Diffusion Of Power In A Multipolar World – OpEd


The sage who had said that the East and the West shall never meet has been proved to be wrong as the 21st century is thought to belong to Asia with China becoming the largest economy in the world and India closely following behind.

The US will of course remain the strongest and one of the wealthiest powers on the international scene.But European Union and Russia will be relegated to the second rung of the ladder in terms of their contribution to the global GDP. Brazil has already outranked the UK as the fifth largest global economy reflecting the increased importance of BRIC countries in the management of the politico-economic affairs of the world.

The retention of the post of IMF Managing Director by Europe ( with the World Bank safely in the hands of the US) does not necessarily indicate the inevitable continuation of the situation when the victors of the Second World War had distributed among themselves the spoils of war in the post-War period including the permanent seats of the UNSC.

The situation that evolved after the Second World War produced the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union along with their allies suddenly came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet empire and thereby more or less ending the great debate of the 20th century about the suitability of free market system or Marxism as the ideology to be followed by the international community.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall many decolonized countries joined to the socialist camp as their destination perhaps because their erstwhile masters belonged to the capitalist camp. During the Cold War era Pandit Nehru of India along with Egyptian President Nasser and Indonesian. President Sukarno created a group called the Non-aligned Movement(NAM) that sought an equidistant position between the US and the USSR. While the Soviets were tolerant the Americans were not as US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles abhorred neutrality in international politics. But NAM caught the imagination of great number of newly freed nations till its necessity ceased to exist with the withering of the Soviet camp and now it exists as a moral force.

The dissolution of the Soviet empire and more accurately the end of the Cold War , according to Robert Kagan, resulted for Europe the loss of its centrality in the conflict ridden world and the attention of the US though NATO continued to exist with a new mission, most recently demonstrated in the Libyan crisis. Whether this is another interpretation of the Doctrine of Preemption, regime change or the action expected of the responsibility to protect expected of the international community is open to interpretation.

At this stage one may recall the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty(2001) that provides that states’ sovereignty is not only a right but also a responsibility to look after and protect its own citizens, and if it fails or the state is unwilling to perform its duties then the principle of non-intervention gives way to the international responsibility to protect.

While this debate can go on the Arab Spring has contested the condescending belief of intellectuals like Bernard Lewis and some others that practice of democracy is purely a Western way of dealing public affairs that may or may not be suitable for others. From Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain and currently in Syria the people are demonstrating for a change from authoritarian to democratic system. In the process the victory of Muslim Brotherhood in freely held elections may not suit the West who had propped up tin soldiers along with their coercive instruments to stifle the free expression of the people for decades for the selfish Western end for oil and military bases in these countries. Now that the bases have become less important as the perceived threat from the erstwhile Soviet Union has disappeared the Western media happily telecasts the well deserved trial of Hosni Mubarak lying on a stretcher, the death of Mummer Gaddafi and the discomfort of the Arab dictators. Meanwhile the recession of 2008 that struck the Western economies, has bankrupted several nations, has put a question mark on the continuity of Euro zone in its present form , produced unemployment at record figure, and raised the possibility of double dip recession looming on the horizon.

While the effects of this recession are being felt in the developing countries as well because of reduced consumption in the West, China, India and many developing countries have continued to soar resuming once again the dormant debate of the applicability of the Western or the Chinese model as panacea to bring economies to even keel. In the ultimate analysis the adoption of substantive democracy(economic redistribution) as opposed to procedural democracy (multi party elections) that, according to Francis Fukuyama( The Future of History-Foreign Affairs-Jan/Feb 2012) generated century long competition for leadership between Marxism and liberal democracy, and was thought to have disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Empire, has come to fore. Such a choice cannot be stark or unambiguous as varying degrees of authoritarianism is lurking behind to mislead the people by promising to deliver economic goods (more urgently needed) with a veiled promise to hold elections at a later date ( such elections being of abstract value to the hungry and destitute).

Primarily the US fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the badlands of Pakistan has produced historian Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch” along with the end of unipolar moment for the US. While it is too early to write the epitaph on the unassailable American power Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson cites Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico’s description of all civilizations passing through three phases: the divine, the heroic, and the human finally dissolving into what Vico called “the barbarism of reflection”. Anthropologist Jared Diamond explained the extinction of Mayan civilization by the application of Malthusian theory of overpopulation unable to sustain a growing demand for food that resulted in deforestation, erosion, drought and finally into civil war for scant resources leading to extinction.

Many historians believe in the cycle of rise and fall of civilizations. But Ferguson asks “what if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic­at times almost stationary but also capable of accelerating like sports car? What if the collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries, but comes suddenly like a thief in the night”( Foreign Affairs-March/April 2010)? Like the Greek, Roman, Ottoman and other great civilizations the Western civilization one day will no, longer be there. But while there can be no end of such conjectures except the inevitability of climate change a multipolar world has come to stay, a desire long held by the French but frustrated when George W Bush decided to go it alone to invade Iraq on assumptions now proved wrong i.e. Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties with the Taliban and his alleged possession of WMD ready to fire on the West.

