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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Gone Wrong, In System Or In Actors?

Yuba Nath Lamsal

As we are bracing for three-tier of elections this year, it may be worthwhile to mention a Turkish proverb. The proverb goes: “The forest was shrinking, but the trees kept voting for the axe, for the axe was clever and convinced the trees that because his handle was made of wood, he was one of them”. This age-old adage is equally apt even today given the way elections are held and representatives are elected mostly in developing countries. Axes continue to chop the trees and the trees keep on electing the axes.

In principle, elections are the life-blood of democracy but in practice people are losing faith in elections. This is not the case of a particular country but largely a global phenomenon. Even in countries that claim to be the successful model of representative democracy, people are sceptical about the system, the governments and their policies, which can be well seen in the too low voter turnout.
However, there is no other better alternative to representative democracy like what Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”. What we can or need to do is to keep constant and better vigil and educate voters to vote for good people. It is only through constant vigil of the informed citizens and their free will democracy can be saved from going into the hands of political thugs and scoundrels.

Democratic constitutions
Constitutional and legal provisions are important guardrails but they alone are not sufficient in the absence of moral society. The Weimer Constitutions of Germany was one of world’s best and democratic constitutions. But Hitler rose to power on the basis of the same constitution. Even in our own country King Mahendra trampled democracy in 1960 by invoking the power granted by the constitution. The 1990 constitution of Nepal had been touted as being ‘world’s one of the best democratic constitutions’. However, king Gyanendra mocked democracy and imposed absolute rule citing the provision of the constitution. There are similar such instances in several other countries in the world. The question is, thus, not what type of constitutional or legal provisions we have but the question is what type of people we vote to implement the constitution and exercise the power granted by the constitution.

Success or failure of democracy lies not on constitution but on the intention, competence and behaviour of the leaders we choose to govern. Norms and values are essential ingredients for the success of democracy and political system. The norms and values are unwritten rules developed through years and decades of experiences and adherence which are to be self-observed while exercising rights and authority. Norms and values can be expected only from people with honesty, competence, high moral character and social esteem but not from people of moral bankruptcy. The present day politics everywhere in the world is losing moral character and it is becoming a game to grab power by hook or by crooks and ultimately used for personal and partisan profits rather than for the common good of the general mass.

The concept of democracy evolved from ancient Athens where direct democracy was practiced. Adult Athenians would assemble in the city centre where they would participate in every decision of the government and present their views. In the present complex society, such direct democracy and ensuring the consent of individual citizen on each issue and subject is not possible. Thus, the representative democracy developed through which people elect their representatives to exercise the sovereign right on behalf of the electorates. However, in some special cases and circumstances, direct democracy is still practiced in the form of referendum.

As goes the global trend, public trust in politics and political system is sinking and apathy towards politics is growing. Voter turnout is a key gauge of public trust in the political system, governance and election. But voter turnout is going down on the one hand, while dark horses often benefit in the election owing to cynical attitude of people towards politics and political system, on the other. This begs a soul searching on the part of leaders as what went wrong and what caused the erosion of public trust in politics and political system.

Against this background elections are being held in Nepal. The Year 2022 is going to be election year. The elections for local bodies -- village councils, municipalities and provincial assemblies -- are already scheduled for May 13 this year, while the election for the House of Representatives -- Lower House of federal parliament -- are to be held by December this year.

Expensive elections
It is being widely felt that elections are becoming expensive and unaffordable for ordinary people in Nepal. If this trend continues, it may promote serious aberrations and public trust may further erode in our political and electoral system. It is now high time that our political parties, leaders, and all other stakeholders pay serious heed to this issue and do the needful to reform our electoral system to preserve the sanctity of elections so that genuine people get elected.

Elections are the occasions to affirm people’s faith in democracy. It is through the elections, people participate in democracy and governance. Voting is not only right of the citizens but also their duty. George Jean Nathan once said ‘bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote’. Good people, thus, must vote to elect genuine, honest and competent condidates. If not, there are chances that governance may go into the hands of bad people, which will further pervert democracy.

Despite the growing public apathy towards politics, people always look to politics and political parties and leaders in the time of every crisis. It is the political parties and politicians that have rescued the society and country from crisis. As Leon Trotsky said, “you may not care about politics but politics cares about you’, the onus lies in our political parties to ensure that politics really cares about people and keeps people at the centre. For this, the foremost task is to reform our electoral system and make the elections affordable. This alone would make the leaders, representatives and governments accountable like what Alan Moore said, ‘people should not be afraid of their government but government should be afraid of people’.

(The author is former ambassador and former chief editor of this daily. lamsalyubanath@gmail.com)

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Nepal in the face of geopolitical rivalry of great powers

 Yuba Nath Lamsal
The world is interconnected and inter-dependent.  The advancement of science and technology has reduced the world into a small global village. In this interconnected world, no single country is fully self-sufficient and self-reliant on all facets. All countries, big or small, powerful or weak and developed or developing, are intertwined together requiring cooperation and coordination among nations. This is the defining feature of globalization from which an individual, a society and a nation cannot escape.

Right from the time when Homo sapiens moved from African jungles to Asian and European landmass forming dots of civilizations, the concept of nationhood evolved. Civilization is the product of human interaction and endeavours. States were born and developed. In the human history, since the first state evolved in Sumeria (present Iraq), several states were born and disappeared from the map of the world. The process of birth and disappearance of states continues even now albeit in slower pace. [1]

States are de-facto and de-jure. The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of the States has defined the state and its features. According to the Montevideo Convention, the state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: 1. permanent population; 2. a defined territory; 3. government; and 4. capacity to enter into relations with other states.[2]  Territory, government, population, a set of rules or constitution are only part of key features and attributes of a modern state. However, these features only make a de-facto state. A state requires recognition from other states to become a de jure or a sovereign state.  International recognition is, thus, a key component in the formation and development of modern states. It is only after international recognition as a de jure state, a country acquires the right to establish diplomatic relations with other countries, be a member of the United Nations and enter into treaties with other countries and international organizations under the international laws.

This is why and how the concept of foreign policy evolved which appeared as a dominant feature of the statehood. In other words, the concept of foreign policy was born along with the drawing of boundaries of countries.

Foreign policy is thus, as observed by Christopher Hill, is “the sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations”[3]. In other words, foreign policy is the extension of domestic policy. The domestic policy influences and, to a large extent, determines foreign policy of a country. The domestic policies and priorities may change but foreign policy goals remain permanent as national interest is the principal guide and drive of foreign policy of any country. In the words of Lord Palmerston, there is no permanent enemy and permanent friend but there is only permanent interest.

The national interest is determined by geography and other geopolitical considerations. As far as the national interests of Nepal are concerned, the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal has clearly defined Nepal’s national interests and foreign policy goals and priorities. The Constitution, in its Article 5 (1), has defined national interests as: “Safeguarding of the freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, independence and dignity of Nepal, the rights of the Nepalese people, border security, economic wellbeing and prosperity”[4]. The core objectives and goals of Nepal’s foreign policy are, thus, protection of these above mentioned national interests.

Similarly, the fundamental objective of Nepal’s foreign policy, as enshrined in the constitution, is to enhance the dignity of the nation by safeguarding sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, and promoting economic wellbeing and prosperity of Nepal. It is also aimed at contributing to global peace, harmony and security.

The Directive Principles of the Constitution (Article 50.4) states: The State shall direct its international relations towards enhancing the dignity of the nation in the world community by maintaining international relations on the basis of sovereign equality, while safeguarding the freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence and national interest of Nepal, while the State Policy (Article 51) on priorities of foreign policy are defined as to:  1. To conduct an independent foreign policy based on the Charter of the United Nations, non-alignment, principles of Panchasheel, international law and the norms of world peace, taking into consideration of the overall interest of the nation, while remaining active in safeguarding the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and national interest of Nepal; 2. review treaties concluded in the past, and make treaties, agreements based on equality and mutual interest.

Based on the constitutional provisions, Nepal’s foreign policy is to be guided by the following basic principles, which are:

1.    Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty;

2.    Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs;

3.    Respect for mutual equality;

4.    Non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of disputes;

5.    Cooperation for mutual benefit;

6.    Abiding faith in the Charter of the United Nations;

7.    Value of world peace.[5]

Foreign policy is a dynamic vocation, which requires both continuity and change depending upon national political dynamics and international context and situation. A country adopts its foreign policy priorities as a whole or in part while dealing with a particular country or with a particular international event taking into account its national interest.  The national interests of a country or countries may enlarge and its priority may change due to geopolitical considerations and international dynamics. Thus, the dynamics of foreign policy priorities also change. The rigid foreign policy often handicaps a country to act and manipulate in the particular international and regional situation and context to maximize national interests of a country. In such a scenario, foreign policy of a country may take a paradigm shift especially at a time when international diplomacy is in disarray. Thus foreign policy needs both continuity and change to adjust its position and protect its national interest in the given international situation.

