Tag Archives: China

Pandemics: a threat for democracy and an opportunity for international order.

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Giorgio Agamben, Italian philosopher, spoke recently again about the “State of Exception”, term used for the first time after 9/11, to show the risks for Western democracy to go towards totalitarianism. Besides terrorism, the world connected with information technology that spy on us started to erode democracy and freedom. But today the pandemics, more than terrorists or the Big Brother, are creating permanent States of Exception. The Corona virus is just the first one. Twenty years after the terrorist threat narrative now states have a new one: pandemics. And will be a longer lasting one.

Donald Trump won the presidency with the motto “America first”, inaugurating the idea of new competition in the international system, as I wrote three years ago on this E-IR article. This started to erode the Western liberal order based on cooperation among Western countries and also with the rest, to see if it was possible to transit toward a new world order, after 30 years since end of Bipolarism and Cold War. In the meantime, China tried to launch its race in the competition for the new World hegemony, taking advantage of American retrenchment, with the Belt and Road initiative. But no American or Chinese presidencies can do for the international order what a small germ is doing right now.

Domestic level: threats to democracy

The State of Exception is when the states are applying unusual extension of power, with the potential to transform democracies into authoritarian states. Even if we are still far from that, Western liberal democracies are more and more eroded in the last decades, with a process that we could define of authoritarianization making them increasingly resembling autocratic national models.

This State of Exception is based on the process of “securitization”, that transform an issue into matters of “security”, to enable extraordinary means by the state, and to make the population more and more controlled. It is always accompanied by the propaganda machine, the idea that something has to be sold to the population, before to be realized, and by the persuasion of the masses by the state using psychological tools as a famous BBC documentary showed. The problem is that today, with the current technological power, the mass surveillance can have new tools to closely monitoring people’s lives, with smartphones, cameras, drones and even bio technological tools (like in the need for checking the coronavirus infection)

Securitization and State of Exception happens for many reasons: risks of mass hysteria in social media times, fake news that fuel nationalism and populism, but mostly because the threats and challenges to national security and social cohesion are becoming more and more global but also immediate. This means that there are no borders that can protect from them and there is no time to discuss in Parliaments for solutions to acute crisis, when the gradual escalation become an explosion. This can happen for big terrorist attacks as well as for pandemics, natural disasters or even a meteorite that fall in the atmosphere (that by the way is still a possibility in the near future for the planet Earth).

Threats like pandemics, nuclear risks or natural disasters happen suddenly and give nation states no time to think, or debate in Parliaments, and no space to defend, with the need of creating global norms, and in future even a world government. Artificial intelligence and climate change are more gradual, but they also will have tipping points and moments of explosion. With the Corona virus crisis this has been evident. And nobody was prepared, not institutions and less populations, as usually happens. Italy has been the political experiment this time, like the US had been after 9/11. Italians were the first to be forced to stay home, actually more than a quarantine, in a de facto curfew, suspending Constitutional rights as possibility to assembly or meet together. The government had continuous interventions, with executive power growing at the expenses of Parliamentary discussion and sharing of information (actually the lack of clear information about the lethality of the virus is functional to the acceptance of extreme measures by the population).

The same is happening now with the rest of European continent, again the place for political experiments for the future of the world: the regional unification is the first example, and now with the emergency of the virus there will be a stronger unification, with the closure of the borders and even if initially the nation states tried to recuperate their sovereignty (some states closing independently the borders in the Schengen Area) the European Union retook the power. Great Britain is the only one that to keep economic growth and democratic survival will not shut down a society completely, also because made just in time to go out of the EU in a real clairvoyant way. They announced that the strategy will be to increase immunity and to accept in the meantime more losses: tears blood and sweat again.

But the point is that this democratic erosion is not eternal, and will see a Renaissance from the population, that will demand a new “social contract”. A social contract where the people will pretend from the institutions to participate more in the social security, in a new Res-publica with stronger social capital and a new resilience of the population. Modern nation states actually will have to develop it through a new “Civil Defense”[1] of national security (besides the military one) against these new threats for which the old national security institutions cannot do much.

This will make the Western democracy to adapt, transform and be born again, in a new style, more adept to modern times, where executive power is stronger because has the trust of the citizens, that will be able to control it with new tools.

