The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but the battle for “coronavirus narratives” is already in full swing. The front lines are the pages of newspapers and magazines, televisions screens and computer monitors, virtual seats at international organizations and online university lecture halls. Who is primarily to blame for the appearance of COVID-19? Which country and which system have been most effective in combatting the virus? Who has demonstrated the most compassion and empathy? Who has shown a willingness to selflessly help their foreign partners and even their strategic adversaries in the battle against the pandemic?
Common sense would suggest that it might be better to postpone any discussion of these and other similar issues until the global community has the spread of the virus under control. One way or another, victory over the coronavirus will be something that the global community can share. Let the epidemiologists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, economists and other experts argue about strategy and the offensive and defensive tactics that needed to be adopted on various fronts. But no! There has been no ceasefire in the “battle of narratives.” Nor is there likely to be one. What is more, one gets the distinct impression that more energy is being put into this battle than into the fight against the coronavirus itself.
But this is hardly surprising. Because right now, literally in front of our very eyes, national and transnational mythologemes of the fight against coronavirus are being created – mythologemes that may end up being just as important as those about World War II or the Cold War. Like the numerous narratives of the past, the narrative that is being created today does not have to reflect the true situation. In fact, it could be entirely false. What is most important here is that the elites are able to convince their own societies of the truth of their version, so that the narrative will be accepted, supported and passed on to future generations. And then its significance as an integral part of national identity and an instrument of political mobilization will be difficult to overestimate.
Whose Narrative is Most Convincing?
Sooner or later, every country that has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic will have developed its own narrative about the fight against COVID-19. There will be heroes, villains, noble feats and tragic mistakes. But the truly era-defining war of “coronavirus narratives” is currently unfolding between China and the West, headed by the United States. The side that can convince the world that its strategy for overcoming the coronavirus is the most effective will at the same time stake its claim to global leadership in the post-corona world. And the side that gives off the impression that it is helpless in the face of the pandemic or has been slow to react to it will automatically be relegated to the position of outsider – a country that will not be able to cope with the challenges awaiting us as we move deeper into the 21st century.
Right now, the West as a whole, and the United States in particular, have been forced to fight a number of difficult defensive battles in the war of “coronavirus narratives.” The public is constantly reminded that COVID-19 did not originate just anywhere, but in China, and hinting at the possibility that the virus was artificially created couldn’t hurt, right? Then there is the argument that Beijing actively misled the international community about the origin of COVID-19 and silenced the doctors who discovered it. And we can blame the Chinese leadership for its massive human rights violations at the peak of the disease in Wuhan, for trying to bribe WHO officials and for various other wrongdoings.
But, as the Russian saying goes, “the winners are not judged.” The statistics are on China’s side, not the United States’. As of April 22, 2020, China had registered a total of 88,423 coronavirus cases and 4632 deaths, compared to 790,480 cases in the United States and 42,214 deaths. China is the most populous country in the world, yet only eighth in terms of the number of infected, far behind the United States and several other Western countries (Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom). As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the spread of coronavirus in the West has forced many to abandon the previously held propagandist theory that the course of the pandemic in Iran was indisputable proof of the complete failure of the country’s illiberal system to deal with the epidemiological crisis. Today Iran, just like China, compares favourably with most leading countries in the West in terms of both the number of infected and the number of deaths.
The discouraging statistics for the West make it difficult to build a reliable defence against the Chinese “coronavirus narrative.” But the West, particularly the United States, desperately needs an alternative narrative. And now more so than ever, as the outlines of a post-corona bipolar world are coming into sight. Observing this epic battle of narratives from the outside (as Russia does not really have a dog in the fight at this point), we can see that the West is building three lines of defence.
China Can Never Be Trusted!
The first line of defence is to try and discredit China’s official coronavirus numbers. The West has always been sceptical about China’s statistics on just about anything, but now this traditional mistrust has turned into outright rejection. Many point to “indirect data” (for example, the sharp decrease in the number of mobile network subscribers in the country) as proof that the number of infected was not in the tens of thousands, but rather in the millions. It thus follows that the number of deaths is also an order of magnitude (or even two) higher than official reports suggest. Moreover, certain voices insist that China is on the verge of a secondary outbreak (which may happen as early as this autumn), and if this is the case, then we may have been a little hasty in praising the effectiveness of China’s strategy in fighting COVID-19.
