The 21st Century

In your own languaje

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday July 9, 2019

It is said that the 20th century belonged to the United States.

It went from a simple frontier society to the sole global superpower in the space of 60 years.

But today, it is a highly divided society with no leader on the horizon who might bring the different political, racial, and social groups together in the kind of consensus that led to the county’s greatness after World War II.

Any sense of national unity has been in decline for several decades, and has become almost absolute under President Donald Trump.

So, to whom does the 21st century belong?

The jury is still out.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. President has been a highly disruptive global force, alienating allies and praising autocratic leaders the world over. He has questioned all of the post war institutions that contributed to Western leadership and world peace through rule of law, has diminished the power of U.S. diplomacy and, consequently, left a void to be filled by other countries.

Indeed, should the Democrats manage to dislodge him from the White House in 2020, it will take some time to repair the damage he has done to the State Department, the U.S. intelligence agencies, and to trust in the U.S. around the globe. Indeed, the American diplomatic assets and morale are at all-time lows. Most of the experienced foreign policy hands have left and those who remain are Trump sycophants with little judgment, expertise, or influence on the Oval Office.

The world is undergoing a diplomatic tectonic shift which, in my opinion, is not moving in a positive direction.

Two weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow and the visit appears to have marked a meeting of the minds.

Both are autocratic leaders in full control of their societies, their security and armed forces, as well as their bureaucracies. Both have economic elites beholden to them and to the system that they rule over, and neither seems in any danger of disappearing anytime soon.

Both Presidents Xi and Putin are bent on containing or even eliminating the influence of Western democracies on the world stage.

Their growing alliance stems from Chinese support for Russian land grabs in the Ukraine, Russian support for Chinese military control over disputed islands in the South China Sea and a common support for Iran, Venezuela, and common policies with respect to the Middle East.

Both countries control their respective cyberspaces, blocking citizens from access to disruptive opinions and views from abroad. They control their journalists through long prison sentences or outright assassination, and control the education systems to ensure that students are only fed state propaganda.

More frightening, however, is their technical and economic reach around the world.

From a technical point of view, a number of Western states fear the expansion of Huawei into cyberspace. But many more appear to be embracing it as the source for the new 5G networks that will soon be the standard for the digital world.

The symbiosis between this Chinese technological giant and China's security services is perceived as allowing the company to perfect its ability to perform cyber espionage at a hitherto unimaginable scale. In addition, its perceived control by Chinese security forces ensures that citizens will only be able to communicate what is acceptable to the state, and will only be allowed access to state approved websites.

While this may be alien to Western minds, it fits nicely with the growing cadre of autocratic populist leaders around the world who would like nothing more than to control the information that reaches their citizens, and use cyberspace as mega-propaganda platforms to sustain their power.

Indeed, Putin has adopted the Huawei model as amicable to his own governance pretensions. While China sees commercial success through Huawei as a global plus, Russia sees it as providing an ability to engage in even greater electoral meddling around the world. Together, this is what Clausewitz called “war by other means”, and nothing would suit Putin more than electing Trump clones in Western democracies and disrupting western alliances.

Already the Polish and Hungarian governments are copying Putin’s governance model. Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s right wing extreme right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini are ardent Putin supporters, as is France’s extreme right-wing leader Marine LePen. NATO member Turkey is buying missile systems from Russia, much to the dismay of its NATO allies. Turkey’s President Erdogan sees Putin as a leader to emulate, and he is doing just that by imposing his own version of an authoritarian government. Putin is successfully exporting authoritarian populism as a viable substitute for liberal democracy without the need for his increasingly powerful military to fire a single shot.

From an economic point of view, China’s Belt and Road initiative is reaching all corners of the globe. China’s economic tentacles are present and growing in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean. Many leaders like having access to Chinese technology and funding to build their infrastructures and link them to a massive global network without worrying about such irritants as human rights, free elections, freedom of speech and journalists’ rights.

As these countries fall into the Chinese web of massive loans to cover these developments, they will form the nucleus of a 21st century Chinese empire built not on military intervention or conquest, but, much like the U.S. in the 20th century, on the Chinese ability to win support through soft power – in this case, through economic investments and public diplomacy.

One has only to look at the expansion of the number of Confucius Centers at universities around the world to see how the Chinese are using cultural and language studies to cultivate new generations of students who will soon be as familiar with China as they are with Western liberal democracy. These future decision-makers and agents of influence will do what no military force could achieve – create a sense of familiarity and partnership with China.

To be sure, China and Russia both face challenges of their own.

Many Russians still live in abject poverty and have seen little economic return from Putin’s rule. China has taken hundreds of millions out of poverty, but many hundreds of millions more continue impoverished and could well come to resent the growing prosperity of the ruling elites. But, for the present and foreseeable future, both leaders seem firmly ensconced in their positions of power, and are supported by the oligarchs that they themselves have created and nurtured.

Is there any way to stop this authoritarian juggernaut from endangering Western democracy?

That is difficult to say.

Western democracy succeeds through example and leadership. It depends more on moral suasion than on military force. As we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Western democracy cannot be imposed by force of arms alone.

It requires strong leaders and massive investments in education and public diplomacy to win over hearts and minds.

Currently, Western leadership is weak.

Brexit has claimed any possible leadership from the United Kingdom. Germany’s Angela Merkel will leave office in 2021 and her successor remains an unknown quantity, while the growing strength of the extreme right wing Alternative für Deutschland could be a destabilizing factor. Emmanuel Macron has lost his luster in France, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau faces a difficult election in the autumn.

The next generation of strong

Western leaders has yet to appear (assuming that there is one in the making), and we can no longer depend on the United States alone or, perhaps, at all, for the kind of moral leadership that it exerted in the last century.

Hence, each of us must rely on our critical judgment and discuss political alternatives amongst ourselves in order to not be swayed by political leaders who seek to curb our hard-won rights. We must avoid falling into the trap of narrow nationalism that can only lead to increasing conflicts and oppression of minorities.

We must seek out and elect politicians that offer a unifying vision.

We must demand plans and policies that can defend free media, but with proper vigilance against divisive propaganda and fake news in order to defend electoral integrity and strengthen liberal democracy.

Finally, we must take our right to vote seriously - to be fully aware of the issues, and actually go out and vote wisely.

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