By Laksiri Fernando –
I have borrowed the title from a new book by Richard Haass published this year with the subtitle “American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.” It is undoubtedly a fitting description of the present uncertain and volatile situation, particularly in America, irrespective of the fact the book was completed before the end of the presidential elections. The value of the book enhances because of this fact. Its last chapter is titled “A Country in Disarray’ to mean the American situation, and its foreign policy. In Haass’ own words in the Forward, the presidential elections “…underscored this judgment by highlighting multiple divisions within American society that are both long-standing and deep.” Donald Trump’s U-turns and brinkmanship in foreign policy have further highlighted this reasoning in multiple ways in recent weeks.
Just few minutes before starting this article, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced her decision to call for a snap election on 8 June, which requires a two thirds majority in Parliament tomorrow, given the fixed parliamentary term laws. In her speech, she lamented about the divisions and lack of unity in Westminster, at a time most crucial for the country’s future. She further said,
“Divisions in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and cause damaging instability and uncertainty. We need an election and we need one now.”
It should be noted that when the then PM, David Cameron, of the same (Conservative) party called for a referendum in June 2016, he didn’t anticipate the Brexit outcome. Similarly, there can be a risk that the coming election might turn into another ‘referendum’ against her type of Brexit, which is called a ‘hard or clean Brexit,’ although her popularity is well ahead of Jeremy Corbin and the Labour Party. There are others who anticipate her victory, anticipated as overwhelming, to lead a ‘soft-Brexit’ instead of the present hard approach. There are more confusions. Another consequence could be the strengthening of the separatist drive of Scottish nationalism, even risking the unity of the Kingdom.
At least there is one silver lining in the dark cloud. Given the coming elections in Britain, it is quite unlikely that America would go for a risky war with North Korea (or in the Middle East), without its close partner and ally (Britain), although it could count on Australia’s (though reluctant) support. Australian policy seems to be to support America in the Asia-Pacific region, but not to the extent of a direct war, with North Korea or any other. South Korea is also going for presidential elections in May. When the American Vice President, Michael Pence, was in Tokyo the day before, the main Japanese interests were mainly to talk trade and economic relations and not war. Therefore, America may have to retreat from war rhetoric in a decent manner in the near future.
The downside of all these would be the unpleasant predicament of the world to repeatedly listen to North Korea’s military rhetoric in the coming future. This may be tolerable, if Kim Jong-un would not try a missile or a nuclear misadventure or strike. The tensions at present at the border between the North and the South are dangerous, irrespective of the so-called demilitarized zone.
End of An Era?
As Richard Haass has summarized:
“What we are witnessing is a widespread rejection of globalization and international involvement and, as a result, a questioning of long-standing postures and policies, from openness to trade and immigrants to a willingness to maintain alliances and overseas commitments.”
The above refers to more profound, general and other issues in the international scene. As I write this, I hear the Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull’s voice, repeatedly broadcasted over the TV in his announcement of scrapping of the Visa 457 early this evening, restricting overseas skilled labour taking up of Australian jobs. As he says: “Australian jobs for Australians, our policy is Australia First.” This is the equivalent of Donald Trump’s intended order banning H-1B Visas in the USA. As Paulin Hansen of the One Nation party claims, Turnbull’s policy is ‘plagiarised’ from her policy! It appears even the Labor (this is how Australia spells it without an unnecessary ‘u’) under Bill Shorten is towing a similar line. In Australia, unlike in the UK, there is quite a close symmetry between political parties on these issues and policies.
There is no question that the fall of the Berlin Wall (a previous 11/9) in 1989 and the apparent end of the Cold War ignited a hope for a new ear. Even after the containment of Saddam Hussein initially in 1990, there was much hope that a New World Order would emerge. Because there was much cooperation in the world for peace and justice. Against Saddam, when he invaded Kuwait, there was unanimity in the Security Council. But that is not there now.
However, there was another international undercurrent becoming predominant. That was triumphalism (neo-conservatism) and the trends of extreme globalization and neo-liberalism misusing innovations in IT and related technologies. Here I am not necessarily reporting Haass’ views, but my own. This is what has now led to disarray, betraying the hopes for a New World Order. This is not to deny any progress during this period. But the progress has been contradictory or lopsided even jeopardizing even our common environment through climate change. Haass has highlighted the tragedy in Syria, and in his words, “hundreds of thousands of Syrians had lost their lives and more than half of the population had become internally displaced or refugees, in the process threatening to overwhelm not just Syria’s neighbours but Europe as well.” I would add, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan also to the equation. As part of this fiasco, the number of refugees and internally displaced people in the world have increased to around sixty million. The purpose here is not to document all the symptoms of the current disarray, but to make a sense out of the main direction.
