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Global Victory Over COVID-19: What Price Are We Willing to Pay?

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All epidemics end sooner or later. Today’s coronavirus pestilence will also end, leaving behind many human tragedies, huge economic losses, forced changes in our customary way of life, shifts in geopolitics and worldviews that will in some manner affect each and every one of us. Although we still have a long way to go before the pandemic even peaks, it is never too early to ponder the outcomes we are ready to accept as relatively “benign” and those we would unequivocally deem “malignant.” What costs will be seen as inevitable losses and which will be viewed as the result of subjective mistakes and managerial miscalculations in combating the pandemic?

In other words, it would be useful to determine humanity’s provisional KPIs in combating the pandemic. Naturally, the concept of “acceptable losses” changes as the virus spreads and the pandemic grows in scale, and what seemed entirely unacceptable a month ago today appears to be a sad reality.

It is also obvious that these provisional KPIs will be different for different countries and regions, at least for the simple reason that the value of human life is not the same in all civilizations, societies, and political systems. Nevertheless, let us try to calculate the total cost of vanquishing the pandemic and of those practical lessons that global society must learn while combating COVID-19. What outcomes do we need to see in order for future historians to be able to conclude in all honesty that in 2020, humanity passed the coronavirus test with flying colours?

Duration

Duration certainly is one of the criteria of humanity’s success in combating the pandemic. The sooner we cope with COVID-19, the better. How far are we from turning the corner? Expert assessments vary wildly. Optimists believe that the global morbidity will peak in early summer or even in May, and subsequently, the number of new cases will gradually decline. Pessimists believe that the pandemic will last for two years at best, or will never end at worst, turning into a constant factor in our life, similar to the seasonal flu.

Just how long the active phase of the pandemic lasts largely depends on three factors: (1) the time it takes to develop, run clinical trials and mass-produce an effective vaccine; (2) how successful we are at preventing the mass spread of the disease in those regions that have thus far barely been affected by the pandemic (Africa, South Asia, Middle East, Latin America); and (3) the effectiveness of the lockdown and self-isolation measures in those countries where the pandemic appears to be approaching the turning point. And, naturally, it depends on our success in preventing repeat outbreaks in countries where the number of people infected with the virus is declining (East Asia, Iran).

We should not count on a miracle vaccine being developed in the next few months. Consequently, success on a global scale entails the following dynamics of the war on COVID-19: (1) approaching the global morbidity peak by mid-summer; (2) suppressing the main hot spots of the pandemic in the winter-spring of 2021 (after a vaccine has been developed); and (3) concluding the war on individual hot spots during 2021. Therefore, the war on the pandemic will end within the next 12–18 months, although some isolated action taken to suppress probable relapses will continue later as well.

This schedule of attacking the coronavirus proceeds from the premise that the pandemic will peak in Europe and the United States no later than early to mid-May, with morbidity levelling off in areas that are “catching up” (Turkey, Brazil, Russia, etc.) a month later on average, and that such densely populated countries as India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt will not demonstrate the exponential growth we have seen in Europe and North America. The ability of the countries in the global South to safeguard themselves against the explosive spread of the virus is an arbitrary assumption, but thus far, this assumption has been borne out by the weak dynamics of coronavirus cases in the South.

Deaths

There is no consensus on this issue even in the expert community, and the estimates vary wildly again. Some cite the experience of China and other East Asian states, suggesting that the spread of the virus can be successfully contained through a strict lockdown in other regions, too, and the mortality rate can be kept at the level of China (5 per cent) or even of South Korea and Japan (approximately 2 per cent). Others doubt the possibility of transplanting “the East Asian model” into other regions or mistrust official Chinese statistics. Instead, their forecasts follow the figures of such countries as Spain (10 per cent), France (11 per cent), Italy and the United Kingdom (13 per cent).

Neither of these predictions has been definitively proved or disproved by the observed dynamics of the disease. Still, the current dynamics give more ground for alarm than for hope. What is alarming is not so much the number of people infected (over 2.35 million as of April 19), as the growing mortality rates (162,000.). The average global mortality rate (7 per cent) is significantly higher than the mortality rate in China, not to speak of the mortality rates in Japan and South Korea. If the pandemic spreads to the global South, with its undeveloped public healthcare systems and multiple armed conflicts, these rates are likely to increase as the number of infected grows, and so too is the burden on the medical infrastructure. For example, the mortality rate in Algeria is already over 15 per cent, although there is nothing to suggest that Algeria is or will be typical for the rest of Africa.

Given the “global average” indicators that are already emerging and basing our predictions on the geographical spread dynamic outlined above, we could call it a relative success if we manage to keep the total number of infected to below 10 million people with 5 per cent mortality rate (which is 2 per cent below the global average), that is, 500,000 deaths globally. In other words, humanity would do well on the whole if the total increase in the number of infected and dead only quadruples compared to the mid-April figures.

