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The case for more middle power involvement in the reshaping of the post-pandemic world

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The past year was the year of the pandemic, although initially 2020 was seen more as a year of increased great power competition. The pandemic took us off guard and revealed that generally a good handling of the crisis requires a combination of national self-sufficiency and global action, perhaps in dosages that have to be more balanced than what we thought before. A certain reimagining of how the world and each country should function naturally took place, but a more systematic process of transforming our governance toolbox (not because of COVID-19, but of what the pandemic has revealed about some major failures in our global “engines”) is necessary. Here, I make the argument that we should pay more attention to what the middle powers can bring to the international table.     

Despite expectations, 2020 was not a great year for the hegemon and the potential successor. China was the originator of the pandemic and this has been reflected in its popularity ratings. The international image of the country took a big hit, the commercial dependence on products made in China determined many to ask tough questions about the future of trade, and Beijing was sometimes put on the same level with Russia as a reactionary/resurgent power. Despite the mask diplomacy and the robust economic recovery, China has been seen more as a source of problems than as a potential solution to global woes. Moreover, the country did not count much in the symbolic race for a vaccine, although, with Sinovac, things might change in the future, depending on its effectiveness. The US also had to deal with a couple of major issues/headaches: a very poor handling of the pandemic that resulted in record numbers of American getting infected or losing their lives, extreme political polarization that did not avoid pandemic subjects (e.g., the wearing of masks, the lockdowns), a severe economic fallout, and a very contested presidential election in which the rules of the democratic games were challenged by the president himself. The icing on the cake was the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection that further damaged the American image abroad and cemented the idea of the American decline already announced by the inward-looking approaches and decisions of the Trump administration. 

The idea that, once Trump is gone, international politics will go back to business as usual will not be borne out by the facts. The consequences of the Trump years will not go away easy or soon. President Biden has already committed that, in his first day in office, he will sign executive orders for the US to rejoin the Paris climate accord and to end the Muslim travel ban. These are not small steps, but many other details remain to be solved out, starting with the new approach towards the WHO (will the US leave the organization and, if not, what changes Washington will ask for?) or the reform of the WTO so that it does not become a museum institution with little influence on how the next stages of globalisation will look for. Moreover, as others have argued, Trump has put the China topic front and center on the US and international political agenda, so that issue cannot be ignored. Beyond employing different tactics than those characterizing the whimsical behavior of Trump, Biden will have to offer a substantive answer on how to deal with a rising power whose action is not as predictable as it was and that will claim a bigger role at the table than currently allocated (in a decade or so, potentially event the main seat at the table).

We like it or not, we are more and more caught by the language of power in international politics, we started to consider more carefully the relation between absolute versus relative gains, we look more carefully at the main international players, potential alliances and at how the new era of globalization and economic evolutions more broadly could change an emerging balance-of-power logic. Fortunately, we are far from the Cold War nightmare, but nothing guarantees that we will not end up in a situation that is perhaps even more unstable than the one that ended with the 1989 revolutions and the disintegration of the USSR. The times of crisis usually test our instincts, and this applies not only to the constructive side: fear and uncertainty, the game theory has shown so well, can very well generate suboptimal results. This is why we need safeguards that the post-Covid-19 situation will not bring to the fore the worse in us as citizens of the world.

One of the few clear safeguards we can consider is the role of middle powers. We already know that, in times of transition of power and hegemonic weakness, international public goods can still be provided by a coalition of states that have obvious stakes in the preservation of the system and are ready to act to make sure that international norms and practices are not destroyed by the vacuum of power. The likes of Canada, Denmark, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Japan or New Zealand can join hands and offer their agreed take on the hottest international topic: how to maintain honest international cooperation and ensure that we have the proper global institutions that will mitigate the health, economic, social, and political consequences of the pandemic. We already saw individual actions: the cooperation within MIKTA, an informal middle power partnership between Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia aiming to support global governance, an alliance which accounts for almost 10% of global trade; or the statement of the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi that countries around the world need to make concerted efforts to promote multilateralism. But these steps should be more systematic and coordinated: we are in need of a bigger, louder platform.

We know very well that multilateralism has issues, that international organisations have problems: the pandemic has made all this too clear. However, we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The reckoning and the rethinking will have to go beyond the interests and involvement of the great powers, in order to generate trust and the buy-in of the other relevant players. We really need honest brokers for the post-pandemic world, to prepare us for the next ones and for whatever lies in store for a debacle-prone future. A few months ago, the Lowy Institute rightly focused on the role of middle powers in the current crisis and made reference to a coalition of competent middle powers to offer a safer ground for the recovery. I would dare to say that this is true, but even more important would be a coalition of generous and enlightened self-interested middle powers, that recognize that their position of strength is also a by-product of the current international order that their consolidation is tied to refurbished, not overhauled global agreements. My call is as much a realistic assessment as it is a hope that there is an alternative to zero-sum great power competition in the post-2020 era.

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Diplomacy

Cutting Distances with a Cricket Stump

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Sports are the common threads that bind people and countries together. The interlocking rings of the Olympics rings symbolize the coming together of all nations. The former US President Nixon successfully used “ping-pong diplomacy” to open the US-China relationship leading the US to lift embargo against China on June 10, 1971. Cricket has been used in a similar manner to bring together the people of different countries, especially South Asians. Sport in South Asia is a significant part of culture. For South Asians, it is not only a sport but part of their collective identity. Some legends of Cricket in South Asia like Imran Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Waseem Akram, Sunil Gavaskar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shahid Afridi, Shakaib Al Hasan, Shoaib Akhtar and Virat Kohli are the household names. Though, Pakistan is known as the manufacturer of the official FIFA World Cup ball, football is not popular in Pakistan. Pakistan has remained world champions in Squash, Hockey, Cricket, Snookers, Kabaddi and many other individual events of athletics, yet cricket is the most sought-after sport in Pakistan despite bottlenecks like terrorism and COVID-19.

While the overall sports spectrum went down, Pakistani cricket maintained its presence in cricketing world. Since last few years, Pakistani cricket team has been able to revive and reinvent itself internationally. I remember one of the slogans during Independence Cup 2017 in Lahore that said “It is not Pakistan vs. World, it is Pakistan vs. Terrorism”. In Pakistan, cricket is also a measure of national strength. Pakistan’s cricket teams take part in domestic competitions such as the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, the Patron’s Trophy, ABN-AMRO Twenty-20 Cup, and the ABN-AMRO Champions Trophy. In 2015, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) organized a franchise based T20 cricket league known as the Pakistan Super League (PSL). The two seasons of PSL, 2020 and 2021 are held entirely by PCB. Additionally, Mr. Imran Khan, incumbent Prime Minister of Pakistan has conceived the new basic structure of the game in country.

Pakistan-World Champion

Pakistan has won international cricket events, which include the 1992 Cricket World Cup, the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 and the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy besides finishing as runner-up in the 1999 Cricket World Cup and the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. Women’s cricket is also very popular, with KiranBaluch holding the current record of the highest score in a women’s test match with her innings of 242. Mr. Imran Khan has the honour of leading Pakistan national cricket team which won the 1992 Cricket World Cup. In 2010, he was also inducted into International Cricket Council’s Hall of Fame.

Hitting Balls not Borders

In South Asia, cricket and politics are interwoven. Wars have been fought and conflicts have been de-escalated alongside the bat hitting ball. The history of India-Pakistan relations did not inspire confidence in rebuilding relations through non-political means. However, the cricket matches between them are loaded with deeper political and diplomatic meaning.

