Authoritarian rulers and left-leaning knowledge merchants both promote misperceptions about a multipolar world. Although great powers still shape the global order, citizen awareness in strategically important countries has never been more vital.
Just over a century ago, US president Woodrow Wilson campaigned for reelection emphasising that he had kept the US out of wars. After being reelected he advocated for ‘making the world safe for democracy’ to build support for the US entering the First World War.
China and Russia use BRICS and Global South alignments to suggest a multipolar world will displace Western hegemony of the global order. This reflects their interests in making the world safe for authoritarian regimes.
International relations scholars remain influenced by ancient Greeks whose observations have stood the test of time. For instance, great powers determine the global order, but if their core interests are sufficiently threatened, smaller powers will band together to try to topple a regional or global hegemon.
Yet the last century’s international relations introduced a notable development in that ideologies and values interlaced with the pursuit of national interests. Imperialism and colonialism had featured for millennia but they, like facism, rather suddenly became unacceptable.
Meanwhile, authoritarian rulers could exploit communism’s idealistic appeal as two world wars, a great depression and the Holocaust could be attributed to democratic capitalism. Governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain were under threat by the appeal of their opponents’ ideology as much as their military capabilities.
The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to crush communism’s appeal. Yet, whereas richly resource-endowed Russia staged largely pre-wired elections to endorse its relatively isolated and patronage-anchored political economy, the Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of highly capitalistic globalisation was astonishingly successful.
Neither China nor Russia offer an ideology attractive to citizens of other countries. China’s social contract promised rising living standards in return for acceptance of totalitarian rule. What made this tradeoff so appealing was thirty years of Chairman Mao’s communism having induced massive famines and nearly ubiquitous wretched poverty.
While globalisation made it possible for China to increase its per capita income by an extraordinary twenty-five times, growth prospects for most Chinese households have plunged in recent years. Meanwhile, Russia’s economy is more dependent than ever on exporting the hydrocarbons which so many countries plan to aggressively de-emphasise.
While de-prioritising their citizens’ interests, both Russia and China seek to use forums like BRICS to make the world safe for autocrats by asserting that their agendas represent a form of multilateralism which is a legitimate alternative to the rules-based order, which they label as Western hegemony. Such assertions aren’t widely refuted despite their camouflaging a pro authoritarianism agenda.
With the notable exception of the Soviet-led efforts to militarily and ideologically extend its influence, there was never a substantial alignment of countries to challenge US or Western leadership. While no one is claiming that US-led Western hegemony has been perfect, there were about 700 million people not living in extreme poverty when it began about 80 years ago versus over seven billion today.
The benefits of aligning with the Western-constructed global order have overwhelmingly outweighed the advantages of opposing it. The outlier groups are the national leaders who want to sidestep being held accountable by voters. One major problem is that countries opposing the rules-based system often do so not to advance their national interest but the narrow self-interest of elites. A second problem is that political opportunism mixes with anti-Western indulgences of media and university elites such that average citizens are unclear as to which policies best serve their interests.
A further difficulty is that polarised and enfeebled US politics distracts from the underlying reality that the US economy is domestic focused and digitally driven. As it is far less dependent on cargo-based trade than other large economies, it has become much more difficult for the US to justify the tremendous costs of keeping the world’s sea lanes open. Also, the US has, again, become energy independent.
Middle East tensions, African conflicts and the resulting migration, along with the war in Ukraine, are all vastly more threatening to European than American interests. Also, a substantial contraction of trade with China would be far more damaging to Germany’s economy than the US’s.
The ancient Greeks appreciated the benefits of foreign trade – yet those benefits have been fervently compounded by the industrial and digital revolutions. What would surprise them is how modern philosophical notions have been twisted to ‘deconstruct’ the logic necessary for constructive discourse.
It would be vastly more difficult for the Chinese and Russians to promote their falsely contrived multilateralism rhetoric if information arbiters across the West and beyond had not sought to provoke culture wars. Scholars don’t agree on how and why – or even if – this happened. But some milestones stand out.
While Wilson was advocating for a world safe for democracy, the writings of a Swiss linguist, Ferdinand Saussure, launched a movement, ‘structuralism’, which insisted that language is inherently cultural. A generation later, a highly influential German philosopher, Martin Heidegger famously stated that ‘language is the house of being’. This greatly expanded on ‘Language is the house we live in’, which is attributed to a 14th century Persian poet.
Such views were incompatible with those of enlightened inspired thinkers and scientists seeking to discover universal truths. Heidegger and his contemporaries were influenced by the Second World War ending with twin mushroom clouds following the discovery of industrial death camps. From there, postmodernists of the 1970s and 80s gained notoriety attacking the credulity of metanarratives no less fundamental than science, logic and progress.
If language is the social construct that defines ‘being’ and logic is flawed, then we can’t discover the world around us and focusing on solutions also becomes a suspect notion. Such steppingstones led to ‘lived experience’ becoming the guiding light promoted at leading universities and forming the background perspective indulged by many media executives.
Like a religion, to create a community of the like-minded there must be seemingly outlandish faith-based beliefs which separate the faithful from outsiders. As the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all value Abraham (Ibrahim) being willing to sacrifice his son, today’s fervent adherents demonstrate their faith in lived experience by supporting child mutilation aka juvenile transgendering.
Such allegiances – when zealously embraced they are incompatible with a duty of care to the development of the next generation – have been codified in various jurisdictions. None of this is particularly straightforward, but how countries under-prioritised child development amid the Covid pandemic was also often cause for alarm. From there, it is a casual path to attributing virtues, such as accuracy, to white racism.
Here in relatively isolated South Africa, the next generation is less indoctrinated and children being mutilated in the spirit of transgenderism is less celebrated, thankfully. Yet our political elites are internationally feted by media elites for hosting a successful BRICS summit and routinely criticising the West despite a majority of our young adults having been condemned by patronage-anchored politics to go through life poor, unemployed or both.
While it might seem that we are distant from the worst abuses of today’s culture wars, that view doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Diversity, inclusion and equality should be objectively assessed not just from the perspective of ‘what should be’ but with adequate consideration of the on-the-ground impact of such policy biases.
Profoundly negative consequences
It isn’t difficult to justify the broad benefits of diversity and inclusion, whereas prioritising equality risks profoundly negative consequences by ignoring fundamental tradeoffs. No country can compete with South Africa for making that case.
We have long failed to reduce what has become the world’s highest income inequality, yet the policies designed to reduce inequality have inflamed patronage thus producing the world’s most severe youth unemployment crisis. It is worth noting that if future societies are less materialistic, they will be less likely to prioritise inequality ahead of poverty and unemployment.
This article covered a lot of ground to unpack some of the background factors which lead to our ruling elites being feted at various international gatherings despite their willfully condemning most young South Africans to a life of poverty. We must not trust authoritarians or those who block solutions by inciting conflict.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR