Conundrum Of Global Power Construct


Despite China’s repeated assurances that it does not have any hegemonic ambitions, most recently demonstrated during Hu Jin Tao’s State Visit to Obama’s Washington as opposed to low key visit hosted by George W Bush, there is a persistent refrain in the world political arena that reconfiguration of global political structure with Chinese preponderance as a given factor may not be as peaceful as the last century’s Cold War standoff between the two super powers.

New York Times (NYT) columnist Thomas Friedman in one of his columns (Dec 14, 2010) apprehended that when Britain went into decline as the global stabilizing power the US was ready to pick up the role. But now if America now goes weak and cannot project power as it has in the past, the future generation will not grow up in a different America but in a different world. As an example, Friedman cites Chinese refusal to give permission to Liu Xiaobo to receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize and his empty chair at the Oslo ceremony reflected global expectation that China would attain maturity to play the role of a responsible member of the international community.

Western fear is further strengthened by increased Chinese interests in Africa, Latin America, CIS countries, Near east and South East Asia as some of the counties of these regions were persuaded to boycott the Nobel prize giving ceremony in support of Chinese angst. But then one can argue that Western fundamentalists used to global obedience to Western dictates are reluctant to recognize the shifting global balance of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific and of the failure displayed by Western profligacy innate in Western capitalism, and in a way to refuse to see the decline of Western civilization that led John Foster Dulles and Lester Pearson, among others, to create NATO to protect Western values­both religious and secular­from the onslaught of Eastern civilizations devoid of the values stemming from the European renaissance. One should, therefore, not be surprised at the tenacity the western neo-cons liking of hard power the use of which by definition rocks the foundation of global peace and security.

One is perplexed like George Packer( The New Yorker­27-03-09- Interesting Times) that former members of The New American Century who squeezed Bill Clinton to sign the Iraq Liberation Act and then unsuccessfully appealed to him to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq finally realized their dream as functionaries of Bush administration launched The Foreign Policy Initiative. Surprisingly this group is in favor of international engagement, human rights, strong alliances, against isolation and retreat. The soft landing of this ideological grouplet had been without thunder but unmistakably, wrote George Packer, had the mission “to beat the new Democratic Administration for its craven appeasement of evil”.

It would be perilous to forget Robert Kagan’s words that “the real division of labor consisted of the US making the dinner and Europeans doing the dishes”. His scathing remarks about Europe’s contraction of influence and power after decolonization and the end of Cold War when Europe lost its centrality in global politics (Power and Weakness) and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s disparaging observations on Europe’s contribution during the NATO intervention regarding Kosovo was not well received by the Europeans.

Robert Kagan, Billy Kristol and others would have liked the “unipolar” moment to continue that they feel is threatened by the “explosive forces of ambitious nationalism” of Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India and Iran. But President Barak Obama’s pledge to revert American policy towards multilateralism and consultation with allies and opening up with former and potential adversaries ( e.g .Iran and China ) contest Kagan’s (The Return of History) thesis that a new conflict has emerged between Western liberalism and eastern autocracy championed by Russia and China.

In effect the US muscularity by the Bush administration particularly in the US defiance of the UNSC in launching the invasion of Iraq had disquieting effect throughout the world, particularly among the Islamic nations. The so-called war on terror came to be transformed as war against Islam. Forgotten was the basic premise that war could be fought either in self-defense or if sanctioned by the UN. Bush administration’s indifference towards the rest of the world was encapsulated by Francis Fukuyama in the words that the Americans “tend not to see any source of democratic legitimacy higher than nation-state”.

The neo-cons were strengthened by the intellectual muscle of the “new sovereigntists” who fully endorsed Bush administration’s rejection of comprehensive test ban treaty, Rome Treaty on International Criminal Court, refusal by then administration to submit Kyoto Protocol on climate change for Senate ratification, and most importantly considered international law as too amorphous to justify US consent, found international law as intrusive into US domestic law and as a challenge to the US constitution.

