US-China and the mutable matrix of authoritarianism and tyranny

Thursday, 29 October 2020 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

– Jesus Christ (Luke 12: 56) 

I watched the second and final Trump-Biden debate on CNN after I had spent the two previous days watching the 20th Amendment debate on the Sri Lankan Parliament channel. 

The rules of the US Presidential debate were drawn up by the independent Debate Commission and included a ‘mute button’ in case either or both candidates kept interrupting. If it were Sri Lanka today (after 20A), the Debate Commission would be picked by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, or to put it differently and implausibly, if the USA had Sri Lanka’s 20th Amendment, the Debate Commission would have been picked by President Trump. Sri Lankan society is divisible into those who would think that would be a good thing, and those (like me) who wouldn’t. 

With the passage of the 20th Amendment on 22 October, the regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the battle of narratives even though it began to lose the legitimacy war. 

Legal, not legitimate

I have no doubt that if an opinion poll had been taken on the night of 22 October or a referendum held the morning after, the Government would have won fairly convincingly because its narrative, its story, was credible, persuasive and for the most part, true. 

That story was a modern Jataka Tale with two main motifs: First, the semi-anarchic depletion and devouring of the (Sinhala) kingdom by the five-headed creature that was created by the 19th Amendment, namely the residual Presidency, the empowered PM, the Speaker on speed, the Commissions freighted with unaccountable NGOs, and the fake (TNA) Opposition. Second, political punishment as moral denouement: the exiling of the UNP and its leader-for-life Ranil Wickremesinghe from Parliament, the near-death of the SLFP and the miniaturisation of the JVP.

However, the Government made a strategic mistake of losing much of the moral high-ground by going to the opposite extreme, displaying greed for as much power as the President could monopolise as speedily as possible. The case the Government convincingly proved was against the dysfunctional 19th Amendment—a case for the drastic rectification of 19A; not for a death sentence. The Government could not similarly make the case in favour of the unipolar, hyper-centralist 20th Amendment, and was exposed as reliant on unseemly defections (including the guy, who as Governor of the Eastern Province, yelled at and tried to humiliate the Navy). 

Two names kept coming up (differently) in the debate: J.R. Jayewardene and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The repeated references to President Jayewardene reminded me of the on-the-record conversation (published in the Lanka Guardian magazine and the Island’s Kautilya column) between him and columnist Mervyn de Silva on JR’s controversial decision to hold a referendum instead of the scheduled Parliamentary Election which his party would indubitably have won.

President Jayewardene convincingly explained that the decision to hold a referendum was in full conformity with the law and the Constitution. My father’s instant comeback, which formed the caption of the story, was, “It is legal, but is it legitimate?” There was no answer forthcoming, except by History—but that was resounding. President JR got the distinction of course, though it’s doubtful that President GR will. 

We know from Prof. Joe Nye that stories lie at the heart of soft power, that the story that has the most universal appeal and currency wins, and that soft power is as important as hard power for a state. On the first anniversary of his presidency next month, a well-wisher should gift President Rajapaksa, historian Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The March of Folly,’ a legendary study of error and excess in decision-making from the Trojan War to Vietnam. 


The panda in the room

The President fails to understand that he is functioning in an exceptional, even anomalous external environment which may change soon. That mutable context is the rise and expansion of China, the triumph of Trump and the crisis of the West. The phenomenon of autocratic ultranationalism has flourished like ideological COVID-19 clusters in this context. 

In relative terms China has risen and expanded, and the West has fallen behind. But China has sadly made mistakes of the sort it made earlier in our lifetime. It has transitioned from the lauded vanguard together with but ahead of India, of the rise of Asia, to a polarising factor, failing to ‘correctly handle contradictions’ within Asia itself. 

By violating Mao’s injunction against confusing friends and enemies and using on friends and/or fence-sitters (however vacillatory) methods which must be reserved for enemies (a mistake Mao himself infrequently lapsed into when in power), it has disintegrated the Asian united front it could have led, and the Eurasian bloc it could have jointly led with Russia and India. 

China has made no greater errors in recent times than failing (once again, as in the post-Mao/post-Zhou period) to nurture a fraternal relationship with Vietnam “as close as lips and teeth”, and gravely mismanaging its relationship with India, a pivotal power and decisive ‘swing state’ in the global arena. The Sino-Indian clash has also crippled Russia’s R-I-C (Russia-India-China) countervailing model, a valuable legacy of iconic Foreign Minister and PM, Academician Evgeni Primakov (who extracted its seed from Lenin’s last article). 

