Saturday, Feb 04, 2023

Why we need America to work

Should the world be left to an untrammeled superpower like China and untrammeled individuals like the WikiLeakers?

Former President José María Figueres of Costa Rica has a saying I like: “There is no Planet B” — so we’d better make Plan A work to preserve a stable environment. I feel the same way about America these days. There is no America B,so we’d better make this one work. When Britain went into decline as the globe’s stabilising power,America was right there,ready to pick up the role. Even with all our imperfections and mistakes,the world has been a better place for it. If America goes weak,though,and cannot project power the way it has,your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world. You will not like who picks up the pieces. Just glance at a few recent headlines.

The world system is currently being challenged by two new forces: a rising superpower,called China,and a rising collection of superempowered individuals,as represented by the WikiLeakers,among others. What globalisation,technological integration and the general flattening of the world have done is to superempower individuals to such a degree that they can actually challenge any hierarchy — from a global bank to a nation state — as individuals.

China has put on a sound and light show these past few weeks that underscored just how much its rising economic clout can be used to warp the US-led international order when it so chooses. I am talking specifically about the lengths to which China went to not only reject the Nobel Peace Prize given to one of its citizens — Liu Xiaobo,a democracy advocate who is serving an 11-year sentence in China for “subversion of state power” — but to intimidate China’s trading partners from even sending representatives to attend the Nobel award ceremony

Liu was represented at Friday’s Nobel ceremony by an empty chair because China would not release him from prison — only the fifth time in the 109-year history of the prize that the winner was not in attendance. Under pressure from Beijing,the following countries joined China’s boycott of the ceremony: Serbia,Morocco,Pakistan,Venezuela,Afghanistan,Colombia,Ukraine,Algeria,Cuba,Egypt,Iran,Iraq,Kazakhstan,Russia,Saudi Arabia,Sudan,Tunisia,Vietnam and the Philippines. What a pathetic bunch.

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“The empty chair in Oslo’s Town Hall last Friday was not only that of Liu,but of China itself,” observed Rowan Callick,a columnist for The Australian. “The world is still waiting for China to play its proper,full role in international affairs. The perversity of such a successful,civilised nation playing a dominant role as a backer — if sometimes merely by default — of cruel,failed or failing states is intensely frustrating.”

It gets worse. The Financial Times reported that “outside Liu’s apartment in Beijing,where his wife Liu Xia has been held under house arrest since the award was announced,large blue screens were erected,preventing television cameras from having a view of the building.”

Honestly,I thought China’s leaders had more self-confidence than that. Clearly,they are feeling very insecure. Think if China had said instead: “We disagree with this award and we will not be attending. But anytime one of our citizens is honoured with a Nobel,it is an honour for all of China — and so we will pass this on to his family.” It would have been a one-day story,and China’s leaders would have looked so strong.


As for the superempowered individuals — some are constructive,some are destructive. I read many WikiLeaks and learned some useful things. But their release also raises some troubling questions. I don’t want to live in a country where they throw whistle-blowers in jail. That’s China. But I also don’t want to live in a country where any individual feels entitled to just dump out all the internal communications of a government or a bank in a way that undermines the ability to have private,confidential communications that are vital to the functioning of any society. That’s anarchy.

But here’s the fact: A China that can choke off conversations far beyond its borders,and superempowered individuals who can expose conversations far beyond their borders — or create posses of “cyber-hacktivists” who can melt down the computers of people they don’t like — are now a reality. They are rising powers. A stable world requires that we learn how to get the best from both and limit the worst; it will require smart legal and technological responses.

For that job,there is no alternative to a strong America. Critics said of the British Labour Party of the 1960s that the Britain they were trying to build was half-Sweden and half-heaven. The alternative today to a world ordered by American power is not some cuddly multipolar system — half-Sweden and half-heaven. It is half-China and half-superempowered individuals.


Managing that will never be easy. But it will be a lot easier with a healthy America,committed to its core values,powerful enough to project them and successful enough that others want to follow our lead — voluntarily.

The New York Times

First published on: 16-12-2010 at 00:04 IST
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