Yuba Nath Lamsal
Democracy of late has figured as a geopolitical commodity in the 21st century’s world order with the United States and China coming face to face in the bid for enlarging strategic sphere. With Washington claiming to have led the democratic world against what it calls the ‘closed societies’ referring to China and Russia, a new kind of global polarisation or a new Cold War has resurfaced.
The Westphalian world order that has been in place since 1648 seems to be crumbling, but it is not known what exactly will replace it. In the face off between the existing superpower and the emerging superpower, the US-led Western bloc takes liberal democracy as a tool to malign the China-Russia axis, while China is critical of the Western model of democracy. This is not merely a rivalry between the two big powers but a clash of two civilisations— oriental civilisation versus Western civilisation.
In this unique contestation of international powers, the concept of democracy is the central theme of the debate and dispute. Freedom is the fundamental feature a genuine democratic regime or system must guarantee to its people. There are two district categories of freedom which include ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’. Unless people are practically guaranteed with the ‘freedom from fear’ and the ‘freedom from want’, a regime or system may not be called fully functional democracy in practical sense.
Freedom from fear begs a guarantee of civil and political rights whereas freedom from want signifies the condition wherein the regime pledges an individuals all basic needs to live and grow as a free citizen. In other words, freedom from want is to guarantee social and economic rights including right to food, right to housing, right to healthcare, right to education, etc.
The United States and its allies are using liberal democracy as a soft power to enlarge their influence in the world and seek to disparage and demonise China and Russia as authoritarian hawks while China calls Western liberal democracy as a political sham in which money plays greater role in politics than the people. Democracy, in fact, is judged in the ability of the government to ensure both ‘freedom from fear and freedom from want’. The Western liberal democracy focuses more on the former or individual liberty, civil and political rights whereas China calls its system as a holistic democracy that attaches greater priority to the latter or social and economic rights. Chinese scholars are of the view that China has been able to eliminate poverty and ensure sustainable development while the West has utterly failed in ensuring people with freedom from want. In other words, China defines its political system as a democracy with ‘Chinese characteristics’.
Democracy has therefore been caught in the geopolitical crossfire of big powers’ strategic misinterpretation. Civil and political rights including individual liberty, holding periodic elections, right to vote and freedom of expression are definitely necessary and important features of democracy but equally important are the social and economic rights. In the absence of freedom from wants or social and economic rights, democracy cannot be complete and functional. In essence, there are inherent flaws in what have been called as democracies. Similar case is with the system that does not provide civil and political rights. Against this background, the Nordic countries have adopted a mixed model in which civil and political rights are guaranteed with periodic elections on multi-party basis and strong system of social justice. Under social justice, people are ensured with their basic needs including right to healthcare, right to education, guarantee of job, universal pension system and government’s protection for the weaker and needy section including children, disabled and elderly people. The Nordic way could be a better alternative. However, genuine issues and problems of the people have taken the backseat in the present confrontational political trajectory in the world.
Economic condition determines a country’s intention and position. The rise of economic strength gives rise to strategic ambition of a country that leads to steady military build-up and arms proliferation. Imperial ambition also comes with the economic and military might. Similarly, a country needs strong military power to protect the expanding economic interests and imperial ambition, while the increased military build-up needs to be backed by strong economy. In a way, economic growth and military rise appear to be Siamese twins. If a country’s economy dwindles, it cannot sustain military power. After World War II, British economy was badly bled by war and could no longer sustain its military expenses. Similar case was with the Soviet Union as it collapsed like a house of cards because its economy could not back up and sustain the mammoth military machine.
Now China is the 21st century’s phenomenon. With the rise of economic power, China’s strategic ambition also has risen which is natural. However, the continued military rise needs to be backed by sustained economic growth of which Beijing must be mindful. In the unilateral global order that came to be in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, China’s rise is welcome as unilateral world order is always dangerous for the balance of international power. Economically, China is close to the US and is likely to surpass the American economy soon. But China still lags far behind the United States in terms of military strength and technological prowess. Economic strength alone cannot make a country superpower. A country must be equipped with hard power, soft power, political stability and legitimacy as well as strong economy and technological superiority to be a superpower.
Some are of the view that the world is heading towards multi-polar order with the US, China, Russia and even India competing in the race of superpower. Given the size and nature of economy, military and technological might, only China at the moment has the potentials to become another superpower. Russia and India are and will remain as regional powers for a few decades to come. The unipolar world is dangerous but more dangerous will be the multipolar world. Thus, bipolar world is better for the balance of powers and global peace.
(The author is former ambassador and former chief editor of this daily. email@example.com)
-Published in The Rising Nepal on March 29, 2023