Hong Kong umbrellas, Chinese Maoism, Trump, Duterte and Brexit: what’s the link?

The 21st century global order is becoming more uncertain. Events are unfolding at an accelerating pace and with greater unpredictability, underscoring the role of chance and contingency in international affairs. Chance in international relations is not a matter of statistical probability: of odds that are calculable. International affairs are conducted by sentient beings who observe, think and respond so that our every effort to act or comprehend alters what we seek to comprehend and every thought and action begets an ever shifting kaleidoscope of possibilities.

History, as Winston Churchill is reported to have observed, is just one damned thing after another. It is a delusion to believe that events have any particular direction or purpose. Contingencies are, however, not entirely open-ended. In international affairs, the possibilities are bounded by parameters imposed by the structure of international system. The stronger and clearer the structure, the narrower the range of possibilities.

We live in an age when long established parameters are shifting, creating greater than usual uncertainty. There are two dimensions to this.

First, for the last two hundred years or so, this has been a Western defined world. First Europe and subsequently the United States and the Soviet Union – communism too is a Western ideology – established the concepts, institutions and processes of international relations. For two centuries, the challenge confronting the non-Western world was how to adapt to a Western defined modernity. Modernity itself is a Western concept. It is still the challenge facing most of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Only a handful of countries have met the challenge. Post-Maoist China is the most important example. Ironically, the very success of these countries is now transforming the system to which they successfully adapted. This poses new challenges to all of us, perhaps particularly in East Asia. A global transition of power and ideas is now underway. But transition to what no one can say.

Secondly, for almost half a century from the end of the second world war in 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, international relations were shaped by the cold war. Whatever its dangers, the cold war had one virtue: clarity. The cold war was the basic mental framework within which, whatever our other differences and irrespective of which side of the ideological divide we stood, we understood international affairs. That clarity is now gone.

A quarter of a century has passed since the Soviet Union imploded and the cold war ended. Yet we still have no better way to describe the present era than by reference to the past and still call our times the ‘post-cold war’. We live in an age without definition.

There is no clear alternative to the cold war framework. In the closing decade of the 20th century, there was a brief unipolar moment during which one country – the US – seemed to hold all the levers of the world in its hands.

But by the early years of the 21st century, the unipolar illusion dissolved in the chaos of the Middle East. We will all have to live with the consequences of turmoil in Iraq, Libya and Syria – caused by Western interventions motivated at least partially by the Universalist delusions of that fleeting unipolar moment.

And yet this is not a truly multipolar world. For all its troubles the US still stands at the pinnacle of global power in all its dimensions: military, economic and as a ‘soft power’. The US is still the only truly global power.

The global order that the US created after the second world war – often called the ‘liberal international order’ – while fraying at its edges, is still substantially intact. In any case, there is no clear alternative at hand.

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But the US now needs help to maintain that order. With the illusions of the immediate post-cold war period dissipated, the US is in no mood to shoulder the burdens of global leadership alone. Historically there has been a tendency for the US to turn inwards after periods of intense external engagement, and the wars the US chose to fight – but did not win – in the Middle East after the September 11 attacks were the longest in American history, longer than the Korean or Vietnam wars, longer even than the second world war. It is still fighting them.

With his slogan of ‘Change’, President Barack Obama rode that mood into the White House. What has sustained Donald Trump’s improbable presidential campaign is a more virulent form of essentially the same mood. It will not suddenly disappear on November 9.

The US needed help to maintain international order during the cold war as well. But without the clarity of the cold war framework, there is no longer any compelling reason for any country to accept US leadership except on an ad hoc and partial basis. And who is able or is willing to provide sustained help?

Relations between the US and Europe were the central pillar of the liberal international order. But the end of the cold war has deconstructed the idea of the ‘West’. Would the EU have taken the positions it did on Google, Apple and Amazon if there were still an overarching common strategic interest? Perhaps. But perhaps not with quite the same insistence. Negotiations over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have stalled.