When Donald Trump came to power in America there was some hope, whatever his other weaknesses, that he would somewhat change some of the previous ‘globalist’ policies. The ‘Pivot to Asia’ was one. Trump did call China ‘a currency manipulator’ but it was understood in terms of protecting the American economy. He and Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, appeared the best of international pals. Not long before, he even criticised Obama’s Syrian policy as interference.
In a dramatic U-Turn, however, Trump has now become the most belligerent American President that we have seen in ‘relative peace’ times. Within a span of a week or so, he ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles strikes at al Shayrat air force base in Syria. Then came the dropping of the ‘mother of all bombs’ (GBU-43) at Nangarhar in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. He also ordered the Carl Vinson (an Armada) to sail towards North Korea.
There are questions on how to explain this bizarre turn of events. As quoted by Rajeewa Jayaweera (“One Global Policeman is Not Enough,” The Island, 19 April) Kathleen Nicks has explained the situation based on Trump’s ‘unpredictability, instincts and indiscipline.’ Another explanation came through the ‘News Republic’ news service, referring to John McCain’s interview with Chuk Todd, when the former appeared on ‘Meet the Press.’ To introduce briefly, John McCain is a senior Senator and a senior Republican. The relevant interview portion goes as follows.
Todd: “I want to talk about the overall changes. You’ve said he’s growing in office. There are some that will say, ‘no the Washington establishment sucked him in.”
McCain: “I hope so [awkward laughter]. On national security, I do believe he has assembled a strong team and I think, very appropriately, he is listening to them.”
What is this Washington establishment? There are several interpretations. Greg Rushford once gave the following.
“The real Washington establishment, however, consists of the people under the radar who spend decades there. They hold various titles — federal bureaucrat, lobbyist, lawyer, journalist, consultant, think-tank fellow — but they are alike in being inextricably linked to the policymaking process. They’re the ones who make the trains run on time.”
In other words, they are about the ‘deep state.’ They not only ‘make the trains run on time,’ as Rushford has said, but also ‘make the bombs drop on other people’s countries! Even there is a book titled, “How Washington Actually Works for Dummies”!
What is to be Done?
It sounds like Lenin! But there is a chapter on that title in Richard Haass’ book. Haass has been a professional diplomat and was an advisor to President George W. Bush, to say the least. Whatever his past views, he has come to some senses on the present situation. I have listen to him speaking on the book, the other day, and he is advocating in my view ‘a middle-path’ in many of the matters. He even said we need ‘a bit of humility’ in world affairs. I would say ‘not a bit, but a lot’! He doesn’t prophesy ‘disarray’ as a future perspective, but offers a way out. He says,
“A big part of how the future unfolds will depend on whether the principal powers of this era can develop a common approach, or at least overlapping approaches, for what constitutes [international] legitimacy.”
For this to happen, he also says that ‘sovereignty between and among states needs to remain at the centre of the global order.’ He does not consider sovereignty to be obsolete. Most interesting might be to a Sri Lankan audience is his departure or dissent from what is known as R2P (Responsibility to Protect). The usual argument is that if the protection fails, the states lose their sovereignty in that sphere or to that extent. Haass has suggested something fundamentally different. His premise is to start with ‘sovereign obligation’ of states.
As there is a right to sovereignty in the state, there is also a concomitant obligation for the state. This obligation is for or towards the other states, the governments, the peoples and for the agreed international principles (or laws). This is to have a better international order, preventing disarray. To state it again, the notion is ‘sovereign obligation.’ He believes this is different to ‘sovereign responsibility.’ Under the notion of R2P, when the ‘responsibility’ is breached or ‘deem’ to be breached, the so-called international community gets a legitimacy to intervene or interfere. In contrast, ‘sovereign obligation’ is almost a voluntary/natural obligation. It should come within and not outside.
Since mid-1990s, I have been grappling with the concept of ‘international factor/dynamic’ in human rights as well as democratic development. My understanding has always been that the ‘international factor/dynamic or influence’ could be persuasive but not domineering or intervening. There are of course responsibilities on the part of the states and governments to promote and protect human rights of the citizens, but any deviation or violation should best be settled within the countries. Haass does not refer to human rights or democratic developments as such. His primary concern is international order or better international order/relations without disarray.
However, the two concerns are intrinsically linked, as many of the fissures or chaotic conditions are due to the internal violations and/or undue international interferences; in the latter case, going against the very same objectives that those interventions are supposed to achieve. If a set of ‘sovereign obligations’ can be accepted as a ‘common approach or at least overlapping approaches,’ then the present world might be a better place to live. That is the way to get rid of ‘disarray’ according to Richard Haass.