Many have framed the battle lines in the geopolitics of the emerging new world order as the 21st century’s Great Game. It’s a game that aims to shape the creation of a new Eurasia-centred world, built on the likely fusion of Europe and Asia into what former Portuguese Europe minister Bruno Macaes calls a “supercontinent.”
For now, the Great Game pits China together with Russia, Turkey and Iran against the United States, India, Japan and Australia. The two camps compete for influence, if not dominance, in a swath of land that stretches from the China Sea to the Atlantic coast of Europe.
The geopolitical flashpoints are multiple. They range from the China Sea to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Central European nations and, most recently, far beyond with Russia, China and Turkey supporting embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro.
On one level, the rivalry resembles Risk, a popular game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest played on a board depicting a political map of the earth, divided into forty-two territories, which are grouped into six continents. Multiple players command armies that seek to capture territories, engage in a complex dance as they strive for advantage, and seek to compensate for weaknesses. Players form opportunistic alliances that could change at any moment. Potential black swans threaten to disrupt.
Largely underrated in debates about the Great Game is the fact that increasingly there is a tacit meeting of the minds among world leaders as well as conservative and far-right politicians and activists that frames the rivalry: the rise of civilisationalism and the civilizational state that seeks its legitimacy in a distinct civilization rather than the nation state’s concept of territorial integrity, language and citizenry.
The trend towards civilisationalism benefits from the fact that 21st century autocracy and authoritarianism vests survival not only in repression of dissent and denial of freedom of expression but also maintaining at least some of the trappings of pluralism that can include representational bodies with no or severely limited powers, toothless opposition groups, government-controlled non-governmental organizations, and degrees of accountability.
It creates the basis for an unspoken consensus on the values that would underwrite a new world order on which men like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Victor Orban, Mohammed bin Salman, Narendra Modi and Donald Trump find a degree of common ground. If anything, it is this tacit understanding that in the shaping of a new world order constitutes the greatest threat to liberal values such as human and minority rights. By the same token, the tacit agreement on fundamental values reduces the Great Game to a power struggle over spheres of influence and the sharing of the pie as well as a competition of political systems in which concepts such as democracy are hollowed out.
Intellectually, the concept of civilisationalism puts into context much of what is currently happening. This includes the cyclical crisis over the last decade as a result of a loss of confidence in leadership and the system; the rise of right and left-wing populism; the wave of Islamophobia and increased anti-Semitism; the death of multi-culturalism with the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as its most extreme expression; the Saudi and Russian alliance with ultra-conservative Christian groups that propagate traditional family values; and Russian meddling in Western elections.
Analysts explained these developments by pointing to a host of separate and disparate factors, some of which were linked in vague ways. Analysts pointed among others to the 2008 financial crisis, jihadist violence and the emergence of the Islamic State, the war in Syria, and a dashing of hope with the rollback of the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts. These developments are and were at best accelerators not sparks or initiators.
Similarly, analysts believed that the brilliance of Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Towers and the Pentagon in Washington was the killing of multi-culturalism in one fell and brutal swoop. Few grasped just how consequential that would be. A significant eye opener was the recent attack on the mosques in Christchurch. New Zealand much like Norway in the wake of the 2012 attacks by supremacist Andre Breivik stands out as an anti-dote to civilisationalism with its inclusive and compassionate response.
The real eye-opener, however, was a New Zealand intelligence official who argued that New Zealand, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance alongside the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada, had missed the emergence of a far or alt-right that created breeding grounds for violence because of Washington’s singular post-9/11 focus on what popularly is described as Islamic terrorism. That remark casts a whole different light on George W. Bush’s war on terror and the subsequent war against the Islamic State. Those wars are rooted as much in the response to 9/11, the 7/7 London attacks and other jihadist occurrences as they are in witting or unwitting civilisationalism.
“The global war on terror has become a blueprint for violence against Muslims. When there isn’t a shooting at a mosque, there’s a drone strike in Somalia. When one Friday prayer goes by without incident, an innocent Muslim is detained on material support for terrorism charges or another is killed by law enforcement. Maybe a baby is added to a no-fly list,” said human rights activist Maha Hilal. Scholars Barbara Perry and Scott Poynting warned more than a decade ago in study of the fallout in Canada of the war on terror that “in declining adequately to recognize and to act against hate (crimes), and in actually modelling anti-Muslim bias by practicing discrimination and institutional racism through “‘ethnic targeting,’ ‘racial profiling,’ and the like, the state conveys a sort of ideological license to individuals, groups and institutions to perpetrate and perpetuate racial hatred.”
