Francis Fukuyama’s, End of History and the Last Man (1992) – influenced by the events triggered by Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (1987), Fall of Berlin Wall (Nov, 1990) and Dissolution of Soviet Union (Dec, 1991) – had argued that ascendancy of Western liberal democracy, over other political models, has finally brought humanity to its final era of stability – and a world order that will last.
Fukuyama argued that world had not reached “..just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. Less than 30 years later, Fukuyama’s words that sounded prophetic then now appear dangerously preposterous – if not alright ludicrous.
Responding to liberal democracy’s challenge in the wake of Corona pandemic, Henry Kissinger, ex-US Secretary of State, in a far reaching piece, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order”, wrote that: “..when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed. Whether this judgment is objectively fair is irrelevant. The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus. To argue now about the past only makes it harder to do what has to be done. (WSJ, 3 April 2020)
KISSINGER IN WSJ: “WE LIVE AN EPOCHAL PERIOD. THE HISTORIC CHALLENGE FOR LEADERS IS TO MANAGE THE CRISIS WHILE BUILDING THE FUTURE. FAILURE COULD SET THE WORLD ON FIRE C.F. EPSTEIN 🙂
— CHRIS HOOFNAGLE (@HOOFNAGLE) APRIL 5, 2020
Liberal World Order: Under threat?
Kissinger then argued that “the contraction unleashed by the coronavirus is, in its speed and global scale, unlike anything ever known in history” and that the United States must lead the western democracies and allies to “safeguard the principles of the liberal world order”.
He reminded his readers that enlightenment thinkers had argued that the purpose of the legitimate state is to provide for the fundamental needs of the people: security, order, economic well-being, and justice and that individuals, anywhere cannot secure these things on their own. He ended by pleading that “a global retreat from balancing power with legitimacy will cause the social contract to disintegrate both domestically and internationally”.
While Kissinger is not alone in expressing these fears; with the rise of Trumpian politics in the United States and Britain’s painful and unnecessary divorce – Brexit – from Europe these rumblings were occurring from universities, think tanks and media on both sides of the Atlantic. But it will be difficult to deny that Dr. Kissinger is perhaps one of the most important, loyal, blue-blooded sons of western establishment of the past fifty years – and when this octogenarian speaks many are forced to sit up and listen.
Corona: Bigger Political threat than 9/11?
So, it appears that within 30 years of Fukuyama’s “End of History” western liberal democracy – and the world order built around it – has reached its most serious crisis. When Huntington came up with “Clash of Civilization” and when 9/11 happened, Fukuyama and followers had argued – and perhaps quite convincingly – that these challenges and skirmishes will continue to exist.
Islamists – despite their exaggerated presentation by the western establishments, media and think tank battalions – and despite their dangerous medieval tactics – suicide bombings, televised decapitations and attempts to recruit armies of cerebrally challenged Muslim youth – were in reality far too primitive, anachronistic and fragile an enemy.
Islamists were – to be fairly honest -puny of a challenge to the deeply entrenched sophisticated western establishment and many in the Muslim world and on the left of global politics (even in most allied of allies, Britain) kept suspecting, in conspiratorial tones, that these idiotic bearded, gun-toting contraptions like Al Qaeda, various Al-Jihads and later day ISIS, and ferocious looking mullahs in search of paradise and voluptuous yet modest virgins represent rich juicy imagination and scripts of CIA and MI6, Mossad and FVEY, Five Eyes etc.
But now the powerful western establishments – and formidable scientific communities- and the world order they represented suddenly look impotent in this war against an invisible, microscopic messenger RNA that looks innocent and sexy with its multiple spikes in coloured images produced from electron microscopes– Novel Corona Virus, given a fancy name by a confused WHO as Covid-19 (March 11).
As of now, more than 100,000 people have died across the world; but almost 85% of these deaths (almost 88,000) have happened in the United States, Italy, Spain, UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Canada – and this attack by Angel of death continues with an untiring frenzy creating unbelievable spectres of mass graves in a city like New York – something Fitz Gerald’s Big Apple had not experienced even during the Second World War.