The expected dynamics appear horrifying, but we should remember that in late March, the number of infected in the United States quadrupled every ten days; in France, the number was quadrupling even faster in mid-March—every six days. So the predicted dynamics are, in fact, extremely optimistic. In absolute figures (10 million cases and up to 500,000 deaths), compared to the infamous “Spanish flu” of a hundred years ago (500 million infected and between 17 million and 100 million deaths), the predicted outcome for COVID-19 would be an undisputed achievement for humanity. And this certainly does not diminish the value of every life lost in Europe, America, Asia or Africa.

Economy

Naturally, the pandemic is not the only cause of the global recession. The current economic trouble stems from many factors, ranging from the natural conclusion of the extended growth cycle to the harsh oil price war unexpectedly breaking out between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the pandemic played an important part in exacerbating the dynamics of the emerging crisis. Apparently, the timeframe for vanquishing the coronavirus will also influence timeframe of the world hitting “rock bottom” of the current economic downturn and rebounding.

There are no major arguments concerning the price that humanity will have to pay this year in its war on coronavirus. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that global GDP will shrink by approximately 3 per cent in 2020. The pandemic will also clearly have different economic costs for different countries and regions: the decline is predicted at 7–9 per cent of GDP for the Eurozone states, about 6 per cent for the United States, and 5.5–6.6 per cent of GDP for Russia, Brazil and Mexico. At year-end, India and China may demonstrate growth (1.9 per cent and 1.2 per cent, respectively), unless coronavirus has some unpleasant surprises in stock for these countries. Naturally, the current predictions reflect the immediate situation and generally correlate with the duration of the individual stages of the pandemic as outlined above.

The discussion principally focuses on how long it will take the global economy to rebound. Some economists believe that global economic growth may resume as early as late 2020 (the IMF optimistically predicts a growth of 5.8 per cent in 2021), while others predict a lengthy recession similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still, others believe that we should not be talking about a “rebound” at all since what we will witness in the coming years is not going to be an economic recovery (i.e. a return to the starting point), but a profound transformation of the global economy towards a new technological paradigm. Obviously, countries that export raw materials and energy sources (including Russia) will encounter greater difficulties in such a scenario than the rest of the world, since they failed to make the best use of the “fat years” and will have to diversify their economies in highly unfavourable external circumstances.

In any case, the pandemic will prove especially destructive for individual economic sectors, particularly air travel, the hospitality industry, office real estate and shopping centres. A wave of bankruptcies will sweep the world, accompanied by a spike in unemployment and an exacerbated debt crisis. On the whole, we may conclude that humanity can count itself extremely lucky if by late 2021 global economic losses have totalled less than USD 5 trillion (approximately 8 per cent of today’s global GDP), the number of unemployed has topped out at 500–600 million people, and the global economy has managed to return to the pre-crisis level by 2022.

Of course, it would be a major economic victory for humankind if we were able to create the necessary international mechanisms, regimes and procedures to significantly reduce the volatility of world finances and global raw material, food and energy prices, deal with the debt problem, increase the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reform it, and abandon trade wars and unilateral economic sanctions—that is, if humanity agrees on new rules of collective economic management for at least the next 20–30 years. However, not only are these tasks simply too big, but they do not match today’s dominant political trends. And this is a crucial problem.

Politics

The pandemic inevitably changes the balance of power in any country that has been seriously affected by the coronavirus. Where ruling centrist coalitions cannot control the situation, populists in the opposition win. Yet for populists already in power (the United States, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, etc.), the pandemic has become a major trial. It is easy to predict that in the next 12–18 months, we will witness various surprises in national elections throughout the world; we will see many features that are typical of life-changing eras, including traditional party coalitions being reformatted, new charismatic leaders emerging, etc.

As humanity emerges from the epidemiological crisis, it would probably be incorrect to view the global balance of power between liberal democracy and political authoritarianism as the principal criterion of its success or failure. A far more important indicator is the ability (or inability) of individual countries to demonstrate the safety margins of the political systems that they had in place when the crisis began. This does not in any way mean freezing the current political status quo, but merely implies preventing a collapse of governance, increased instability and slipping into political chaos.

For instance, right- or left-wing politicians coming to power in two or three states can be seen as an acceptable political cost of the pandemic in Europe, provided that Germany and France keep their centrist governments in place, since without the “Franco-German axis” the future of the European Union will be in jeopardy. Regardless of who wins the November elections, the key thing in the United States is to prevent the current socio-political polarization from exacerbating, since a split America is incapable not only of global leadership, but even of steering a responsible and consistent foreign political course.

If non-liberal political regimes, from Saudi Arabia and Iran to Venezuela and North Korea, avoid mass repressions while at the same time preventing their relevant political institutions from falling like dominoes, it will be an achievement in itself. Staunch opponents of authoritarianism may say that the coronavirus pandemic is an excellent time to change archaic political regimes and promote democratic values. However, changing political regimes during a pandemic is an enterprise that is entirely too risky and potentially too costly from the point of view of the collateral loss of life. Chaos during a pandemic can hardly be seen as a political victory. Additionally, secular political authoritarianism may be replaced with religious extremism that expounds eschatological interpretations of the advent of the coronavirus.

Way of Life

There is no shortage of grim predictions that the pandemic will irreversibly change the way of life we have grown used to. Much is said about the inevitable and irreversible decline of geographical mobility, about professional and social activities rapidly migrating online, about the growing societal “atomization,” about customary hierarchies eroding, and about fundamental shifts in value systems. Concerns are being voiced that the coronavirus will promote “technological totalitarianism” throughout the world by giving governments advanced and highly sophisticated tools to control the population.

The possible costs of the pandemic for our customary way of life are hard to estimate for the simple reason that many of the fundamental changes are related not so much to the pandemic itself as they are to long-term fundamental processes that are taking place in the development of information and communication technologies and in the economy as a whole. The coronavirus did not produce the Big Data concept, nor is it responsible for the unprecedented transparency of our social and private lives. It did not privilege multiple weak social connections (“friends” on social networks) over a few stable offline ties (real-life friends). The pandemic simply accelerated many of those shifts in our way of life that had been happening under our mind’s radar.

So, a victory over the coronavirus would not mean returning to the Ancien Régime of the late 20th century. Rather, it would mean establishing an acceptable balance between new information and communication realities and the eternal human desire to have individual freedom and protect one’s privacy. Apparently, this balance must be specific to every individual society and culture while also including certain universal norms that are acceptable for all of humanity. The pandemic has shed a harsh light on a problem that could have otherwise remained overshadowed by other, more obvious civilizational problems. If this problem recedes to the periphery of the public mind again once the war on COVID-19 is over, the victory over the virus will be incomplete. And we will have failed completely if, once the pandemic is over, the emergency control measures implemented by states remain for an indefinite period under a dubious pretext (that the epidemiological has not subsided, for example).

Preventing a new European or even global migration crisis would signify a major success in preserving our customary way of life. The pandemic and the economic recession make a repeat of the events of 2015–2016 quite probable. Apparently, the oil monarchies of the Gulf and the West will reduce their financial support for such states like Egypt and Sudan; regional conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa will continue and spur new waves of migration flows towards Europe. On the other hand, growing unemployment in Europe, coupled with the accelerated development of manufacturing automation, will increasingly reduce demand for a new workforce, with the exception of a few in-demand jobs. Therefore, a second migration crisis following hard on the heels of the epidemiological crisis would be even more destructive for the European way of life than the first migration crisis.

Globalization

Alarmists keep saying that the pandemic is a death sentence for globalization as we understand it today. Empty airports and hotels, cancelled exhibitions and forums, deserted city streets, no sporting events (including the Olympics)—all the erstwhile symbols of the unity of humankind are now in a critical condition after being hit by the coronavirus, fading and shrinking before our very eyes. Even more serious symptoms are the rise of protectionism and nationalism, the paralysis of the UN Security Council and its failure to take action against the pandemic, the United States cutting funding for the World Health Organization, the G7 and G20 summits issuing vague and helpless statements, the WTO being in a state of permanent crisis, and the World Bank and other global institutions being slow to act. Doomsayers predict the collapse of global technological chains, the reduction of world trade, the tightening of border controls and other signs of the crumbling (or, to borrow a word from the Valdai Club’s vocabulary, “shattering”) world.

A few qualifications are in order here. First, many of the alarm bells above started sounding long before COVID-19. Talk about the crisis of globalization has been around for at least ten years, if not longer. Second, the very fact of the virus spreading around the world like wildfire clearly confirms that, despite anti-globalist prophecies, globalization continued at a brisk pace in the 2010s. Third, the ties that have been temporarily cut due to the virus can be restored fast if the economic prerequisites are in place. For instance, after 9/11, air travel in the United States fell by 20 per cent, but recovered just a year later.

This is not the key thing, however; the key point is that globalization can develop in various forms and even in different dimensions. Symbols of the unity of humankind can change. For instance, the rapid expansion of the number of people being able to work from home, internet commerce, and online communications creates radically new opportunities for developing cross-border and global technological chains. For the first time ever, truly global markets are emerging, including the labour market. A small village in the middle of nowhere can, under certain circumstances, prove to be just as efficient at driving globalization as a huge megalopolis. As for our way of life-changing, COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for those inevitable shifts in globalization mechanisms that had long been brewing but had remained overshadowed by other trends and phenomena.