How strong is this line of defence? The design looks flimsy and unreliable. Naturally, Beijing manipulated the statistics from time to time and the accuracy and completeness of official data on the pandemic are probably questionable. But surely only the most hardened Sinophobe would entertain the notion that the actual numbers of infected and dead are several times higher than the officially reported figures. The reality is that it is impossible to hide the real numbers in today’s transparent and interconnected world – even in a totalitarian and completely closed country like North Korea, not to mention China, which is deeply integrated into the global economic and political system. Attempts to destroy the Chinese narrative by reference to Xi Jinping’s statistical gymnastics can be likened to Lord Cardigan’s hopeless Charge of the Light Brigade on the fortified positions of Russian troops during the Crimean War.
It’s All Trump’s Fault!
The second line of defence is a classic example of ad hominem fallacy. That is, in this case, reducing all of the West’s problems in the fight against coronavirus to the subjective miscalculations of individual statesmen and politicians. The primary culprit is, of course, President of the United States Donald Trump, although fingers are certainly being pointed at European leaders too, from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to his Spanish opposite number Pedro Sánchez. The basic premise is that western healthcare, just like the western socio-political system, is far more effective “in principle” than that of China. Unfortunately for the West, however, the countless managerial missteps of certain individuals and the inconsistencies brought about by the belief in their own infallibility have cancelled out any objective advantages that the West may have had over China. People in the West caught a “bad break” when, at a crucial moment in history, their leaders turned out to be wholly incapable of meeting the challenge before them.
There are gaping holes in the second line of defence as well. It is difficult to find a convincing argument that would explain why such different leaders (in terms of their political views, professional experience, management style and even age) have done about as poorly as each other in their response to the coronavirus in the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that the population of these countries is several times lower than that of China, yet the number of infected exceeds the Chinese figures significantly. If the Western political system continues to put incompetent and inadequate in positions of power, then perhaps the problem is not the people themselves, but the system as such!
Back to the Roots!
The third line of defence is the willingness to acknowledge the serious systemic imperfections of modern capitalism without touching upon the fundamental principles of political liberalism. In this case, it is not so much Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who are to blame, but rather Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The argument here is that many Western countries made the fatal mistake in the late 1970s and early 1980s of privatizing numerous industries and stimulating economic inequality. What is more, the state started to reject its traditional social obligations. Not only did this result in the degradation of national healthcare systems, but it also led to increased social and political polarization and a general distrust of state institutions and of other people. This all came to a head when a real test in the form of the coronavirus appeared. For example, in the United States, not only did the Republicans and Democrats not rally together in the fight against the pandemic, but they also turned COVID-19 into another reason to step up interparty hostilities.
The conclusion can thus be made that, in order to successfully fight the pandemic and overcome the various other challenges that await humanity, the West needs to return to the historical fork in the road, as it were, where the wrong choice was made. The proponents of this argument point to the relatively successful strategy of the Scandinavian countries in fighting the coronavirus, where social interaction remains high, the state never abandoned its social obligations and the government, opposition, trade unions and employer associations have come together to fight the pandemic.
There is, of course, a logic to this approach. However, the first thing that we should point out here is that the success of the Scandinavian countries in fighting coronavirus has been mixed thus far. As of April 23, 2020, Finland had 3868 registered cases, with 98 deaths (2.5 per cent), compared to 14,777 and 1580 (10.5 per cent), respectively, in Sweden. This can hardly be seen as an unequivocal success for the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven. Secondly, some doubt if the Scandinavian models of the social state can be interpreted as a consistent implementation of “true capitalism at all.”
What if the Defence Falls?
As we can see, holding these lines of defence requires huge resources and casualties from the West. At the first line of defence, the question simply comes down to increasing the effectiveness of propaganda and counterpropaganda and enhancing the West’s intelligence and analytical potential in the name of winning the information war against Beijing. At the second line of defence, at least some of today’s leaders, as well as members of their inner circles, will need to go. And holding the third line of defence will take more than simply removing individual figures from the political scene, no matter how influential they may be. Substantial reforms of the political and socio-economic models of leading Western nations are what is needed here, with all the costs that this will entail for the current elites.