But it’s not the fear of death, loss of loved ones or health catastrophe that is worrying a cold-blooded, calculating realist like Kissinger; it’s the economic and political repercussions of the pandemic of fear and uncertainty – lockdowns, closures, bankrupt airlines, empty hotels and shopping malls, deserted mass transits, 17 million filing for unemployment benefits, Boeing and others shutting down their plants, General Motors making ventilators, AIRBNB out of business, Hollywood of “Contagion” now haunted by the realization of its own ghastly scripts in the form of empty cinemas and so on – that has suddenly landed a robust US economy into depression.
China now for multiple reasons emerges as a role model of authoritarian competence and for all those – in Middle East, Central Asia, East Europe, Africa, Pakistan and within India’s ruling BJP
News from across the Atlantic are even more worrisome where French are riding on a new wave of national reliance shunning the trans-European interdependence and they are not alone. Whole basis of wealth generation and prosperity through mass production, consumption and trade across Europe has been jeopardized like never before – Kissinger is right; the very basis of the post-war social contract, around which liberal democracy has been built -as a relationship between the governing elite and the governed – is now under attack.
Authoritarianism works and is efficient
But threat to liberal democracy is not just the looming economic depression. Many in Pakistan and across the world – including Europe and the United States – have been suitably impressed by a China that has apparently opened up Wuhan – epicentre of novel corona virus – for business.
No new cases are being reported by the Chinese government. World also hears that Chinese reaction to virus was so swift, lock downs so complete, monitoring of potentially infected so scientific, cremation of dead bodies so stoic that virus could never effectively reach other large urban and commercial centres like the capital Beijing – and everyone concurs that such audacious management where dead bodies were cremated under order of National Health Commission, where mass transit systems came to a halt and where inter-city trains deleted Wuhan – a city of 11 million – from their maps was not possible in a liberal democracy.
In Italy where PM, Giuseppe Conte, suspended all flights to and from China on 31st January, it was troublesome to reach any consensus on what to do, and how to do between its 20 decentralized regions. Tourists, ski fun lovers, Chinese performers, immigrant families, students and lovers of all sorts kept pouring, and rubbing cheeks, from all over Europe – rest of Europe where planes, trains, buses, lorries and cars were crossing borders across 27 countries without terminal controls it was not much different.
In France, President Macron had to quickly summon 100,000 troops to impress upon citizens to stay indoors. Authoritarian Saudi Arabia and Gulf Sheikhdoms could quickly – and no doubt rationally – decide to shut down all points of assembly including mosques – something that could not be implemented in a relatively open society like Pakistan to this day.
In United States where more than 100 million travellers use domestic and international airports every month and another 100 million crosses into and out of the United States from Mexico it was – in January and February – unthinkable to stop this activity. Discipline of authoritarian decision making has thus succeeded where consensus making institutions of liberal democracy have failed – and miserably.
Trump’s peculiar style of communication and his toxic relations with liberal dominated media have now made him look like a buffoon– an idiot who could not understand the risks, who could not listen to his scientific advisors. But the fact is that WHO and its DG – Tedros Adhandom– never blew the trumpet; they were the international body responsible for coming up with a clear assessment and prescription, but they downplayed the risks, warned against panic and protested when countries like Italy were stopping their flights with China.
WHO’s conduct in this crisis represents a textbook case for study of organizational failure and weaknesses of global architecture and governance– and has led to allegations that Tedros and WHO were under Chinese influence and were deliberately trying to downplay the risks of virus spread. Others remember that Tedros, former foreign minister of Ethiopia, was tainted by charges of corruption and inefficiency and his elevation as DG WHO in 2016 was bad news.
All this may be true but WHO’s weaknesses also reflected a loosely arranged liberal and chaotic world order where robust decision making was difficult; WHO had prematurely declared a pandemic in 2009 HIN1 crisis (Swine Flu) and was bitterly criticised by member countries.
Bottom line is that Corona crisis has suddenly exposed the weaknesses of decentralised liberal democracies, open societies and chaotic global architecture – and suddenly authoritarian regimes like China, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Gulf kingdoms look decisive smart and efficient in managing crisis protecting the lives of their citizens – making all future exhortations, by west, for rule based democracy meaningless.
But this is not just an academic question that should interest scholars at Harvard, Yale or Columbia but this is a development that will have far reaching implications for fledging democracies like in Pakistan, Central Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe – and will boost the hyper-nationalist political movements in Europe and other parts of the world. The ability of western governments and institutions to advise and persuade for democratic change, freedom of press and minority rights will be seriously compromised.
It is this risk of “global retreat from balancing power with legitimacy” which haunts Kissinger. It is this challenge, that is not only from authoritarian regimes, like China and Russia, but from authoritarian political entities and philosophies within the countries, that demands United States and allies – Europe and beyond – to come up with a new “Marshall Plan” for the world to defend and preserve liberal democracies and their institutions.
China can be both villain and hero: What will it choose?
China now for multiple reasons emerges as a role model of authoritarian competence and for all those – in Middle East, Central Asia, East Europe, Africa, Pakistan and within India’s ruling BJP – who are looking for an alternate political model to justify their aspirations of control and power grab in the name of “efficiency”. But China was admitted into the global club – especially into WTO – on the assurances that it will gradually bind itself into a ‘rule-based system’. Many hoped that China will gradually become a democracy.
This entry into the Club has worked very well for China, and its continuing prosperity depends upon it. Next few months will see huge tensions between the US lead western alliance and China on these issues that may take different forms. China will have to make concessions to retain its good will inside the system – otherwise instability will ensue.
Pakistani PM, Imran Khan’s appeal to UN and international financial institutions to develop an understanding of the economic challenges now being faced by countries like Pakistan will make tremendous sense if Kissinger’s argument is understood
Kissinger’s Wall Street Journal piece sparked a heated debate, more than 1400 comments till the WSJ editors decided to close it – almost one third, if not more, vehemently attacked Kissinger for being a friend of China and someone who set the stage for brining China into the global system and ultimately into WTO – without full compliance of its regimen.
Many wondered how China (despite being in WTO) could be allowed to maintain wet markets with unregulated wild animals (in contrast to tightly controlled food supply chains of farm animals like in rest of the world). China’s official position is that corona virus jumped on to a human being in the Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood market. Though increasingly western governments and key institutions fail to find it credible.
Much has been said for and against the Dean Koontz 1981 novel, Eyes of the Darkness – that had claimed that Wuhan-400 is a Chinese bio-weapon developed in RDNA labs near Wuhan – however, irrespective of that it is now widely known and discussed that China’s level-4 Wuhan Institute of Virology existed near the city of Wuhan – and viruses could have escaped through an accident or mishap due to bad safety protocols.
US intelligence and scientific community are convinced that it was not deliberate, and virus is zoonotic – not product of a lab. But more than 100,000 are dead, almost 85% in the US and key western countries and a shrinking global economy is heading towards a recession – and the virus that caused all this originaged originated from China whether from a wet market or a lab.
Western politicians, opinion makers and key institutions have been, for past one decade, trying to grapple with ideas like “Thucydides Trap” that had argued that whenever a rising power attempts displacing a status quo power there is conflict – or war. While a traditional war has not been declared, the fact remains that a virus originating from a the “rising power” has destabilised lives and economy of the “status quo powers” – and this is something that will continue to reverberate over the next few weeks and months -as political negotiations take place to fix the global economy and its future.
China will have to accept some responsibility for what happened in Wuhan and take steps to mitigate its negative outfall. This can be a robust economic engagement with the world, closing of wet markets and becoming more transparent on its biological programs through increased safety regulations and protocols.
US, Germany and Japan have come up with sizeable economic stimulus packages, but these are not enough – developing countries need debt relief to protect them from political meltdowns. This is again cash rich China’s opportunity to play an active role along with the US to bail out developing countries. China that took significant initiative after the 2008/9 crisis can once again help the developing world – that has been adversely affected by an accident or irresponsibility in Wuhan.
Pakistani PM, Imran Khan’s appeal to UN and international financial institutions to develop an understanding of the economic challenges now being faced by countries like Pakistan will make tremendous sense if Kissinger’s argument is understood. The risks of authoritarian ascendancy from outside and from within – for those who can grasp – are real. China must not be seen encouraging these authoritarian elements and forces in any way.