Nepal’s foreign policy is also marked by both continuity and change. The geopolitical reality of Nepal has been the permanent feature, which guides our foreign policy conduct. Nepal’s location between world’s two giant nations—India and China-- has posed both challenges as well as provided opportunities to us. China has already been a global power with its mighty economy. According to a recent research report of McKinsey & Company, US-based worldwide renowned consulting company, China has already emerged as the world’s wealthiest country surpassing the United States for the top position. In terms of military might and technological innovation, too, China is capable of challenging the world’s sole superpower the United States. India, too, is the world’s fifth largest economy. These two countries have rising clout in the international arena. Both of these our two neighbours are important players in the international power politics.

Some tend to define Nepal’s geopolitical position as a ‘yam between the two boulders’—the dictum late king Prithivi Narayan Shah advocated back in the second half of 19th century referring to Nepal’s delicate position[6]. Analysing the geopolitical situation of the time and behaviour of our two powerful neighbours namely the British India in the South and China in the north, late king Prithivi Narayan Shah provided the basis for Nepal’s foreign policy underscoring the need for handling our foreign policy more delicately and sensibly.

Nepal’s foreign policy basis has been guided by the same dictum since then, whether we accept it or not. The geopolitical situation has not changed as Nepal continues to remain between the two powerful countries. This geopolitical situation and our location requires us to handle our foreign policy and diplomacy more skilfully, which alone can serve our national interest.  

If we prudently, delicately and skilfully handle our foreign policy at the best interest of our national interest, we can definitely extract maximum benefits from this geopolitical reality. But it requires soul searching and self-assessment whether we have been able to capitalize this new geopolitical reality for our national interest. If we look critically at our behaviour and handling, we have utterly failed to maximize our national interest and taken due benefits.

The international power is shifting to Asia. The 19th century was European century in which Britain was the leader and Europe was the epicentre of world power. Britain had dominant presence worldwide. There used to be saying that ‘sun never sets in the British empire’ referring to Britain’s colonies in all continents of the world. However, after the Word War II, national liberation movements surged across the world and Britain lost its colonies one after another thereby marking a sharp decline in its global presence and power. After the World War II, international power shifted to America as the United States emerged as the world leader, thus, creating 20th century as the American century. With the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, the United States turned out to be the sole superpower having dominant role in the international politics and order.

With the dawn of a new millennia or the 21st century, the world order has seemingly started to change. The Europe-American centric international power has slowly started shifting again—this time to Asia. Asia is rising fast both economically and militarily. Predictions have it that the 21st century will be the Asian century. There are 28 countries in Asia of which some countries have already become world powers and some are in the process of emerging as global powers. China has risen as a global power in terms of economic strength, military might and technological advancement capable to challenge the sole superpower United States. India is currently the fifth largest economy and has the potentials and ambition to rise as a global power. Similarly, Japan is third largest economy. Israel is yet another Asian country which has superior military and technological prowess. Turkey is a transcontinental military giant in West Asia.  Indonesia is also a potential power of Asia. So Asian countries are rising powers in the new millennia.[7]

Nepal’s location between the two great powers of Asia--China and India—is very significant from geopolitical standpoint. China and India are not only global powers but also geopolitical and strategic competitors. India and China have unique relations as they are both competitors as well as partners. They are competing strategically and cooperating economically.

The Cold War has resurfaced in the world, the epicentre of which is Asia. The genesis of the Cold War goes back to the Potsdam conference in 1945. However, some are of the opinion that the US act of dropping the atomic bomb in Hiroshima of Japan on August 6, 1945 without informing its wartime allies, in reality, gave birth to the crisis of trust between the United States and the Soviet Union and sowed the seed of the Cold War.[8]

The Potsdam Conference which was participated in by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom, charted the post-war Europe’s map. Germany was partitioned into different zones and Europe was divided on the basis of ideology. It is not only Europe but the entire world started getting polarized into two camps—one was led by the United States and the other by the Soviet Russia. Even some Asian countries aligned with different power blocs.

Nepal and many countries in the developing world could not afford to align with any of the two power blocs and chose to be neutral thereby creating a new group called the Non-aligned Movement. However, some countries despite being the member of the Non-aligned Movement, had in a way or the other strategic and security alliance with either of the two big powers. India, for instance, is one of the founders of the Non-aligned Movement but had entered into a long-term comprehensive security partnership with Soviet Union, while India’s rival Pakistan was US ally. China distanced itself from the communist Soviet Union and, after Nixon-Mao historic meeting in 1972, moved closer to the capitalist United States. In fact, the Non-Aligned movement did not function, in practice, and is, now, in the moribund state although its relevance still exists especially for weaker countries.

