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Soft power as an important structural component of a foreign policy strategy of a state

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The architect of the ‘soft power’ concept Joseph Nye focuses on ‘the ability to achieve the desired through voluntary cooperation, not by coercion or tricks’. The name of the theory and its interpretation are clearly in conflict because voluntary participation may not involve any force, even if it’s soft. Moreover, the author of the theory believes that the power of modern States consists of three parts: military force, economic power and ‘soft power’. However, the author himself claims it doesn’t seem to be simple to combine hard and soft powers in one strategy. The main idea of the concept of Joseph Nye is that it is ‘soft power’ that helps to achieve great results in world politics. A careful analysis of the techniques of ‘soft power’ used by various States in practice, can prove that it is only a kind of power impact, i.e. ‘hard power’. It’s just an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’.

“Soft power” is neologism in political vocabulary. However, its content is hardly  new phenomenon. Throughout human civilization, the techniques of cunning rivals have been used to achieve their goalies. They were named differently or were not named in any way. Recall, at least, the proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. For 10 years, the Greeks have failed to besiege Troy. It was the subterfuge of Odysseus that helped to take the rebellious city. He offered to give a present to Trojans in the form of a great wooden horse, hiding the elite force inside. There is also another example from modern history. For many years the USA and NATO have been using “soft power” as information influence to disintegrate the Eurasian are wreak havoc and cause instability in the countries neighboring Russia. The United States considers “soft power” an effective means of conducting geopolitical struggle between states. According to O.A.Belkov, “they actively use it in order to defeat or weaken their reel and potential adversary states in the international arena”. The tools of American “soft power” are used as the main component in the strategy of conducting “hybrid warfare” (another neologism in political vocabulary). As is known, the aim of “hybrid warfare” is total or partial disintegration of a state, the establishment of external ideological and, after it, political and economic control, and as a result, complete submission to dictates by other states from without. As political analysts A.Bogachev and M.Latugin rightly say, the “concept of “soft power” implies the creation of such an image of power or any political force (including the opposition) that is capable of influencing behavior, forcing the masses to take actions beneficial to the actor of “soft power”. The idea of “soft power is based, first of all, not on the arguments of reason, but on the strength of “information and images” and on the influence of “meanings”.

China, in contrast to the USA, keeps a low profile and does not try to suppress others nations to its will. Its “soft” intervention into political and economic spheres of various countries have become noticeable practically on all the continents including Africa. However, it looks like PRC is not interested in politics. This implicit impact on the Africans has enabled China to get full control over African markets and profit from them significantly. Ten years ago, in 2007, the Democratic Republic of Congo and China signed “the Contract of the century” worth $9 billion. Lately it has been renegotiated because of the outraged reaction of western colleagues. China was obliged to put into effect restoration of the railway infrastructure with a length of 3200 km, a highway (3600 km), construction of the airport, housing, hospitals, medical centers, universities and colleges. The joint company “Sicomin” was created under the agreements between the Government of RD Congo, the state enterprise “Gécamines” and the consortium of Chinese corporations “Sinohydro”, “China Railway Engineering Corporation”. 68% of this enterprise belongs to the Chinese government and 32% to the “Gécamines” group. The “five pillars” aimed at strengthening of China-Africa relations announced during the African tour made by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1996 and 1997 became the ideological basis of Beijing’s cooperation with African countries. Among these principles there are: enhancing of the sincere friendship “come rain or shine”; equal treatment of all the partners and maintaining of the non-interference principle; quest for development on a mutually beneficial basis; activation of consultation and cooperation in international affairs; creation of the new prosperous world. These principles got broad support in African countries.

Apparently, they attracted Africans by the fact that China positioned itself with African States as an equal player who has common interests in bilateral cooperation and on the world scene.  Africa accepted cooperation with Beijing as the most viable opportunity to move towards equitable development. Sudanese President Omar Hasan Ahmed al-Bashir once said, «China is a friendly country that never interferes in the domestic affairs of other states» . Is that so? Further analysis of China’s policy in this direction will show its «flip side».

Beijing emphatically puts African countries on the same step of a pedestal of priorities as its own country. «We need to make it clear to the world – says He Wenping – that we have a common position on some fundamental international problems» .

Taking into account the destruction of the bipolar system, the Chinese leadership publicly affirmed «the natural preservation of good relations between Africa and the West» because China has always provided assistance to developing countries. However, Beijing, though covertly, put emphasis on the juxtaposition of Africa and itself with the Western community.