Let us say that there is enough determination and political will in the West to make these sacrifices. Will this be enough to guarantee victory over China in the “battle of narratives”? And what if the third line of defence is breached? Such a breach would represent a direct or indirect acknowledgement that the relative failures of the West and the relative successes of China in the fight against coronavirus are not down to Beijing manipulating the statistics, the inferiority of certain leaders in the West or the departure of leading Western countries from the traditional foundations of the capitalist system.
The failure of the third line of defence would demonstrate that the failures of the West are rooted in the very principles of political liberalism, which is losing all credibility in front of our very eyes through its inability to respond in an effective manner to the challenges of the 21st century. And we are not talking about losing a battle here (even a major one) – we are talking about losing the war.
The Return of Convergence Theory?
iberal political systems assume a degree of external and internal openness. As a rule, liberalism promotes the idea of the free movement of goods, services and people around the world. While people in China saw the closing of the country’s borders as a natural measure for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, similar steps in Western countries were met with fierce criticism from the political opposition. And this is understandable, as a person in a liberal society is first and foremost a “citizen of the world,” rather than a citizen in an authoritarian society. Inside one’s own country, the former enjoys more professional, social and geographical mobility than the latter and has a much wider network of social and professional contacts. This is precisely why a liberal society is, by definition, a more fertile environment for spreading COVID-19.
Liberal societies are far more resistant to attempts by the state to interfere in the private lives of their citizens, be it monitoring smartphones to identify people with whom an infected individual may have had contact or restricting the movement of the population. It is more difficult to place limits on household consumption in liberal societies, even when such restrictions are necessary to prevent panic buying, artificial scarcity and price gouging. Similarly, the liberal economic model is not as effective as the authoritarian model when it comes to mobilizing productive resources in times of war, natural disasters and other difficult times.
None of this necessarily means that authoritarianism will always triumph over liberalism. Even the most effective forms of authoritarianism (as displayed by the Chinese model) have their obvious flaws and imperfections. But if China scores a resounding victory in the battle of “coronavirus narratives,” then much will surely change in terms of what we consider the most desirable future for humankind.
After all, COVID-19 is not the last pandemic that the world will have to face. And let us not forget about climate change, the increasingly frequent natural disasters, possible resource shortages and other emergency situations which, unfortunately, are becoming part of the “new normality.” People across the world want to be free. Freedom is still valued highly. But what if we put the question rather coldly: Would you prefer to survive in an authoritarian Wuhan or die in a free New York?
In the middle of the last century, several prominent thinkers, including Pitirim Sorokin and John Galbraith put forward the idea of converging two opposing socio-economic systems. The so-called convergence theory gained popularity in the 1960s–1970s, even though it was heavily criticized in both the East and the West. The implosion of the world socialist system at the end of the 20th century meant that everyone simply forgot about it, condemning it to the scrapheap of human errors. Perhaps now is the time to revisit the idea from a 21st-century perspective?
From our partner RIAC
China and Indo-Pacific democracies in the face of American boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics
Despite the US administration’s announcement of a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, with the “American Olympic Committee allowing the participation of American athletes in the Winter Games in China”, many global democracies, that are allies to Washington itself were challenged to participate in the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and not only that, but a number of global official institutions defied the globally criticized US decision, most notably the United Nations, by announcing “Antonio Guterres”, in his capacity as (UN Secretary-General), that he would attend the Beijing Winter Olympics, despite a boycott by several allies of Washington. They are mainly, are: (Britain, Australia, and Canada), but on the other hand, the decision to challenge the United States of America from its regional allies neighboring to China has very many implications, which can be analyzed, through:
The confirmation of (South Korea, Japan, and India) and all the Asian countries directly neighboring to China, and the main allies of the United States of America in the “Indo-Pacific” region, to participate in the Beijing Winter Olympics and challenge the American boycott decision: Despite Washington’s alliance with the countries of the “Indo-Pacific” region, according to the American concept, which aims to exclude China by inserting the Indian Ocean within its territorial elements and borders, or the “Asia-Pacific” region, according to the well-known traditional Chinese concept, and not politicized in the American sense. However, we can stop a lot to analyze future indications and indicators, about: (the extent of the global challenge to American decisions and demands to boycott the Beijing’s Winter Olympics), even from most of the (democratic regimes allies to Washington itself in the Asia-Pacific region, adjacent to Chinese influence and an ally of Washington).