In the lexicon of realist foreign policy, non-alignment has a little relevance. Countries conduct their foreign policy based on their national interest. Alignment cannot be permanent and countries may change position depending upon the national and international situation. In the conduct of foreign policy, the non-alignment can only be a tactics but not a strategy. In the views of propagators of realist theory of international relations, a country takes and should take position in the turn of event or events in the international arena taking into account the national interest. But most of the countries in the developing world took non-aligned position during the Cold War, which was then appropriate for their national interest as they could not afford to take side of one bloc antagonizing the other in the bitter rivalry of two superpowers. Nepal, too, joined this bandwagon of non-aligned movement and still continues to be, which is in Nepal’s best interest. However, the non-alignment does not mean to remain indifferent from the events taking place in the international arena and non-aligned countries did raise their voice loudly and clearly on issues that were contrary to the international law, norms and values enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the principles of non-aligned movement. The concept of non-alignment is more relevant for Nepal in the present context in which two of our immediate neighbours are in two different poles in the newer Cold War.

Many people are of the view that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. It is true that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, US remained the sole superpower and there was no other country to challenge US’ dominant role in the global power politics. The United States dictated whereas the rest of the world took notes. However, the Cold War, in reality, did not end but remained only in a dormant state for some years or decades since 1989 which has recently resurfaced with the rise of China as a global power player. Only the form of the Cold War and its actors have changed. The Cold War earlier was ideological and now it is economic. However, the United States is trying to give ideological colour to this new form of the Cold War.

Asia has come to be a new theatre of geopolitical rivalry between big powers. The big power rivalry in Asia is of quadrangular nature: 1. between the United States and China, 2. between China and India, 3.between US-India combined and China, 4. between China-Russia combined and USA. These countries are recalibrating their power projection and building their own strength in Asia. China containment has been the primary strategic goal of the United States at present with which Washington has devised new strategic initiatives and accordingly created a number of Asia-focused alliances. China, too, is building counter strategy to its strategic benefit. The Indo-Pacific Strategy, Australia-UK-US alliance or AKUS, Tran-Pacific Partnership and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) of the United States, India, Japan and Australia are some Asia-focused alliances and initiatives undertaken by the United States primarily aimed at containing China, while Washington has entered into bilateral security and strategic arrangements with a number of countries in Asia and the Pacific region. India’s Act East Policy is also guided with the motive of playing its active role and building grater collaboration with countries in the Indo-Pacific region clearing aiming to check China. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s strategic project apparently under the fa├žade of economic cooperation seeking to enlarge its presence in Asia and beyond, although Beijing denies it and says the BRI is purely an economic initiative for the shared benefits for all countries. Similarly, China has built strategic partnership with a number of individual countries and also with some regional groupings.

The new scenario in the international arena in which Asia is emerging as the centre of gravity, Nepal’s strategic and geopolitical position demands more strategic culture and pragmatic approach in dealing with the newly emerged powers of Asia and in the conduct of our foreign policy and diplomacy. It is said that foreign policy is an assertion of sovereign power in the international arena and we, accordingly, need to direct and reorient our policy and conduct in a way from which we extract maximum benefit out of the situation for our national interest. If we fail to handle this situation prudently in commensurate with our larger interest and also without jeopardizing our friends’ core interests, there is always danger that Nepal may be caught in the crossfire of this fierce geopolitical rivalry of great powers. 

 

(The author is former ambassador)

 



[1] [1] Yuba Nath Lamsal, The Rising Nepal- Nepal Faces Geopolitical Reality- Jan 12, 2022

[2] Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. (https://www.jus.uio.no/english/services/library/treaties/01/1-02/rights-duties-states.xml)

[3] Christopher Hill -The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

[4] Constitution of Nepal

[5] IBID

[6] Dibya Upadesh of late king Prithivi Narayan Shah

[7] Yuba Nath Lamsal- https://risingnepaldaily.com/opinion/asian-century-in-the-making

[8] Mc Cauley M, The Origin of the Cold War

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Is Nepal Going Nordic Way?

