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A Time For Candor: What Have We Learned From The Pandemic?

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“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”

Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

By definition, Covid-19 has been a crisis of biology. Nonetheless, certain core explanations for American death and suffering are discoverable outside the boundaries of medicine and pathology. In essence, at least to the extent that these tangible costs express America’s deeply-rooted antipathy to various considerations of intellect – to what twentieth century philosopher Karl Jaspers would call a “spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth” – we have also been enduring a crisis of philosophy.

               This is not an easy argument to make in the United States. “Philosophy” is a tough term to embrace for an American audience. Prima facie, it is “elitist.” At a minimum, it is (allegedly) impractical, contrived and “highfalutin.” In this country, after all, even the most casual mention of “intellect” or “intellectual” will normally elicit cries of disapproval or howls of execration.

                No “real” American, we have been instructed from the start, should ever be focused on such a needlessly arcane subject matter or pretentiously elevated discourse.

               Big words be damned. Plainly, this a nation of impressively tangible accomplishments, of conspicuous “greatness” and “common sense.” Who needs abstract and disciplined learning, especially when so many philosophers were themselves never “real Americans”?

               Still, truth is exculpatory and any proper answer ought to be prompt, unhesitant and unambiguous. Accordingly, there are times for every nation when history, science and intellect deserve an absolute pride of place. Recalling Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic, our politics are always just reflection, merely a misleading “shadow” of reality, merely epiphenomenal.

                In the United States, as anywhere else that has built carefully upon millennia of dialectical education, politics can offer only a deformed reflection of what lies more meaningfully below. It is largely because of our collective unwillingness to recognize this telling relationship, and not just a virulent virus per se, that we Americans have now suffered substantially more than a half million pandemic fatalities.

               This lethal unwillingness represents a self-evident result of American anti-intellectualism. Though unverifiable by science-based standards,  it also reveals a palpable vacancy of “soul.”[1]  Sometimes, such less tangible or “soft” problems still warrant very close attention.

               This is one of those times.

               There also remains more to consider. Donald J. Trump is gone, but the crudely retrograde and “common sense” sentiments that first brought him to power endure unabated. Generally lacking the refined intellectual commitments of mind, We the people should not express undue surprise or incredulity at the sheer breadth of our collective failures. Over too many years, the always- seductive requirements of wealth and “success” were casually allowed to become the highest ideal of American life. Among other things, these vaunted requirements turned out to be very high-cost delusions.

               Too-many American debilities remain rooted in “common sense.” Over the years, American well-being and “democracy” have allegedly sprung from an orchestrated posture of engineered consumption. In this steeply confused derivation, our national marching instructions have remained clear and shameless:  “You are what you buy.” It follows from such shameless misdirection that the country’s ever-growing political scandals and failures were the altogether predictable product of a society where anti-intellectual and unheroic lives are actively encouraged. Even more insidiously, American success is measured not by any rational criteria of mind,  compassion and “soul,” but dolefully, mechanically, absent commendable purpose and without any “collective will.”[2]

               There is more. What most meaningfully animates American politics today is not a normally valid interest in progress or survival, but a steadily-escalating fear of personal defeat or private insignificance. Though sometimes most readily apparent at the presidential level, singly, such insignificance can also be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued, about not “belonging,”[3] about not being “wanted at all.”[4]

                For any long-term national renaissance to become serious, an unblemished candor must first be allowed to prevail. Perpetually ground down by the demeaning babble of half-educated pundits and jabbering politicos, We the people are only rarely motivated by elements of real insight or courage. To wit, we are just now learning to understand that our badly injured Constitution was subjected to variously dissembling increments of abrogation, assaults by an impaired head of state who “loved the poorly educated,”[5]  who proudly read nothing, and who yearned not to serve his country,[6] but only to be gratifyingly served by its endlessly manipulated citizens.

               Openly, incontestably, Donald J. Trump abhorred any challenging considerations of law, intellect or independent thought. For the United States, it became a literally lethal and unforgivable combination. At the chaotic end of his self-serving tenure, Trump’s personal defeat was closely paralleled by near-defeat of the entire nation. Lest anyone forget, the catastrophic events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were designed to undermine or overthrow the rule of Constitutional order in the United States.