International level: opportunity for new world order

At international level, the current international competition, after almost three decades of cooperation since the end of Cold War, is like a new war, but a nonviolent one. To make a winner it uses mostly economic power, but also soft power (and sharp one from the dictatorships like Russia and China). Until now China seemed to win. Now things will start to change.

China will bring more and worst SARS in future as they did in the past, losing its even small soft power of attraction (even if will try to regain it helping the countries around the world, like is doing now with Italy). To change a culture is not like to change an economic system: if Deng Xiao Ping was quick to open China to international markets, Xi Jinping will struggle to convince one and half billion of Chinese to stop eating and trading wild animals. But China is only one of the many countries from where viruses and pandemics could come in the future (as Ebola showed us). So, the international system will see competition among states, to make clear who will resist and react better to these new threats.

At the beginning the “natural selection” among countries with different abilities to survive and strive in times of crises will come out. Nevertheless, with the time the countries will try to create a new international order. These countries, the “winner” in the international competition in time of crisis (mostly economic but also social crisis, as the pandemics make people more depressed and less resilient) will be able to agree on a new international system, based on reciprocal support for the times of crisis. This initial natural selection will be based mostly on economic struggle.

The world economy with this pandemic crisis will create a gigantic shock that will force states to cooperate. With the virus there will be an economic crisis probably much worst that 1929. If we don’t freeze the system in the next few months, we will actually need a new Marshall Plan as weak countries will collapse, failing even in the West. We don’t have much time, unless we act soon 2020 will be remembered as the worst year of modern times in world economy, with the worst global economy and financial crisis until now. But maybe the renaissance could come from the green economy. Actually, with the virus for the climate change there are very good news: we had a big reduction in carbon dioxide and this will continue as more states are shutting down. This is good news also for the economy: we could come out of this gigantic crisis with new ideas for a green and sustainable economy.

Therefore, for global threats we will need international cooperation, even a new world government before the end of this century if we want the species survival, as the treats will be quite big (in particular pandemics, artificial intelligence and climate change). Actually, the human species will be able to survive probably only if it finds a way to deal with these global threats in a unified way, and the sooner the better, at least by the end of this century. Competition will make space to cooperation relatively “soon”.

Unfortunately, human race always come together only through real suffering. This virus will also make humankind more united, but much bigger pain will come. We don’t have to give up to democracy and international cooperation though, as they are the two pillars that made us come till here. We must continue this path. Will not be easy but we owe to our future generations.

 

[1] Civil Defense or Civil Protection is the protection of the citizens of a state from external attacks or natural disasters, following the principles of emergency operations like prevention, mitigation, resilience or emergency evacuation and recovery. It has never been really applied, even if the nuclear era made it a possibility, but today and in the future of our world will be more and more important, as the threats will not be military but more and more health crisis, natural disasters and maybe even spatial ones in the near future.

Are democracies and autocracies around the world experiencing a rapprochement in terms of length of governments?

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Indonesian and Indian most populated democracies, Russian and Chinese widest autocracies, European and American oldest democracies: is the ‘shadow of the future’ making them more similar in terms of duration of government?

I have been working as researcher at the Carter Center in Atlanta for almost two months now, during my summer program, on issues regarding democracy in Latin America, and in specific about the electoral reforms in 11 Latin American countries. But besides Latin America other continents new experiments with democracy are also worth to be analyzed, in particular in the Asian continent. In Asia there are the two biggest democracies of the world, India and Indonesia, but also two of the three biggest countries of the planet, Russia and China. So it worth to have some periodic reflections on democracy looking not only to the so called “Western” hemisphere but also to the “Eastern” one (even if as I wrote in the page “Geographical and mental maps” all is relative and we should start to call the “emerged land surface” with different words to overcome our ethnocentrism, so let’s call them “American hemisphere” and “Asian hemisphere”).