From 1947 to 1965 only three test series were played between India and Pakistan. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to complete stoppage of cricket exchanges between two countries and there was a very little window to use cricket as a tool to maintain goodwill. After a gap of 17 years, cricket was resumed between them in 1978. The first instance of cricket diplomacy was in 1987 when General Zia-Ul-Haq visited India to attend a test match in Jaipur, and the resulting diplomatic dialogue cooled relations. In 2004, Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went to Pakistan to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. He also allowed Indian cricket team to visit Pakistan to play and advised the cricketers to not only win the matches, but also the hearts of Pakistani public. Over the next three years, the two countries played each other three times. Cricket diplomacy again emerged when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, met each other for the World Cup 2011 semifinal between India and Pakistan. Peace talks started again and Pakistan toured India in December 2012 for a T20 and three One Day Internationals (ODIs). The efficacy of cricket diplomacy in Indo-Pak relations can also be gauged from the fact that it brought both states to the negotiating table to manage the issue of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

All for One and One for All

Any major international sporting event like a World Cup gives one a sense of belonging to a larger global community. Sportsmen have always been successful goodwill ambassadors for any country and have admirers across borders. Fans’ love for cricket break all barriers that is why the peacekeepers see cricket as a tool to bind people together. Despite tensions, Pakistani fans recently celebrated India’s historic win over Australia. Nelson Mandela also believed that “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”In short, a link between international cricket’s revival and national resilience need to be established. Restarting international cricket in South Asia would enhance the opportunity to establish aspired will of peace and prosperity.

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Can diplomats be proactive online without becoming “wolf-warrior”?

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Photo: camilo jimenez/Unsplash

With the increasingly important digital world, traditional, offline tools and approaches are becoming less and less sufficient and effective in shaping the public conversation, influencing the global or national public opinion, and obtaining trust.

As a part of reform that veers towards revolution in a domain well known for its adherence to norms, today’s diplomacy is also experiencing functional changes in terms of what strategic communications means in the digital environment. As we are witnessing lately, the emerging diplomatic virtual presence has become a significant part of public diplomacy and policy.

Today, the undeniable power of social media lies in its fundamental role of linking the public and political sphere as part of a worldwide conversation. It is notable that the general reason behind its effectiveness and the steep rise of adoption lie in the power of this environment of building strong brands and credibility. This certainly is today’s Zeitgeist and involves the systematic cultivation of the attempt to influence the public opinion with every single action and to boost social legitimacy, in a more and more interconnected world that seeks to turn individual gestures and actions into symbols.

However, does this fully explain why social media is becoming an emerging playground for sarcasm and open battlefield for a digital war of accusations and threats? 

One of founders of today’s Twiplomacy phenomenon is the former US president, Donald Trump, who proved to be, for better or worse, one of the most vigorous and captivating presences on social media among world leaders.  What is striking in this is the gradual increase in the adoption of the new diplomatic style, known as the Wolf-warrior approach, which gained prominence in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and Chinese presence in the social media. This approach, which originated from a Chinese patriotic movie, in which the main mission of the warrior is fighting back foreigners, is characterized by a more aggressive and assertive style of conducting foreign policy.

It is argued by some that this approach is not being adopted in order to display authoritarian tendencies and to project but rather it is more often adopted by Chinese diplomats as a defense response to the repeated attacks and accusations. It seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Drastic times call for drastic measures?

Either way, the US-China digital war leads to questioning the adequate behavioral approaches to addressing the continuous global power competition and diplomatic tensions. Assertive and offensive or proactive? What makes a wolf-warrior and where do we draw the line?

When credibility and national identity are under threat, assertive approaches seem to come in handy when defending one’s stance and strengthening confidence. We know it very well from the Chinese ancient wisdom: project strength when you are weak. This general principle applies to political stances and authority in advancing agendas, as well as preserving independence in hegemonic environments. However, when increased assertiveness is taken down the wrong road, the world ends up being divided into conflicting blocs. While proactiveness is certainly the adequate modus operandi to overcome such blockages and prevent escalating disputes from bouncing back, the line is certainly crossed when it reaches bullying and propaganda levels.