In any case, the EU is too entangled in the internal contradictions of its own vision of Europe – a vision rejected by substantial numbers of Europeans themselves as Brexit and the rise of extreme right-wing, anti-EU movements on continental Europe demonstrate – to play any meaningful global role. It is moreover a vision of Europe that rests on the foundation of a social model that as a matter of actuarial certainty is unsustainable. Europe is as yet unwilling to directly confront and deal with this stark reality. The EU is trying to sustain a global role on the cheap through ‘soft’ power.

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It deceives only itself. European defence budgets remain low despite rising tensions with a resurgent Russia. Nato without the US is hollow. The EU’s so-called ‘common foreign and security policy’ is only a posture.

Are the so-called BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – the nucleus of a possible new international order? The BRICS now hold regular summits and other meetings and there is even a BRICS Bank. But let us not forget the term ‘BRICS’ was coined by a fund-manager as a marketing slogan designed to part the unwary from their money and is not a geopolitical concept. Much of the gloss has worn off emerging markets and very little unites the BRICS except dissatisfaction with their status in the world and a desire for greater recognition.

Most BRICS are regional and not global powers. India may have global ambitions but not yet capability. Two – Russia and China – have formal global roles as Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. But Russia is a dissatisfied power, resentful at its post-cold war loss of status. The West made a strategic mistake in treating post-Soviet Russia condescendingly as a defeated country. Russia may be on a long-term downward trajectory but Moscow has played a weak hand with great skill in Ukraine and Syria to frustrate Western designs.

The history of Western relations with Russia in the 1990s was one of squandered opportunities that, whatever ‘reset’ with Russia a new US administration may seek, are unlikely be recreated. But Russia no longer has the capacity to change the existing global order.

That leaves China. Clearly China has an important role to play and any future international order must have US-China relations as one of its major pillars. But the contours of China’s role are hard to define and US-China relations defy simple characterisation: profound interdependence coexists with equally profound strategic mistrust. The US and China are groping towards a new modus vivendi. But neither knows what it wants from the other or if they do have some inchoate intimation, neither knows how to get it without paying a grievous price.

The US and China are not natural partners but they are not enemies. They are not looking for trouble. They know they must work with each other. Unlike US-Soviet relations during the cold war, there is no fundamentally irreconcilable ideological divide between the US and a China that has now embraced the market. The Soviet Union was containable because it largely contained itself by pursuing autarchy; China is such a central part of the world economy that the US might as well try to contain itself as try to contain China and I do not think ‘containment’ is the goal of US policy towards China. Neither do I think China is out to entirely displace the US from East Asia. China does not have the capability to do so and even if it did, I don’t believe Beijing thinks it is in its interest to try.

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Beijing knows the foundation of East Asian growth, including China’s own growth, is the stability that the US presence has brought to the region. Absent the US or even if US alliances in East Asia are significantly weakened, Japan might well go nuclear. Japan can do so quickly: it has access to the fissionable material for a nuclear weapon, the engineering is a relatively straightforward matter for a country of its technological sophistication, and it has the means to develop delivery systems in the form of its space programme. Japan has made no secret that mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle is a policy goal. There is only one reason a country needs to master the nuclear fuel cycle. Tellingly, Japan is the only country with the declared goal of mastering the fuel cycle that the US has not slapped down.

A nuclear Japan is a complication China can do without as it grapples with internal problems. And yet China is modernising its own nuclear forces. There is nothing unusual about this. It must do so. But when China acquires a more credible second strike capability, an East Asian version of the question attributed to Charles de Gaulle must be asked: will San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo? There is only one answer, so why hasten the day when the question cannot be avoided? If Japan goes nuclear, South Korea will not be far behind. The consequences are unpredictable.

At the same time, I am certain that China wants to reclaim something of its historical central place in East Asia. This is an ambition that Beijing cannot forswear because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) today legitimates its right to rule by a narrative of the “Great Rejuvenation” of China under its leadership.