Joshua Marshall remarked that rarely in the US history had such a cohesive and distinct group managed to exert so decisive an influence on such an issue as the invasion of Iraq as the neo-cons did during the Bush administration. Bush doctrine of preemption is not strikingly new. What was found abhorrent globally was the sense of exclusion felt by the allies, replacement of internationalism by unilateralism, ridiculing trusted allies as “old Europe” and their preference to subordinate military muscularism to international law as reflective of weakness stemming from the post-second world war massive contraction of power of erstwhile European behemoths. One is therefore hesitant to accept without reservation Madeline Albright’s assertion of tectonic shift in the American foreign and defense policies following the transfer of power from Clinton to Bush.

Paradoxically Virginia University Professor Melvin Leffler finds resonance of Bush’s goals with Jeffersonian vision of an empire of liberty, Woodrow Wilson’s missive of a world made safe for democracy, Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and Jack Kennedy’s determination to oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty. Leffler points out that Bill Clinton had approved the use of preemptive force (in June 1995) regarding counter-terrorism. But the difference between Clinton and Bush approach lay in Clinton administration’s successful attempt to contain and co-opt mounting parochial nationalism wavering between isolationism and unilateralism and the forces of internationalism. On the other hand the practice of Bush foreign policy has inflamed the world making it imperative to discipline American power and temper its ethnocentrism.

A Pew Research Center polls show declining support for the US from 75 to 58 per cent in Britain, from 63 to 37 percent in France, from 61 to 37 percent in Germany. Interestingly both then Chancellor Schroeder and South Korean President won their elections due to their opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. It is all the more ironic that both Germany and South Korea owe their survival and economic prosperity to American military and economic support extended to them for over fifty years.

If Madeline Albright felt the tectonic shift from Clinton administration to Bush administration in the US foreign and defense policies that had happened never before in the US history, then the changeover to Barak Obama from George W Bush came as a welcome change to most of the developed and developing worlds. It was, therefore, not surprising to see Barak Obama speak of trilateral dialogue among the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the al-Qaeda, establishing a “contact group” and a regional security and economic cooperation forum, urging US allies to work bilaterally and through “Friends of Democratic Pakistan” to coordinate economic and development assistance to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

President Obama assisted by Bruce Riedell correctly diagnosed that the epicenter of terrorism was in Pakistan and not Afghanistan. In his words “the core goal of the US must be to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan”. He added that al-Qaeda and extremist threat of obtaining fissile material was all too real. Luckily for the international community the US appears to be aware of “trust deficit” it faces in Pakistan and Afghanistan and indeed in many Muslim countries.

Former Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2003 of the frighteningly wide “gap between how America sees itself and how the rest of the world sees America”. Regarding the Muslim world Charlotte Beers told FRC that “millions of ordinary people have gravely distorted but carefully cultivated images of us so negative, so weird, so hostile that I can assure you a young generation of terrorists are being created”. This failure of the American public diplomacy in trying “to do a better job of telling our story” in the words of President Bush could be due to stylistic difference( American penchant for speaking straight as opposed to Muslim perception of direct talks as being confrontational and threatening to its collective social fabric) as to no less Muslim world’s valid perception of mono-centric policy of favoring Israel to the total disregard of the injustice meted out daily to the Arabs , in particular to the Palestinians( American Public Diplomacy in the Arab World- June 2003-R.S.Zaharna American University).

Additionally Professor Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco has pointed out that from the time of the crusades through European colonial era to the war on Iraq Western Christians have killed far more Muslims than the reverse. Given this strong sense of history among the Muslims Washington’s use and threat of military force result in popular reaction that often takes the form of religious extremism. Professor Zunes faults the US policy makers for their support of repressive regimes which makes democratic and non-violent options for the Islamic opposition extremely difficult.

In hindsight one could successfully argue that the Iranian Islamic Revolution would not have taken place had not the US government of the day helped Reza Shah Pahlvi to restore his brutal regime by ousting popular Iranian Prime Minister Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh.

