PRESIDENT Donald Trump’s ‘unilateral’ decision to suspend travel from Europe to the United States over the coronavirus threat without consultation has caught the European Union off-guards. Trump has followed the same recourse of unilateral action he opted when he announced in 2017 that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and then the Iranian deal the next year.
It showed yet another sign of discord in the west at a time when a global response to the crisis is crucial to containing the virus. European Union council president Charles Michel and the commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen in a joint statement drew attention to the global nature of social responsibility: ‘The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.’
Trump’s aggressive unilateralism has become an order of the day when he became president of the United States, even the transatlantic security consensus has gone through a rapid deteriorating episodes. Recently concluded the Munich security conference 2019, Europe and the Trump administration could not hide the demise of the Transatlantic security pact.
Ironically, the theme of the conference was ‘Westlessness’ that essentially summed up the concerns of the organisers — the west is radarless and is witnessing an economic and moral decline against the onslaught of illiberalism.
It means that a new world order dominated by multi-polarity presents a divergent opinion in its fundamental aspects. These are the roles of the international institutions; the importance of international trade over national communities whose economic life has been tied to the globalisation of the world economy; finally, the end of the domination of the West which holds sway over Asia and Africa for 500 years from the time of Vasco de Gama.
The imposition of a world system based on an international trade meant the hegemony of the west and ultimately the domination of the everyday world in the global community.
European and American security consensus after World War II, cemented by NATO, the European Union and the World Trade Organisation, ostensibly to keep the peace thorough sharing collective military organisation and prosperity within the Atlantic Community. Thus, multilateralism prevailed over unilateralism increasingly replaced nationalism as a geopolitical strategy to contain communism.
But the Atlantic Consensus that underpinned the international security architecture that dominated geopolitical strategy for the seven decades is under severe stress. Multilateral institutions that paved the way for the continuous domination of the west for decades have come under the microscope for its alleged promiscuity, promoting multiculturalism, free trade, social injustice, and human diversity.
Beginning as a marginal far right ideology in the west, it painstakingly takes apart liberalism as possessive, elitist and urban centric, while ignoring poverty and well-being of the working people. The new ideology, known as right wing populism or neo-Fascism, of late, has become mainstreamed in the west, as demonstrated by Andrew Sasbisky’s appointment at No 10 Downing Street (he has since resigned), a self-confessed eugenicist. The movement has succeeded in shifting the focus on human diversity and social injustice to competing cultural nations, where ethnic groups should live apart (apartheid) to insure their own preservation.
The ‘self-preservation’ philosophy is being promoted as ‘sovereignty’, a code word for bilateralism, anti-immigration, tariffs and sanctions. Each nation has to defend its own interests relying on its own resources. This absolute bilateralism is an anathema to the European Union which undermines the very bulwark on which the Atlantic Community came into being. The community thrives, argues German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, not at the expense of neighbours but with others.
Germany’s real politics, thus, emerges with the facts on the ground. Emerging economies, particularly China, are influential in a new world order. Geopolitics, after all, is the outcome to gain influence in international trade. China’s phenomenal success in transforming itself from an agrarian economy to a world workshop has not been overlooked by the West. The tension within the West, by and large, also emerges as how to deal with China’s transformation into a rising technology powerhouse.
China has entered the global affair on the back of the globalisation of the world economy. China, besides the Asian Tigers, has reaped the benefit of globalisation not because of its cheap manpower but because, unlike the Soviet Union, China has focused on generating wealth through productivity and economic performance rather than on military and space technology. Its research and development aims to catch up in strategic and selected industries. The emphasis is on capacity building than on the idea of freedom.
The west’s opposition to China has not emanated from the clash of ideology alone. At issue is an American interest about global supremacy. According to the New York Times, there is a bipartisan consensus in the United States that China has become a security threat.
One of the ways to contain the China onslaught is to protect the American domestic assets to retain a technological advantage. The US has long expressed concerns that Huawei’s hardware would compromise the integrity of information that the various western countries will share. With Trump’s belligerent transactional approach to foreign policy and his willingness to pull out American troops out of Afghanistan, just he has disengaged in Syria, and legitimised Israel’s illegal occupation of the Golan Height and the West Bank, have raised the political temperature in the Middle East. Of late, the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani to counter the perceived threat of Iran speaks volume of Trump’s short-sighted approach to international affairs.
The Deutsch Welle Review surmises whether the ‘west is less a western world’. The building block of the western project was ‘liberal internationalism’. Into its place marches uncivil nationalism, accompanied by illiberalism with which it is dismantling democratic institutions.
The changing geometry of the international order requires that the west has to deal with China’s global ambitions and goals over the Belt and Road initiative. The rise of illiberalism in the west will create further chasm between the US and the EU which may serve as an opportunity for China to expand its sphere of influence as the West retreats. Russia without its economic clout will side with China to retain its independence through military muscle.
The slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ poignantly showed America is not great nor is it a leader of the free world. Its retreat from the world stage is a symptom of declining power. It is apparent then a multipolar world has become a reality at present.
Aminur Rahim, PhD, is a former professor of development and policy studies, University of Fort Hare, South Africa and author of Politics and National Formation in Bangladesh.
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