The same is true for the various moves in Europe that have put women on the frontline of what in the West are termed cultural wars but in reality are civilizational wars involving efforts to ban conservative women’s dress and endeavours to create a European form of Islam. In that sense Victor Orban’s definition of Hungary as a Christian state in which there is no room for the other is the extreme expression of this trend. It’s a scary picture, it raises the spectre of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations, yet it is everything but.
Fact is that economic and geopolitical interests are but part of the explanation for the erection of a Muslim wall of silence when it comes to developments in Xinjiang, the Organization of Islamic Countries’ ability to criticize the treatment of Muslim minorities in various parts of the world but praise China for its policy, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s alliance with a man like Victor Orban and his joining the right-wing chorus that has turned Jewish financier and philanthropist George Soros into a bogeyman or the rise of militant, anti-Muslim Buddhism and Hinduism. In fact, the signs of this were already visible with the alliance between Israel and the evangelists who believe in doomsday on the Day of Judgement if Jews fail to convert to Christianity as well as the recent forging of ties between various powerful Islamic groups or countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the evangelist movement.
Civilisationalism is frequently based on myths erected on a falsification and rewriting of history to serve the autocrat or authoritarian’s purpose. Men like Trump, Orban, and Erdogan project themselves as nationalist heroes who protect the nation from some invading horde. In his manifesto, Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks, bought into the notion of an illusionary invader. Muslims, he wrote, “are the most despised group of invaders in the West, attacking them receives the greatest level of support.”
He also embraced the myths of an epic, centuries-long struggle between the white Christian West and Islam with the defeat of the Ottomans in 1683 at the ports of Vienna as its peak. Inscribed on Tarrant’s weapons were the names of Serbs who had fought the Ottomans as well as references to the battle of Vienna. To Tarrant, the Ottomans’ defeat in Vienna symbolized the victory of the mythical notion of a world of inviolable, homogeneous nations. “The idea that (medieval societies) are this paragon of unblemished whiteness is just ridiculous. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so awful,” said Paul Sturtevant, author of The Middle Ages in the Popular Imagination.
Much like popular perception of the battle for Vienna, Tarrant’s view of history had little relation to reality. A multi-cultural empire, the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna in cooperation with Catholic French King Louis XIV and Hungarian Protestant noble Imre Thokoly as well as Ukrainian Cossacks. Vienna’s Habsburg rulers were supported not only by Polish armies but also Muslim Tartar horsemen. “The Battle of Vienna was a multicultural drama; an example of the complex and paradoxical twists of European history. There never has been such a thing as the united Christian armies of Europe,” said historian Dag Herbjornsrud. Literary scholar Ian Almond argues that notions of a clash of civilizations bear little resemblance to the “almost hopelessly complex web of shifting power-relations, feudal alliances, ethnic sympathies and historical grudges” that shaped much of European history. “The fact remains that in the history of Europe, for hundreds of years, Muslims and Christians shared common cultures, spoke common languages, and did not necessarily see one another as ‘strange’ or ‘other,’” Almond said.
That was evident not only in the Battle of Vienna but also when the Ottomans and North Africa’s Arab rulers rallied around Queen Elizabeth I of England after the pope excommunicated her in 1570 for breaking with Catholicism and establishing a Protestant outpost. Elizabeth and her Muslim supporters argued that Protestantism and Islam were united in their rejection of idol worship, including Catholicism with its saints, shrines and relics. In a letter in 1579 to Ottoman sultan Murad III, Elizabeth described herself as the “most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all kind of idolatries.” In doing so, she sought to capitalize on the fact that the Ottomans had justified their decision to grant Lutherans preferred commercial treatment on the basis of their shared beliefs.
Similarly, historian Marvin Power challenges the projection of Chinese history as civilizational justification of the party leader’s one-man rule by Xi Jinping and Fudan University international relations scholar Zhang Weiwei. Amazon’s blurb on Zhang’s bestselling The China Wave: Rise of the Civilizational State summarizes the scholar’s rendition of Xi Jinping’s vision succinctly: “China’s rise, according to Zhang, is not the rise of an ordinary country, but the rise of a different type of country, a country sui generis, a civilizational state, a new model of development and a new political discourse which indeed questions many of the Western assumptions about democracy, good governance and human rights.” The civilizational state replaces western political ideas with a model that traces its roots to Confucianism and meritocratic traditions.