China is in danger of losing the vital “intermediate zone”—including Europe—which Mao had taught the Communist Party to pay careful attention to. 

The relative decline of the West is largely self-inflicted and therefore rectifiable and reversible. Two equally erroneous policies damaged the West. The first was neoliberal globalisation (Hillary Clinton was its poster-person) which caused a haemorrhage of jobs and devastated Western societies, especially their industrial areas. That gave China economic advantages it otherwise may not have, over the West. 

This cosmopolitan neoliberal-globalist paradigm caused its equal and opposite reaction of ultranationalist unilateralism and neo-isolationism (Brexit as the first alarm signal and then, much more virulently, Trump). The US retrenchment from a global institutional system it had pretty much built, created the vacuum that presented China opportunities to expand unimpeded.

It is these successive erroneous, extreme policy paradigms that caused a systemic crisis of response in the West to the COVID-19 pandemic, thus providing China with a third opportunity of outpacing its Western competition.

With the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the signing of the fourth ‘foundational’ military cooperation agreement between the USA and India, this time on ‘geospatial’ cooperation, a reinforced quasi-alliance and more robust pushback against China is on the cards. In the Indo-Pacific theatre, the Trump administration is finishing strong. 

However, as long as President Trump is in the White House, the pushback will be one-dimensional and end in stalemate: a Mexican stand-off in Asia. Under Trump, soft power is running unprecedentedly low for a reason applicable also to the Gotabaya administration: what stems from and stimulates his radical rightwing domestic base is precisely what erodes his image and diminishes his administration’s and his country’s soft power in the world. 

US or China?

The US election is ticking-down to High Noon with Joe Biden playing the Gary Cooper role. If as seems probable, Biden-Harris win, the changes will be multidimensional and far-reaching. The romance of the American story, the world’s love affair with the US, the last blaze of which was the Obama presidency, will be renewed. The domestic ethos and external image of the US will be back in realignment. COVID-19 will be fought and pushed back countrywide as Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York did. 

The Cuomo approach of transparency, incessant dialogue and Hemingwayesque ‘grace under pressure’, if combined with that of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, is far more universally acceptable and replicable than the Wuhan model of fighting COVID-19, which of course worked impressively for China, enabling it to catapult way ahead of the West in terms of economic recovery. 

While the Pompeo-Esper visit to India marked an Asian game-changer and shifted the needle in the Indo-Pacific, a Democrat-driven renaissance of American Romanticism fused with Realism will restore and thicken alliances, and a new global architecture will rise. 

Negotiation will be the first option in the approach to China and Russia. The US will revive multilateralism, and return to everything from the Paris Climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal (especially if the Democrats clinch the Senate) to normalisation with Cuba and the UN Human Rights Council. It will be a far more layered challenge to China than anything it has faced from Trump, perhaps motivating Beijing to return to its approach before his abrasive unilateralism tempted it into adventurism.  

The ‘Trumpian moment’ in history that produced and permitted the so-called ‘Trumps of the Tropics’ such as Brazil’s Bolosonaro –and, it must be said, the successful ‘GR project’—may soon be over. Even before November 3rd, the first signs have already appeared in Latin America with the defeat of the military-backed authoritarian Right at the recent presidential election in Bolivia with 55% percent won by the ‘pink Left’ candidate of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) who is the former finance minister of ousted President Evo Morales.

In India, US Secretary of State Pompeo made a powerful pitch for “freedom” and “democracy” vs the” “expansionism” of” “authoritarianism” and “tyranny”. The comprehensive strategic partnership of the two greatest democracies, the USA and India, will certainly help move the dial in favour of democracy in the Indo-Pacific and the world. However, in the battle of ideas between the West and China, the former is currently at a disadvantage not because China has the better idea, but has a model which can show widespread material prosperity and efficiency, while the West has neither a successful model nor a unified idea, because of the reinforcing failures of twin polarising paradigms: Trumpian neonationalism and its causative precursor, neoliberal globalisation. 

The China model is good for China, and what is good for China’s internal stability and progress is good for Asia and the world as a balancing factor, but is not necessarily good outside of China. If exported or (as in Sri Lanka’s case) imported as political influence, i.e., as a political and governance model, it can be quite negative, even dangerous. 

