Global disorder and the fate of the 'east'

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: June 14, 2018 20:37:32 | Updated: June 21, 2018 21:40:04


Martin Wolf's probing pieces never fail to attract. Though they can be found in a variety of media formats, the one triggering this piece, "New world disorder and the fracturing of the west," appeared in the January 02, 2018 'Geopolitics' section of the Financial Times. Lamenting "the end . . . of western globalisation" as well as "a geopolitical one" (the "post cold war 'unipolar moment'"), he presents the effects of a "democratic recession" and Xi Jinping's authoritative takeover as "the leader of a siring superpower."

Blaming "Pluto-populist" Donald J. Trump for "delivering policies to the plutocracy and rhetoric to the angered base," and the likes of Vladimir Putin's "illiberal democracy" for one side of the malaise, he finds, on the other, China's relative military spending far outstripping the US counterpart, though at the absolute level China remains far, far behind. All of these portend a "fractured" west, bereft of its ideological identity, and with it the loss of (a) "prestige and appeal" of democracy and liberalism, (b) the leading roles of "high income countries" in the increasingly imperative global commons to confront steadily growing threats, and (c) the blanket shielding us from conflict between the top claimants of world leadership, the fading United States and the ascending China.

His anatomy and prescriptions just happen to be too spot-on to quibble unnecessarily. The assumption that every aberration from the liberal and democratic order would ultimately be dissolved or absorbed by those twin post-World War II forces actually allowed too many minor changes to accumulate without correction, culminating in large paradigm-changing consequences. It may be too late to retrieve those 'babies' from the dirty bath-tub water, given the force of the drainage.

It may also be a case of much ado about the wrong subject. Wolf is not the only one, but the unfailing tendency in many literatures to interpret this concurrent malaise from a western viewpoint may become a larger analytical problem than any other. At times it feels as if the 'east', or at least 'non-west' is there only as a springboard of the 'west's' growth (supplying raw materials and low-waged workers, as well as absorbing exports and high-life snippets, or the shock-absorber or cushion of the 'west's' fall. Not enough attention is paid inside the 'east' or 'non-west' because if there was, then a Putin or a Recep Erdogan may not be enough to capture the so many other nuances and dynamics contributing to long-term change.

Education would be one, not just because there remains more youths to teach than in the west, but also the broad alienation from education that comes with affluence shifts the driving-seat/steering-wheel from the west to the east. Note how, over time, more Asians fill the hard disciplines of national science, engineering, medicine, and computer science than westerners.

Pushing this 'long-term' perspective deeper, it is the 'west' that stands out as aberrational. When China and India had the world's two largest economies, they not only held that spot for the longest of time, but also boasted a more symmetrical 'global commons' than under liberalism and democracy. Their emperors and mughals were matched, not by the equivalents of 'less developed countries' in Europe and the Americas, but by proud empires overzealously searching the spices and silk from the 'east'.

The European Renaissance and Enlightenment have been seen as landmarks of current 'western' civilisations (as the roots of both democracy and liberalism are often traced to philosophers of these eras), yet they had their 'eastern' predecessors (which, in turn, trace or parallel 'western' civilisation, such as in ancient Greece). Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes may be the dominant philosophers of 'realism' in the typical 20th Century political science syllabi worldwide, but Kautilya in India and Sun-Tzu in China made similar arguments thousands of years earlier, as too Aristotle and Herodotus in Greece.

Many inventions patented in the west can again be traced to Asia. Though credited for 'finding' Latin America, Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) is supposed to have learned of that continent from the diaries of notes of travellers to China, like Marco Polo. Chinese ships were in the 'Americas' a century-and-a-half before Colon/Columbus without conquering the land. The volume, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (Oxford, 1997), posits that argument.

Paper, gunpowder, the compass, and so forth, were all known phenomena in China far before they were patented by European claimants.

Against that backdrop, the three or four centuries of European dominance in modern history are but a blip in historical annals. China has not only kept its civilisation intact since antiquity, but also temporary shifts into communism or capitalism have not undermined the common underlying traits of that civilisation. Arguably India's Hindutva may be on a similar trajectory, this time being revived after a slumber of many centuries. Yet, the fire in neither Chinese nor Indian culture has ever been fully extinguished.

We must acquire more new knowledge if we reverse the civilisation blame-game, for instance, 'global disorder' arguments may raise and reflect alarm in the west, but seen only as a temporary hiccup in the east.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

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