It is time for a new Atlantic Charter: Environment, healthcare, technology and democratic liberalism can be its foundations.
One hundred years ago, there were no visas and passports for people to travel in Europe, America and their colonies. Then came World War I and things changed — national boundaries became rigid. Economic stagnation, and recession followed. Nationalism turned into ultra-nationalism, leading to another world war. After World War II, we created an interconnected and institutionalised global order. For the last 65 years, despite several hiccups, the world order has remained largely intact.
This pandemic threatens to undo that world order. Just as before, countries are turning inwards, becoming authoritarian. Some political scientists are predicting the rise of a more closed, narrow-nationalist world. Economists are writing off globalisation and free trade.
Where does this pessimism stem from? From a coronavirus virion? Not really. Two countries, considered the most powerful, have shaken the confidence of the entire world. Niall Ferguson, the American historian from the Hoover Institution, had called them “Chimerica”. For the last decade or more, China and America have created an economic relationship model that Ferguson compared with Nichibei, the US-Japan economic bonding prominently in existence until the end of the last century. Coronavirus has shown that Chimerica is just a chimera.
The Chinese leadership faces accusations of hiding facts from the world, allowing the virus to cross borders and turn into a pandemic. Till last week, their official figures stood at 82,000 infections and 4,500 deaths. Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, argues that the number of infections could be as high as 2.9 million instead.
Some countries don’t follow any conventional course. China is one of them. It follows what is described as “historical experience”. Whatever it is today, is a product of the long revolution that had culminated in Mao capturing power in 1949. The Chinese worldview is guided by three important principles: GDP-ism, China-centrism and Chinese exceptionalism — derived from that revolution.
Deng Xiaoping had reportedly declared in the 1980s that the most important logic is economic development. Chinese economists describe it as “GDPism”. The second is China-centrism. Mao insisted on independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency. “Ode to the motherland”, the famous patriotic song composed by Wang Shen that declares the “grand and beautiful” land of China “over the mountains, across the plains, across the Yangtze and Huang rivers” as the “dear home of ours”, is entrenched in the psyche of every Chinese. Third, is Chinese exceptionalism. China doesn’t believe in learning from others. China should follow its own wisdom for answers to its problems, its leaders insist.
The Chinese nationalist worldview has a parallel in history in pre-World War II Germany. Ethnic superiority, historical claims and the Aryan exceptionalism were all very familiar to the people of the world in the 1930s. When Hitler occupied Sudetenland, a German-speaking area of the former Czechoslovakia, Europe decided to appease him, rather than confront. Roosevelt was watching from afar when the European nations — like Britain, France and Italy — were celebrating the Munich Agreement. He even praised Hitler saying, “I am convinced that hundreds of millions throughout the world would recognise your action as an outstanding historic service to all humanity”.
Unsurprisingly, Hitler violated his promise of “no further aggression” in less than one year, and World War II began. Where Britain was in 1939-40 is where America stands today. The US president Donald Trump allowed coronavirus to devastate its states before finally waking up. As late as February 28, Trump was asking his supporters in South Carolina to not heed warnings about the virus outbreak in America. He was blaming the media for “hysteria” and calling the corona threat “their new hoax”. Now, the European nations, having cuddled up to China for “Belt and Road” benefits, are struggling to contain the pandemic fallout.
Interestingly, the countries that stood up to this contagion are mostly the Asian democracies. South Korea led the way, conducting more tests than America on a single day. Singapore undertook extensive testing, making a huge effort to track down any viral symptoms. Hong Kong and Taiwan, with their past experience of SARS fatalities, have taken timely measures to contain the virus effectively.
India, on the other hand, has set an example of democratic activism in combating the corona challenge. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, together with his colleagues, is leading from the front, and has successfully implemented a lockdown and social distancing measures, with full popular support. A country with a population of about 1.3 billion has reportedly seen about 17,610 active cases. Modi did not resort to any arbitrary or authoritarian measures though there were deliberate acts of provocation and misinformation like Islamophobia. In the face of such provocations, Modi displayed enormous equanimity, calm and optimism. He proved that democracies with visionary leadership can tackle such challenges without compromising on liberal values.
In the unfolding new world order, India, along with countries like America and Germany, can play a pivotal role in building a world based on “human-centric development cooperation” as suggested by Modi. It is time for a new Atlantic Charter: Environment, healthcare, technology and democratic liberalism can be its foundations.
China has an opportunity today, even as it faces opprobrium globally and unrest within the country. The Chinese Communist Party has a phrase, “Luxian Douzheng” or line struggle. It means power struggle for some, but it also denotes the struggle for a new party line. There were several in the past. Can the world hope for a better one now?
(The article was originally carried by Indian Express on April 30, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)