The invasion of Iraq, according to Dr. Hans Koechler, brought about two interesting phenomenon. The first was the inability of the global hegemon to persuade the UNSC to agree to the invasion while the other was that the US felt emboldened enough to go it alone in violation of the UN Charter and without the apparent fear of repercussion.

As the global power structure evolves so will the distribution of management of global affairs, if for no other reason but that India and China, apart from their increased economic and military strength, will account for a sizeable portion of the world’s population. Many among the multitude will remain poor and restive posing internal threat and potential threat to the international community. Can the rich and the powerful remain undeterred and unmindful to the asymmetry in the distribution of wealth and consequent advantages that accrue to the wealthy in the form of higher standard of living through better education, health care, income and
leisure while the great majority of the underprivileged continue to remain on the other side of the divide?

The Great Divide in the Global Village, wrote Harvard Professor Bruce Scott, did not produce the desired results for the poor countries through globalization that effectively integrated the international markets into one thus fading away national boundaries into a global village due to barriers in immigration and unhindered import of poor countries’ products (Foreign Affairs-Jan/Feb 2001). Neo-classical economists’ prediction of greater flow of capital from rich countries to the poorer ones due to cheap labor did not materialize as rich countries continued to trade among themselves and the meager trade with the poorer countries whose main exports consist of primary products continued to have adverse terms of trade as the main importers –US, Europe and Japan have high trade barriers– and hence less income. Additionally FDI from rich countries went overwhelmingly to other rich countries on the arguments that the developing nations lacked adequate safety for the FDI and investors.

Few Asian countries that posted strong growth like Singapore and now China did it not because of FDI from rich countries( though it was a factor) but because of high domestic rate of saving which in the case of China is 40%. Bruce Scott points out that the Western supremacy was not due to their adherence to Washington Consensus but to the emergence of strong nation state following the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and subsequent colonization leading to the transference of goods from the periphery to the metropolis.

In addition to colonialism an African-American Professor Eric Williams in his book Capitalism and Slavery (1944) posited that British industrial revolution owed its origins fundamentally from the surplus capital generated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and supply of slave labor to American agricultural market( Professor Sirajul Islam-Asiatic Society of Bangladesh who posited that American industrialization got impetus from India trade like the slave trade did in generating huge surplus capital).

Since the days of gaining surplus capital through colonialism or slave trade are over the developing countries in particular have to generate capital through savings and attracting FDI. Export led growth is another option as China has demonstrated in recent past. But persistent trade imbalance can be an irritant for the importing country leading her to put up tariff and non-tariff barriers forcing domestic consumers to purchase commodities produced domestically than the imported cheap ones. In the past infant industry protection policy was followed by some counties of East Asia and Latin America with success. But in today’s globalized world such protection can breed inefficiency and retaliation by countries disadvantaged by protection and can invite reciprocal tariff measures against country putting up protection measures. But then some degree of protection are followed by almost all countries.

For example, free flow of labor, both skilled and unskilled, face various barriers in the form of language, culture or religion. Though not officially admitted the campaign against Islam in the West of Islam’s perceived intolerance of other religions have virtually constricted the immigration of Muslims to the West and has forced Muslim Diaspora in those countries to negotiate a perilous existence in the midst of veiled animosity faced from the society in general.

The social discrimination inevitably leads to economic deprivation furthered by recession in developed economies where immigrants are thought to have stolen the jobs of the citizens. This irrational prejudice becomes acute when directed towards third generation immigrants who have never visited the land of their forefathers and consider their country of birth as their own but are forced out of the core of the society where important decisions are taken. But then discriminations are made not only relating to the immigrants but on caste, creed and religious grounds more widely practiced in developing than in developed world. Professor Timothy Besley( of London School of Economics) states “One of the central challenges in developing states is getting the government to direct public resources toward public goods rather than towards special interests­in the form of corruption, white elephants, or narrowly targeted transfer for the benefit of the elites…If governments build tax and legal systems and direct public spending toward the needs of their populations, then they will be able to foster growth and human and social development” ( Foreign Affairs-Jan/Feb 2012).

China is a shining example of transformation into a development state funneling significant resources into public goods such as education and infrastructure and in the process, estimates World Bank, 600 million fewer Chinese live in chronic poverty today than in 1980.Chinese model, however, is vulnerable as more and more people are likely to demand greater say in the affairs of governance as middle class would grow with growing prosperity.

In the ultimate analysis democracy with all its perfections remains the best form of government that humankind have known since the advent of history. It should be the endeavor of all sides of the divides to lower the height of the wall so that gated communities of prosperity do not have to be built to save the residents of those communities from the contagion of poverty and destitution of the rest of the world.

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.

Ambassador Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Secretary and ambassador of Bangladesh

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