An important development mechanism of China’s relations with African partners is their interaction within the framework of regular Chinese-African cooperation forums, such as the «France-Africa», «Africa-European Union» summits or the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). At the first meeting in Beijing in October 2000, the policy documents on the development of relations with Africa were adopted, including the «Beijing Declaration» and «The China-Africa Cooperation Program on Social and Economic Cooperation». China made commitments to cancel partially or completely the 1,2 billion dollar debt to some of the poorest countries in Africa in the coming two years and also to establish the fund to support investment of Chinese enterprises in the economy of the continent.

At the same time, the Chinese representatives emphasized once again that they did not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. At the opening ceremony of the Forum, former Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Jiang Zemin said, ‘No country should impose its social system and ideology on another country, especially interfere in the internal affairs’.

The phenomenon of ”soft power” has always been used by priests. This was both an instrument of the missionaries’ influence during the colonization period, and also the way used by the modern church to participate in the politics of most African countries. African authorities often rely on the church to achieve political and economic stability in the country.

For example, the church (mainly Catholic) plays an important role in the life of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Religious leaders hold high posts in the parliament and the government. For instance, Head of the Church of Christ in the Congo M. Bodo, who is a protestant, has for a long time occupied the post of Chairman of the Senate (the upper house of the Parliament), or Catholic priest M. Malu throughout the electoral process headed the Independent Electoral Commission till the national elections and was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor of France. During the transition period (2003-2006), the leaders of the Church addressed people and the government, calling the civilian and military population of the country for tranquility and balance, and political opponents – for the sanity and conduct of a peaceful dialogue in order to avoid anarchy and unrest, for the bloodless end of the transition period and the peaceful settlement in the country. During the elections, religious missions were observers and they provided technical assistance to the Independent Electoral Commission, and carried out advocacy in the provinces.

Clerics remain active in educational and social spheres. Catholic schools and the university acquire authority in the capital. Many hospitals, children’s shelters are maintained with funds of the church. For a long period of time the church will preserve its strong positions in the DRC and will continue to affect «softly» Congoleses’ formation of the world view.

Different developers of the concept «soft power» have a different attitude towards it. Political and international scientist M. A. Neymark proposes his own vision, a detailed analysis of theories and the application of the «soft power». In the chapter “«smart power» of soft influence” the author concentrates the attention on the fact that «soft power» is an interconnected integrity of various components and their synergistic conceptual and practical-political correlation – cultural, humanitarian, civilizational, socio-political, economic, military factors. The resource capacity of this mechanism of influence is the sociocultural and ideological values that are attractive to the object of impact. According to M. A. Neymark the «smart power» is strictly pragmatic and its geopolitical essence lies in a rational balance. It is focused primarily on the promotion and the protection of national – state interests taking into account new developments on the world stage.

In our view «soft power» implies the formation of a given, regenerated mentality, which is necessary for perception, first of all, of the cultural values of another civilization or people and then its political, economic, religious and other foundations. Fair the judgment of M.A. Neymark that the meaning of “soft power” is “in the projection by the state of its influence on the world around us, relying on economic, informational, communicationary, social, humanitarian and other flexible levers.”

For example, political scientist V.S. Yemets considers soft power information technologies to be a tool of a person manipulating. He emphasizes that the informational impact in its manipulative form, which is being exercised to cater to the interests of a person or a group of people’s interests towards other people, is a specific form of control. Such a form of control could be dangerous in case if it is being implemented secretly and if it brings unilateral benefits to its organizers. As a result of “mind impact” and appealing to their own culture affection, soft power becomes a tool for a smooth translation into receiving dividends in kind. Thus, the final goal of soft power is to shape a mentality that is identical with the interested actors and ultimately implies the submission of the object of influence.

Soft power on the part of the subject implies the weakness of the object, diffusion, permeability of its physical, ideological and moral shell.   Analyst, author and host of the program «Odnako» on Channel One M. Leontiev believes that soft power – real, effective – is a projection of hard power. There can be no soft power in the absence of hard power in the same subject.

The success of the intellectual impact of soft power on the formation of individuals’ mentality depends on many factors. First of all, it is necessary to consider the society’s social stage of development where a personality is formed. It is complicated to change the mentality and to guide it in another way in the society with a well-developed civilization and high GDP as an individual will have high requirements for the offered food for thought.

In this case forming different approaches of soft power will require a considerable intellectual and material potential. There is a different scale of human values in the less developed society. For example, humanitarian aid, access to safe water, and provision of vaccination for children are essential for the majority of African states, where the level of child and adult mortality remains high and the subsistence wage is less than one dollar per day.

