JEAN-PIERRE LEHMANN. The Empires continue to strike back as international order continues to collapse

Aug 14, 2017

…as the international order continues to collapse. The best check is a return to a liberal, rules-based, multilateral order.

As I arrived, at the end of last month, on the heavenly island of Ile-de-Re off the Atlantic coast of France, surrounded by my grandchildren for part of our summer break, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was expelling 755 United States diplomats.

There are “only” 455 left!

Another headline asked: “Will the Doklam/Donglang stand-off lead to a second Sino-Indian war?”

Following the brief Mar-a-Lago summit honeymoon, we are now informed: ” Trump officials in talks over trade action against China”.

As part of my summer reading, I have just finished Edward Luce’s compelling, but dystopian, view of the world: The Retreat Of Western Liberalism.

When I look at the global panorama at times like these, a melody from my youth comes to mind.

This is the 1959 song by the Kingston Trio entitled The Merry Minuet, which I strongly encourage readers to listen to. You can find it on YouTube. It recounts human and natural disasters (wars, riots, starvation, floods) in the form of a gay little ditty, and concludes with the two lines: “What nature doesn’t do to us, Will be done by our fellow man”.

That was 1959.

With Nikita Khrushchev in the Kremlin and Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, the Cold War was icy. Between 1945 and 1992, the US had 1,054 nuclear weapons tests and the former Soviet Union, whose first successful test occurred in 1949, four years after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings, 715.

Hence the penultimate stanza of the Kingston Trio song: “But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud, For man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud”.

In that same year, China was in the throes of the calamitous Great Leap Forward that would count at least 30 million deaths from famine. (If you have not read it, I highly recommend Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng.)

Africa was experiencing chaotic pre-decolonisation turbulence. A year later, in 1960, then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his historic Wind of Change speech, announcing Africa’s new post-colonial destiny.

There were still fascist dictatorships in western Europe, notably in Spain under General Francisco Franco and Portugal under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

Iran, following the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister, Dr Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953, was under the dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled with his infamously brutal secret police Savak (also a gift of the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA).

And so on.

Then in 1989, the unimaginable happened: The Berlin Wall came down. And the world changed. Or did it?

Certainly, that was the impression of the time. Two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1991, the Soviet empire imploded. A new era was hailed, that then US President George H. W. Bush labelled “the new world order”.

There was the “end of history”, the “peace dividend”, the “flat world”, the “borderless world”, and so breathlessly on.

In hindsight, it is clear that this euphoric moment was brief, possibly surreal, certainly unreal.

Where are we now? It would seem a global no man’s land where, in the words of former British journalist Nik Gowing, we need to “think the unthinkable” .

On Feb 16, I had published in The Straits Times an article entitled The Empires Strike Back, in which I argued that “imperialist geopolitics is back with a vengeance, as China, Russia and the US jostle for power”.

Six months later, as illustrated in the developments listed in the first few paragraphs, the jostling has clearly intensified. Hence the title of this article, The Empires Continue To Strike Back…, with the sub-head “…as the international order continues to collapse”.

This is in part, of course, due to the disorder the Trump administration has continued to wreak over the last six months.

No knowledgeable person today would deny that there is no apparent world order and that, in a word, we are in a mess! Getting out of the mess will be difficult. As borne out by the last six months following my initial article, things have got more complex and perilous.


While looking for solutions, however, we have to make the effort to understand how we got to where we are. As the author puts it in The Retreat Of Western Liberalism, “we cannot progress without a clear-eyed grasp of what has gone wrong”.

While there were numerous forces unravelling at the turn of the century – some disruptive, some constructive – there can be no doubt that the definitive coup de grace that destroyed whatever hope there might have been of a viable progressive new post-Cold War world order based on the rule of law came with the illegal American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Here was the then hegemon, alleged leader of the global liberal order, champion of the rule of law, egregiously violating the very principles it was meant to uphold and promote. Had it been an allegedly “rogue” state – Iran, China or Russia – it would have been, of course, condemned, and seen as par for the course of “roguery”. This, however, was the act of the supposed paragon of global order.

In view of this act of lawlessness, the consequences of which have caused immense geopolitical mayhem and tragic human suffering, what possible grounds could Washington have for criticising others?

The sanctions and hysteria against Russia, ignominiously expelled from the Group of Eight, arose following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. I have no intention of whitewashing this act. But, in the global scheme of things, it is very, very small beer, both in geopolitical and humanitarian terms, compared with the American invasion of Iraq.

The list goes on.

Given America’s own involvement in water-boarding, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, for the US to sanctimoniously condemn others for violations of human rights smacks of hypocrisy and double standard.

The US criticises China for not adhering to the decision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) in the dispute with the Philippines over the South China Sea. Yet, the US itself has not ratified Unclos.

One of the more prescient books to have appeared this century, in 2006, was by British author-journalist Will Hutton entitled The Writing On The Wall: China And The West In The 21st Century. Recognising that the world was about to undergo one of the greatest transformations in history, he argued compellingly that the most important priority for the West was to adhere to the principles of governance and the accompanying institutions that had been fashioned in the wake of World War II.

This is not because these principles or institutions are in any way part of the systemic Western DNA, but, on the contrary, because after more than a half-century of human carnage and geopolitical mayhem, a new architecture was fashioned aiming to establish a world that would be governed by the rule of law.

This is what Mr George Bush, the father, had in mind when he spoke of a new world order. This is what Mr George Bush, the son, destroyed when he invaded Iraq.

In this global lawless Darwinian world into which we have fallen, the most important priority is to restore, indeed revive, the legitimacy and authority of the liberal global economic order.

It is a herculean task and every day more so. It clearly has to be seen as a long-term project. It will not, for example, be likely to feature on the agenda of the current American administration.

With many countries wracked by populism and nationalism domestically, it is difficult to imagine they will be keen, let alone capable, of promoting the liberal, rules-based, multilateral order globally.

But what are the alternatives?

The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and a visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline ‘The Empires continue to strike back…’.

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