As for institutionalizing globalization processes, a transition to a new level of manageability of the international system would constitute a true triumph for humanity in its war on coronavirus. But we can hardly count on this happening. Therefore, it would be a success of sorts to prevent the further escalation of trade wars after the pandemic, as ending them completely is an unrealistic prospect. In the same vein, preventing the further deterioration of international organizations, rather than elevating their status, would also be a success. It would seem that humanity’s triumph over the virus would also manifest in bolstering regional organizations such as the European Union, ASEAN and its natural extension, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Agreement between the United States of America, the United Mexican States, and Canada (USMCA) and the EAEU.

Risks of a Relapse

We still know little about the nature of COVID-19 and how it spreads. Therefore, we do not understand the degree to which such pandemics will accompany humanity from now on. As in other matters, there are optimists who believe that such large-scale pandemics happen once in a hundred years, and pessimists who insist that such pandemics will become seasonal, like the flu. However, despite all the uncertainty, one obvious conclusion that we can make from the current situation is that the healthcare systems in most countries are inadequate to the challenge. It is important that we are talking systemic problems here, not merely insufficient funding: the United States spends over USD 3 trillion a year on healthcare, yet currently leads in the number of COVID-19 cases (over 700,000 as of April 19) and the number of deaths (40,000).

Going back to “business as usual” after the pandemic would be a clear failure. Improving the efficiency of national healthcare systems is technically complicated, politically sensitive, and generally extremely costly. It is no accident that former President of the United States Barack Obama considered his healthcare system reform (“Obamacare”) the main achievement of his eight years in office, while his successor Donald Trump vowed to fight this reform. However, regardless of the differences in national healthcare systems, COVID-19 leads us to two obvious general conclusions. First, a healthcare system must be excessive; that is, its capacities should significantly exceed the population’s current needs. It makes the system more expensive, but the coronavirus has shown that when serious problems arise, cost-cutting ends up being far more expensive.

Second, the system cannot be mostly based on market principles. The market is not always interested in making medical services more accessible or in new medications being developed faster and sold cheaper. Since the early 1990s, the cost of medications in the West has virtually doubled every decade!

Given all the uncertainty, as humanity emerges from the pandemic, a significant increase in the WHO’s potential and powers could be viewed as a success. Let us remember that even though the WHO played an important role in eradicating smallpox and combating polio and malaria, it was not initially established as an instrument for fighting global pandemics. A careful analysis of the COVID-19 experience is in order to subsequently fine-tune the mechanisms of immediate global monitoring for and responding to new infectious diseases. We also need to create an effective system of cross-border cooperation to develop, testing and manufacture vaccines for viruses. We would very much like to hope that creating a COVID-19 vaccine will be an example of a true multilateral project similar to building the international space station instead of transforming into a global “pharmaceutical” race like the “space race” contested by the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.

Winner Takes All

Many people are likely to see our criteria for success in combating the coronavirus as not ambitious enough. Yet the main thing today is to give a realistic assessment of the scale of the challenge we face and not entertain any dangerous illusions concerning humanity’s ability to cope with COVID-19 in quick fashion and with minimal losses. It would be a mistake to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is “solely” an epidemiological, economic, or managerial challenge. It is also the first truly civilizational challenge of the 21st century, and the response can be neither easy nor quick, because when we face a civilizational challenge, the response must come from society as a whole, and not only from international organizations, great national powers, research labs and the headquarters of transnational corporations.

Let us recall the infamous plague epidemic (the “Black Death”) that devastated Europe in 1346–1353, claiming, as people regularly point out, the lives of an estimated 30–60 per cent of the population. The Black Death, however, also served as a powerful catalyst for social, economic, technological, cultural and spiritual shifts that had been brewing in Europe. The plague influenced all aspects of life, from gender roles to religious practices, from agricultural technologies to the social structure of medieval societies. Causal links can be established between the pandemic and the European Reformation and the Age of Discovery. In the east of Europe, the Black Death, among other things, dealt a crushing blow to the Golden Horde, thereby opening a window of opportunity for the rising Principality of Moscow.

Naturally, COVID-19 cannot be compared to the Black Death. However, the potential long-term consequences of what we are experiencing today may prove to be no less significant. Although the civilizational challenge posed by coronavirus affects the whole of humankind, it also affects each individual country. After the pandemic, multiple shifts in global and regional balances will transpire at a much quicker pace than before. It will also be clearer far sooner who the winners and losers are. Their victories and defeats will be more apparent, and their hopes for a “rematch” will be largely unfounded. The crisis will quickly put everything in its place in the world that is now emerging. To quote perhaps the most outstanding financial mind of our time, Warren Buffet, “Only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

From our partner RIAC

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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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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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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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