Russia’s Eurasian hybrid of non-liberal democracy—democracy plus ‘vertical power’—is works well for the world’s largest country, as do Vietnam’s and Cuba’s political systems for those societies. They are important exceptions. 

More generally, the Western democratic model is far better, especially in its progressive/social democratic variant, for much of the world including Asia, because it is more universalist than the Chinese model—and even in its worst avatar (e.g. Trump), is correctable in the short-term because it is democratic and more open than its systemic rival. 

New global consciousness

Today the Biden-Harris campaign has new ideas reinforcing the best of the old ideals, which can rearm the West with a new ethos, enabling it to go on a far more complex counter-offensive global manoeuvre than the Trump administration can. A Biden-Harris administration will also be a constitutive component of a historically unprecedented progressive convergence of perspectives. If elected, Biden will be only the second Catholic President the USA has had. Joe Biden, Pope Francis and UNS-G Antonio Guterres all belong to the ‘progressive Catholic’ (‘Catholic social doctrine’) paradigm. Kamala Harris is a progressive Baptist Christian. Such a conjuncture can create a new Zeitgeist.

Pope Francis recently issued his third encyclical entitled ‘Fratelli tutti’ which means “All brothers and sisters”. Its release in the run-up to the US election is surely mere coincidence. As EJ Dionne points out, its 43,000-word text has over 100 references to ‘politics’, ‘the political’ and ‘politicians’. Chapter 5 is entitled “For a Better Politics”. Running through the encyclical is a trenchant critique of two evils: on the one hand, neoliberal globalisation, and on the other, nationalism-racism-xenophobia. The Papal encyclical carves out a paradigmatic third space. 

Interestingly, this corresponds to the platform and discourse of Biden-Harris and their policy thinkers, calling for a reformed globalisation and a world order in keeping with the ideals of the currently ongoing grassroots democratic movement in the USA—which President Obama identified in his recent address while joining the Biden campaign in Philadelphia, as “justice, equality and progress”. In macroeconomics, there will be a shift to centrism both within the USA and in the international system, eschewing the extremes of rampant neoliberalism and neonationalism/neoconservatism. (President Macron has already reactivated France’s postwar Economic Planning mechanism, which is kryptonite to neoliberalism.)

An overlap of these trends may crystallise into a new global centre, just as the creation of the UN system after WW II arose at the ideological interface of the victorious anti-Fascist allied powers. Russia and China are smart enough to be part of it and shape it, punching their considerable weight, singly and together. If not, there will be a new round of ‘containment’ in which the West will once again have the advantage of its ideals being the more universalistic and appealing, except in certain pockets—of which Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa Raj would be one, unsustainably, for a brief interregnum. 

Justice Minister Ali Sabry explicitly mentioned Cambodia in his parliamentary speech at the second reading of the 20th Amendment, dismissively questioning Western intellectual inspiration and mandatorily misrepresenting the Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir success stories. The significance of naming Cambodia will not be lost on any ASEAN diplomat or any diplomat at all. 

The Indo-US Joint Statement released at the end of the Pompeo visit described their Indo-Pacific concept not only as “free, open and rules based” –old language—but also as based on “ASEAN-centricity”, a modification which is a victory for the line of ASEAN, strongly supported by India (with a gentle nod from Russia). All ASEAN states welcome the USA to balance China, and vice versa—all except Cambodia and Myanmar, that is.

The strategic reformat in the Indian Ocean region and Asia has just begun to crystallise with the Pompeo-Esper visit to Delhi, but the all-important re-set of ideas, which brings American democracy completely in alignment with America’s global offensive for democracy, awaits. 

The political cosmos that the GR regime is confident it has created with the 20th Amendment and is completing with the new Constitution (including unilateral semi-deletion of the 13th Amendment), must sustain itself on the doorstep of the strongest strategic partnership (India plus USA) that Asia has seen. It is a counter-China axis, core of the Quad committed to democracy against the expansion/influence of the Chinese political model. 

The Lankan regime is building its authoritarian model within the evolving Indo-Pacific balance of forces (‘Quad Plus’) aimed at deterring/containing its patron China. Can the GR model with its profile, ethos and ontology, survive a great wave of liberal-democratic internationalism and re-set of the global political cosmos? A Democratic White House and Democrat-controlled US Senate would be considerably beneficial for Cuba. But for (Gotabayan) Sri Lanka?

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