What is the smart and well-balanced dose of actions when interests and sovereignty come first? Assertiveness or smart power? 

Proactiveness and high reliance on social media can also be channeled into advancing one’s objectives and consolidating strategic gains through smart use of power or through soft power. One of the best examples of this strategy is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s presence on Twitter proves that, most of the time, the tone defines the effectiveness of the message and that balance is to be preferred to unhinged assertiveness. In the end, the art of persuasion is not limited to the right choice of words and actions here and now but also includes the challenging task of building trust in the long run. 

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China-India Vaccine Diplomacy – Will Pakistan Learn From Neighbors?

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Modern infectious diseases and viruses have stimulated anew war and conflict along with poverty, counterurbanization (deurbanization), and climate change that need freshassessment in international relation arena. International cooperation for objective of infectiousdisease control goes back to atleast the 14th century, and to the later date of 1851, when Europe held its first International Sanitary Conference for multilateral cooperation to prevent the spread of cholera and yellow fever. Beginning in 2000, vaccine became cohesive as key tools in helping developing countries to achieve MDGs. In 2007, foreign ministers from seven countries issued the landmark “Oslo Ministerial Declaration” that formally linked health to foreign policy. Yet,in the past, there have been very few moments, as CoVID19, that assimilated such a huge number and variety of the world’s state actors at diplomatic front. The coronavirus vaccine – one of the world’s most in-demand commodities – has become a new currency for “Vaccine Diplomacy”. Vaccine diplomacy is not only the use of vaccine to increase diplomatic relationship and influence other countries but also, from a strategic perspective, vaccine access opens the door to expand long-term health security provisions.

China, one of the first countries to make a diplomatic vaccine push, promised to help developed and developing countries.Since the start of the pandemic, China used medical supplies to pursue foreign policy gains, sent masks and protective equipment to hard-hit territories,at present distributing vaccine.The vaccine diplomacy is a expansion of China’s endeavors to frame itself as the solution to the pandemic. Since the early days of the CoVID19 outbreak, China’s President Xi Jinping has focused on publicizing Chinese efforts  to supply medical aid worldwide. China’s planeloads of CoVID19 donations including hospital gowns, nasal swabs, and surgical masks etc. – were regardedoptimistically, especially in developing countries. In addition, Chinese government sent experts to support medical personnel across the continent.Correspondingly, the Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine producers,produced Covishield, developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said it plans to supply CoVID19 vaccine to 49 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. So far, the country has been distributed 22.9 million doses under its “Vaccine Maitri” (Vaccine Friendship)initiative. Mr. Jaishankar also announced a gift of 2 lakh vaccine doses for about 90,000 U.N. peacekeepers serving in numerous hotspots around the world.

The vaccine race has become a new domain for China-India strategic competition. China’s whole state apparatus is behind the drive and Beijing sprang into action “Health Silk Road” through the cooperation channels of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moritz Rudolf (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) says, “Health was one of the many subtopics of the BRI. With the pandemic, it has become the main focus”. On the other hand, C. Raja Mohan, (Director, Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore) said, “There is no way India can match China on a lot of issues, but in this particular case, because of India’s pharmaceutical infrastructure, India is in a good position”.In reality, both countries arecontemplating vaccine diplomacy as a matter of national pride and soft-power projection.

In Pakistan, the power of vaccine diplomacy has been underexplored despite the successful facts that included promoting peace between the Cold War powers of the 1950s and 1960s.The historical and modern-day track records of vaccine diplomacy are impressive. But, it has not yet led to an overarching framework for its expanded role in foreign policy of Pakistan. At the moment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination, and National Command and Operation Center should establish vaccine diplomacy framework and play an imperative role in promoting international health agreements between Pakistan and governments throughout the world. Vaccine diplomacy will not only enhance Pakistan’s reputation in international arena but also blunt the propaganda of anti-Pakistan forces within boarder and abroad. Consequently, vaccine diplomacy activities should integrated into the foreign policy of Pakistan.

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