 Yuba Nath Lamsal

In 1992, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama came up with a new book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’. In the book, he argued that with the disintegration of Soviet Union and collapse of the Warsaw Pact bloc in 1991, the western liberal democracy triumphed as a victor in the ideological war against the communist empire. He described this scenario as the end of history arguing that the western liberal democracy will remain invincible and there will be no challenge from any quarters to this liberal order. The book indeed stirred political academia worldwide but its hangover evaporated within a few decades, as the liberal order came under assault from within itself and from its messiah.

With the demise of Soviet Union, the bipolar world changed into the unipolar and the United States turned out to be the sole dominant superpower. The West mainly the United States set the rules of the international system, which continues even today, although the newly emerged global powers have recently started to challenge the domination of the West. However, the rules of international order continue to be as it was devised by the power constellation of the immediate aftermath of the World War II.

Power structure
The global power structure has changed. The Western power including the United States and its European allies, Japan and Australia are in the one side whereas China and Russia are on the other side. But China and Russia are not strategic allies. Russia is a military power, which is a clear challenger of the United States and the Western countries in Europe but Russia still falls behind the United States’ military strength whereas economically it stands nowhere in comparison to the Western bloc.

China’s case is unique as it has achieved a miraculous economic growth within a short span of a few decades. China is already an economic superpower only next to the United States in terms of Gross Domestic Products (GDP) but lags far behind from the standpoint of per capita income. In the military strength and technological prowess, China’s achievement is impressive and is trying to catch up with the United States. But China’s military capability also does not match with the strength of the United States.

The Western world more particularly the United States went into a deep slumber for the last couple of decades since 1990 believing Fukuyama’s notion of ‘end of history’ and ultimate victory of the Western world and their liberal order. The United States and the West suddenly woke up to find several other countries fast rising both economically, technologically and even militarily over this period. Now the United States takes China as its rival.
Given the present situation, Fukuyama’s thesis of the ‘end of history’ seems to be far from reality. History is the ongoing process and does not end. History does not repeat exactly in the older form but takes different turns and twists. One thing what Fukuyama says is definitely true that the Western liberal democracy has earned worldwide acclaim in the political lexicon. Liberal democracy carries several virtues like individual freedom, competition, rule of law and equality before the law, etc.

However, liberal democracy too is not free from flaws. Even Winston Churchill famously and critically said ‘democracy is the worst form of government- except for all the others that have been tried’. The growing inequality, income disparity, climate catastrophe are what have discredited capitalist political system or the liberal democracy.

In the 20th century, Karl Marx’s proposition, known as Marxism, earned popularity in much of the newly liberated and poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the mid-20th century, when the Soviet Union was powerful, its model based on Marxism was viewed by many, who were inimical to capitalist democracy, as a better alternative political model. However, the socialist model failed in several countries including Soviet Union itself within 70 years of its experiment. Only a few countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba alike have been able to save and sustain the communist system.

With the rise of China as an economic superpower, some even propagate the Chinese system, which is a mix of capitalism and communism (politically communist and economically capitalist) as an alternative development model of the 21st century. The ultra-capitalism definitely failed to solve the pressing problems of the majority of the people. Only a handful of rich and privileged ones having control over resources benefited the most while majority of the working class people — peasants, workers, small businesspeople, artisans alike — got alienated from the mainstream politics and development.

On the other hand, the socialist or communist system had stark democratic deficit as people were denied of freedom and franchise. Given these drawbacks in these models, the Nordic countries have a developed an alternative way called the Nordic Model or social democratic model -- a kind of successful amalgamation of capitalist and socialist models. Politically, the Nordic model is liberal democracy with the guarantee of individual liberty and democracy.

Economically, it promotes free market economy ensuring necessary policy and legal mechanisms as well as incentives to the private sector for growth and productivity, while, at the same time, it seeks to have strong safety net for people — job guarantee, basic standard wages and working hours, free health care and free education, pension system, elderly care, and progressive taxation. As a result, Nordic countries — Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden -- have the least income inequality and social disparity, while inequality is rising in the rest of the world.

Twin pillars
The Constitution of Nepal in Article 4 states ‘Nepal is an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialism-oriented, federal democratic republican state’. Similarly, Nepal’s major political parties have, in way or the other, adopted democracy and socialism as the basic foundation of their political ideology, although neither our constitution nor political parties have clearly defined what the socialism means.
The constitutional provision and ideological documents of the political parties seem to have adopted democracy and socialism as the twin pillars of our political system, which is akin to the Nordic Model. Perhaps, at this moment, the social democracy is the best way with which Nepal can move ahead ensuring individual liberty and also social justice as well as welfare of the people.

( Published on Feb 9, 2022 in The Rising Nepal)