               Nothing less.

               There is more. To understand the coinciding horrors of the Corona virus and Trump presidency declensions, we must first look more soberly beyond mere “reflections,” beyond transient personalities and the daily news. Even now, in these United States, a willing-to-think individual is little more than a quaint artifact of some previously-lived or imagined history. At present, more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning, our American “mass” displays no decipherable intentions of  taking itself more seriously.[7]

               None at all.

               “Headpieces filled with straw…” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American society. He would have observed, further, an embittered American “mass” or “herd” marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, wittingly incoherent and in potentially pitiful lockstep toward future bouts of lethal epidemic illness. About any corollary unhappiness, let us again be candid.

               It is never a happy society that chooses to drown itself in limitless mountains of drugs and vast oceans of alcohol.

                What’s next for the still-imperiled Republic? Whatever our specific political leanings or party loyalties, We the people have at least restored a non-criminal resident to the American White House.[8] At the same time, our self-battering country still imposes upon its exhausted people the hideously breathless rhythm of a vast and uncaring machine.Before Cocvid-19, we witnessed, each and every day, an endless line of trains, planes and automobiles transporting weary Americans to yet another robotic workday, a day too-often bereft of any pleasure or reward or of hope itself.  Now there is good reason for greater day-to-day political hope, and for this we should be grateful.

               But there is still no American “master plan” for a suitably transformed national consciousness.

               “I think therefore I am,” announces Descartes, but what exactly do I think?”

               Answers come quickly top mind. Even now, We the people lack any unifying sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team loyalties, inane conspiracy theories and the comforting but murderous brotherhoods of war.[9] As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek to jowl in our medieval prisons,  two-thirds of those released will return to crime and mayhem. Simultaneously, the most senior and recognizable white collar criminals – in part, those Trump-era sycophants who managed to effortlessly transform personal cowardice into a religion – can look forward to lucrative book contracts. These agreements are for manuscripts that they themselves are intellectually unfit to write.

                We Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once we displayed a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than just a “mass,”  “herd” or “crowd.”[10] Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson had described us as a people animated by industry and self-reliance, not by moral paralysis, fear and trembling.  Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged Americans to “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to becomewillfully thinking individuals), but today an entire nation remains grudgingly content with the very tiniest of elevations.

               In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warned decent civilizations never to seek the “higher man”[11] at the “marketplace,” but that is where America first discovered Donald J. Trump.

               What could have gone wrong? Trump was, after all, very rich. How then could he possibly not be smart and virtuous? Perhaps, as Reb Tevye remarks famously in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich they think you really know.”

                There is more. Many could never really understand Vladimir Lenin’s concept of a “useful idiot,” or the recently-pertinent corollary that an American president could become the witting marionette of his Russian counterpart. But, again, truth is exculpatory. The grievously sordid derelictions we Americans were forced to witness at the end of the Trump presidency resembled The Manchurian Candidate on steroids.

               And in what was perhaps the most exquisite irony of this destructive presidency, the very same people who stood so enthusiastically behind their man in the White House had themselves been raised with the fearful idea of a protracted Cold War and ubiquitous “Russian enemy.”

               “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               The true enemy currently faced by the United States is not any one individual person or ideology, not one political party or another. It is rather We the People. As we may learn further from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” And so we remain, even today, poised fixedly against ourselves and against our survival, battered by an unprecedented biological crisis nurtured by the former US president’s unforgivable policy forfeitures.

                Bottom line? In spite of our proudly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped not by any exceptional capacity but by harshly commanding patterns of cowardly conformance. Busily amusing ourselves to death with patently illiterate and cheap entertainments, our endangered American society fairly bristles with annoying jingles, insistent hucksterism, crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to inquire:  Isn’t there more to this long-suffering country than abjured learning, endless imitation and an expansively manipulating commerce? Whatever we might choose to answer, the available options are increasingly limited.

                “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed the Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, but now, generally, the self-deluding American Selfis created by stupefying kinds of “education,”[12]  by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and by a pervasive national culture of unceasing rancor and gratuitous obscenity.

