Future of US-China relations is most challenging geopolitical issue of our time: Falk

TEHRAN, Mar. 22 (MNA) – Richard Anderson Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, says “The future of US/China relations is the most challenging geopolitical issue of our time.”

Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says “It matches two global states from distinct civilizational outlooks. The US and China are both what I call ‘global states,’ whose contours and even presence, cannot be assessed by territorial borders.”

Following is the full text of the interview:

What are the most important reasons for the rise of right wing politics and extreme nationalists in Europe and America?

Many speculations exist as to why these unexpected developments have occurred over the course of recent years. There is no doubt that a core explanation is the widespread alienation arising from the effects of neoliberal globalization, which has seemed to distribute the benefits of economic growth unfairly, making the very rich even richer while leaving most people in society worse off. Such a pattern seems systemic as it happening in so many countries, although the mix of reasons vary depending on national circumstances. A second set of explanations arises from the refugee and migrant flows that have arisen in the course of the long civil strife in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, which are perceived to challenge the social and ethnic cohesion of many European societies. Closely related are ‘climate refugees’ who seek to achieve a tolerable life by moving to more affluent countries, which reinforce resistance in these countries based on labor pressures to retain jobs and keep wages at higher levels. Against this background, an increasing segment of the public in Europe and North America is ready to support leaders that promise to protect the interests of the territorial citizenry and blame economic globalization for lost jobs and income inequalities due to its policies of privileging the flow and efficiency of capital over the wellbeing of people. In this sense, the majority of people in these societies seem responsive to explanations of their distress by leaders with highly nationalistic viewpoints, and seem ready to give up democratic values by supporting autocratic leaders that violate human rights. This pattern is not only visible in the West, but also in other parts of the world, including India, Brazil, and Philippines.

One of the most important issues related to the developments in the Middle East was the announcement of the US withdrawal from the region. But in practice this has not happened. Do you think the US really intends to pull its troops out of the region? And if so, why?

It does seem that military disengagement from the region is a genuine policy objective of Trump and a main campaign promise in 2016, but there is friction coming from the main forces that have controlled American foreign policy ever since 1945, what I call the three pillars: Wall St., Pentagon, and a bit later, Israel, more or less in this order. How this friction will affect the timing and rate of withdrawal probably depends on many factors, including the further unfolding of the current overarching health crisis, and whether signals of confrontation or accommodation come from Iran. It is difficult to predict at this point, but unless there are unexpected regional flareups military disengagement should proceed, and the US presidential elections may hasten the process. The redeployment of American troops from three bases in Iraq after recent rocket attacks, while not an instance of withdrawal, did seem to move in the direction of disengagement.

One of the major problems facing the US now and in the future is China. Various Western security documents, including a statement from the Munich Security Conference with China, have been cited as a threat. How will America be able to contain China? Will the containment policy work?

The future of US/China relations is the most challenging geopolitical issue of our time. It matches two global states from distinct civilizational outlooks. The US and China are both what I call ‘global states,’ whose contours and even presence, cannot be assessed by territorial borders. Both have a global non-territorial reach that no other political actor possesses, but there the similarity ends. The US depends primarily on its military capabilities to punish and coerce those states that it regards as hostile to its global ambitions. Iran (and Venezuela) is the current leading example, as victimized by ‘the maximum pressure’ approach based on threats and punitive sanctions. In contrast, China has brilliantly extended its influence and increased its prosperity by reliance on non-military instruments of expansion, including trade, investment, and foreign assistance. The two global states exemplify an encounter between hard and soft power foreign policies, giving rise to a unique rivalry in the history of international relations.

This rivalry does pose risks of a new cold war or even war in the sense of armed combat. When an ascending power threatens the previously dominant political actor, as China is now threatening to overtake the US, there are many instances in history, where war has resulted, most frequently by the leading state seeking to defeat the challenger while it still seems to have the upper hand. Of course, the prospect of a war fought with nuclear weapons leads to greater caution on the part of leaders than in the past, but it does not give us confidence that current leaders will act prudently and rationally under pressure in a crisis, or if perceiving a threat.