The most recent example is the ouster of President Ben Ali and continued protests by Tunisians to get rid of the interim government headed by a Prime Minister of the previous regime. It has now been recognized by US policy makers that “democratic exceptions” made in the past by the US administrations by avoiding scrutiny of internal workings of countries in the interest of ensuring steady flow of oil, containing Soviet, Iranian or Iraqi influence or securing military bases did not further American interest in the long run because no extremist Islamic movement has ever evolved in democratic societies.

Ambassador Richard Haas, head of policy planning in the US State department during the Bush era explained that America’s rationale in promoting democratization in the Muslim world was both altruistic and self interested. In his view countries plagued by economic stagnation and lack of opportunity, closed political system and burgeoning population fuel alienation of their citizens resulting in transformation of these societies into breeding grounds for extremists and terrorists bent upon harming US interests. Equally important, he felt, the growing gulf between many Islamic regimes and their citizens would limit the ability of these regimes to respond coherently to issues of vital interest to the US.

Trust deficit also exists on the US side. Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen on occasions accused Pakistani military intelligence of links with al-Qaeda and demanded that such links must end. The New York Times (25-3-09) reported that Taliban widening campaign in southern Afghanistan was made possible in part by direct support from ISI, Pakistani intelligence.

One of the reasons is because of different definition of al-Qaeda by the US and Pakistan. Pakistanis, despite being ravaged by the Islamic extremists with increasing frequency and venality to the extent that led counterinsurgency expert Kim Cullen predicting that Pakistan may become a “failed state”, consider a part of terrorists fighting Indian forces in Kashmir as “freedom fighters”. Only ten of these “freedom fighters” who were nothing but terrorists caused the massacre in Mumbai bringing the two adversaries eye ball to eye ball, an almost inevitable conflict prevented by the US and her allies, and the restraint showed by the Indian government in the face of public outcry for revenge. Pakistan, despite initial bravado, had to bend down to international pressure and finally acknowledge that the plan for the Mumbai massacre had been done in Pakistan and promised to apprehend the culprits.

Al-Qaeda styled terrorism that has overtaken the world would be difficult to contain only through hard power. This fact has been acknowledged by Obama plan that states that in a country that is 70% rural and the Taliban recruits being from unemployed youths agricultural sector job creation has been given utmost importance. President Obama plans to increase Afghan army to 134000 and police to 82000 to be trained and equipped by the US and her allies over the next two years. His plan includes weaning away the mercenary Taliban and war on narcotics in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan President Obama plans to give $1.5 billion every year that would include direct budget support, development assistance, infrastructure investment, and technical advice. One, however, is not certain how far Obama plan to reverse Taliban momentum in Afghanistan can be reversed if one considers the circumstances that literally forced the Pakistan Federal government and the NWFP government to hand over Swat and Malakand agency to late Baitullah Meshud and his Taliban rule. It cannot be denied that most of the Muslim countries do not practice democracy thus giving credence to the remark by Bernard Lewis that democracy is a particular form of governance adopted by the developed countries to conduct public affairs that may or may not be suitable for others, as well as Francis Fukuyama’s concession that the revival of religion in “some way attests to a broad unhappiness with the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist society”.

Though simplistically, as President Bill Clinton did, one can reach the conclusion that forces of reaction are fed by poverty, disillusionment and despair, empirical study of terrorists and Islamists found them to belong to “significantly above the average of their generation”. In the case of Pakistan if dismal poverty is discounted to be the sole reason for Taliban resurgence one can trace the root to the bewildering complexity of ethnic and religious divisions that makes Pakistan so fragile. The constitution of a country by different ethnic and linguistic groups do give rise to “identity politics” based on group interest seen as superior to the interest that would serve the greater interest of the people as a whole. As it is Pakistan is bedeviled by religious sectarian conflict.

