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Do We Really Want a Second Cold War?

31 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of Policy Paper #4 RESPONDING TO CHINESE VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS, published previously on the website of the Committee for a Sane China Policy. It reflects my view that the protection of human rights is being geopolitically manipulate to mobilize public support for an anti-Chinese foreign policy in the West that risks generating a dangerous geopolitical confrontation. Such a confrontation is costly, amounts to war-mongering, and diverts U.S. attention from self-scrutiny and global peacebuilding. Whether a second cold war is already underway is a matter of interpretation, but even those reluctant to reach such a depressing assessment would have to acknowledge that unless there are strong efforts made to support what I would call ‘inclusive global multipolarity,’ the drift toward such a dismal near-term future will become inevitable. The need to sound the alarm has reached a level of urgency.]    

Introduction: 

There is no doubt that Chinese government encroachments on the fundamental human rights of its population have become more pervasive and serious in several respects during the leadership of President Xi Jinping. This unfortunate development has been increasingly highlighted, often with inflammatory intent, by Western leaders and media outlets – apattern that is contributing to increasing tensions between China and the West, especially the United States. This emphasis on Chinese violations of human rights is reinforced by complaints that China acted irresponsibly and oppressively in its early responses to the COVID-19 challenge, is defying international law in the South China Sea, and has not participated in the world economy in a fair and proper manner, hence justifying such American responses as blocking exports of high-technology items to China, persuading European governments to avoid tying their internet network to Chinese 5G technology, placing burdens on Chinese investment in the United States, and above all in mounting a global propaganda offensive against China. 

President Biden in his speech to the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021 highlighted what he called ‘competition’ with China as well as with Russia, blaming each for bad behavior, while saying that the U.S. seeks to avoid a new cold war and looks forward to cooperation with China in areas of shared concern, most notably in relation to health and climate change.[1]  At the same time the, central thesis of the Munich speech was disturbing, a confusing call for solidarity among democratic countries, highlighting NATO’s mission in ‘prevailing’ over the challenges mounted by the rise of autocratic nationalism all over the world. For those able to recall the bellicose rhetoric of prior decades, this call is highly resonant with Cold War slogans about the ‘free world’ resisting the totalitarian Soviet bloc. It was also confusing by combining alliance solidarity with Biden’s call for the formation of a united front of democratic states, forgetting that many U.S. allies are far from achieving democratic credentials – consider the Philippines, India, Brazil, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia.  

There are also unacknowledged worries in the West about competitiveness arising not from Chinese improper behavior towards its own people, but from its growing technological creativity and regional military muscle. The so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ has historically prompted nervous dominant states seek to turn back a challenge to their preeminence by initiating a war while still enjoying military superiority, which is feared will soon be overtaken.[2] The dangers of confrontation with China are especially great given the flashpoints in the South and East China Seas, and especially in relation to Taiwan. China seems intent on establishing its regional supremacy while the United States seeks to reassert its long-dominant regional role by displaying its formidable naval presence as a sign of readiness to meet political threats with shows of force, a recipe for dangerous forms of unintended escalation. There are additional concerns arising from the anticipated further military buildup in the Indo-Pacific regions, based on $27 billion additional budget requests over the next five years. In the background of intensifying militarization is the related public expression by high-ranking Pentagon officials that in view of China’s regional buildup of forces, the U.S. would be under great pressure to use nuclear weapons. A top admiral urged strategic planners to grasp this reality by understanding that the use of nuclear weapons in a forthcoming crisis would not be possible but probable, and should be prepared. Such a conclusion was reinforced by recent war game simulations showing that China would prevail at conventional levels of interaction. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis has there been a situation in which ‘rational’ security analysts acknowledged a dependence on nuclear weapons to meet strategic goals, and not just as serving in a deterrent role.

