spaces of Europe, Asia and Africa, that is, beyond the Hellenistic states themselves. The boundaries of the ecumene were gradually pushed back, new trade routes appeared, and commercial cities flourished. The baton of globalization was taken up by Roman consuls and then by the Roman emperors, who put many of Alexander’s unrealized plans into practice.
However, even imperial Rome, with its blatant cosmopolitanism and its colossal geographic scale, remained mostly a Western empire at the peak of its powers. The Roman eagles were not destined to reach the cities of India and the deserts of Central Asia. Emperor Trajan’s annexation of Southern Mesopotamia and Assyria (115 AD) proved very short-lived: just a few years later, his successor Hadrian was forced to abandon these conquests. For years, the Euphrates served as the border separating Western and Eastern civilizations. A stable synthesis between East and West ultimately failed to materialize even within the Roman Empire: centrifugal forces had the upper hand, and eventually, historical trajectories of Rome and Constantinople diverged for good. The emergence and geographical expansion of Islam ultimately locked in the boundary between the East and the West.
Arbitrary Historical Analogies
History develops in a spiral. In some sense, the global situation today is similar to the situation in the ancient world shortly after the death of Alexander the Great. On the one hand, we see many signs that globalization is in crisis: international trade, foreign direct investment, international migrations, etc., are falling. The importance of national sovereignty and national identity is emphasized everywhere, political forces advocating traditional values and the traditional way of life are growing in influence. Globalization priorities are being replaced with regionalization priorities. Ambitious long-term imperial plans are giving way to situational and highly pragmatic plans that are geared mostly toward domestic audiences instead of the world in general. As far as we can tell, deglobalization trends have gained major traction and will not be reversed in the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, it would be wrong to say that “globalization is over.” The world is getting smaller. Technological progress makes global communication easier and reduces the costs of implementing geographically distributed projects. The burden of common problems puts increasing pressure on all countries—problems ranging from the growing shortage of resources to accelerating climate change. The fact that the first wave of globalization of the late 20th to the early 21st century broke down does not necessarily mean that humanity will not have to face a second wave or that there is no need to prepare for it.
Historically, the Diadochi were the losers because they borrowed Aristotle and Alexander’s most obvious and least productive ideas. They took Aristotle’s political particularism and pan-Hellenistic nationalism, and Alexander’s despotic and highly centralized style of governance. And even though most of Alexander’s comrades-in-arms were remarkable people, neither Seleucus, nor Ptolemy, nor Perdiccas, nor Antigonus, nor Eumenes could measure up to the King in terms of his personality and his inexhaustible energy. Therefore, the Hellenistic states of the Eastern Mediterranean were internally unstable and ultimately fell to Rome or Parthia.
Solving the task that humanity has faced for over 2000 years requires approaches that would be diametrically opposite to those chosen by the Diadochi. How can we combine the most revolutionary and complicated elements of the globalization programmes of the two great figures of classical antiquity? How can we combine Alexander’s global universalism and noble idealism with Aristotle’s rational democracy and political pluralism? Solving this historical task would usher in radically new development directions for our world.
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