A week ago, on her nightly CNN interview programme “Amanpour & Company”, Christiane Amanpour interviewed the director of a Moscow-based political think tank. The subject was Alexey Navalny, the political dissident who has just returned to Russia from Germany where he was treated for poisoning allegedly administered at the order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Enumerating the mass demonstrations that have erupted around the country in support of Navalny, Amanpour asked whether this was a tipping point for Russian public opinion. Striking a rather aloof pose, the Russian political scientist did not deny the wave of demonstrations, but he stressed that it reflected only a small sliver of Russia’s population of almost 150 million.
Amanpour then asked his opinion on the global outcry against the Russian authorities and Putin personally, censuring their treatment of Navalny and crackdown on the opposition. Amanapour’s guest countered that the statements of condemnation did not come from the “world” but rather from the handful of countries that make up the Western coalition. In fact, he said, most other countries of the world were either sympathetic to Russia or preferred to remain silent on a matter about which, according to him, the available information is inaccurate and biased.
Is there a connection between that TV interview and the Biden administration? Yes, there is.
Following the military coup in Myanmar (formerly Burma), the entire political establishment in Washington was on its feet, demanding that Biden should take firm steps to halt the coup and secure the release of the head of state Aung San Suu Kyi. Although a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the deposed prime minister’s reputation has been mired in criticism over her handling of the question of the genocide of the Muslim Rohingya minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
In the US, that criticism led not to attempts to better understand the complexities of Myanmar but to calls to intervene there in the name of “democracy” and “human rights.” The advocates of this course lacked the humility so much as to ask themselves what business it was of the US to meddle in an Asian country on the other side of the world, one rooted in a long history, a unique faith and culture, and ancient traditions that intertwine with its civil and military establishments.
To be clear, I am not venturing an opinion for or against what happened in Myanmar. My personal familiarity with that country is limited to Prime Minister U Nu’s visit to Egypt at a time when Myanmar was still Burma and that he was among the ranks of Third World leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah in Africa and Sukarno in Asia. That was an entirely different era to the present one. It was the post-colonial era, heavily infused with dreams of Third World liberation and catching up with the developed world.
Today, the whole world is undergoing a process of change that is impossible to ignore, defined by the gauntlet thrown down to globalisation. Essentially, the challenge is that globalisation is not an American phenomenon but, as its name implies, a global one that concerns all nations and peoples who have to come to terms with the new info-and bio-tech forces of production, just as they had to do with the first and second industrial revolutions, and with steam, oil and nuclear generated energy.
President Joe Biden, his team and the globalist liberal elites in Washington cannot ignore the profound lesson Donald Trump delivered to the US political, economic and social order which culminated in the tragic storming of the Capitol and led to Trump’s second impeachment. The impeachment trial has yet to play out, but whatever the result is, it will not affect the former president alone.
It will also affect over 70 million American citizens who voted for him in 2016, continue to support him and cheer his policies on immigration, taxation and other foreign and domestic issues. True, Biden won the elections. But that does not automatically mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. The winner will not be able to succeed unless he acknowledges that the past four years were not just an anomaly or a blip that Americans can simply move past.
The problem in the context of foreign policy is no less troublesome. The current direction in the US is in favour of a return to the political engineering of other countries. That stems from the firm belief that Washington’s ideas about how the rest of humankind should manage their affairs represent the incontrovertible truth. The result is not so much a reversion to the approach of the first decade of the 21st century as a reformulation of it. The old approach did not work. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, alone, cost $7 trillion and the costs in terms of the death and the destruction of cities and cultural heritage are incalculable.
As has been the case since antiquity, nations and peoples vary. Each has its own way of adjusting to change, depending on the features, interplays and states of development of the components of its institutions, and on what solutions their political elites, as opposed to the elites in Washington, deem appropriate.
In 1648, after the Hundred Years War and another Thirty Years War, European countries signed the Peace of Westphalia enshrining the most important principle of international relations: non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations. That principle formed the basis for the establishment of the League of Nations and the UN much later. It was also constantly violated by colonial powers and then by powers citing the pretext of international globalisation.
There is no denying that the world has grown smaller and that humankind is more interconnected and interdependent than ever. However, the solutions for how countries should manage their domestic and foreign affairs are best left to their people and their knowhow. If there is one lesson that the US should have learned from its recent history it is that its interventions to engineer regime change, first through the use of military force and then through the use of soft power, had catastrophic consequences for the people of the countries that were the subjects of these experiments.
For Washington, the interventions backfired: Afghanistan was handed over to the Taliban and Iraq to Iran, and in each case the state in question disintegrated. Even when the West appeared more homogeneous thanks to the EU experiment, the US decided to draw a line between the “new Europe” and the “old” one. In the end, when the UK felt it couldn’t attain the place it deserved in the EU it opted for Brexit.
The “new Biden” will not be new if he resorts to old tools from a bygone era, or if he creates new podiums for passing judgements and issuing condemnations without serious study of what is really happening in other, different countries of the world. To be new, he will have to grasp the lessons of the past and deal with other countries’ realities, not as Washington sees them, but as their people see them. After all, it is ultimately those people who will either benefit or pay the price.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly