Hu­man rights face up­hill strug­gle

Au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­tries will put lib­eral democ­ra­cies un­der pres­sure

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Joseph S Nye

Many ex­perts have pro­claimed the death of the post1945 lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der, in­clud­ing the hu­man rights regime set forth in the 1948 Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights.

Ac­cord­ing to “re­al­ist” in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions the­o­rists, one can­not sus­tain a lib­eral world or­der when two of the three great pow­ers — Rus­sia and China — are anti-lib­eral. Writ­ing in Foreign Af­fairs, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Ste­fan Foa ar­gue that the era when Western lib­eral democ­ra­cies were the world’s top cul­tural and eco­nomic pow­ers may be draw­ing to a close. Within the next five years, “the share of global in­come held by coun­tries con­sid­ered ‘not free’ — such as China, Rus­sia, and Saudi Ara­bia — will sur­pass the share held by Western lib­eral democ­ra­cies”.

There are sev­eral prob­lems with this ar­gu­ment. For starters, it re­lies on a mea­sure called pur­chas­ing power par­ity, which is good for some pur­poses but not for com­par­ing in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence. China’s an­nual gross do­mes­tic prod­uct is $12-tril­lion, and Rus­sia’s is $2.5-tril­lion, com­pared with the United States’s $20-tril­lion. But the more se­ri­ous flaw is lump­ing coun­tries as dis­parate as China and Rus­sia to­gether as an au­thor­i­tar­ian axis.

Although Rus­sia and China are au­thor­i­tar­ian and find it use­ful to co-op­er­ate against the US in in­ter­na­tional bod­ies, they have very dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests. China is a rising power that is in­ter­twined with the in­ter­na­tional econ­omy, in­clud­ing the US. In con­trast, Rus­sia is a de­clin­ing coun­try with de­mo­graphic and pub­lic health prob­lems, with en­ergy rather than fin­ished goods ac­count­ing for twothirds of its ex­ports.

De­clin­ing coun­tries are of­ten more dan­ger­ous than rising ones. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has been a clever tac­ti­cian, seek­ing to “make Rus­sia great again” with mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries and Syria, and by us­ing cy­ber-based in­for­ma­tion war­fare to dis­rupt — with only par­tial suc­cess — Western democ­ra­cies.

But the re­vival of Cold War-style in­for­ma­tion war­fare has done lit­tle to cre­ate soft power for Rus­sia. The Lon­don-based Soft Power 30 index ranks Rus­sia 26th.

China is dif­fer­ent. It has an­nounced its will­ing­ness to spend bil­lions to in­crease its soft power. At meet­ings in Davos in 2017 and Hainan in 2018, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping pre­sented China as a de­fender of the ex­ist­ing in­ter­na­tional or­der, but one with Chinese rather than lib­eral char­ac­ter­is­tics. China does not want to over­turn the in­ter­na­tional or­der but rather to re­shape it to in­crease its gains.

It has the eco­nomic tools to do so. It ra­tions ac­cess to its huge mar­ket for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. Norway was pun­ished af­ter dis­si­dent Liu Xiaobo was awarded the No­bel peace prize. East­ern Euro­peans were re­warded af­ter they wa­tered down Euro­pean Union res­o­lu­tions on hu­man rights. Sin­ga­porean and Korean com­pa­nies suf­fered af­ter their gov­ern­ments took po­si­tions that dis­pleased China.

The Chinese gov­ern­ment’s mas­sive Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive to build trade in­fra­struc­ture through­out Eura­sia pro­vides am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to use busi­ness con­tracts to wield po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence. And China has in­creas­ingly re­stricted hu­man rights at home. As Chinese power in­creases, the regime’s global hu­man rights prob­lems will in­crease.

But no one should be tempted by ex­ag­ger­ated pro­jec­tions of Chinese power. If the US main­tains its al­liances with demo­cratic Ja­pan and Aus­tralia and con­tin­ues to de­velop good re­la­tions with In­dia, it will hold the high cards in Asia. In the global mil­i­tary bal­ance, China lags far be­hind, and in terms of de­mog­ra­phy, tech­nol­ogy, the mone­tary sys­tem and en­ergy de­pen­dence, the US is bet­ter placed than China in the com­ing decade. In the Soft Power 30 index, China ranks 25th; the US is third.

Xi has torn up Deng Xiaop­ing’s in­sti­tu­tional frame­work for lead­er­ship suc­ces­sion but how long will Xi’s author­ity last? In the mean­time, on issues such as cli­mate change, pan­demics, ter­ror­ism and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, an au­thor­i­tar­ian China and the US will ben­e­fit from co-op­er­a­tion.

The good news is that some as­pects of the cur­rent in­ter­na­tional or­der will per­sist; the bad news is that it may not in­clude the lib­eral el­e­ment of hu­man rights.

Hu­man rights may face a tougher en­vi­ron­ment but that is not the same as a col­lapse. A fu­ture US ad­min­is­tra­tion could work more closely with the EU and other like-minded states to build a hu­man rights cau­cus. A G10, com­pris­ing the world’s ma­jor democ­ra­cies, could co-or­di­nate on val­ues along­side the ex­ist­ing G20 (which in­cludes non-democ­ra­cies such as China, Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia), with its fo­cus on eco­nomic issues.

Oth­ers can help. As Kathryn Sikkink points out in her new book, Ev­i­dence for Hope, the US was not al­ways very lib­eral dur­ing the Cold War, and the ori­gins of the hu­man rights regime in the 1940s owed much to Latin Amer­i­cans and oth­ers. More­over, transna­tional rights or­gan­i­sa­tions have de­vel­oped do­mes­tic sup­port in many coun­tries.

In short, we should be con­cerned about the chal­lenges to lib­eral democ­racy dur­ing the cur­rent set­back to what Sa­muel P Huntington called the “third wave” of democrati­sa­tion. But that is no rea­son to give up on hu­man rights. — © Project Syn­di­cate, 2018.

As­cend­ing: China wants to re­shape the world or­der to in­crease its gains but it is at the ex­pense of hu­man rights. Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.