The most remarkable thing to me is the participation of “established Western democracies in the Beijing Winter Olympics and challenging the American boycott decision”, most importantly France, with French President “Emmanuel Macron”, describing the decision of the United States of America and some Western countries to boycott the Beijing Olympics diplomatically as a “trivial step”: The French government announced its defiance of the politicized US decision, and its non-diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Most notably, the French Minister of Education, Youth and Sports “Jean-Michel Blanquer”, said that:
“He does not support this incomprehensible diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, calling on France to participate strongly, to prevent the politicization of sporting events globally”
The French Minister of Education, Youth and Sports “Blanquer”, stated firmly that:
“Sports is a world in itself, and it must be protected from political interference, otherwise we will end up killing competition, and this is unacceptable and we must not bow to it or encourage it”
As for what is known as the theory of “China’s alliance with democracies and others to confront liberal authoritarianism” with the call for reforming American democracy at home: the Egyptian researcher believes that this applies primarily to the challenge of all democratic regimes to the decision of the American boycott, and their announcement that they all participate in the Winter Olympics. This is what requires the leaders and comrades of the Communist Party of China to take advantage of it later on by (adopting an appropriate discourse language aimed at mobilizing European politicians to defend its interests). Especially, on November every year in Beijing, all parties around the world are being invited by the (Department of Foreign Relations of the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party of China) to attend the annual conference’s meetings in Beijing from November 30 to December 3, in each year. The Comrade “Xi Jinping” in his capacity as the General Secretary of the “CPC” Central Committee made a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the international dialogue in 2021, in front of number of leaders of political parties around the world, stressing of the principles of (multipolarity and ignoring unilateralism policies).
China’s presentation of the topic and issue of “American politicization of the Beijing Winter Olympics and other events” in the meetings of foreign political parties and their political discussions, the dialogue will gain great importance for both the Communist Party of China and other parties even with different orientations and visions of communist ideology: what was striking to me as an expert in the Chinese affairs, what was done at the last conference of the CPC leaders’ meeting with the leaders of foreign political parties in 2021, the slogan has been raised by the participants, was that: “Working together towards a community with a shared future for the humanity and a better world: Responsibilities of political parties”. In this conference, the CPC discussed with all of the invited foreign parties leaders, the topic of “Sharing Responsibility on Major Global Issues”. Therefore, the leaders and comrades of the ruling Communist Party in China have benefitted of this opportunity to stress the importance of “not politicizing international sporting events and not politicizing events for American political agendas”.
The importance of the Chinese and international demand remains, even at the level of the American interior itself, to continue the approach of “reforming the democratic and legal system at home first before trying to impose it on the outside and brandishing it”, for regimes it calls “authoritarian” as a justification for interfering in its internal affairs: here, it would be much better for the United States of America to (adopt a comprehensive domestic agenda that prioritizes justice and a real democracy, better than interfering in the internal affairs of others), additionally, the American policies should get rid of the (increasingly crucial ideological cases of the white supremacy racism over its black citizens). Here, effective American advocacy for liberal democracy does not need to interfere in the affairs of other countries, with taking into consideration and account that the (USA is often supporting the authoritarian governments and regimes for its own interests), overthrew elected governments, and the reason is partly due to its quest to confront the former Soviet Union, as well as to achieve its own economic interests.
Increasing Chinese and international demands for the United States of America and its always successive administrations to stop presenting itself as (the global leader of the values of liberal democracy) and its demand to review all its policies and tracks internally and externally: here we find that Washington is in dire need to change its position regarding reviewing the policy of polarization internally and externally. Now, China and the international community should mainly focus on and call the USA for adoption such interior policies for the satisfaction of the American people, such as:
(Reforming all American democratic institutions, reforming its internal justice system, voting and casting their votes, including strengthening voting rights, in parallel with the need to put in place quick measures to stop racial injustice and improve comprehensive health and social security policies in the interior home).
On the external level, the United States of America is in dire need of (working with everyone and respecting diversity and difference, regardless of their political systems, and striving to achieve common goals and securing global public goods), such as: (climate change, arms control and fighting terrorism), and other issues that are universally agreed upon.
