Last Week, British Premier Theresa May triggered the official divorce proceedings for the United Kingdom with the European Union by invoking article 50 of the Lisbon treaty to leave the UK. Brexit had captured the attention of a global audience which set up the crescendo to the American Presidential election of 2016. The Brexit event is rapidly converting into a global political saga, where maybe in another hundred years analysts of that time may point to this as key conjuncture in global history.
In our own Indo-Pacific region, the most successful regional grouping has reached a chronological milestone, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrates its 50th Anniversary later this year. In the aftermath of Brexit, ASEAN was hailed as an Asian success story into regionalism and political community building and its adaptability juxtaposed with the rigid bureaucratic nature of the European nature which became its own point of rupture.
Looking at emerging and established political groupings - both formal and informal - from the United Nations, the European Union, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to ASEAN the underlying question is that, has been successful spirit of international cooperation finally withering away? As a result will new groupings emerge out of much narrower political economic, geo-political interests? Or even corporate interests, The Trump family investment network is a classic example. If one observes policy orientation of the current Chairperson of ASEAN Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines who seems to be not too interested in recent tensions in the South China Sea and ignores the concerns of many ASEAN members especially in the context of weary relations with China. Analysts are worried that ignoring ground realities that affect many member states ASEAN is heading for turbulent times ahead despite all its achievements.
"Many Sri Lankan analysts had kept on warning out policy makers about making deep international commitments buoyed by assurances by larger powers. Yet, the emerging reality in the 21st Century is that no country is going to go that extra mile for you unless there is something strategically significant"
Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State last week issued an ultimatum to NATO allies, to contribute to their national defence spending at the agreed NATO rate. He very correctly pointed out that the alliance cost sharing was sharply disproportionate that the US does the heavy lifting, while countries like Germany, are still falling short of contributing 2% of the country’s overall GDP on defence. Germany currently contributes around 1.2% on defence from its overall GDP, it is the view of the Deutsch Defence Minister Sigmar Gabriel if the Germans spend 2%, it will be a defence budget larger than that of Russia. While American criticisms of its NATO allies are nothing new, the grievances have been heard since mid 1970’s: the Trump administration was the first to set an ultimatum of two months for member states to meet the cut.
While the United States or NATO allies may not really prefer a meltdown of NATO, especially since the countries which already are meeting the GDP contribution are Estonia and Poland, while Lithuania and Latvia are trying hard to meet the cap, as they all feel threatened by a resurgent and aggressive Russia. The Ultimatum by the United States demonstrate that the 21st Century alliances or relationships will get more ambivalent despite common challenges from powerful nation states or non-state actors such as terrorists or organized crime syndicates. Managing ambivalent allies would be a challenge to all countries - big and small - with Sri Lanka is no exception. Many Sri Lankan analysts had kept on warning out policy makers about making deep international commitments buoyed by assurances by larger powers. Yet, the emerging reality in the 21st Century is that no country is going to go that extra mile for you unless there is something strategically significant.
Against this backdrop of weakening internationalism as signified by the crises of regional and international organizational mechanisms, two major domestic political trends that were operating within the shadows are becoming quite illuminated. Firstly, the fate of some upcoming elections in major European power centres, who many fear the outcome could be influenced by a third country. Secondly, the global drift of an emergence of political leadership with relentless consolidation of power across the political spectrum from Democratic, authoritarian to one party system. A few major examples ponder are Trump who is consolidating his power through insiders and extended family in crucial Whitehouse positions to Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s planned referendum, BJP’s clear ascendency and PM Modi’s consolidation. In the case of India, the recent Uttar Pradesh elections and the swearing in of the BJP firebrand as Chief Minister of UP, the most populous state represents are a new but worrying drift in domestic politics.
"We cannot dismiss them because of who they are; for Sri Lanka’s own interest relations with Trump, Putin, Modi, Abe, Erdogan, Xi Jinping are equally important, we can’t afford to lose one for the sake of the other."
The above list keeps ever expanding; the Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a decree on the People Liberation Army (PLA) very recently. While the world’s media attention was dominated by the British PM Theresa May trigger ‘Article 50’ on March 29, on March 30, the PLA was asked to launch an education campaign to uphold core demands of the party leadership. To quote the Chinese defence ministry’s official web news link the press release indicates that the decree would ‘called for the institutionalizing of an ongoing education campaign on Party management, which focuses on study of the Party Constitution and code of conduct, as well as the speeches made by Xi.’
While such national power consolidations are moving ahead rapidly the fear of external influence on national elections of France and Germany are intensifying. The fear of election manipulation by third countries have always been a debate in the global south and geo-political rivalries during the cold war that led to many national election processes to be tampered by the United States and Soviet Union. Neither could inflict such interventions on each other or in any advanced society. Chalmers Johnson in his much quoted work ‘Blowback: The Costs and consequences of American Empire’ discusses over 60 instances where the CIA had colluded with various political groups to overthrow regimes or tamper in elections during the Cold war period.
"We cannot dismiss them because of who they are; for Sri Lanka’s own interest relations with Trump, Putin, Modi, Abe, Erdogan, Xi Jinping are equally important, we can’t afford to lose one for the sake of the other"
The difference now is that it seems that the most advanced democracies have become extremely vulnerable to external manipulations. From Democratic National Congress (DNC) email server hack, WikiLeaks revelations about Hillary Clinton, democratic elites and institutions have become vulnerable to well organized sophisticated political campaigns that strike at the core of any democracy. The core is the voters, citizenry and in advanced societies most of the people are connected online and depend significantly on social media interactions for their political education.
German and French liberal political elites fear that their arch rivals, the right wing nationalists and promotion of their narratives is back by a third country. The key concern here is that if Germany and France take a nationalist turn, or even one of them does the peace that these two countries achieved through the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 the precursor to European Community (EC) and eventually to European Union (EU) which led to historical rivals finally abandoned there hostilities leading to a stable and prosperous Europe may end. Such a scenario may further weaken the European Union leading to taking the European project to further crisis weakening the region and enabling powers like Russia to dominate the region.
There are many other forms of analysis to this challenge, the most favoured are the debates about the re-emergence of populism in national politics, which in sum is about inwardness, nationalism and a deep hatred to the globalist agenda. Populism will be a separate discussion on this column in the near future. The key observation that is raised in this article, are the two major political manifestations that has national properties inevitably leading to regional and global implications. Thus given the contentious nature of our neighbourhood, it is wise to develop myriad partnerships with many countries as possible and even try to connect with strong leaders that are emerging throughout the globe as they represent this new global reality.
We cannot dismiss them because of who they are; for Sri Lanka’s own interest relations with Trump, Putin, Modi, Abe, Erdogan, Xi Jinping are equally important, we can’t afford to lose one for the sake of the other.