Henry Kissinger, America’s respected foreign affairs and national security expert, who served as the 56th Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, recently wrote an interesting article The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order .It was published on April 3, 2020 in Wall Street Journal.
Why is Kissinger important?
There have been many Secretaries of State since 1970’s – in fact a new one takes the title almost every four years with a new president in the White House. But none has enjoyed the fame and respect in the foreign policy circles – and universities and think tanks – within the United States and across the world.
Author of “Diplomacy” “Years of Upheaval” and “World Order” has a special place amongst diplomats, academics, researchers and students of international relations. When he speaks, the world sits up and listens.
When Kissinger tells the US policy makers that the world order created after the Second World War – with Bretton Wood institutions – is at serious risk due to an invisible virus, then top decision makers in the government, multinational institutions and corporate circles from Washington to London, from Brussels to Doha read it line by line. And scholars, policy makers and journalists not only read Kissinger’s piece but many write commentaries to explain, criticise or second whatever he has said.
In this far reaching comment – Corona Virus Pandemic will forever alter the World Order, WSJ, 3 April- Kissinger advised the United States to lead from the front to give direction in this time of crisis just as it had done after the WWII.
Kissinger believes that ‘the reality is that the world will never be the same after the coronavirus”. He also advises the American establishment to focus on: a) improvement of “medical science”; b) come forward to “heal the wounds to the global economy”; c) and be ready to “safeguard the principles of liberal world”.
Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a prominent Pakistani political commentator and TV anchor, wrote an insightful article Post-Corona World Order: Democratic or Authoritarian? and discussed at length what Kissinger had carefully written. His analysis is important because it is coming from Pakistan where few are thinking or writing about these dynamics. But I have issues with both Dr. Kissinger and Dr. Moeed Pirzada and let me explain why.
Fukuyama had argued that western liberal world order will last till "End of History" but Kissinger explains that corona pandemic can destabilise liberal world order. I have analysed both arguments; Must read for students of IR & CSS aspirants! https://t.co/THQKY8vITv
— Moeed Pirzada (@MoeedNj) April 13, 2020
Fukuyama’s End of History thesis?
Dr. Pirzada believes that the Coronavirus outbreak “has suddenly landed a robust US economy into depression.’ He also agrees with Kissinger in these words: “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.”
While reminding his readers of the arrogance of Fukuyama’s End of History and Kissinger’s recent warnings, Dr. Pirzada says that “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.”
To be fair, Fukuyama’s thesis has already been challenged as many post-communist countries did not go for democracy but adopted semi-autocratic rules. Additionally, modernization thesis also failed to a great extent.
Dr. Pirzada also believes that China appears to be “a role model of authoritarian competence”. For whom? He replies; all those “who are looking for an alternate political model to justify their aspirations of control and power grab in the name of ‘efficiency’”.
Liberal Democracy giving way to populism?
A careful reading of both pieces reflects some interesting similarities; first, Kissinger – writing from the United Stages – and Dr. Pirzada – from Islamabad,Pakistan – have offered an over-simplified version of what is happening to liberal democracy in the time of COVID-19; probably a Corona-centric view of changing socio-political realities. Both did not go into detail to identify the state of liberal democracy and challenges posed by the emerging populist forces in the west.
Second, both, Kissinger and Dr. Pirzada, believe that the world will change but do not offer a detailed account as to why. The American leadership role will be replaced by China, why? Is it only because COVID-19 exposed American liberal democracy?
Read More: Is Democracy merely rule of the majority?
In this piece, I attempt to analyze the state of democracy in the west which is responsible for the present-day crisis; and, I make a point that the world is unlikely to be ruled by autocratic leaders rather the future seems to be another period of instability, disorganization and regional conflicts.
The bottom line is that the idea of liberal democracy has long been under the threat of illiberal democratic forces in the west. The moment these forces overpowered the system, western liberal democracies started turning towards competitive authoritarian regimes.
Most importantly, China is unlikely to replace the USA because China does not have a model to do so. Therefore, the failure of illiberal democrats (not of liberal democracy) is likely to lead us to political chaos in the future.
However, I do not claim any sort of intellectual certainty while drawing some broad conclusions as the COVID-19 is the latest reminder of the fact that Social Science can never be an exact science. And anybody—an experienced man like Kissinger or Nye—can be countered by the unseen forces of nature.
How many of you remember George Modelski, Robert Gilpin, Robert Keohane and Stephen Krasner who developed the Hegemonic Stability Theory and told us to treat the USA as hegemon, and Professor Joseph Nye who wrote Is the American Century Over? and willfully declined to accept the rise of a “Chinese century”? All these assertions now stand absolutely invalid.
Pre-Corona America: Democracy without liberalism?
The rise of populism has drastically changed the socio-political dynamics in the western societies. The consolidated democracies – from the United States, UK, France to Austria – are on their way to become competitive authoritarian regimes where liberal values and institutions are persistently under attack. India – much celebrated as a non-western democracy – has in recent years degenerated into a religious fascism.
There are multiple explanations to comprehend the case of de-consolidation of democracies. These range from ‘myth of liberal democracy’ as advocated by the founders of the modern Britain and US to the absence of required economic conditions and the rise of immigrant communities. But irrespective of whatever is causing it, the fact remains that now democracies are failing to protect minorities at home which puts a big question mark on the liberal world order as propagated by Kissinger and his aides.
Kurt M Campbell and Rush Doshi argue in a recent piece that the legitimacy “flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises”. Unlike what Professor Nye had said, the American leadership – for instance under Trump – does not seem to be interested to lead the world anymore.
Dr. Yascha Mounk, Associate Professor of Politics at Harvard, and Dr. Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at University of Cambridge, collected data in liberal democracies and offered some politically disturbing conclusions.
Foa-Mounk’s studies suggest the end of consolidation paradigm in the established democracies where citizens are increasingly becoming critical of liberal democracy. The most disturbing finding was the response of 46 percent respondents in the USA who claimed they either “never had” or had “lost” faith in US democracy. Governance failure at home – and rising trends – deprives the present American government to assume the role of global leadership.
Incomes rising in non-democratic societies?
Kissinger’s observation that “when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed,” is correct but relies on a reductionist paradigm.
A brief factual comparison reflects the fact that autocratic regimes have recently been proving that the liberal institutions (in illiberal democracies) are failing. Interestingly, “in 1995, there were 866 million people in the world living in countries with a per capita income above US$20,000 in today’s terms. Of these people, 96% lived in liberal democracies; except only 4 percent, or about 34 million people.
Yet today, we can count 315 million people who live in countries—including Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Arab Gulf States— that have per capita incomes above this threshold, but are governed by authoritarian institutions. If we include the coastal provinces of China, the total rises to over 800 million”.
Moreover, “composite indices of market governance such as the annual Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum, which systematically grades countries on factors such as the security of property rights or labor market flexibility shows interesting trends. It shows that major autocratic regimes – such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – have risen on the index since 2008, and now rank among the top third of countries worldwide”.
From 1990 to the present, the share of global GDP accounted for by autocratic states has risen from 12 to 33 percent. According to projections by the International Monetary Fund, this figure will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies within the next five years.
Authoritarian states have also managed soft power?
Furthermore, “authoritarianism regimes have also shaken the dominance of Western soft power. Non-Western media organizations such as Al Jazeera have surpassed Western media in their home regions in terms of viewership, while CCTV and RT (formerly Russia Today) have launched English, Arabic, and Spanish channels aimed at reaching audiences in Europe, North America, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Moreover, nondemocratic states now host sixteen universities ranked among the top 250 in the world by Times Higher Education—meaning that authoritarian countries can train new generations of elites without sending students to Western universities”.
The bottom line is that the institutions of many erstwhile liberal democratic countries have already failed or stagnated and it is not due to Corona rather it has been due to complex interplay of liberal myths and realist politics influenced by populist tendencies. Corona might have proved to be a factor which has exposed many; as once noted by Warren Buffett that “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.
End of American hegemony: Is China the alternative?
As we have seen that not China but the west itself is failing to enact genuine liberal democracy, so the most important question of this decade is; what will China do if America fails to lead the world?
Experts from Economics and International Relations may tell us that China will bring its own World Order once it assumes the role of global leader. The problem with this answer, what I should term, is academic. International relations as a field of study does not offer micro level analysis which does not allow many experts to look into complex domestic socio-political processes which ultimately shape global discourses.
China may have both economic power and military might. It can, one may argue, offer authoritarianism capitalist model to the world along with massive support to developing states to ensure defense. However, what is China’s political package for the world?
America had liberal democracy to sell out as political ideology to gain legitimacy and popular approval at home and abroad; what’s China’s political ideology? From a conservative Political Science perspective, China has no political ideology but a model of governance based upon undefined principles of control and surveillance. Politically speaking, this is not what China can offer to the world.
With the end of liberal democracy, there is going to be an end of global leadership. This is going to be the most complex phase of human civilization where unprecedented flow of information, scientific development and technological sophistication will operate in a politically disoriented world. Authoritarianism may be appealing as noted by Dr. Pirzada but it cannot be an alternative to liberal democracy in the long run.
To avoid a dangerous future, there needs to be an important role played by the global civil society, public intellectuals and political parties to ensure that liberal values and institutions are protected in the age of populism and competitive authoritarianism. At the same time, there needs to be a different economic model for the redistribution of wealth in democracies where increasing inequality made people doubt the idea of democracy. Finally, to be fair, the world has not created any political model better than liberal democracy to govern ethnically heterogeneous polities to create an open society. Lets hope for the best!
Farah Adeed is an Assistant Editor in GVS. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s Editorial Policy.