Welcome Back America, But…
Climate Change, Human Rights, Multilateralism, Anti-racism and the Pandemic challenge, among others, have all suffered in the last four years due to United State either walking out or failing to give leadership. Barring any Trumpian earthquake to US democracy, Joe Biden’s victory has sent a sigh of relief round the world. It gives hope of US re-engaging in these urgent issues. But the balance of power has changed in the world and there is also apprehension that Biden could be tempted back to the Democrat’s habit of interventionist wars.
The United States walked away from the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to repeated concerns raised about Israel. It must have been Trump regime’s assessment that the HRC might become a useless forum or even fold up if it walked away. None of that happened. The US seat at HRC Geneva usually remains empty or a cheeky NGO sometimes sits there. Its exit or rather absence hasn’t stopped anything. The world carries on regardless, with countries like China and Russia often dominating the scene.
However, the human rights debate is slightly weaker with the leader of the western world on a sort of AWOL. The US is also not there to answer the many issues raised about its record by other countries.
The Human Rights discourse at United Nations is undergoing subtle shifts away from traditional understanding of human rights based on individual rights to a Chinese-led new perspectives of human rights. The Chinese are promoting a Confucius compliment where the individual also has responsibility to collective rights. China wants to dilute individual rights to duties towards the State. While European countries have been putting up a robust challenge, their effectiveness is weakened with the US missing. Countries are increasingly accepting a Chinese leadership. These are challenging times.
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It is the Climate Change field that needs urgent leadership to reverse the suicidal damage that the human race has wreaked on the earth and its atmosphere. Scientists are alarmed at the rapidity of change taking place, especially the melting snow in the North and South Poles. The erosion of Amazonian Forest, the lungs of the world, is causing concern throughout while the number of fires, storms and natural disasters are stretching the ability of the world to cope.
Countries like China have been filling the leadership gap as have some European countries. India has tried but has been credited with more rhetoric than action as Indian cities continue to top the world in pollution rates.
China however is not a natural leader for most of the world used to democracy and free press. It faces cultural barriers to fostering leadership empathy. Moreover there remains considerable distrust of its intentions as has been seen in the 5G technology.
Relations between China and India remain tense. This makes it difficult for the two somewhat unequal but nevertheless important Asian giants to embark on collective leadership of the climate issue. China also has political differences with other neighbours in South East Asia, making it difficult for it to fill a vacuum left by Trump’s America.
Although Europe is increasingly realising that it has to stand on its own feet, its influence is hampered by its bloody history of colonialism. Secondly its own internal structures are weakened by fissiparous tendencies. Besides, rival leaders sometimes compete to become prima donnas on the world stage. Europe has for long depended on the United States to give it extra clout in the world.
The Climate Change putsch needs both the United States and China to work together to give global leadership. This is where the Biden Government will be most welcomed by the world. Trump not only walked away from multilateral efforts but more damagingly walked out of the Paris Agreement. COP 26 at Glasgow might be more promising now with Biden at the helm of United States.
The United States has most miserably failed in providing any leadership or even support in the Covid-19 pandemic crises. Unlike other disasters that are regional, the Covid-19 pandemic has swept the entire world. It has engulfed the United States more than most countries. It may have been a virus that jumped from a market in China, but it is now characterised by the way the United States has addressed this real crises.
Trump quite clearly has been out of his depth to lead his own people in the pandemic crises let alone set up a world leadership drive to contain the Pandemic. Coming out of WHO at a time when the world needed it most, for petty issues of jealousy such as why does the WHO leadership fawn over China more than Trump at a time when people are dying in thousands is the height of absurdity. When WHO needs funding the most, the USA withdrew it through a tweet.
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There are many world issues in which the United States has effectively been absent. This has also enabled the world to get on with its problems without depending on this biggest superpower and financial payhouse. This new reality may be a challenge for Biden and American sense of its place in the world as it seeks to reclaim leadership.
The world is genuinely multilateral now. Gone is the period of sole superpower dominance. The clock cannot turn back. A returning United States will have to realise that its place is no longer automatically at the head. There is China, there is Russia, there is an upcoming India and there is a Europe learning to assert its own power.
While still the most powerful country in terms of political clout, arsenal and capital, the other powers are no longer a push over. Much as a liberal world might want USA to jump into Hong Kong politics or warn China against South China Sea expansions or its border skirmishes with India, the United States is unlikely to frighten China as it may once have been able to do. China has sat out the Trump economic wars and has enough resourcefulness to outlast even a possible two term Biden Government.
Neither is Russia likely to stop meddling or throwing its weight around. Much has changed in the four years in which the US has been absorbed with itself, defining and fighting the ‘other’ within its own borders. Trump was forever fighting imagined enemies within. He equated the robustness of democracy and free speech to conspirators against him. His tweets targeted fellow Americans rather than enemies of America.
This election has exposed the open underbelly of America. White supremacists and the rest of America have two different visions of the United States. While optimists are calling on Biden to heal the wounds within, the fissures may have gone too deep now. A lot of his energy is also likely to be absorbed to keep the country together. The possibility of United States splitting up in a decade or so, is not far-fetched anymore. His biggest challenge will be to give a new vision to a fractured country.
It is that which makes USA weak on the world stage now. Usually democracies embark on wars abroad to keep unity within. But the fissures are solidifed for that. Moreover, the biggest foe, China, is too experienced and savvy to fall for the trap. It is deft at sidestepping confrontation and then timing it right.
After four years of absence, the United States’ return to the world stage is much welcomed and rejoiced. But Biden and his colleagues must realise that the world is much changed. It is genuinely multilateral. They say a week is a long time in politics. Four years is almost a lifetime in politics.