Who will lead the new global political order?

There is a growing debate among experts about future of democracy not only in US but also in other parts of the world


Shahid Javed Burki October 03, 2022
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

T hose who watch global politics agree that a new global order is emerging. It would replace the one that came about after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and survived until the arrival of President Donald Trump in January 2017 in the White House. The start of the old order was brought about by the defeat in Afghanistan of what was then the Soviet Union.

It followed the withdrawal of its troops from the country it had invaded decades earlier. It ended when the newly elected US president who proclaimed that he would make America great again by going alone. The new order is bringing about a significant change in the way nations around the world are organised. The question as to who would lead the emerging global order is now engaging several thinkers the world over. There are two obvious candidates to lead the new system: the US and China. However, the democratic system the US shaped after gaining independence from Britain in 1776 is now threatened by forces that are internal.

There is a growing debate among experts about the future of democracy not only in the US but also in several other parts of the world. Today, I will focus on the possible role of China in global politics and also on the direction the country is likely to take in the decades to come. What is perhaps of greater significance is the global move away from democracy and western liberalism towards greater autocracy. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, several political scientists were convinced that the world had moved towards liberal democracy as the model of governance.

Forty years later, led by the US, the world has begun to rely on other political systems. President Biden is attempting to take back the country to the old position. “It is the element of President Biden’s foreign policy that overlaps most significantly with his domestic agenda: defending democracy,” wrote Edward Wong in an essay published by The New York Times on Sept 6, 2022. “His drive to buttress democracy at home and abroad has taken on more urgency as Russia wages war in Ukraine, China expands its power and former President Donald J. Trump and his Republican supporters attack American democratic norms and fair elections.”

In a speech in Philadelphia on Sept 1, 2022, Biden warned about the threat to democracy in the US and said that American citizens were in a ‘battle for the soul of the nation’. Biden’s efforts to bolster democracy abroad are about to come into sharper focus. The White House is expected to announce a second multinational Summit for Democracy. The National Security Strategy could be released in early Oct 2022. It will highlight reinforcement of democracies at home and abroad as a policy priority. In focusing on building and strengthening democracies abroad, Biden and his team in the White House were concerned about the challenge posed by emerging China.

As Dexter Roberts wrote for The New York Times, “in just over 40 years, the People’s Republic of China has risen from the political chaos and poverty of the Mao Zedong era to become a powerhouse on the world stage. Its unmistakable clout is intensifying its rivalry with the United States over which country will dominate the global order and, crucially, which system will stand as the world’s political and economic model: the authoritarianism and state capitalism of China, or the liberal democracy and marketoriented economy of the United States.” The contest between the two surviving superpowers poses the most consequential challenge in foreign affairs as we approach the end of 2022.

China’s rise and the belief of its current set of leaders that their political system is better than the West’s — it was better since it was able to deliver to the citizenry the goods and services they wanted. This sense of confidence was not expected by some of the important scholars who studied the country and predicted its evolution. About 20 years ago, Columbia University political scientist Andrew J Nathan argued in an influential essay that according to a thesis in international relations called “regime theory” authoritarian states are “inherently fragile” because of “weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, over-centralization of decisions making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms.”

Nathan’s prediction about the longevity of authoritarian regime proved to be inaccurate. This has been the case in particular with the Communist regime in China. Why the Chinese system has proved to be durable — the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the 100th year of its birth in 2021 — is investigated in a recent book by Harvard University’s Steven Levitsky and University of Toronto’s Lucan Way titled Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism. It is a sweeping historical analysis of 13 revolutionary regimes including the Soviet Union, Iran, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba.

In their analysis, they find all revolutionary regimes that survive a long time “fostered the emergence of a tight-knit core of leaders. Violent struggle also fostered an intense two-front siege mentality rooted in fears of enemies from within and abroad.” Two German journalists, Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges, have added another book to the growing literature on China. Their book, Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World, argues that prosperity is a goal of both Confucianism and Marxism. Xi extols the long history of China’s civilisation as far back as the earliest philosophers and calls for the great “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

The Western leaders who have reacted with the Chinese leadership have always been intrigued by the Chinese reference to history when they are discussing modern world affairs. Henry Kissinger put emphasis on this aspect of the Chinese political culture in his book, On China. A third book by two Wall Street Journalists of Chinese origin, Josh Chin and Liza Lin, is titled Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control. It examines the instruments of state policy being used to keep citizens in line with the thinking and working of the state. China’s authoritarian leaders are playing the long game and so far, it has worked.

Dexter Roberts in his review of the books referred to above concludes his analysis as follows: “If the tensions of the Cold War with the Soviet Union served as any preview, the years ahead for China and the United States will pose an array of geopolitical potholes as two superpowers with vastly different political and economic systems vie for domination. Does Xi Jinping aspire to rule the world?” Aust and Geiges ask at the end of their book. Their conclusion: “Xi Jinping is no longer interested in following examples set by others.

He wants to put his own mark on China — and on the world. Whether he will ultimately succeed, and what that mark might look like are questions that would ring throughout the corridors of the White House, Congress and government capitals across the world for years to come.” They will also ring in the government corridors in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Ignored by Washington, Pakistan has drawn closer to China and placed itself in Beijing’s orbit.

 

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