It is against this background of mixed messages that U.S. policy toward human rights in China should be shaped, especially if the goal is to avoid war and establish an overall atmosphere that encourages cooperative engagements. This critical goal would best be served by reducing tensions that could give rise to hazardous and hostile confrontations, and even outright conflict. This paper seeks to thread the needle so as to separate genuine concerns about human rights from the overriding priority of not stumbling into a cold war – let alone a hot war – with China. In that spirit it sets forth a profile of China’s human rights record, including taking account of its considerable positive sides, and expresses a skeptical view as to whether overt hostile criticisms, policies, or actions are justified or effective, adopting the view that such a pushback is certain to be resented by Chinese leaders and dismissed as hostile propaganda. It is certain to be ineffective in changing China’s controversial domestic policies.  

Declaring this, however, does not dispose of the problem. As with the Cold War and regime-changing interventions, the denunciation of human rights violations by an adversary of the United States, usually in exaggerated form, has proven extremely useful in mobilizing Congressional, media, and citizen support for coercive diplomacy, taking a variety of forms, including military buildups, sanctions, interventions, threats, and covert destabilizing operations. When John Bolton, a relentless right-wing geopolitical hawk when it comes to opposing Muslim political aspirations in the Middle East and elsewhere, expressed fury over Donald Trump’s unwillingness to do anything substantial about the plight of the approximately 12 million Turkic speaking Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs living in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, we should realize that his concern is not about human rights or the plight of the Uyghurs, but is about seizing the opportunity to use human rights concerns to bludgeon the Chinese and arouse anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States already inflamed by Trump’s frequent allusions to the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘China virus.’. 

Some Perspective on China’s Human Rights Record  

It is difficult to disentangle Western anti-Chinese propaganda from an objective appraisal of China’s record on human rights. This difficulty is compounded by certain Asian values and traditions that help explain government behavior, which when given a special Chinese twist, diverge in approach from Western liberal approaches that give priority to individual freedoms.   

There is no doubt that China’s policy toward Tibetan, Eastern Mongolian, and Uyghur minorities raise serious human rights issues that have been reliably reported by respected human rights organizations. The allegations include involuntary detention and abusive treatment in so-called ‘reeducation camps,’ forced sterilization, denials of freedoms of expression, religion, and cultural identity, family separation, and discrimination in paid work.[3]  

Yet the underlying issues are complex, and can be interpreted from contradictory perspectives. Concerns about human rights, especially when associated with discontented ethnic and religious minorities, are inevitably interrelated with questions about the interplay of territorial sovereignty and specifying the acceptable nature of national identity. This includes grappling with the indistinct relationship between duties to uphold the internationally protected human rights of minorities and responses to social movements based on claims of autonomy and separation. In such cases, human rights issues need to be balanced against measures undertaken to maintain the unity of the state. There are legal ambiguities and factual complexities about who has the authority to strike a balance between collective human rights and governmental responsibility to uphold the unity of the state. What constitutes a reasonable balance? Who decides? There are no firm answers. 

International law has long wrestled with this complexity. On the one side exists a strong affirmation of the right of self-determination that inheres in every ‘people’ and it set forth in Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. On the other side is the common understanding in international law, as confirmed by an influential 1970 UN resolution, as prohibiting claims of self-determination that seek to fragment or threaten the unity of existing sovereign states. The language of the preamble to the UN resolution is clear and uncontested: “…any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a State or country or at its political independence is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the [UN] Charter.[4] This conceptual confusion is accentuated to the extent that international law confers the right of self-determination on a ‘people’ while endowing ‘states’ with ‘sovereignty,’ which often encompasses more than one people. Governments are legally empowered to exercise virtually unrestricted authority within recognized territorial boundaries to curb movements that exhibit separatist tendencies. 

Yet when national policy is being challenged by ethno-political movements seeking greater degrees of cultural and political autonomy, including language rights and questions bearing on the freedom of religion, issues of human rights and sovereign authority are inevitably intertwined. In these contexts, independence demands, nationalist claims, and secessionism tendencies are often disguised beneath assertions of human rights grievances, partly to arouse a sympathetic international response. Not only is a careful balancing of facts, law, and rights called for, but account must be taken of how and why some human claims are ignored while others are strongly confirmed. International alignments often explain these glaring differences of response. The human rights wrongdoing of geopolitical adversaries is exaggerated, while comparable wrongs of friends are overlooked or handled discreetly. Perhaps, this unequal response is to some extent understandable given the way the world is politically organized, but when, as here, there is present a dangerous tendency to use human rights issues to stoke the fires of geopolitical contestation, caution and prudence are called for. We observe a toxic correlation of recommended toughness in relating to China in the context of trade and the South China Sea disputeswith inflammatory complaints about Chinese violations of human rights. Such behavior threatens confrontation, serious crises, even war, and so has very different implications than justifiable efforts to counteract abusive exercises of state power by the recent military takeover of the government in Myanmar. 

Some of China’s policies toward the Uyghurs seem to be clearly in violation of international human rights standards. Such behavior is unacceptable, but even here the facts are not as clear in its character as China’s most fervent critics contend. China has long adopted controversial measures to curb population growth and was widely criticized for its one-family policies, but also widely praised for avoiding demographic pressures that might have intensifies expansionist policies, causing conflict. 

There is doubt that China also exhibits intolerance toward political dissent and opposition politics that would be viewed in many national settings as violating civil and political rights. More than elsewhere, China has established intrusive surveillance mechanisms to monitor the behavior of its citizenry that encroach upon the privacy of its citizens. But China is hardly the only country in the world where this is occurring. In general, the drift throughout the world is toward authoritarianism with respect to state/society relations, and however regrettable, this trend often discloses the political will of the nation as expressed through periodic elections, and although noted with concern by Washington, is not allowed to influence U.S. foreign policy, especially if authoritarianism prevails in an ally or friendly country. As a result, this focus on China’s authoritarian policies and practices seems less concerned with the rights of the Chinese people and better understood as a means of ramping up geopolitical pressures. 

Again, police brutality in response to public demonstrations in Hong Kong seem unacceptable from the perspective of a truly free society; note, however, that the Chinese government response is far less harsh than the far bloodier Egyptian response to peaceful demonstrations in recent years, and yet no media or State Department scrutiny has been forthcoming in that case. In contrast, the Hong Kong confrontational demonstrations are given intensive, one-sided, and totally sympathetic media coverage. 

Fairly considered, the human rights picture in China looks quite different if economic and social rights are taken into account. China, perhaps more rapidly and impressively than any country throughout all of history, has overcome the extreme poverty of as many as 300 million of its citizens, providing for health, education, housing, food security, and infrastructure development in ways that many affluent countries of the West fail to do, despite centuries of effort. China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ the largest public works project ever undertaken – while controversial in some respects – has produced many beneficial outcomes in Asia and Africa that have enabled developing countries to better meet the needs of their peoples, and indirectly contribute to the realization of economic and social rights. 

China’s Human Rights Record and U.S. Foreign Policy

When attempting to devise an appropriate U.S. foreign policy response to China’s human rights record, there are several issues that need to be distinguished: 

·       What is the overall Chinese record on human rights if fairly appraised, given some uncertainties as to evidence and behavior reflective of cultural divergencies? 

·       Should U.S. foreign policy highlight Chinese violations of human rights? 

·       Would highlighting be effective in improving the protection of human rights in China? 

·       Would such highlighting increase the likelihood of heightened geopolitical tensions, reduced global cooperation, and greater conflict in the South China Seas?

Assessing the Record 

China’s record on human rights is definitely mixed. If judged by Western liberal standards it can be faulted for serious violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If appraised by non-Western and Global South standards, its achievements with respect to economic and social rights stand out, and compares favorably with many Western countries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains many provisions confirming economic and social rights, and is considered expressive of customary international law, despite being originally set forth as ‘declaratory’ and ‘non-binding.’ In the public discourse about China, even the most respected Western human rights NGOs accord China zero credit for this amazing record of poverty alleviation, and thus its overall reputation is denied a proper appraisal.  

The most serious internationally actionable allegations with respect to China involve the treatment of the Uyghur minority. As mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that allegations involving serious human rights violations by China in Xinjiang involving the Uyghurs seem based on extensive evidence. In the words of the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2020, China’s “‘Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Extremism’ has entailed mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and destruction of the region’s cultural and religious heritage.”[5] But whether pressure from outside China will help or hurt the Uyghurs is problematic. It should be kept in mind that many some of these charges against China are difficult to evaluate, and rest on rationalizations relied on by many governments under the heading of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism. As such, they are subject to controversy and much of the evidence relied upon is clouded by partisan political interpretations relating to legally ambiguous issues such as the discretion of the territorial sovereign with respect to the treatment of minority nationalities that exhibit violent separatist tendencies.[6]  

The most serious charges of ‘genocide’ seem certainly exaggerated and unfounded by reference to international standards, which impose exacting standard of intentionality.[7] In this instance, to allege genocide, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did on the basis of discredited assessments by Andrew Zenz, seems outrageous considering verified population increases among Uyghurs in recent years.[8] Such extreme charges are politically motivated, highly provocative, legally unsupportable, and hence, diplomatically irresponsible. 

Would Highlighting be Effective in Improving China’s Human Rights Record? 

Overall, when dealing with major countries, including the United States, improving compliance with human rights comes about as a result of developments from within territorial borders. Criticism from outside, even from the UN or other international institutions, tends to be ignored or discounted as hostile propaganda. Such a pattern not only reflects the statist nature of world order, but is also a reaction to the cynical use of human rights discourse to justify hostile attitudes toward foreign adversaries or geopolitical rivals. Such patterns of behavior were very characteristic of the selective emphasis on human rights throughout the Cold War: a country with a left or Marxist outlook was condemned for human rights violations while countries that were aligned with the West were not criticized, much less sanctioned, no matter how serious their violations of fundamental human rights. 

Against this background it would be a mistake for the U.S. Government to emphasize allegations of Chinese human rights violations when seeking to work out relations with China that accord with the national, regional, and global priorities that should serve as the foundation of American foreign policy, including cooperation on climate change and monetary stabilization. It would seem that mainstream human rights NGOs in the West should be sensitive to similar cross-cutting considerations bearing on current policy priorities in international relations, although to a lesser extent than the U.S. government, as their undertaking is to report on human rights as objectively, reliably, and persuasively as possible. At the same time, civil society actors should be cautious about accepting insufficiently evidenced allegations of human rights violations that seem to intrude upon China’s territorial sovereignty, especially given the inflammatory character of the present diplomatic setting in which those advocating an aggressive approach toward China seek to play the human rights card.  

The most effective way to engage China on human rights would be to rely on discreet methods of communication through private and peace-oriented channels that do not seek to exert public pressures and are diplomatically linked to an underlying commitment to encourage global cooperation with respect to shared issues such as climate change and conflict resolution. A genuine concern with human rights in China must acknowledge that any improvement in the situationdepends on internal Chinese developments that cannot be exploited to generate hostile propaganda and are not funded or encouraged by covert destabilizing operations. 

