This article is part of the series — What to Expect from International Relations in 2021.
2020 has been an exceptional year even by the standards of the 21st
century. A global pandemic has changed human existence beyond anything we experienced after 9/11 and the global financial crisis. The world’s greatest democracy stumbled through a Presidential election that could not fully restore faith in America or in her capacity for global leadership. This fracturing of polity and dispersal of power on one side of the Pacific is matched by an astonishing agglomeration of power in the hands of one leader on the other shore of the ocean. More power has come to be concentrated in the hands of China’s President in 2020 than at any time since the era of Chairman Mao. President Xi is the “core” of the Party and of the State — a 21st
-century equivalent to Louis XIV’s L’etat c’est moi
(The State is me).
As the pandemic continues to surge throughout the world, the West — creator and shaper of the liberal order — still struggles to cope and has failed to lead. Their seemingly failing capacities to address the challenges of the new century stand in sharp contrast to the resilience of China’s economy and its readiness to assist others. Yang Jiechi, China’s Politburo Member in charge of external relations, recently wrote in the People’s Daily
that China will still be the main driver for the world’s economic recovery. Such thinking may also have validated the Chinese leadership’s belief in the superiority of their political system. Questions that were unthinkable at the turn of the century, such as whether democracy is a truly superior form of governance and whether the liberal world order is really the best global arrangement for prosperity and security, are now more likely to be posited.
At first glance, the prospects of the liberal order regaining its vitality might seem bleak, but a deeper look reveals that America’s ‘Leadership of the Free World’ owes as much to the attractiveness of her political system and ideals, as her economic success.
It is not merely a rising China that questions the liberal order. Russia has announced its boldest step yet in this century by declaring that it is returning to the Indian Ocean with a new facility at Port Sudan. Turkey is showing neo-Ottoman revivalist tendencies and gravitating towards authoritarianism. The possibility of a new alignment between Russia, China, Turkey and Iran — that could have fundamental ramifications for both the Eurasian landmass and the Indo-Pacific maritime domain — should spur the leading liberal powers to examine what ails the world order that they created and nurtured for seventy odd years.
At first glance, the prospects of the liberal order regaining its vitality might seem bleak, but a deeper look reveals that America’s ‘Leadership of the Free World’ owes as much to the attractiveness of her political system and ideals, as her economic success. Everyone wants to be American — going to McDonalds anywhere in the world means associating with America and the liberal order it leads. That spirit may have dimmed, but that is far from being extinguished. China’s successful economic model has undoubtedly won admirers and new friends across the world. Yet its ability to move to the center stage is by no means guaranteed. To build a parallel universe to the Liberal Order, China must present an equally attractive and resilient model. The problem is that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is, by its very definition, exclusive. It’s adoption as a global standard becomes challenging since Chinese conditions are difficult to replicate. Culturally too, Peking Duck is unlikely to replace McDonalds as a global symbol. Beijing’s best chance of success lies, therefore, in discrediting the idea of democracy and liberalism as a way of proving the superiority of its own model.
To build a parallel universe to the Liberal Order, China must present an equally attractive and resilient model.
The Liberal Order faces two simultaneous challenges — dithering by democracies and onslaught by authoritarianism. China seeks to discredit American leadership as divisive, by subtly juxtaposing its own supposedly unifying idea of the Community for a Shared Future for Mankind. This is no time for the world’s democracies to dither. America needs to re-claim its leadership and strengthen democracy across the world. India is the world’s largest democracy. We have shown that democracy works in a large and populous developing country. There are others like India. If the West can move beyond 20th
-century ideas, the democratic option can still capture the global mind-space and become a powerful force to balance China’s efforts to create a parallel order.
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