                There are special difficulties. Only a rare “few” can ever redeem courage and intellect in America,[13] but these quiet souls usually remain well hidden, even from themselves. One will never discover them engaged in frenetic and agitated self-advertisement on television or online. Our necessary redemption as a people and aa a nation can never be generated from among the mass, herd or crowd. There is a correct way to fix our fractionating country, but not while We the people insistently inhabit various pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thought and anti-Reason, that is, by rote, without “mind” and without integrity.[14]

               Going forward, inter alia, we must  finally insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and newly virtuous[15] citizenry. In this immense task, very basic changes will first be needed at the level of microcosm, the level of the individual human person.  Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an art (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“), the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a cumulative expression of utterly unique individuals. In this same regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes even further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957), that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”[16]

               One again, as in our earlier references to Sigmund Freud, the inherently “soft” variable of “soul” is suitably acknowledged.

               Looking to history and logic, it would be very easy to conclude that the monumental task of intellectual and moral reconstruction lies well beyond our normal American capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to such a relentlessly fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to irremediable collective surrender. This could be unconscionable. Far better that the citizens of a sorely imperiled United States grasp for any still-residual sources of national and international unity, and exploit this universal font for both national and international survival.

               We have been considering the effects of an “unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”[17] During the past several years, huge and conspicuous efforts have been mounted to question the “cost-effectiveness” of an American college education. These often-shallow efforts ignore that the core value of a university degree lies not in its projected purchasing power, but in disciplined learning for its own sake. When young people are asked to calculate the value of such a degree in solely commercial terms, which is the case today, they are being asked to ignore both the special pleasures of a serious education (e.g., literature, history, art, music, philosophy, etc.) and the cumulative benefits of genuine learning to a mature and viable democracy.

               These commerce-based requests are shortsighted. Had these benefits been widely understood long before the 2016 presidential election, the United States might never have had to endure the multiplying horrors of Covid-19 and of variously still-heightened risks of a nuclear war. Only by understanding this underlying point about learning and education could Americans ever correctly claim that they have learned what is most important from the pandemic.

               On its face, such a claim would have potentially existential import. Wanting to partake of authentic truth rather than reflections or shadows, it ought never be minimized or disregarded. At some stage, the costs of any such forfeited understanding could be immeasurable.


[1] Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and a place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.

[2] The origin of this term in modern philosophy lies in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, especially The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps still more importantly) upon Schopenhauer. Goethe also served as a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, author of the prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas (1930). See, accordingly, Ortega’s very grand essay, “In Search of Goethe from Within” (1932), written for Die Neue Rundschau of Berlin on the occasion of the centenerary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[3]The extent to which some young Americans are willing to go to “belong” can be illustrated by certain recent incidents of college students drinking themselves to death as part of a fraternity hazing ritual. Can there be anything more genuinely pathetic than a young person who would accept virtually any such measure of personal debasement and risk in order to “fit in”?

[4] “It is getting late; shall we ever be asked for?” inquires the poet W H Auden in The Age of Reason. “Are we simply not wanted at all?”

[5] Said candidate Donald Trump in 2016, “I love the poorly educated.” This strange statement appears to echo Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at Nuremberg rally in 1935:  “Intellect rots the brain.”

[6] This brings to mind the timeless observation by Creon, King of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[7] “The mass-man,” we may learn from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”

[8] In this connection, cautions Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[9] War, of course, is arguably the most worrisome consequence of an anti-intellectual and anti-courage American presidency. For the moment, largely as a result of the intellectually dissembling Trump presidency, the most plausible geographic area of concern would be a nuclear war with North Korea. https://mwi.usma.edu/theres-no-historical-guide-assessing-risks-us-north-korea-nuclear-war/

[10] “The crowd,” said Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Here, the term “crowd” is roughly comparable to C.G. Jung’s “mass,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd” and Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[11]We can reasonably forgive the apparent sexism of this term, both because of the era in which it was offered and because the seminal European philosopher meant this term to extend to both genders.

[12] In an additional irony, these already unsatisfactory kinds of education will be supplanted by even more intrinsically worthless forms of learning. Most notable, in this regard, is the almost wholesale shift to online education, a shift made more necessary and widespread by the Covid-19 disease pandemic, but unsatisfactory nonetheless.