Foreign Policy Imperatives in the Present Era 

Unlike the Cold War in which the focus was placed on the containment of Soviet military expansion, especially in Europe, and on contesting the ideological embrace of Marxist ideas of political economy within the Global South, the challenges posed by the rise of China are entirely different, and call for different types of response. For one thing, China poses no threat to core U.S. security interests, especially in this post-Trump period when the United States seeks to revive a Eurocentric alliance in the course of reviving its global leadership role. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has largely pursued its geopolitical ambitions by non-military, economic means, except in maritime areas close to its shores and in border disputes with neighboring countries. This difference in geopolitical profile strengthens the incentives to avoid tensions that could lead to risky military confrontations in the South and East China Seas; from this perspectiveavoiding excessive criticism of China’s violations of human rights would seem helpful from a war prevention perspective. There is no reason to laud China’s domestic political environment, but high-profile complaints about Xinjiang and Hong Kong will be met with counter-allegations about American shortcomings with respect to human rights and would likely intensify the confrontational atmosphere. 

Also different is the nature of the global agenda. Although it would have been a welcome contribution to world peace if the United States and the Soviet Union had more vigorously cooperated to produce a monitored and comprehensivenuclear disarmament treaty, the need for cooperation in responding to climate change is unprecedented. If the dangers posed by global warming are not addressed cooperatively it will produce a worldwide disaster, and China – as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions – is an indispensable partner in managing a positive response.  

It is worth remembering that if overcoming the threats posed by Hitler’s Germany had not involved cooperation with the ideologically alien Soviet Union during World War II, which included suspension of most Western criticisms of the excesses of Stalinism, the outcome of war might not have resulted in victory for the Western democracies. The Soviet Union posed no economic threat to American global economic primacy. China does pose such a threat, and so could lead the United States to make irrational responses that would weaken the global role of the dollar as reserve currency and produce a downward spiral of trade and investment that would hurt all countries, and quite possibly inducing a new world depression of even greater gravity than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Here, as with climate change, the interests of the West favor a geopolitics of accommodation, compromise, and a search for win/win outcomes. In this regard, accentuating the human rights failures of China is imprudent, ineffective, and dangerous under present conditions. 

Copyright 2021 Richard Falk

ENDNOTES: 

1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/19/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-2021-virtual-munich-security-conference/

2. Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, Sept. 24, 20154, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/

3. See, for example, Austin Ramzy, “China’s Oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang, Explained,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/world/asia/china-genocide-uighurs-explained.html. 

4. Declaration of Principles concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, Commentary on Principle (e), UN General Assembly Res. 2625, Oct. 24, 1970, https://www.un.org/rule of law/files/3dda1f104.pdf

5. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Human Rights Watch World Report, 2020 (HRW, 2020), p. 1. 

6.. See, for example, James Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2014). 

7. On the high legal bar with respect to genocide, see: Judgment, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, ICJ Reports, 1996). 

8. On Pompeo’s claims, see Edward Wong and Chris Buckley, “U.S. Says China’s Repression of Uighurs Is ‘Genocide,’” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/19/us/politics/trump-china-xinjiang.html. For a well-reasoned and documented rebuttal of the data relied upon in making those allegations, see Gareth Porter and Michael Blumenthal, “U.S. State Department accusation of ‘genocide’ relied on data and baseless claims by far-right ideologues,” The Greyzone, Feb. 18, 2021, https://mronline.org/2021/03/01/u-s-state-department-accusation-of-china-genocide-relied-on-data-abuse-and-baseless-claims-by-far-right-ideologue/

World Order and Covid-19 Pandemic

19 Apr

[PREFATORY NOTE: THE POST BELOW IS A SLIGHTLY MODIFIED TEXT OF AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY DANIEL FALCONE, AND PUBLISHED ON APRIL. 17, 2020 IN COUTERPUNCH.]

World Order and the Sars-Co2-Virus

 Daniel Falcone: Carlos Delclós, a sociologist based in Barcelona has highlighted the need for bottom up responses for social solidarity in Spain when compared to the unity declarations put forth by the monarchy. Further, journalist Ben Ehrenreich cites that while there are severe problems with the government, remnants of a democratic spirit and mutual aid keep optimism and hope alive within their system of universalized healthcare. Can you comment on the greater European response to pandemic?

 

Richard Falk: I am aware of the greater strength and role of cooperative movements in European countries, a residue of the socialist movements of the prior century, that give rise to more spontaneous approaches on local levels to immediate threats to well-being, exhibiting both less trust and less dependence on governmental undertakings.

 

Furthermore, European health systems are more evolved, fewer people left out, and more sense of public responsibility, although some deficiencies also emerged. Italy and Spain lacked sufficient governmental capabilities to cope humanely with the challenge of a pandemic, although the epicenter was initially in Lombardy, the richest part of the country.

 

Given the urbanization and social complexity accompanying modernity, the need for intelligent, imaginative, and humane governance is a necessity in times of societal crisis, and its absence magnifies suffering.

 

Daniel Falcone: The World Bank is reporting that Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a drastic economic downturn and the first in more than a couple of decades. Can you explain the unfolding in this region, which is fairly under reported by western democracies?

 

Richard FalkSub-Saharan Africa is still heavily dependent on the exports of resources rather than on the provision of services and high-end manufacturing, and as a result is exceedingly vulnerable to changes in the adverse terms of trade that arise whenever “deglobalization” trends are present. It would seem that the rise of ultra-nationalism, as highlighted by “Trumpist” economic nationalism, have negative impacts on sub-Saharan African development prospects.

 

 

Daniel Falcone: Recently, I spoke with John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus and he explained how the pandemic has impacted globalization in regards to a “slowbalization.” He has commented on additional dimensions of this elsewhere. Could you elaborate on the anti-globalization and ultra-nationalist worldview wave that autocrats around the world are riding currently? This looks as dangerous as the pandemic.

 

Richard Falk: There is no little doubt a rise of autocrats, elected and non-elected, in what seemed entrenched democracies (U.S., UK, India, Brazil), in faux democracies (Russia, Hungary, Egypt), and monarchies (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco). This authoritarian surge, which came initially as a surprise to most of us, superseded expectations associated with the end of the Cold War that were triumphantly interpreted as an ideological victory for the West and its values, and especially for the American political economy.

George H.W. Bush, president at the time of the Soviet collapse, proclaimed ‘a new world order’ in which the geopolitical hegemony of the U.S. now was unopposed, and would no longer be challenged in global arenas. This meant that the UN could function as intended on the basis of consensus in a world without ideological rivalry, which allowed the UN to sponsor the Iraq War of 1992 designed to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty by compelling Iraq to abandon conquest and annexation.

 

Then Bill Clinton came along promoting a foreign policy based on a doctrine of ‘enlargement,’ shorthand for predicting and promoting the spread of democracies. It was accompanied by the optimistic belief that an era of peace and prosperity would follow the further spread of democratically governed states. It was widely believed that democracies do not go to war against one another and capitalism is the best engine of growth the world has ever known. From such perspectives the post-Cold War world was envisioned as becoming increasingly both peaceful and prosperous.

Such a worldview was supportive of regime-changing interventions, especially in the Middle East, to get rid of the more strategically troublesome remnants of autocratic regimes and reflected the prevailing enthusiasm about the growth potential of neoliberal globalization, an approach long championed by the neoconservative movement.

 

To become operational such a policy outlook needed both the 9/11 attacks to re-securitize American foreign policy and the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush. The decisive test of this proactive outlook occurred in the Iraq War of 2003. Expressing this jubilant mood, Bush II introduced a government report on national security in 2002 with an assertion of faith in the singularity and superiority of the American form of governance that went largely unchallenged at the time. He contended that market-oriented constitutionalism (as exemplified by the USA) had demonstrated to the world that its form of democracy (elections plus capitalism) was the only legitimate way to organize the political life of a sovereign state in the new century.

 

So, the haunting question remains, ‘what went wrong’? The most obvious explanation rests on the alienating impacts of neoliberal globalization that seemed to heap its rewards on the very, very rich while leading to stagnation or worse for the multitudes.