In his sweeping study entitled China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image, Powers demonstrates that Chinese history and culture is a testimony to advocacy of upholding individual rights, fair treatment, state responsibility to its people, and freedom of expression rather than civilisationalism, hierarchy and authoritarianism. Powers extensively documents the work of influential Chinese philosophers, writers, poets, artists and statesmen dating back to the 3rd century BC who employed rational arguments to construct governance systems and take legal action in support of their advocacy. Powers noted that protection of free speech was embedded in edicts of the Han Emperor Wen in the second century BC. The edicts legitimized personal attacks on the emperor and encouraged taxpayers to expose government mistakes. The intellectuals and statemen were the Chinese counterpart of contemporary liberal thinkers.
In a lot of ways, Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church have understood the utility of civilisationalism far better than others and made it work for them, certainly prior to the Russian intervention in Syria. At a gathering several years before the intervention, Russia achieved a fete that seemed almost unthinkable. Russia brought to the same table at a gathering in Marrakech every stripe of Sunni and Shiite political Islam.
The purpose was not to foster dialogue among the various strands of political Islam. The purpose was to forge an alliance with a Russia that emphasized its civilizational roots in the Russian Orthodox Church and the common values it had with conservative and ultra-conservative Islam. To achieve its goal, Russia was represented at the gathering by some of its most senior officials and prominent journalists whose belief systems were steeped in the values projected by the Church. To the nodding heads of the participating Muslims, the Russians asserted that Western culture was in decline while non-Western culture was on the rise, that gays and gender equality threaten a woman’s right to remain at home and serve her family and that Iran and Saudi Arabia should be the model for women’s rights. They argued that conservative Russian Orthodox values like the Shariah offered a moral and ethical guideline that guarded against speculation and economic bubbles.
The Trump administration has embarked on a similar course by recently siding in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women with proponents of ultra-conservative values such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq and several African countries. Together they sought to prevent the expansion of rights for girls, women, and LGBT people and weaken international support for the Beijing Declaration, a landmark 1995 agreement that stands as an internationally recognized progressive blueprint for women’s rights.
The US position in the commission strokes with efforts by conservative Christians to reverse civilizational US courts decisions in favour of rights for women, minorities, members of the LGBT community, Muslims and immigrants and refugees. It is what conservative historian and foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan describes as the war within traditionally liberal society. It is that civilizational war that provides the rationale for Russian meddling in elections, a rational that goes beyond geopolitics. It also explains Trump’s seeming empathy with Putin and other autocrats and authoritarians.
The US alignment with social conservatives contributes to the rise of the civilizational state. Putin’s elevation of the position of the church and Xi’s concentration of absolute power in the Communist Party strengthens institutions that symbolize the rejection of liberal values because they serve as vehicles that dictate what individuals should believe and how they should behave. These vehicles enable civilisationalism by strengthening traditional hierarchies defined by birth, class, family and gender and delegitimizing the rights of minorities and minority views. The alignment suggests that the days were over when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov trumpeted that the West had lost “its monopoly on the globalization process” because there was a “market of ideas” in which different “value systems” were forced to compete.
Similarly, conservative American author Christopher Caldwell asserted that Orban’s civilizational concept of an authoritarian Christian democracy echoed the kind of democracy that “prevailed in the United States 60 years ago” prior to the civil rights movement and the 1968 student protests. Orban’s Hungary epitomizes the opportunism that underlies the rise of the civilizational state as a mechanism to put one’s mark on the course of history and retain power. In Orban’s terms, civilizational means not Christianity as such but those Christian organizations that have bought into his authoritarian rule. Those that haven’t are being starved of state and public funding.
Civilisationalism’s increased currency is evident from Beijing to Washington with stops in between. Trump’s and Steve Bannon, his former strategy advisor’s beef with China or Russia is not civilizational, its about geopolitical and geo-economic power sharing. In terms of values, they think in equally civilizational terms. In a speech in Warsaw in 2017, Trump declared that “the fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive” but assured his audience that “our civilization will triumph.” Bannon has established an “academy for the Judeo-Christian west” in a former monastery in the Italian town of Collepardo. The academy intends to groom the next generation of far-right populist politicians.
