Democracies need ‘different narrative’ to counter populists and autocrats’ soft power


After the Chinese Communist party’s celebratory 19th congress, which ended last week, some observers proclaimed Xi Jinping a new emperor, notes Harvard University’s Joseph Nye:

Mr Xi, for his part, called China a “great and strong” power and touted his Belt and Road infrastructure initiative to promote Chinese economic and political power around the world. The US used to be the world’s largest trading nation and its largest bilateral lender. Today nearly 100 countries count China as their largest trading partner, compared to 57 that have such a relationship with the US. China plans to lend more than $1tn for infrastructure projects over the next decade, while the US is cutting back aid programs and its contributions to the World Bank.

Are the alarmists right that China is winning the geopolitical card game with a declining US? Nye asks in the FT.

“One of the [US’s] high cards is geography. The US is surrounded by oceans and neighbors that are likely to remain friendly,” Nye notes, whereas China “has borders with 14 countries and has territorial disputes with India, Japan, Vietnam that set limits on its soft power.”

China’s United Front Work Department, a domestic and foreign lobbying organization that reports directly to the CCP Central Committee and is tasked with managing and influencing a wide range of issues perceived threatening to the Party, has been significantly expanded under Xi Jinping’s first five-year term, notes China Digital Times.

It is probable that Wang Huning (right), who sees a world divided by fundamentally different values and cultures, will be in charge of the party’s ideology and propaganda, The Economist notes.

Mr Wang’s book on his American sojourn, “America Against America”, published in 1991, lacks reflective qualities. While deploring America’s individualism and self-interest, Mr Wang fails to see the reach of philanthropy and voluntary organisations. And when he points to native Americans’ lack of political power, he seems blind to the parallel with Tibetans and Uighurs…..Wang’s book prophesies that….the American system based on “self-defeating” notions such as liberty and democracy would find itself in crisis.

“While the democracies hardly seemed to notice, the Chinese and the Russians in particular have been scaling up their activities in the realm of soft power, to which they now devote enormous energy and resources,” notes Marc F. Plattner, coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and former vice-president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. “The scope of Russia’s efforts in international media and disinformation have been highlighted by revelations about Russian interference in the U.S. and the French presidential elections. As a result, the West has finally begun paying serious attention to the international “information space,” he told a recent conference on “Democracy in Crisis” (above) hosted by the Korean Academy of Sciences in Seoul.

West needs rejuvenation

China is emerging as an economic superpower under a Leninist autocracy, controlled by one man. The rest of the world has no choice but to co-operate peacefully with this rising power. At the same time, those of us who believe in liberal democracy — the enduring value of the rule of law, individual liberty and the rights of all to participate in public life — need to recognise that China not only is, but sees itself, as a significant ideological rival, notes FT analyst Martin Wolf. The challenge occurs on two fronts:

  • First, the west has to keep a margin of technological and economic superiority, without developing an unduly adversarial relationship with Mr Xi’s China. China is our partner. It is not our friend.
  • Second and far more important, the west (fragile as it is today) has to recognise — and learn from — the fact that management of its economy and politics has been unsatisfactory for years, if not decades. The west let its financial system run aground in a huge financial crisis. It has persistently under-invested in its future. In important cases, notably the US, it has allowed a yawning gulf to emerge between economic winners and the losers. Not least, it has let lies and hatred consume its politics.

“The west needs rejuvenation,” The FT’s Wolf adds. “It must not abandon its core values, but make them live, once again. It must create more inclusive and dynamic economies, revitalise its politics and re-establish anew the fragile balance between the national and the global, the democratic and the technocratic that is essential to the health of sophisticated democracies.”

Liberal democracy will regain its former health only if voters are convinced not only of its intrinsic merits but also of its superiority to all the possible alternatives, Plattner argues in the latest issue of the JOD.

But the US and other democracies have a soft power advantage over authoritarians and populists, analysts suggest.

Echoing the primary recommendation of the Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia report, speakers at a recent forum stressed the importance of robust, sustained, and consistent U.S. engagement, particularly with Asia’s youth, The Asia Foundation’s Alexandra Matthews reports:

With an “unrivaled soft power base” in much of the region, the United States should continue to engage future leaders on issues that are important to them, like climate change, gender equality, civic identity, and education and capacity-building. While robust government-to-government ties should be sustained, it is critical for the U.S. government and non-governmental actors to work with local communities to identify their needs and determine how to speak to the aspirational goals of youth in Asia.

President Donald Trump leaves Friday for a nine-day trip to Asia, a continent that has stayed relatively free of the populism that has washed over the United States and Europe, notes Bennett Seftel, deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. But populist sentiment could catch fire, especially in Southeast Asia, given historic anti-democratic undertones, and trigger regional instability.

Furthermore, the growing threat of terrorism in the region may spur governments to adopt increasingly anti-democratic policies in an attempt to prevent the next attack. This trend could create fertile ground for emerging populist movements as opportunistic leaders on both ends of the political spectrum seek to leverage the global tide of populism, Seftel adds:

  • A recent survey conducted in September by the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore indicates that approximately 90 percent of Indonesians sees the implementation of sharia law as providing various benefits.
  • Indonesia also faces a domestic extremist threat, namely from Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and from citizens who fought with ISIS in Syria and Iraq who have returned home.
  • Indonesian authorities have said that a terrorist attack at a busy bus terminal in the capital of Jakarta in May, which left three police officers dead, was connected to ISIS.

“Populist authoritarianism surges when leaders instrumentalize democracy to acquire power, then systematically dismantle it to entrench their rule,” notes Dr R.M. Marty Natalegawa, Indonesian Foreign Minister from 2009-2014.

Around the world, countries once on the path to gradual reform now appear to have stalled or reversed their democratic transition,” he said, delivering the inaugural Centre for Policy Development annual lecture – the Menadue Oration –in Melbourne last night. To counter populism and authoritarianism, democracies like Australia and Indonesia must “provide a different narrative,” he said. “Our democracies can continue to deliver, but will only thrive by working together.”

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