Given the sectarian conflict between the Shias and Sunnis that claims lives of innocent people at a bewildering rate t he Sunnis themselves are divided into two groups­one following Deobandi school and the other Barelvi school of thought. Deobandis are anti-Shia and want the Shias to be declared as infidels and demand constitutional amendment to that effect. The ethnic-religious divide among the people had been taken full advantage of by Pakistani military by promoting Islamist political parties in order to marginalize moderate political forces. Added is the view of Leon Hadder (of Cato Institute) advising Washington to view Pakistan “as a reluctant supporter of US goals at best and as a potential long term problem at worst”.

Pakistan today wrote Ashley Tellis (of the Carnegie Endowment), “is clearly both part of the problem and the solution to the threat of terrorism facing the United States”. Indeed the 9/11 Commission had more or less highlighted Pakistan’s deep involvement with international terrorism and recommended a long term US commitment to provide comprehensive support to Pakistan.

The choice for Pakistan, it has been said, is not between the military and the mullahs but between the military-mullah combine and the civilian and secular political parties. Additionally the complexity of Pakistani tribal society that is patrimonial and feudal, despite the rise of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan replacing the traditional elders, the replacing batch of leaders are younger, trigger happy and more vicious than their predecessors. If the Taliban rule in Swat was any indication then it is not easily understood how the Obama plan is going to succeed.

In May this year British Defense Secretary Liam Fox was under attack for damaging Britain’s relations with Kabul after he described Afghanistan as a “broken 13th-century country”. The Defense Secretary’s comments, made in an interview with the Times provoked fury from the Afghan Government and media with officials calling the claims racist. In his interview Dr Fox said that there must be a distinction between military and humanitarian goals. “We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened”. A senior Afghan government source said: “His view appears to be that Afghanistan has not changed since the 13th century and it implies that Afghanistan is a tribal and medieval society. Despite the sacrifices of British soldiers and the massive support of the British Government we do not feel that there is a mutual respect. His remarks show a lack of trust. We see Britain as still a colonial, orientalist and racist country that they should have this view. Dr Fox really believes what he said, and he is not alone. London and Kabul must move on or things will be more difficult”.

The issue provoked furious editorials in the Afghan press, with the daily Arman-e Melli publishing a leading article yesterday with the headline: “We don’t need Britain in Afghanistan”. Dr Fox’s office reminded the Afghans that Hamid Karzai has used similar words himself, describing what the Taliban left behind was as 13th or 14th-century. British Defense Secretary’s comment reflects the tolerance limit of the NATO allies of the US and their receding commitment to the war in Afghanistan.

The Americans are no less impatient to see the end of a conflict far away from the US shores yet draining their resources in shoring up a regime that by all accounts is immeasurably corrupt and does not expect to defeat the Taliban’s eventual victory over the Karzai forces. An editorial in the New York Times (December 7, 2009) clearly stated that there was no chance of defeating the Taliban unless Pakistan’s leadership stopped temporizing and in some cases collaborating with the Taliban. President Bush’s attempts to buy off the Pakistani military leaders resulted, according to the editorial, their “pocketing billions of dollars of American aid and continued shelter to the Taliban”. In another editorial (22-01-2010) NYT warned that Pakistan’s collaboration with the Taliban was like playing with fire and endorsed Defense Secretary Gates’ warning to the Pakistanis that extremist groups on Pak-Afghan border were interconnected and were determined to destabilize the region and Islamabad cannot ignore one part of the cancer and pretend that it won’t have any impact closer to home.

The eventual end of the Afghan war and Indo-Pak tension remain to be seen. It is, however, certain that the global power structure of the preceding centuries is changing irrevocably. The transformation of G-8 into G-20 is a concrete example. The possible restructuring of the UN Security Council with some developing countries as possible permanent members will be another. One hopes that emerging economies with their newly found power and influence will be less parochial and would not confine their policies within national interests but would direct their energies for the betterment of the international community as a whole. A hierarchical order is bound to come. Those living outside the hierarchical order would have to accept that even if Westphalian order is assumed to be valid, the world composed of sovereign and legally equal states has never been absolute. At the same time those belonging to the higher hierarchical order must follow rules that have popular acceptability and hence legitimacy.

Only then can we deconstruct an approaching dark age to replace the hitherto existing power structure in 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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