It is initiatives like Bannon’s academy and the growing popularity of civilizational thinking in democracies, current and erstwhile, rather than autocracies that contribute most significantly to an emerging trend that transcends traditional geopolitical dividing lines and sets the stage for the imposition of authoritarian values in an emerging new world order. Interference in open and fair elections, support for far-right and ultra-conservative, family-value driven Western groups and influence peddling on both sides of the Atlantic and in Eurasia at large by the likes of Russia, China and the Gulf states serve the purpose of Bannon and his European associates.
Civilizationalists have put in place the building blocks of a new world order rooted in their value system. These blocks include the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that groups Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The grouping is centred on the Chinese principle of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of others which amounts to support for the region’s autocratic regimes. The SCO’s Tashkent-based internal security coordination apparatus or Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS) has similarly adopted China’s definition of the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism that justifies its brutal crackdown in Xinjiang.
Proponents of the civilizational state see the nation state and Western dominance as an aberration of history. British author and journalist Martin Jacques and international relations scholar Jason Sharman argue that China’s history as a nation state is at best 150 years old while its civilizational history dates back thousands of years. Similarly, intellectual supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) project India as a Hindu-base civilization rather than a multi-cultural nation state. Modi’s minister of civil aviation, Jayant Sinha, suggests that at independence, India should have embraced its own culture instead of Western concepts of scientific rationalism. Talking to the Financial Times, Sinha preached cultural particularism. “In our view, heritage precedes the state… People feel their heritage is under siege. We have a faith-based view of the world versus the rational-scientific view.”
Arab autocracies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have stopped short of justifying their rule in civilizational terms but have enthusiastically embraced the civilizational state’s rejection of western notions of democracy and human rights. One could argue that Saudi Arabia’s four decade long global propagation of ultra-conservative strands of Islam or the UAE effort to mould an Islam that is apolitical and adheres to the principle of obedience to the ruler is civilizational in nature.
Islamic law scholar Mohammed Fadel argues that one reason why Arab autocracies have not overtly embraced civilisationalism even though they in many ways fit the mould is the absence of a collective memory in post-Ottoman Arab lands. To explicitly embrace civilisationalism as a concept, Arab states would have to cloak themselves in the civilizational mantle of either pan-Islam or pan-Arabism, which in turn would require regional integration. One could argue that the attempt by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to impose their will on the Middle East for example with the boycott of Qatar is an attempt to create a basis for a regional integration that they would dominate.
The rise of the civilizational state with its corporatist traits raises the spectre of a new world order whose value system equates dissent with treason, views an independent press as the ‘enemy of the people’ and relegates minorities to the status of at best tolerated communities with no inherent rights. It is a value system that enabled Trump to undermine confidence in the media as the fourth estate that speaks truth to power and has allowed the president and Fox News to turn the broadcaster into the United States’ closest equivalent to state-controlled television. Trump’s portrayal of the media as the bogeyman has legitimized populist assaults on the press across the globe irrespective of political system from China and the Philippines to Turkey and Hungary. It has facilitated Prince Mohammed’s effort to fuse the kingdom’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam with a nationalist sentiment that depicts critics as traitors rather than infidels.
In the final analysis, the tacit understanding on a civilisationalism-based value system means that it’s the likes of New Zealand, Norway and perhaps Canada that are putting up their hands and saying not me instead of me too. Perhaps Germany is one of the countries that is seeking to stake out its place on a middle ground. The problem is that the ones that are not making their voices heard are the former bastions of liberalism like the United States and much of Europe. They increasingly are becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Edited remarks at Brookings roundtable in Doha
International Relations Amid the Pandemic
We could rest assured that COVID-19 will be defeated, sooner rather than later. The excessive angst and fear we currently feel will gradually subside, while our science will find effective antidotes so that people could look back on the pandemic years as a ghastly dream.
At the same time, it is also clear that a post-pandemic world will be quite different to the world we knew before. The argument that the world needs a massive shake-up to move to the next stage of its development has been quite popular ever since the end of the Cold War. Some prophesied that this would come as a result of a profound economic crisis, while others argued that a large-scale war may well be on the cards. As often happens, though, what turned the world on its head came as if out of nowhere. Within a short span of just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on all the many contradictions and setbacks of our age. It went on to outline the trajectory for economic prosperity, scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements going forward, opening up new opportunities for self-realization and fulfilment. The question pertinent today is: Who will be able to best exploit the new reality and take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up? And how?
COVID-19 has also left its mark on the current architecture of international relations.
