By Danilo Türk
The situation has changed dramatically over the past three decades. The political, economic and technological changes that happened in our generation have produced a pluralistic global society characterized by a plurality of different, powerful and competing versions of modernity.
The days of simplifications such as “the end of history” announced by Francis Fukuyama three decades ago are long gone. The erstwhile optimism over globalization expressed in the metaphor that “the world is flat” has all but evaporated. Even the once powerful theory of the “clash of civilizations” looks simplistic and largely useless in our era of plurality of different versions of modernity.
We live in a multipolar world. But multi-polarity today is deeper than the traditional power politics and considerations of balance of power. While the existing power play between the US, China and Russia dominates the security landscape of the world, the reality of multi-polarity reaches much more deeply. It implies a diversity of conceptions of modernity, of domestic order and legitimacy of the state, as a result, a variety of visions of the international order.
Interestingly, today’s multi-polarity reinforces some of the basic, historically established premises of statehood. Legitimacy of states rests on effective governance and not necessarily on the ideals of liberal democracy. State sovereignty is not outmoded – it only requires a clear understanding that sovereignty means effectiveness, responsible governance and, I should add, the strengthening of the rule of law.
The ideals of liberal democracy – until recently considered by many as a matter of universal aspiration, have been dramatically weakened by the failure of liberal democracies to deliver. The leading democratic systems of the world have become victims of their complacency and seem to have fallen into what David Runciman, a prominent Cambridge Scholar of politics, aptly described as “the Confidence Trap”.
The dysfunctions characterizing the major democratic systems today - such as the role of the “big money” in elections, the omnipresence of “reality show politics” or the growth of politics of fear and provincialism have become a characteristic of some of the main democratic systems. As a result, liberal democracy has lost much of its erstwhile persuasiveness and allure. Countries like China are clearly not prepared to accept lecturing by the liberal democracies on how to conduct their own development. The systems of liberal democracy have to be repaired before they become again a credible candidate for leadership among the choices of different models of modernity and development.
In addition, the political decision makers of today have to understand the changing realities of hard power. Here too, the rise of China represents a feature of fundamental importance. The strength of China is growing in terms of its economic weight, its military muscle and its geopolitical clout. Its power on land has been supplemented by its growing power in the South China Sea, by its growing presence around the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and its investments in ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well as in a modest naval base in Djibouti.
Such advances have led to concerns at the international level and have produced yet another theory advanced by a Harvard professor – political scientist Graham Allison, who warns of a risk of falling victim to what he calls “the Thucydides Trap”.
The Peloponesian War, analysed by Thucydides in one of the most brilliant books ever written by a historian, was started by Sparta, an established power, out of fear of the rising power of Athens. Professor Allison studied a number of similar situations in the past centuries and concluded that there is a pattern. In history, many among such situations ended in war. Today, following this pattern would mean a devastating war of large, perhaps global proportions.
It is obvious that such a scenario must be avoided. Professor Allison himself emphasized the “moral obligation to steer away from the Thucydides trap.”
Significantly, we find the clue in the Thucydides’ writings themselves. In his “Peloponesian War”, book I, paragraph 23, Thucydides indeed described the cause of war as a result of the fear of Sparta faced by the growing power of Athens. However, he saw no inevitability in the sliding into the war. A reader will be well advised to read the argument against the war voiced by Archidamos, the king of Sparta, in Book I, paragraphs 78 – 85. His argument against the war could be used today to counter any deterministic view suggesting that wars are inevitable.
So, how should the relations between an established power and a rising one be managed today? One simple answer heard in many variations today is – containment. However, that answer too has serious flaws. Containment, in order to be credible, has to include a real possibility of war. This creates a form of cold-war pattern that could seem stable, yet permanently on the brink of sliding into a war.
There must be a better option. Significantly, China has proposed “a new type of relations among the great powers” and the aspiration to seek “a win-win outcome”. While this positive language can be read as an offer of peaceful and equitable cooperation, the western commentators, in particular those who follow the realist tradition in the western political thought, tend to interpret this as a demand for strategic parity between China and the US.
The 19th congress of the CPC has emphasized that the objective of China is to build a “global community of shared future.” In the West again this might be perceived as nice language covering more selfish ambitions of China. In China the understanding is likely to be much more serious and genuinely oriented towards a positive transformation of the international system.
A small terminological nuance is important in this context. While initially the term used (in the English version) was “global community of shared destiny” it was later replaced by the words “shared future”. The explanation offered by the Chinese scholars is that the terminology of “common future” suggests a common effort, something that all members of the international community build together and avoids the deterministic interpretation that might follow from the words “common destiny”.
The author is non-resident senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. This article is an excerpt from Danilo Türk`s speech at the University of Cambridge.