Taking into account the military-political climate in the country along with the moral and psychological condition of people in many respects affects the degree of soft power impact as a foreign policy factor. For example, the population of the Congo has been driven to an extreme point of despair by severe military actions that has been going on for decades. The exodus of the population, refugee camps issues, panic in combat zones – all these factors can become a handicap to the promotion of soft power.

In the state of peace, soft power also may face undesirable factors such as other concerned states` counteraction in the sphere of information, dissemination of knowingly false information and so on. At present the influence of psycho-information processes on the formation of the mentality of the new generation has accelerated. In these circumstances soft power became the most powerful factor that/which influences the perception of actuality, psychic reality and behavior of the population of entire states and regions.

Other factor to be considered when using the soft power is the spiritual component of society. If in some country nationalist sentiments prevail, any instruments of soft power may be considered as a foreign body.

In this case it is important to generate real approaches to the «soft power». Analyzing the anti-Western, anti-liberal alternative to world development, the authors of the monograph “State information policy in the context of information and psychological warfare” maintain one of the milestones of this policy is Russian civilization, which was revived in post-Soviet area.  Andrei Maneulo and other authors maintain that “the act of “mental identity”, coupled with the logic of paradoxes, suggests: rejecting the Western model of development (once again) after the catastrophe of blind copying “reforms” of the Western liberal model, Russia will inevitably return to the anti-Western position, what is identical to Russian historical role and spiritual and moral foundations (Eastern Christianity). This does not imply a return to barbarism, but rather the only possible recipe for salvation from the true barbarism in which the regions of the former USSR are immersed: inter-ethnic, religious conflicts and spiritual collapse. In these conditions the Russian state information policy inevitably will become necessary to be identical to this process.”

“Sort power” is occasionally associated with cultural diplomacy. Although, the difference undoubtedly exists. Cooperation in the cultural sphere implies mutual enrichment of cultures and civilizations, in contrast with “soft power” which is a unilateral “soft pressure” on a certain object. By the early 2000s, the weight and influence of cultural diplomacy had grown so much that a new concept of “foreign cultural policy” had been introduced. Russia is actively taking several comprehensive measures which aimed at spreading Russian culture abroad.

However, the Russian diplomats have to face a range of issues in African states, in particular, where strong positions are occupied by the USA and China. Under the conditions of the multipolar world’s formation, different regional leaders use the arsenal of opportunities of «their own» «soft power» taking into account processes of a geopolitical standoff. It is rather difficult to find one’s niche for «soft power» on the African continent, because this country has lost the authority it used to have and it has become «cramp» to cooperate in most African states. And if the older generation treats Russia as a sustainable political and economic partner, the younger generation is guided by the USA and China, which do their best from the perspective of «soft power», in order to gain a foothold in this region. As the result, Africans learn American and Chinese willingly use free education programs and quotas in educational institutions of these countries. Americans promote their lifestyle through numerous cultural centers, where they also, as well as their Chinese partners, open courses of English. French and Belgians do not fall behind. «Soft power» demands significant investment, which is required for facilities, for instance, «Russian language classes», a replenishment of university libraries with relevant literature, computer rooms, Russian cultural centers, exhibitions and other cultural events. Without financing «soft power» remains just a theory. According to V.V. Rugeinikov, such an important element of the influence on the world, as the Russian language, loses its creativity. Fewer demanded goods are produced now. The researcher points rightfully, that «if the foreign reader still keeps interest to L. Tolstoy, A. Chekhov and F. Dostoevsky, their works are perceived the historically depressive background».

Experience shows, that where there are still Russian centers of science and culture (Morocco, the Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and others) cultural ties develop much more fruitfully and faster. The formation of a new mentality in the local population is possible only under the condition of a constant, but not a fragmentary cooperation with college students, social agencies, and state officials. At the same time, it is important to work out new forms of cooperation with structures of public diplomacy, nongovernmental organizations, international institutions that use political, economic and information levers of influence.

Doctor of Political Sciences, professor of the Department of theory and history of international relations, as well as of Diplomatic Academy of Russian Foreign Ministry and of the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

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Diplomacy

International Relations Amid the Pandemic

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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.

From our partner RIAC

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Diplomacy

Relevance of the Soft Power in Modern World

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In modern days, the relevance of Soft Power has increased manifolds. At times, the COIVD-19 has hooked the whole human race; this concept has further come into the limelight. The term, Soft Power was coined by the American Scientist Joseph Nye. Soft Power is the ability of a country to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion. By tapping the tool of Soft Power, a country can earn respect and elevate its global position. Hard Power cannot be exercised exceeding a territory, and if any country follows this suit, its image is tarnished globally. However, it is Soft Power that can boost the perception and create a niche of a nation. Soft Power is regarded as the essential factor of the overall strength of a country. It can increase the adhesion and the determination of the people in a realm to shape the foreign relations of any nation. Nye held that the Soft Power arsenal would include culture, political values, and foreign policy.