At the turn of the century, it was mired in crisis. The end of the Cold War towards the late 20th century effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from the bipolar world order established in the wake of the Second World War to a model that had yet to be created. A bitter struggle would unfold as to what the new world order had to be, with the issue still unsettled today. A number of states, as well as non-state actors, willing to take advantage of this uncertainty in global affairs and redistribute the spheres of influence in the world is what it ultimately boils down to. In a sense, such a scenario should have come as no surprise since the contradictions between the profound changes encompassing the public domain and the rigid model of international relations established in the mid-20th century by the powers victorious in the Second World War had continued to grow in recent decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a stern and unprecedented test of strength that has revealed the limits of the current architecture of international relations. Previous crises—be they financial turmoil, struggle against terrorism, regional conflicts or something else—were, in fact, temporary and rather limited in their implications, however severe they were. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every country in the world, regardless of their political regimes and social conventions, economic prosperity and military might. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world as well as the growing risks and challenges; and if ignored, they could plunge the world into a descending spiral of self-destruction.
The pandemic continues, which means we are yet to draw a final conclusion on its consequences for the system of international relations. That being said, a number of tentative conclusions are already taking shape.
Point 1. Globalization, despite its obvious side effects, has already changed the face of our world, irreversibly making it truly interdependent. This has been said before; however, the opponents of globalization have tried—and continue to try—to downplay its consequences for modern society. As it happens, they would like to think of globalization as little more than an episode in international life. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, it is nevertheless incapable of changing the familiar landscape of the world. The pandemic has lifted the curtain on what the modern world truly looks like. Here, state borders are nothing more than an administrative and bureaucratic construct as they are powerless to prevent active communication among people, whether spiritual, scientific, informational or of any other kind. Likewise, official borders are not an obstacle to the modern security threats proliferating among states. The waves of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on all countries. No nation has been able to escape this fate. The same will also happen time and again with other challenges unless we recognize this obvious reality to start thinking about how states should act amid the new circumstances.
Point 2. The international system withstood the initial onslaught in spite of the incessant fearmongers prophesying its impending collapse. Following a rather brief period of confusion and helplessness, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, G20 and other global and regional organizations got their act together (albeit some better than others), taking urgent action to contain the pandemic. This proves that the system of international relations that was constructed after the Second World War still functions, although it is far from perfect or devoid of shortcomings.
In a similar vein, the fight against the pandemic has demonstrated that many international structures are increasingly out of step with the modern reality, proving incapable of mobilizing quickly enough to make a difference in our ever-changing world. This, once again, pushes to the fore the issue of a reformed United Nations system (and other international institutions), while the issue is progressively getting even more urgent. Moving forward, the international community will likely have to face challenges no less dangerous than the current pandemic. We have to be prepared for this.
Point 3. As the role of international institutions in global affairs weakens, centrifugal tendencies gain momentum, with countries—for the most part, global leaders—starting to put their national interests first. The global information war surrounding various anti-COVID-19 vaccines is a prime example of this. Not only has it seriously upset successes in the fight against the pandemic, but it has also added a new dimension to mutual distrust and rivalry. The world has effectively fallen back to the “rules” of the Cold War era, when countries with different socio-political systems were desperate to prove their superiority, with little regard for common interests such as security and development.
Pursuing such a policy today is fraught with grave consequences for every nation, since new security threats care little for borders. The recent events in Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for us all, showing that any serious regional crisis, even in a most remote corner of the world, will inevitably have global implications. Therefore, we are all facing a stark choice: either unite against these new challenges or become hostage to the various extremists and adventurers.
Point 4. Some political leaders have been quick to use the challenges of the pandemic as a pretext to strengthen the role of the state at the expense of fundamental democratic principles and binding international obligations. This may be justified or even necessitated at a time of the most acute phases of a severe crisis, when all available resources need to be mobilized to repel the threat.
However, one gets the impression that some politicians are increasingly in the groove for these extended powers and would very much like to hold onto them, using the likelihood of new crises as a justification. This line of thinking could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a new model of international relations to be established in accordance with the modern reality, where states would be expected to pool their efforts in the interests of global security and development.
Point 5. As always happens in times of profound crises, the international community is looking to major powers and their leadership for guidance. The future course of history in all realms of life, naturally including international relations, will hinge on what these countries choose to do, deciding whether solidarity prevails over national egoism. President Putin’s initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members could be a good starting point to foster understanding and seek new ways of moving forward. We cannot keep putting off a frank and thorough conversation about the future world order, as the costs of new delays could be too grave for everyone to handle.
From our partner RIAC
Relevance of the Soft Power in Modern World
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.
Planetary Drought of Leadership
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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