From my analytical point of view, it is necessary to shed light globally on the approaches and policies of the (development of China’s internal democracy and the improvement of its elections management system internally), in contrast to the decline in the level of performance of democracy in the American elections as the world followed them in the chaos of voting and the final results between “Biden and Trump”: The Communist Party of China “CPC” amended a number of internal regulations on Thursday, January 8, 2021, with the aim of improving the electoral work of all grassroots local Party organizations by approving the newly amended election rules, in accordance with the directives of the “Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee”, which announced that the local and grassroots groups are of great importance in strengthening the political structure of the Communist Party and the democracy within it. We can identify as well that the “Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee” has considered that the “revised version of the work rules for the elections of local party organizations, which was published by the CPC Central Committee on its official websites, is of great importance for unifying the standards of the electoral work of local party organizations and strengthening their construction”.
The procedures for the internal basal local elections of the Communist Party were determined by following (four steps for the election stages, determining an appropriate percentage for workers and peasants to represent them at the forefront of the front lines by selecting their delegates and their representatives in local party conferences), and the minimum required to represent this category is 30% of the are party’s congresses delegates at the level of various Chinese local provinces.
Through my new analysis and linking theoretically and practically between thought, theory and practice, to manage the ongoing conflict between Washington and Beijing, even at the sporting level, such as Washington’s boycott of the “Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022”, this can lead us to a theoretical analysis and understanding about the causes of this growing tensions between China and the United States of America, which have been (resulting from deep and long-term transformations in the current international system, and its transition from the era of globalization to the stage of strategic competition between the two major powers).
Therefore, it has become necessary for the United States of America to “practically” to stop interfering in the internal affairs of countries and primarily of China, by using the “ideological dimensions ” to confront others, or its attempt to (the renewal of the leadership of the United States of America for the freedom camp in the face of the tyrannical and authoritarianism camp).
The Global (Dis) Order Warfare: The Chinese Way
Since the ascension of Xi Jinping, two important developments have come to dominate the global headlines. One, the so-called wolf diplomacy of China has been on the forefront of global political relations and two, there has been a huge spurt in Chinese efforts to use disinformation and espionage, as a part of its global diplomatic-strategic plans to destabilise countries who it sees as rival or a threat, in more than one ways.
Suddenly, there are instances of greater violence, instability and conflict in countries and regions that could be considered as political/economic/military rivals or likely competitors to China. In the US, FBI has reported an increase of 1300 percent in economic espionage investigations with almost 90 percent cases having a Chinese military/government background. On an average, the US has reported registering of a new counter espionage case against China, every 12 hours. A recent report suggested the operation of about 250 MMS Chinese spies in Brussels, the capital of European Union.
In Australia that has a continuing run-in with China in recent times, there have been instances of Chinese overt/covert interference in political/economic domain. In the UK, a highest level confirmation came in from the Home Secretary Priti Patel that confirmed the MI5 report of a Chinese government agent working in the British parliament to subvert democratic process and promote Chinese interests.
In India in particular which is virtually in a state of no-peace, no-war with China for the last 21-months, following a bloody conflict at Galwan (in which 20 Indian and 44 Chinese soldiers killed, though Chinese did not accept casualties for a long time.), the situation is quite favourable to the massive Chinese interference. The Modi-led Indian government is working at a furious pace on various fronts, economic, political, diplomatic and strategic. And that is something that is not convenient to Chinese interests.
The Chinese since 1950s have been used to an Indian government, timid and submissive and more receptive to their interests than protecting national interests of India. A big example of this self-defeating, servile and pro-communist mental make-up has been the Nehru’s support to China for a permanent UNSC seat, even in 1963 after the Indo-China war in the previous year. Successive governments since then have been following the same thinking and policy in the name of ‘continuation of foreign policy’, irrespective of changes in the government.
Hence, when Doklam happened in 2017 and Indian government for a change, showed courage and stood up against the ‘self-proclaimed super power China’ to protect the territories of a friendly Bhutan, the middle kingdom got the shock of the decade. It was used to have a southern neighbour who in spite of decades of supporting terrorism in country’s north-east, supporting Pakistani terrorism, never faced China head-on. And that brought about a change in the Chinese perception and strategic calculations vis-à-vis India.