[13] The term is drawn here from the Spanish existential Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, especially his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930).

[14] “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

[15] As used by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the term “virtuous” includes elements of wisdom and knowledge as well as morality.

[16] Carl G. Jung eagerly embraced the term “soul” following preferences of Sigmund Freud, his one-time mentor and colleague. Also, says Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.”

[17]Although this present consideration has been offered as a pièce d’occasion, it also has much wider conceptual applications and implications.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Biden: No More “Favourite Dictators”

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

 Former US President Donald Trump shared a strong personal rapport with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Trump made no bones about the fact, that he got along well with authoritarian leaders – especially in the Middle East. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump while looking for Egyptian President had even said, “Where’s my favourite dictator?”

Statements made by Biden before taking over as US President

On the other hand, Joe Biden before taking over as US President had repeatedly criticized Erdogan, MBS and Sisi for their poor human rights record, and had unequivocally stated that none of them would have a free pass in a Biden Presidency.  Biden had on numerous occasions flagged the dismal Human Rights record of Saudi Arabia, especially MBS’ involvement in the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and lashed out at Trump for soft pedaling on the issue because of his personal rapport with MBS. Similarly, in August 2020, Biden had dubbed Erdogan as an ‘autocrat’ and also expressed the view that the US needed to lend support to opposition parties in Turkey. Biden had also issued a warning to Sisi, saying that there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’.”

How President Biden has approached relations with the three leaders

During the Biden Administration, ties with Saudi Arabia have witnessed a change. A report which clearly points to MBS’ role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was released (Trump had refused to release this report). The US has withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and defence agreements signed between the US and Saudi Arabia, during the Trump Administration have been put on hold. Yet, Biden while sanctioning Saudi officials in connection with the Khashoggi case, in addition to those sanctioned by the Trump administration, refused to impose sanctions on MBS owing to the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East (Saudi support is essential for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-JCPOA) and the strong US-Saudi relationship. It would be pertinent to point out, that Biden’s decision not to impose sanctions on MBS has drawn strong criticism from many including members of his own party.

If one were to look at the case of Turkey in recent months, the Turkish President has himself toned down his Anti-West rhetoric and described his meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the recent NATO Summit as fruitful. While commenting on the meeting with Biden, Erdogan stated that ‘ We believe there is no problem that cannot be resolved in Turkey-US relations,’

The US President also said, that the meeting with Erdogan was positive and expressed hope that the bilateral relationship would improve in days to come.

While the meeting between Biden and Erdogan was positive, differences between both sides still persist over Turkey’s purchase of S400 missiles (the Trump administration had imposed sanctions in its final days and Turkey had also been removed from its F-35 fighter jet program)

Turkey’s strategic relevance

Turkey has stated that it is willing to play a role in security in Afghanistan, and guard Kabul airport, after the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Turkish President did say that Turkey would require diplomatic, logistic and financial support that the United States. The Biden administration’s outreach to Turkey indicates that in spite of differences over key issues, Istanbul’s potentially important role post the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is something, the US will not ignore. Erdogan on his part needs to have a reasonable relationship with US, given the fact that the Turkish economy has slowed down significantly.

If one were to look at the case of Egypt, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi role in the ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, was acknowledged by the Biden Administration. While the US President during a telephonic conversation hailed Sisi for his ‘successful diplomacy’ in the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

‘We have had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly. And now, we are working closely together to build something positive’

It would be pertinent to point out, that during his telephonic conversation with Sisi, in May 2021, Biden did flag the need for a ‘constructive dialogue’ on human rights in Egypt

Conclusion

While it is easy to criticise Joe Biden, he has the onerous responsibility of striking a  balance between values, which he has repeatedly referred to even after taking over as President, with US interests. Given the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, Biden while refraining from taking steps, which may be counterproductive has flagged his concerns with regard to Human Rights, and sent out a strong message that bilateral relations will be dictated by substance and not mere personal chemistry or optics. At the end of the day it is important not to forget Miles’s law — ‘where you stand depends upon where you sit’.

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The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.

The victory of Biden 

Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.

In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.

More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.

The European Union is recovering 

Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.

Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.

Non-Western world is struggling 

The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.

Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.

More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.

It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.

Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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