 

To briefly analyze some recent news about the two biggest world democracies we have to say first of all that there have been elections recently in both of them. India voted between April and May this year with the largest-ever election (more than 800 million people eligible to vote with a turnout of 2/3). The first party was the Bharatiya Janata Party, the right-wing and Hindu nationalist party, social conservative and economic neoliberal, with Narendra Modi nominated as the new Prime Minister (after ten years of Manmohan Singh with the Indian National Congress, the other traditional big party in India). Indonesia few days ago, the 9th of July, went to vote for its third presidential election since the birth of democracy with the fall of Suharto in 1998. Joko Widodo, the ‘young’ ex-mayor of Jakarta, seems to have won, even if his opponent, the ex-general Prabowo Subianto, declared also victory. If the results will be confirmed in few weeks (the count is long for such a big population living in 17 thousand islands!) the Indonesian Democratic Party, the party of the ex-Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, will go back to power after ten years of government of the Democratic Party of Indonesia (with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono). So the democratic need for the turnover will be guaranteed.

 

But here more than the turnover I want to take a look at the duration of the governments in these two democracies and in general in the democracies around the world. Democratic governments have always had the problem of not enough long  policies, because of short duration of governments, or not enough efficient policies, because of the need of being reelected. But taking these two countries and many others as example it seems that all over the planet big or old democracies and big or old autocracies appear to get closer to each other with respect to the duration of their leaders (and may be not only in that). In fact if in China the president, that is also the secretary of the communist party, last 10 years, in democratic countries like India, Indonesia, but also the US and in many European countries(1), more and more in the last decades the Presidents or Prime Ministers managed to win two or three mandates, lasting also at least a decade (or 8 year in the case of the US). And after that usually there is the alternation of power with the opposite party. This might be a contingency but it could also mean that democracies and autocracies likewise might see the importance of political stability, in particular in the continuous changing world of our globalization era, knowing that to have effective policies with lasting outcomes we need more than just 4 or 5 years. Differently from each other obviously the democracies have after a period the change of the party in power while the autocracies change the person but not the party (like in China) or just shift the leadership between presidency and head of government (like in Russia). But still the similarity in a ‘stability need’ could be a real presence. Obviously in democracies you still have to respond to your constituencies but the people seem to understand this need of longer governments and seem to give a second support and chance to their leaders. The biggest risk for the democracies though, in the case when the governments manage to remain in power around a decade, is if the leaders push for indefinite reelections and so indefinite governments. In this case, in particular if there is not an efficient system of check and balances that guarantee a real democratic competition, the risk is to get closer to autocracies than remain real democracies. This is what seems to happen actually in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua for example, that created recently the possibility of infinite reelection and don’t have a system that guarantee free and fair elections and an inclusive democratic system.

 

Let’s see what the future will bring us but for the time being this is the reflection we can do regarding the length of governments around the world. Besides the fact that Asian democracies may be new but appear already quite strong, if we consider that they seems to overcome two of the major risks of other fledgling democracies: sectarianism and totalitarianism. The first is related with the desire of mixing religion and politics, as happened in some of the Arab countries after revolutions. In this sense both India and Indonesia give some example of more maturity: India, even if has the Hindu nationalist party in power now, has no state religion and has in the constitution the division between state and religion. And Indonesia, even if is the biggest Muslim country in the world, never had the idea of Islamic parties in the government, as the constitution guarantee the freedom of religion (with six official faiths) and also the division between state and religion. The second risk, totalitarianism, starts often with the desire to mix the need for strong and stable governments with the craving for despotic or political-military leadership (like the desire of caudillismo in some Latin American countries is showing). And also here India and Indonesia have better scores, even if Indonesia still struggle on this, being Subianto an ex general. But if Jokowi will bring home the victory Indonesia will have given a good record of a quite healthy system, just 15 years since the beginning of his democratization process.

 

So for now we can say W India and Indonesia. At least their example is giving us hope for the future of democracy in the world. And may be could also help old democracies to renew their identity with new perspectives, in particular on how to deal and manage campaigns, money and media (but we will talk about this in future posts).

 

(1) Just to cite few examples: Angela Merkel is German chancellor since 2005, Silvio Berlusconi has been Italian Prime Minister since 2001 to 2011 (with an interruption between 2006 and 2008), Jacques Chirac was president of France since 1995 to 2007 and Mitterand since 1981 to 1995, Gonzalez was Spanish Prime Minister between 1982 and 1996 and Jean-Claude Juncker has been the longest-serving head of government of any European Union country, being Prime Minister of Luxembourg since 1995 to 2013.