China has no strong reason to love an international order it regards as heir to the order that led to what every Chinese schoolchild knows as a ‘hundred years of humiliation’. Still, China is not clearly a revisionist power. Post-Maoist China is one of the main beneficiaries of the existing order and has no strong reason to seek radical revisions.

Globally, China has by and large acted within frameworks in such institutions as the UN, the World Bank and IMF and the WTO – all parts of the liberal international order. China has not always complied with international law – no great power has a perfect record of compliance – but has not tried as the Soviet Union did, to formulate its own alternative theory of international law. New Chinese institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank supplement but do not supplant the existing order.

But the narrative of the “Great Rejuvenation” also embodies, at least in East Asia, a revanchist element that seeks to reassert Chinese sovereignty over territories supposedly lost by a weak China. As China’s economy matures, growth must slow as it already has; the party’s legitimacy can no longer rest mainly on economic performance and the revanchist element of the “Great Rejuvenation” must become more prominent. To reclaim a central role, China must shift the US from the very centre of the East Asian strategic equation and occupy that space. But how far to shift the US? How much space is the US willing to concede? How to loosen but not completely undermine US alliances? How to do so without provoking responses from the US and other East Asian countries?

Such questions pose intractable dilemmas for Beijing. So far China has contented itself with moves in peripheral areas in the East and South China Seas. Rivalry is an intrinsic part of all great power relations. Neither the US nor China will stop pursuing their interests. There will be tensions. But war is unlikely. Beijing knows that the outcome of a war with the US will be one that will undermine the credibility of China’s “Great Rejuvenation” and thus put its most vital interest – the preservation of party rule – in jeopardy. The primary risk is conflict by accident not war by design. And if accidents occur, both sides will try to contain them.

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What all this amounts to is a serious deficit of international leadership which leaves the liberal international order in an ambiguous condition. There is no power strong enough to maintain the status quo without help. There is no satisfied power that is willing or able to provide sustained help to maintain the status quo. There is no dissatisfied power that is strong enough and unhappy enough to overturn the status quo.

I do not want to suggest the first thing President Xi Jinping thinks about every morning is how to deal with the US. Neither is the first thing Obama thinks about every day how to deal with China. Both countries face immense domestic challenges. The priorities of both are internal not external. The most important factor that will influence US-China relations and the evolution of the international order, are the domestic politics of major powers.

We must confront an unpalatable fact: politics in the 21st century is becoming dysfunctional. Governance is becoming more difficult. In many countries, it is becoming harder and harder to do less and less.

Despite minor differences, there is an over-arching cause of this dysfunctionality common to most countries.

At the end of the 17th century, the idea emerged in Europe that sovereignty resided in the Will of the People rather than bloodline or Divine Right or the Mandate of Heaven. This idea gathered force in the 18th century and became dominant in the 19th. Today nearly all major political systems legitimate themselves by this principle. During the 20th century three models of mass politics based on this idea emerged: Western liberal democracy, fascism and communist “people’s democracy”. All three models still exist, even fascism in the form of extreme right-wing movements.

But who are ‘The People’? This has not always been obvious. Once it was only propertied, Christian, white males. The idea of ‘The People’ expanded during the 20th century to include women, the dark skinned and religious and other minorities. But in the 21st century the idea of ‘The People’ is being deconstructed by the collision of 18th century political philosophy with 21st century communications technology. The internet and social media have allowed the idea of ‘The People’ to escape the boundaries of the nation-state and metastasise into something new and ugly.

About two weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech in Munich about algorithms. Her essential point was that search engines on websites like Google and Facebook are creating echo chambers: people are increasingly listening to only what they are predisposed to hear which is driving politics in an unhealthy direction.

It has been argued that the internet is liberating. But I fear it is only the freedom to choose your own chains. Public opinion and politics is increasingly polarised, fuelling populist movements with extreme views. The internet conflates information with entertainment or opinion and devalues expertise. It is undercutting the assumption that underlies all democratic political processes: that from the competition of ideas something approximating the truth or at least consensus will emerge.