After the Cold War, many nations pumped billions of dollars into Soft Power initiatives, and the US mastered this concept. The US has sailed on the waters of Soft Power by harnessing the tool of media, politics, and economic aid. The US boasts globally recognized brands and companies, Hollywood, and its quest for democratic evangelization. Through movies, the US has disseminated its culture worldwide. American movies are viewed by a massive audience worldwide. The promotion of the US culture through films is a phenomenon (culture imperialism) where the US subtly wants to dominate the world by spreading its culture. Through Hollywood films, the US has an aspiration to influence the world by using Soft Power tools. Hollywood is considered as the pioneer of fashion, and people across the globe imitate and adopt things from Hollywood to their daily life. Such cultural export lure foreign nations to fantasize about the US as a pillar of Soft Power. Educational exchange programs, earthquake relief in Japan and Haiti, famine relief in Africa stand as the best example of the US initiatives of Soft Power. Now, the American political and cultural appeal is so extensive that the majority of international institutions reflect US interests. The US, however, witnessed a drop from 1st place to 6th on the Global Soft Power Index. This wane can be attributed to the attack on the US Capitol Hill sparked by former US President Donald Trump. In addition, his dubious decisions also hold responsibilities that curtailed the US soft power image, that is, particularly the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Beijing is leaving no stone unturned to ace this area. China, rich in culture and traditional philosophy, boasts abundant sources of Soft Power. China is contemplating and exploring an innovative strategy in its rise in international politics. There have been notable elements in the Chinese diplomatic practice, including softer rhetoric, promotion of its culture abroad, economic diplomacy, and image building. Beijing, amid an ongoing pandemic, has extended vaccine help to 80 countries. Such initiative taken by China has elevated its worth globally during difficult times of the pandemic. According to the Global Soft Power index 2021, China stands in the 8th slot. China is an old civilization with a rich culture. China has stressed culture as a crucial source of Soft Power. In a bid to enhance its cultural dominance, Beijing has built many Confucius Institutes overseas. However, this has not been whole-heartedly embraced by the Chinese neighbors due to territorial disputes on the South China Sea. Moreover, International Order, dominated by the West, is wary of Beijing. China’s authoritarian political system is not welcomed in Western democracies. Therefore, China finds it hard to generate Soft Power in democracies. In recent times, Beijing has witnessed tremendous extension in its economy; thus, it focuses on harnessing economic tools to advance its Soft Power. Consequently, Beijing has driven its focus on geoeconomics to accelerate its Soft Power.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, in this sphere, finds itself in a very infirm position -securing 63rd position in the Global Soft Power Index. In comparison with Pakistan, India boasts a lot of Soft Power by achieving the 36th position in the Global Soft Power Index. Its movies, yoga, and classical and popular dance and music have uplifted the Indian soft image. In the promotion of the Indian Soft Power Image, Bollywood plays a leading role and it stretches beyond India. Bollywood has been projected as a great Soft Power tool for India. Bollywood stars are admired globally. For instance, Shahrukh Khan, known as Baadshah of Bollywood, has a fan following across the world. Through its Cinema, India has attracted the attention of the world. Indian movies have recognition in the world and helped India earn billions of dollars. However, the Modi government has curtailed the freedom of Bollywood. Filmmakers claim that their movies are victim of censorship. Moreover, the anti-Muslim narrative has triggered in India, which has tarnished the Indian image of secular country and eventually splashing the Indian Soft image. Protests of farmers, revocation of article 370 in Kashmir, and the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) have degraded the Indian Soft Power.

Pakistan is not in the tier of the countries acing the Soft Power notion. In Pakistan, expressions of Soft Power, like spiritualism, tourism, cinema, literature, cricket, and handicrafts, are untapped. Pakistan is on the list of those countries having immense tourism potential and its culture is its strength. Unfortunately, no concrete steps are taken to promote the Pakistani culture and tourism. The Pakistani movies are stuck in advancing Pakistan’s narrative worldwide due to lack of the interest of successive governments in this sphere. In addition, these movies lack suitable content, that’s why people prefer watching Bollywood or Hollywood movies. It is the job of the government to harness the expressions of Soft Power. Through movies and soap operas, we can disseminate our culture, push our narrative, and promote our tourism. Government-sponsored campaigns on electronic media can help greatly in this sphere. Apart from the role of government, this necessitates the involvement of all stakeholders, including artists, entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, and civil society.