Since Doklam face-off between India and China, the latter has been playing all games with the clear objective of preventing its rise in the word order. For reasons better known to European politicians, for some years there has been no effort from their side to compete and prevent China from spreading its aggressive strategic-diplomatic policies around the world.
Its genesis could be seen in the passive Obama-led US policy of playing a second fiddle to China. No wonder, during the eight years of Obama administration, China was not only able to strengthen its politico-strategic grip over parts of Asia and Africa but came very close to attack Taiwan. Had it not been the sudden deterioration of US-China relations during the Trump era, probably the world map could have been changed so far, particularly in the south China Sea region.
The passive Obama administration allowed China to grow impressively on the trade-economic front and emerge as the manufacturing hub of the world. It also remained indecisive, letting China develop a huge trade surplus vis-à-vis the US. And the biggest flip came when is spite of being fully aware of the likely catastrophic implications and the debt-trap strategy of the Chinese showpiece Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it neither discouraged smaller nations nor took a stand against it.
India was the only country that spoke overtly against the concept and remained out of the BRI, even at the cost of antagonising China. Today, the world is witness to the debt trap that Chinese BRI has brought about for many countries like Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Laos, Mongolia, Zambia, Montenegro, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and a few others. This grim economic scenario is almost certain to compel such countries to part with their political and economic sovereignty that could well be a 21st century model of Chinese imperialism.
Such explicit Indian opposition to China and its likely emergence as a political, economic and military rival, led China to create a host of internal disturbances in the country. It is interesting to see that most of the damning criticism against Indian government for the past three-four years are emanating from Indian intellectuals living in the US/Europe for decades and are overtly/covertly left-leaning.
Similarly, the journalists, intellectuals, academicians in India who criticise and abuse the government are having a leftist background, many of them have a record of visiting China in recent past. Some of the politicians, including the de facto opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is said to have had midnight meetings with Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi. The Chinese government has also provided funds to the main Indian National Congress (INC) opposition party, a few years ago. Some media reports suggested that was one of the reasons for INC’s pressure on the previous Dr Manmohan Singh and current Modi governments, to join the Chinese dominated trade block Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The Chinese efforts to politically subvert the democratic countries has become more blatant. The recent anti-India resolutions in the British Parliament could well be seen in the context of MI5 report confirming the presence of Chinese agents in British legislature. In Australia, the reported offer by Chinese to Nick Zhao to run for Australian parliament as a Liberal Party member and recent statement of an apparent Chinese defector Wang Liqinag suggesting that Chinese agents are ‘operating with impunity in Australia’, need to be seen in this context.
And beyond all this politico-diplomatic moves, there have been credible reports of Chinese cyber-attacks on US, India, UK, Taiwan, Australia and others who it sees as rivals. India in the last one year, witnessed a 261 percent rise in Chinese cyber-attacks against military, scientific, banking, telecommunication systems.
To make matters worse, a detailed analysis of individuals occupying important positions in government/international organisations reveals that a few of them do have some or the other sort of Chinese support that has affected their actions or lack of it, vis-à-vis China. The tremendous suffering that the world and humanity have to endure due to Corona, clearly occurred due to deliberate or ineptness of Chinese government/military/scientific community. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has failed to fix accountability for this pandemic on China.
All such development clearly points towards a Chinese strategy to create a global disorder, a state where democracies like the US, India, Australia, Japan, Europe, Taiwan will not be able to stand unitedly and make way for the ascent of the middle kingdom to the pinnacle of global political, economic and military hierarchy.
Rebuilding the World Order
Many in the West believe China’s economic ascendancy indicates that Beijing is covertly working to usher in a new world order in which the balance of power has shifted.
History shows that changes in the world order are inevitable, but they are not happening as quickly as some analysts think. For example, the rise of the US to the world’s primary geopolitical position took nearly half a century, from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. France’s rise to domination over western Europe in the 17th century was also a long and arduous process.
In these as well as many other cases from ancient and medieval times, the rise of a new power was facilitated by stagnation, gradual decline, and military confrontation among the various existing powers.
For instance, the US was already powerful in the early 20th century, but it was the infighting during the two world wars among the European powers that brought down the edifice of the Europe-led world order and opened a path for American ascendancy.