I am not sure whether ‘containment’ is relevant to fashioning a Western response to the Chinese challenge. Containment was a doctrine developed to deter military expansion, initially of the Soviet Union. It was in a geopolitical context in which two hard power leading states were in competition, economically and ideologically throughout the world. Containing a soft power global state such as China has already taken the form of trade wars and efforts to curtail Chinese penetration of foreign markets. To an alarming extent, this kind of confrontation has accelerated during the Trump presidency, fueled by the adoption of a nationalistic and transactional policy agenda.

The outbreak of the Coronavirus points out that there are threats that are more easily resolved through cooperation among countries. Will the international community learn from the damage caused by the spread of the virus, and will we see increased international cooperation to address global threats?

The incentivizing of global cooperation may become the silver lining of the COVID-19 challenge. It has become obvious to even the most nationalist viewpoints that we help ourselves by helping others, and hurt ourselves by hurting others. Only by cooperating in good faith can constructive responses to the spread of this virus be achieved. What is true in relation to the Coronavirus pandemic is also true for other issues of global scope: extreme poverty, climate change, global migration, biodiversity, militarism and nuclear weaponry.

Extending the experience in relation to health policy to other policy domains may not be so easy. The transfer to these other areas is rendered difficult, or impossible, if the benefits of cooperation are uneven, less immediate, and more abstract. Also, governmental resistance is likely to occur whenever there are special interests embedded in bureaucratic structures and the private sector. This resistance arises, in part, from continuing to regard international relations as a zero-sum, win/lose contest rather than an arena in which seeking win/win outcomes bring the more enduring gains for all.

What will be the economic impacts of the Coronavirus on the world economy? How will this affect the upcoming US presidential election?

It is too soon to tell what the economic impacts will be, but it seems as if these impacts will be severe, both for the world economy and all national economies, especially hitting hard the most vulnerable parts of the population. There will be variations from state to state depending on their resources, the discipline of different societies, and the skill of government officials. It appears at present as though the world economy will experience a collapse comparable to the situation that produced the Great Depression of the 1930s, and contributed to the outbreak of Fascism and World War II. This current Coronavirus challenge is unfolding in unprecedented ways, and our assessments must be tentative and frequently updated as it proceeds on uncharted territory.

The same cautionary attitude shapes my response to the effects on the November elections in the United States. As of now, it would seem to hurt Trump’s chances of reelection because the leader at the time of downturn is held responsible by many voters for results, independent of fault. If the economy is doing well, the incumbent president reaps the benefits, whether deservedly on not, while if it is doing badly, existing leaders are held responsible whether or not at fault. In addition, this interpretation is reinforced by the fact that many Americans, including Republicans, felt that Trump handled the challenge badly, especially at its crucial early stages, belittling the seriousness of the spread of such disease, and thereby postponing self-isolating steps to slow the spread of the disease. But there are many unknowns between now and the elections. If the situation does not improve, or worsens, it is easy to imagine a situation where the elections are postponed in accord with the state of emergency, while if the situation unexpectedly improves, Trump might easily win reelection, especially if opposed by such a weak candidate as Joe Biden.

What do you know about the most important international developments in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East over the past year?

Such a question is so broad that it is difficult to answer briefly, but I will try. Without doubt, as my earlier responses suggest, the Coronavirus pandemic overshadows all other recent developments both by the magnitude of its health challenges and by the gravity of its non-health impacts. Other international developments of note are the continuing ordeal of vulnerable minorities, including the Rohingya in Myanmar, Kashmiris in India, and the Palestinian people, who additionally are likely to be the least protected against the ravages wrought by the virus. In addition, the struggles in several Middle East countries exhibit continuing chaos, massive displacement, and ongoing violence. Syria, Yemen, and Libya continue to experience chaos and strife without any serious capacity to restore peace and normalcy. As well, in the same Middle East region there has been a second wave of popular challenges to the established order in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Algeria, as well as nearby Sudan that suggest that the conditions that led to the Arab Spring a decade earlier continues to produce social unrest and political protest. A final set of developments can be associated with the disappointing failures to move forward with respect to the threats associated with climate change despite fires of savage intensity in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and across huge tracts of land in Australia. These threats highlighted the urgency of a cooperative approach to issues of ecological balance, while the behavior of important states seemed to produce a regressive, head-in-the-sand trend toward the embrace of ultra-nationalist foreign policies and transactional geopolitics, thoroughly dysfunctional from a problem-solving perspective.

Interview by Javad Heirannia

News Code 156941

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