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Diplomacy

Planetary Drought of Leadership

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The Tokyo Olympic Games, just concluded, were a spectacular success and grateful thanks are owed to our Japanese hosts to make this event so, at a time when we were in the middle of a global pandemic. There were many doubts expressed beforehand by many people over the Games going ahead during the pandemic, but the precautionary measures put in place were well handled and not obtrusive. 

For anyone who had the opportunity to watch the Games via TV they must have been struck by the wonderful sportsmanship and friendship shown by the competitors of all nations taking part, whatever race and ethnicity. It prompted me to think and ask why the countries of the world cannot exercise some of the same degree of friendship when dealing with one another rather than push forward with agendas that are antagonistic. The world holds a number of dysfunctional states as well as oppressive dictatorships where the resident population is subjected to mental as well as physical torture. Belarus is a typical example, where the leader of the country stole the election to give himself yet another term, and quashes any dissent, with some paying the ultimate price. He has the arrogance to divert a commercial flight so that he can arrest someone who opposes him and then beats him up, before parading him in front of the cameras to say an apology, which everyone can see was forced out of him. 

The Middle East is a complex problem and has been for centuries, the home of some of the oldest civilisations and the divergent monotheistic religions, which add a complicating factor. It surprisingly has been relatively quiet for the last period. Until the next flare up.

Myanmar has also been quiet, or so it seems. The military patrols across the country, particularly in states that offer some resistance and tough guerrilla opposition. The military behave badly, continuing the practice of killing, rape and pillage if not total destruction of small communities which cannot offer any resistance. Corruption is thriving. The military government have ‘promised’ fresh elections next February, 6 months hence, but it is most unlikely that these will be ‘fair and free’. The troubled conditions will continue. It will be an issue of continuing concern for ASEAN and more widely. A recent visit for a documentary had to be carried out illegally in case the military had discovered that the local people had been welcoming and helpful. The repercussions would have been appalling.

The latest situation that has arisen is the Afghanistan blitz takeover by the Taliban, a medieval group promoting the fundamental sharia doctrine, which is out of date and treats women as ‘non-persons’. They have also harboured terrorists, one group pulling off the infamous 2001, 9/11 strike on the NY Twin Towers, which awakened the US to take strong retaliatory action in Afghanistan, and forcing the Taliban out for 20 years. Their 5-year, 1996-2001, rule of Afghanistan was brought to a close after the NY happening, when the US with Allied forces took charge and ousted them. 

But now the Taliban are back following a direct meeting with the then president Trump in 2017, no Afghan government present, and they saw him coming! Shades of North Korea. He said he would withdraw completely without proper assurances, leaving the country’s development less than half finished. President Joseph Biden completed the task of withdrawal, somewhat hasty, upsetting nearly all Americans in the process. The British were caught flat-footed and there is considerable anger expressed by MPs, not least because they realise that they no longer have the ability to resolve such issues themselves. They feel embarrassed and rightly so.

As one of the Afghan luminaries and most quoted intellectuals, prof. Djawed Sangdel, reminds us: “Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. Even Alexander the Macedonian realised – 2,300 years ago – ‘it is easy to enter the country, but lethal when exiting it’. This especially if you do not respect domestic realities.” Indeed, the situation on the ground is chaotic.

The leader, Ashraf Ghani, of the weak ‘legal’ government has fled, not without rumours about bags full of cash, and that is one reason that the country has not progressed as well as it should, endemic corruption. Women, quite rightly, are fearful, as to what lies in store, as the Taliban’s record on treatment of them is brutal. They have promised to give emancipation within sharia law – which in their case was the combination of twisted and oversimplified Islamic teachings with the tribal nomadic pre-Islamic culture of the central Asian hights.

Looking at the country as a whole, one worries about its future; the Taliban have no track record of governing a country, particularly not one as complex as Afghanistan. They would have to greatly modify their approach to life, separate religion from state (affairs). However, there are credible doubts; once more the Northern Alliance will get together and the country will lapse into civil war. Will the Chinese see an opportunity and risk what others have failed to do? My heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan.

In reviewing the past few decades, it would seem that western led democracies, when they have engaged with a country, which is in trouble, have only entered it without full humanitarian understanding of the problems and not sought a proper sustainable solution. Inevitably it takes longer than one thinks, and there are not strong enough safeguards put in to avoid financial losses to development projects, sometimes major.

The UN has a major part to play, but one must ask if today’s remit is fit for purpose, or should they be reviewed, and the countries that make up the UN should look at and ask themselves if they are fair in what they give and expect, not just monetarily.

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