But while it is possible to identify the changing winds of the world order through various analytical methods, it is much harder to find ways to preserve an existing order. It requires a whole constellation of leaders from competing sides to grasp the severity of the threat posed by radical change and to pursue measures together to cool down tensions.
The key question that needs to be addressed is whether the West still possesses the necessary political, economic, and military tools to uphold the existing world order and not allow it to slip into chaos, as the world’s leaders mistakenly did in the first half of the 20th century.
The successful preservation of an existing world order is a rare event in history. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, European leaders gathered to build a long-lasting peace. They saw that the French power, though soundly defeated under Napoleon I, needed to be accommodated within the new fabric of the European geopolitical order. This meant not only inviting French representatives to conferences, but offering military and economic cooperation as well as concessions to the French to limit their political grievances.
In other words, European diplomats had an acute understanding of post-French Revolution geopolitics and understood the need to build a long-lasting security architecture through balance of power.
But such approaches are unusual. Perhaps the shock of the bloody Napoleonic Wars, as well as the presence of such brilliant diplomats such as Metternich, Talleyrand, Castlereagh, and Alexander I, assured the success of the new order.
It is far more common that challenges to the world order lead to direct military confrontation. Failure to accommodate Germany in the early 20th century led in part to WWI, and the errant diplomacy of the Treaty of Versailles led in part to WWII. The list goes on.
China’s rise to power is another case for study. The country is poised to become a powerful player in international politics thanks to its economic rise and concurrent military development. Beijing has strategic imperatives that clash with those of the US. It needs to secure procurement of oil and gas resources, which are currently most readily available through the Strait of Malacca. In an age of US naval dominance, the Chinese imperative is to redirect its economy’s dependence, as well as its supply routes, elsewhere.
That is the central motivation behind the almost trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is intended to reconnect the Asia-Pacific with Europe through Russia, the Middle East, and Central Asia. At the same time, Beijing has a growing ambition to thwart US naval dominance off Chinese shores.
In view of these factors, mutual suspicion between Beijing and Washington is bound to increase over the next years and decades.
Thus, we find ourselves within a changing world order. What is interesting is what the US (or the West collectively) can do to salvage the existing order.
From the US side, a strengthening of existing US-led alliance systems with Middle Eastern and Asia-Pacific states could help to retain American influence in Eurasia. Specifically, it would enable the US to limit Russia’s, Iran’s, and possibly China’s actions in their respective neighborhoods.
Another powerful measure to solidify the existing world order would be to increase Washington’s economic footprint across Eurasia. This could be similar to the Marshall Plan, with which the US saved Europe economically and attached it to the US economy. New economic measures could be even more efficient and long-lasting in terms of strengthening Western influence across Eurasia.
But no matter what economic and military moves the US makes with regard to allies such as South Korea, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others, any attempt to uphold the existing world order without China’s cooperation would be short-lived and would echo the way Germany was cast out of the Versailles negotiations, which served only to create a grievance in Berlin and prompt clandestine preparations for a new conflict. In a way, the West’s current problems with Russia can also be explained this way: Moscow was cast out of the post-Cold War order, which caused worry and a degree of revanchism among the Russian elites.
Without China’s inclusion in the world order, no feasible security conditions can be laid out. To be preserved, the world order must be adjusted to rising challenges and new opportunities. Many Western diplomats are uncomfortable dealing with China, but casting Beijing in the role of direct competitor would not solve the problem, nor would giving it large concessions, which would be too risky.
What is required is a middle road, a means of allowing China to participate in an adjusted world order in which some of its interests are secured. Only that will increase the chances for long-lasting security in Eurasia.
Pulling this off will require an incredible effort from Western and Chinese diplomats. It remains to be seen whether they will be more successful than their predecessors were in the early 20th century and other periods of history.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia today
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Delivering on Our Promise for Universal Education
On the International Day of Education, we call on world leaders to transform how we deliver on education. The clock...
Bringing dry land in the Sahel back to life
Millions of hectares of farmland are lost to the desert each year in Africa’s Sahel region, but the UN Food...
“Kurdish Spring”: drawing to a close?
For decades, the Kurdish problem was overshadowed by the Palestinian one, occasionally popping up in international media reports following the...
Great powers rivalry in Central Asia: New strategy, old game
In international politics, interstate rivalry involves conflicting relations between two international rivalries that are nation states. A fundamental feature of...
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