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All this is loosening the sense of national community and solidarity that is essential for the functioning of any political system based on the sovereignty of the people. As politics fragments, government and the formulation of coherent, long-term policies becomes harder. And yet there is no going back. We cannot shut ourselves off from the internet.

In my darker moments, I wonder if the technologies that are the fruits of human ingenuity have not far out-run the capacity of human ingenuity to devise institutions to deal with them because the establishment of such institutions must depend on the very political processes that technology is rendering dysfunctional.

This is not just a Western phenomenon. China’s political system derives from the same 18th century political philosophy. China cannot insulate itself from the same 21st century communications technologies, and hence China too suffers a strain of this global disease. Underlying the assertiveness and bluster is deep insecurity about the Communist Party’s future.

Deficits of leadership at the national level accentuate the deficit of international leadership. Without leadership, order is impossible; without order many urgent issues – from climate change to nuclear proliferation to pandemics – are going to be dealt with only sub-optimally.

Consider two such issues: the impact of disruptive technologies and mass population movements. These are going to have the most impact on one of the most important aspects of the liberal international order: globalisation.

Globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty and brought prosperity to millions more. But its downsides are increasingly evident: growing inequality as old economic patterns are dislocated with new sets of winners and losers, and a sense of cultural threat as traditional ways of life and values are brought into ever closer contact with the alien ‘other’. The consequence has been a growing gap between the values of elites and the population at large and disillusionment, and sense of betrayal, with established institutions.

This is the thread linking such seemingly disparate phenomenon as Trump and the disintegration of the Republican Party, Bernie Sanders and the push of the Democrats leftwards, ‘Occupy Wall Street’, the ‘Arab Spring’, various ‘Colour Revolutions’ in East Europe, Brexit, the rise of neo-fascist political movements in Europe, the ‘Umbrella’ movement in Hong Kong, Neo-Maoism and nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution in China, and perhaps the election of President Duterte in the Philippines.

Disruptive technologies that catalyse economic churn and mass population movements, whether of refugees fleeing from conflicts or seeking better economic opportunities, accentuate such sentiments. Technology has evolved ever since prehistoric man picked up a stone and recognised its possibilities, and peoples have been on the move even before recorded history. But such changes are now occurring at an ever accelerating rate and with greater immediacy and political impact at a time when much the same technologies that have increased the pace of change are degrading the ability of political systems to adapt to change or mitigate its consequences.

As the Western-shaped system of the last two centuries transitions to something new, it would be a mistake to regard this transition as Asia rising and the West declining.

The changes in the distribution of power are relative not absolute, and while the changes are being catalysed by the success of some East Asian countries at adapting to a Western defined modernity, their success has in effect caused these countries to ‘leave Asia and join the West’. These countries suffer their own variants of the pathologies that now afflict the West.

Except in a purely geographic sense, ‘East’ and ‘West’ are losing sharp political definition even if they have not yet lost all political meaning. This will make the interregnum between one international structure and whatever follows prolonged, measured in many decades and not just a few years.

I am not even confident that there will be a clear denouement to the processes underway or that a clear denouement is in fact desirable because it may well be violent. Perhaps what we should aim for is to learn to live with ambiguity and manage indeterminacy through continual improvisation rather than seek a definitive resolution.

This will require clinical – indeed cold-blooded – analysis of change, which is hard because wishful-thinking and self-deception are intrinsic aspects of human nature; it will require institutions that are both robust and agile; and this in turn will require us to abandon some of the most intractable and pervasive ideologies of our times and rethink fundamental political issues such as the balance between rights and responsibilities and the relationship between the individual and the state and try to adapt all political institutions to such revaluations.

And in the end we may have to accept that, to quote a 19th century European socialist, Eduard Bernstein, “the goal, whatever it may be, is nothing … the movement is everything”.

This is excerpted from a recent speech by Bilahari Kausikan, who is the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs