The West and its leaders need to recalibrate their strategies in the post-Covid-19 world by looking at ground realities
For the generation that has seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the fall of the mighty Soviet Union, it is difficult for them to comprehend the fall of America as the global leader.
After all, it was under a solid American leadership that the Cold War was won. That this is shifting rapidly is being acknowledged slowly but surely at the very heart of the West, that is in America, by the analyses provided by American eminent scholars.
Top journals in the fields of international relations are arguing on the pros and cons of America's inability in calling the shots comprehensively as well as the shifting global order where America no longer is either willing or even capable of providing leadership.
Some scholars, however, have been avid and blind promoters of American supremacy as if we are still living in the past century. Such analyses are hardly taking into account the factors that comprehensively define a Superpower, instead emphasising military and economic prowess as definitive ways to identify America as the global leader.
America's soft power, Joseph Nye Jr argues, is still unmatched, which sets it apart from any other competitors. Theories on power, which is Nye's area of expertise, is often seen as a vital denominator to mark the influence and position of a country globally.
Theories are good. They let us grasp the chain of events systematically and help us predict the shape of the world. But theories do not work when they hold dogmatic views to justify a particular cause and ignore the fact that typical boundaries and definitions may have remained unexplored or underexplored, while applying those to a specific set of events.
The rise of Asia and the rise of China may seem to be a cliché argument and much-stated phenomena, but that is the destination the world is heading towards.
Let me recap the state of the Global Order during the Covid-19 period. The biggest economy of the world falters and falters in a manner that Fareed Zakaria reminds us of the American Exceptionalism—America stands as the top country in mismanaging the crisis.
New York proved itself truly as the capital of the world—this time having the highest number of coronavirus patients. During this crisis, a number of warnings emerged from within America and from Europe that this is the time to reconsider the pattern of relationship with China. Perhaps the crisis shows it is time for both social and economic distancing from China.
It is time for countries to "grow their own food" and "run their own factories" to create self-sufficiency and lessen dependence on China. Another front opened up that criticised China's initial pattern of responding to the crisis and keeping information to itself, which caught the rest of the world unprepared and hence the mismanagement.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been targeted for acting slowly and hesitantly, which has made the pandemic deadlier. On the other hand, the European Union (EU) was seen nowhere when Italy went through one of its worst national disasters in recent history. The EU later issued an apology to Italy for its lack of action and support for Italy.
This brief recap of the incidents shows that the West itself lacks any coordination. It is trapped within its own nationalist interpretations and systems, instead of taking care of each other through coordinated effort, as they did during the postwar response throughout Europe.
This is not the only case. The US is once again distancing itself with yet another international organisation, this time WHO, and thus is gradually renewing its recent trend of shedding international responsibility, which is quickly being filled up by China.
The geopolitical order in tomorrow's world will not be reshaped. Rather, it will continue in the pattern that we are witnessing since the onset of the second decade of this century. Essentially, geopolitical order has already been reshaped.
China's brief halt of its economic success wagon due to managing the Covid-19 crisis will soon end and their economy will restart in full swing. In fact, as scholars have pointed out, if anything, the Covid-19 crisis has strengthened China's role in international politics. It has provided China with a window of opportunity to pause, reflect and resurface even stronger.
While America has consistently overlooked partnering with its European allies on a range of issues and thus severely deteriorated the transatlantic relationship, the rift has worked to China's advantage. As American political leadership has faltered, so has many outstanding American scholars who have failed to gauge the nature of China's engagements and the areas from where China draws strength to gradually expand its sphere of influence.
Writing from Bangladesh, a country often seen as an inconsequential player in international politics but that has a market of 160 million people and is situated at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, I can attest to such patterns of formidable Chinese engagement existing not only in Bangladesh but also in the whole of South Asia. One should not forget that a quarter of the world population live in this region, and thought they may not be agenda-setters in the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) they can certainly act as a springboard for China to the rest of the world.
China's footprint is firmly embedded here in South Asia. One specific example in Bangladesh merits attention here. Despite much prediction about the downturn of GDP growth, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has predicted that Bangladesh's growth would be 7.8% in 2020. Bangladesh has its own fascinating micro-credit programme that is not only globally reputed, but also globally replicated.
During this crisis, the photo-ops of Bangladesh handing over emergency supplies to the US ambassador in the country shows how far it has progressed. Now, Bangladesh and China are partnering in human trial of vaccines in Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka would be another example where China is providing much needed assistance in its battle against Covid-19. The West, largely, is missing the big point here—its gaps are being quickly filled by China.
The West and its leaders need to recalibrate their strategies in the post-Covid-19 world by looking at these ground realities. Certainly, the Cold War teachings of grand strategy and the concept of "Superpower" do not fit in with this new reality that has unfolded in the 21st century.
The longer the West will hinge on the divide, play the blame game, and attempt to push China away from its place in the new Global Order, the longer we shall see global instability. The more tension among the Great Powers grow and is nurtured, the more we descend into a new kind of anarchy where crises of different natures will unfold, and we will suffer from any lack of coordination among nation-states.
Not all the states possess similar types of resources and some need to step up and take up the mantle of leadership—an understanding that led to the emergence of postwar international order. This particular realisation kept relative peace in the world in a century which saw two consecutive World Wars in its first half.
In the absence of such realisation, states will be left to themselves and thus create threats for each other unintentionally. These threats will no longer be military threats but the ones that would be existential in nature, as Covid-19 has shown. Countries with less resources might face choices like the ones left before Buridan's Donkey—a philosophical puzzle of who to choose in times of crisis for shouldering on—the West or China.
It seems that the choices were made in a pre-Covid-19 world as the grass looked greener on the Chinese soil with its deep pocket. However, such choices may prove to be costly in the long-run, which is why Bangladesh in particular firmly maintains its foreign policy principle – Friendship with all, malice with none.
This, however, is still lost on world leaders—despite visible signs all around—that there is no choice but to coordinate with China on a number of issues for not only their own sake, but for the rest of us as well. And as we are experiencing in this particular crisis, virus in any corner of the world would be a threat to us all. The nature of economic interdependence does not let us shut off our boundaries indefinitely.
Lailufar Yasmin, PhD, is a Fellow of Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Centre for Strategic Studies (APCSS), Hawaii, the United States, and teaches in the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She can be reached at [email protected].