 

This structural explanation of the rise of autocracy is certainly a large part of the story as predatory capitalism in this period gave rise to gross inequality on all levels of social order, symbolized by the 26 richest individuals controlling more than half of the world’s wealth. Another part of this story, less frequently acknowledged, is that the socialist alternative to capitalism was successfully discredited by falsely representing the Soviet political and economic failure as a decisive and sufficient test case of the viability of a socialist alternative.

 

This ideological supremacy of neoliberal capitalism facilitated two regressive developments: first, leading neoliberal globalization to privilege capital over people, or put differently, to choose economic efficiency over human well-being. Secondly, creating a political consciousness that fed the illusion that there were no tenable alternatives to the existing mode of political economy, completely ignoring the kind of autocratic state capitalism that flourished so remarkably in China in an ideological atmosphere that presented itself as fulfilling the hopes and dreams of socialism, experiencing a remarkable modernizing facelift under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping that had did not rest its claims on the virtues of democracy.

 

For most of the world, the Chinese phenomenon, while mesmerizing, was seen as not generalizable beyond China, or at least not beyond Asia. In such a setting there was a very unhealthy political situation—the dominant practices and policies of neoliberal globalization were not delivering material benefits to most people living in democratic societies, and the excesses of this stage of capitalism were left unchallenged, and hence unmitigated, by socialist challenges that had since Marx led the most adept masters of capital to seek accommodation with the laboring classes and create an image of an ethical capitalism that was inclusive of the great majority of people in their respective national societies.

 

With that humanistic imperative of ideological rivalry pushed aside, the path was cleared for the emergence of demagogues, and those who found scapegoats to blame for the widespread distress among the public, especially foreigners. This new kind of political appeal produces a blind kind of trust in the leader, however misleading the diagnosis, and feeds a nationalist frenzy at the very time that the world needs recognition of a cooperative global order to address such challenges as climate change. It is not without irony, that the U.S., which had long lectured the world on the many virtues of democracy, should voluntarily succumb to the autocratic ‘charms’ of Donald Trump.

 

It is notable to take account of the existence of some dissenters from ‘slowbalization,’ the most prominent is Richard Haass, former government official and currently President of the Council of Foreign Relations. He anticipates a recovery process that involves an ‘acceleration’ of pre-pandemic trends, including a concerted effort to restore the neoliberal world order with especial emphasis on its orientation toward limitless growth based on technological innovation and capital efficiency, but revamped in the precarious context of continuing American decline, which includes an absence of the kind leadership required to address global problems through multilateralism.

 

In the background of the Haass view of the post-pandemic world is an intensifying geopolitical rivalry producing conflict and increasing dangers of strategic warfare, presumably featuring a standoff between the U.S. and China.

Henry Kissinger, a stalwart of the triumphalist outlook that followed the Soviet collapse, is more hopeful than Haass, projecting the period after the pandemic subsides as a call for the reassertion of robust American leadership on the global policy stage. He believes that the openness of trade and the transnational mobility of people depend on the renewal of confidence in the neoliberal world order that proved so successful after World War II, and was constructed on the basis of Enlightenment values emphasizing the fusion of political stability, confidence in science and technology, and market-driven economic growth

 

In the background of the restoration of the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ is the ecological illiteracy of supposing that maximizing economic growth via globalization, or otherwise, can proceed without respect for the limits on carrying capacity of the earth. Frank Snowden, the widely respected expert on epidemiology in an illuminating interview (Il Manifesto, Global Edition, April 11, 2020) suggesting that COVID-19 virus and earlier flu epidemics (SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu) can all be traced to zoonotic transfers of the virus from animals to humans, expressing spillovers that he argues are bound to occur when animal habitats are encroached upon by spreading urbanization and industrialization.

 

A more reconstructive post-pandemic approach would strive for ‘a new normal,’ which combined the health imperative of sensible preparedness and universal coverage with an ecological sophistication that sought to mitigate inequalities among peoples and societies by addressing poverty as a health issue, including the recognition that diseases are more lethal in relation to vulnerable peoples, who suffer as victims and victimize others by becoming agents of contagion.

Daniel Falcone: After the dust settles from the pandemic, if it does, can you attempt a forecast of how global powers will align or realign?

Dealignment’ is more likely than ‘realignment.’ I am assuming here that either that the nationalist retreat from neoliberal globalization will continue or there will be strong moves, hard to forecast, in the direction of regional and global cooperation in key sectors of policy, with international institutions given important coordinating roles. In either alternative alliance, diplomacy seems not likely to reemerge in any manner comparable to what it was in the prior century. Trump has already significantly weakened the Western alliance structure, and except for the forays of “coercive diplomacy” contra Iran (in concert with Saudi Arabia, Israel), seems to have adopted a unilateralist foreign policy course supplemented by transactional bilateralism in which the interaction seeks win/lose outcomes based on hard power disparities.

 

Reverting to Haass and Kisssinger, it is worth noting that the pessimistic assessments of Haass are explicitly linked to his anticipation of the post-pandemic world order as resembling what happened in the decades after World War I, that is, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and a second world war. Kissinger, although habitually associated with a fatalistic view of the international scene, somehow strikes more hopeful notes by advocating and somewhat anticipating a post-pandemic recovery that resembles the dynamics of world order following World War II with the U.S. playing its former leadership role by recognizing the opportunities and needs for a more cooperative approach to global problems.

 

Daniel Falcone: Are there any chances for United States reform at a local or even an institutional level that can offset the political capital maintained by autocrats both here and around the world? Are we in fact, a “failed state?”

You raise an interesting question. A response must start with the disappointing observation that the 2020 election is between Trump and Biden, a familiar political figure who shaped his career around the bipartisan Cold War consensus of militarism, neoliberalism, and pro-Israeli absolutism. This orientation is what I have called elsewhere ‘the three pillars of American foreign policy’ that only Sanders dared challenge (and paid the price) as one sees what was done to his frontrunner status by the guardians of the established order. Sanders’ response that he lost the primary campaign, but his movement will go on fighting, is suggestive of the gap between the establishment world of political parties and his movement consisting of various societal domains of people that seems openly hostile to the bipartisan consensus, the deep state, and the special interest lobbies that continue to dominate not only the governing process, but also the electoral process

What is worth noticing is that even Trump despite his bombastic claims during the 2016 presidential campaign has as president paid his dues to the bipartisanship in foreign policy with his enlarged military budget, tax cuts for the richest and rollback of regulatory interferences with predatory capitalism, and the greenest light ever given to Israeli expansionism and one-statism. His only halfhearted departure from bipartisanship has been the downplaying of Euro-American alliance geopolitics.

Possibly, the autocratic edge of American politics would be dulled by a Biden presidency by more moderate judicial appointments and some effort to address gross inequalities, student debt, infrastructure, and an improved health system that encompasses the whole society. Yet, it would seem absurd to expect more from Biden, given that his principal message is ideational, a promise to restore national unity by reaching out so far as to include so-called ‘moderate’ Romney Republicans, who have never struck me as moderate except in comparison to their alt-right Republican leadership of the Trump era.

Biden’s unity message is also code language for restoring the bipartisan consensus in an overt form that would counter some of the ultra-nationalist retreat from globalization. In foreign policy we could expect a shift in tone from ‘America First’ to ‘NATO First’ as a way of differentiating his approach from that of Trump and of reaffirming faith in the Western alliance as once again the centerpiece of American foreign policy. It would be foolhardy to expect Biden after a centrist lifetime political career to pursue a progressive social and ecological agenda, yet without such an agenda we can be thankful to Biden for ending the reign of Trump while renewing our severe worries about the social and ecological shortcomings of the American governance experience given 21st century urgencies.