Re-dividing the world

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

Abdel-Moneim Said looks at the big picture

I belong in the generation that saw the world divided into two camps: capitalist versus socialist, East versus West, NATO versus Warsaw Pact countries. One side was led by the United States, the other by the Soviet Union, and countries outside those two camps were referred to as the Third World. This was the state of play in the aftermath of World War II, which set the stage for the Cold War. The reason that war did not turn hot was because they transferred the heat into proxy wars, most of which took place in that third group of countries. The Indo-Chinese, Arab-Israeli and Indian-Pakistani conflicts fall into this category. There was another reason why the Cold War remained cold. With the nuclear arms they possessed, the two sides had the power to wipe each other out completely and with them the rest of the world. 

The Cold War came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With the consequent collapse of the Soviet Union the US became the sole superpower. But this did not end global division. There was still a barrier between the West and other countries, or  “the West and the rest” as it was put at the time, the implication being that the former had a market economy, advanced technology, the momentum of the third industrial revolution and the dynamism and wherewithal to enter the global market and respond to its transnational urges. The “rest” lived on the margins, steeped in underdevelopment and backwardness. Now it looks like my generation will see another global cleavage, this one into “democratic” versus “autocratic” states, as Washington defines them. 

In fulfilment of a key item of his electoral platform and in response to pressure from the progressives in the Democratic Party, US President Joseph Biden has invited over a hundred countries to his democracy summit on 9-10 December. That leaves around a hundred other countries on the other side of the divide under the heading of autocracy or dictatorship or whatever reductionist term they use, regardless of the huge differences in how the terms are defined and applied to complex realities. According to the US State Department’s webpage on the event, the summit will discuss three themes: “defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights.” (With regard to the latter point, it is not clear whether the promotion will target fellow democratic countries where such rights are presumably taken for granted and supposed to be applied, or the countries on the other side where authoritarianism is presumed to go hand in hand with human rights violations.) 

We have here a new absolutist, evangelistic ideology at work. It holds that the world would be a better place with Western-style electoral systems of government, which can solve all problems through the majorities that emerge through the ballot box. The job of the other side is to obey that rule. If they have grievances, then they have the right to express them freely, after which universal peace will prevail. The premises behind this outlook hold that, first, people are rational beings; secondly, that they have the ability to determine what is in their own best interests and the interests of others, and strike an appropriate balance; thirdly, that they have the ability to deliberate and debate public concerns and reach compromises that yield the best attainable solutions in the interest of the public at large; and fourthly, that these debates and results unfold in framework of constitutions, laws, regulations and judicial rulings that dispense justice and maintain social peace. In short, the ideology promises the type of utopian paradise envisioned by all political ideologies that pretend to know the solution to all of history’s contradictions and, indeed, the way to lasting bliss in this world and the next.

The problem with such thinking is not just that it remains incomplete until the other side comes up with an all-embracing counter-ideology that also promises paradise. It also lumps together countries that have systems of government as different from each other as people are, and that have undergone periods of growth in one direction or another as measured by diverse factors, criteria and variables. But as different as they are, they will probably share a certain amazement when they find out that the summit agenda contains nothing about the many forms of racism that plague many of the 100 democracies and nothing about a situation whereby an overwhelming majority in one country votes to occupy another country and subjugate its people. Moreover, they would also be awestruck if no one in that democracy conference raised the matter of the near universal consensus in the US to wage war on Iraq in order to rid it of weapons of mass destruction it did not possess and then impose an especially tailored quota system of government that perpetually impeded the revival of the state as an effective force in the country and opened the door to all sorts of terrorism. A similar unanimity sanctioned the invasion of Afghanistan; 20 years later, an equally large consensus wanted out. Now what are we to make of one consensus reversing another and in so doing delivering the fate of another people, whose opinion was never solicited in either case, to an organisation that has zero respect for the rights of women and minorities and that is in permanent conflict with modernity?

Only the law can serve as a frame-of-reference, and rule of law cannot prevail among nations unless they all accept international laws, such as the UN’s maritime laws, and the rulings of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. But how can international justice prevail if the leader of the democratic camp and others on that side refuse to recognise these laws or apply them at home or abroad? It looks like we need to divide the world another way, one based on a crucial principle of the UN and international law, namely the non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations. This principle, which dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, is rooted in the fact a country’s domestic affairs are the sole concern of that country’s people and that internal problems grow more complex, intractable and volatile when outsiders meddle and pursue their own agendas. As we have often seen, in this region, the result of such meddling is protracted civil warfare. 

To dismiss a hundred countries and political systems as “authoritarian” is both arbitrary and unfair. This is not just because of the above-mentioned principle which is founded on the belief that a people of a particular country are more familiar with its complexities than outsiders. It is also because there is no place for totalitarian fascist or communist systems in modern government. All countries without exception can only grapple with their realities and their histories if they show the ability to change and strive towards advancement and progress. This cannot be attained under conditions of chronic polarisation, chaos and conflict, all of which stem from democratic methods which, under certain conditions, can give rise to discord and violence. Determining whether or not this will be the case should be left to the self-determination of each individual country, not to how international powers divide up the world.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: