ODVV Interview: The Decline of us Helmed...
After the Second World War, the United Nations was established and the five strongest global powers (China, France, the UK, the US, and the USSR) were given permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, the organization's most powerful decision-making body. Following the war, the US and the USSR were the two strongest global powers, and this created a bi-polar power dynamic in international affairs, commonly referred to as the Cold War. American hegemony during this time has been described as "Empire by invitation". During the Cold War both hegemons competed against each other directly (during the arms race) and indirectly (via proxy wars). Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the United States was the world's sole hegemonic power.
These conditions caused the US to attack Afghanistan under the pretext of the events of 11 September 2001, and in 2003, it invaded Iraq under the pretext of having weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the US intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, mainly by imposing sanctions, caused the violation of the basic rights of many citizens of the countries. However, at the end, the United States was not able to control the situation and left Afghanistan after twenty years, while, the political, social, and economic situation of Iraq, Libya and other effected countries did not also improve as expected, and the United States made few achievements in these areas. All these cases indicate that the undisputed power of America in the world was challenged, and all countries no longer recognize America as the solid superior hegemony.
In this light, the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence (ODVV) has made and interview with Dr. Chandra Muzaffar to discuss the US hegemony and its impact on other countries. Chandra Muzaffar is a Malaysian political scientist, and an Islamic reformist and activist. He has written on civilization dialogue, human rights, Malaysian politics and international relations.
Muzaffar was the first Director of the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur. He then became the Noordin Sopiee Professor of Global Studies at the University of Science (USM) in Penang.
From 1977 to 1991, he founded Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran); a multi-ethnic reform group in Malaysia for justice, freedom and solidarity. He later became the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to raise public consciousness on the moral and intellectual basis of global justice.
Many analysts argue that US helmed hegemony is in decline. Yet the US remains the world’s strongest military power. How do you explain this?
The US is the strongest military power in terms of its assets--- combat planes, naval submarines, cruise missiles, etc. It also has some 750 to 800 military bases all over the world. But we forget that this mighty military has not won a major war since the end of the Second World War in 1945. It was defeated in Korea (1950-3) and Vietnam (1961-75). It conquered Iraq in 2003 and killed Saddam Hussein but failed to convert that Arab nation into a puppet state. It murdered Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but today Libya is in shambles. It failed to oust Bashar Assad but has reduced the once sovereign state of Syria into a fragmented society. US and NATO occupied Afghanistan for 20 years but in August 2021, they were forced to retreat from that country surrendering power to the Taliban. It shows that the exercise of US military power has more often than not resulted in failures and chaos.
Has US political influence also declined?
This is obvious especially if we look at West Asia and North Africa (WANA), a region which the US dominated with impunity for a long while. An example of the decline of US power would be the ability of China to help Saudi Arabia and Iran to re-establish ties after years of animosity. That China has been able to do this is proof that its power and influence in WANA commands respect among both US’s allies and its foes. Yet another manifestation of the decline of US power is its failure to isolate Iran. The Saudi-Iran reproachment aside, Iran has more clout over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, and a number of other states in WANA today than in the past. In fact, among ordinary people in the region Iran is held in high esteem because of its success in resisting US hegemony and Israeli machinations. Outside WANA, the other compelling evidence of the decline of US political influence is in the reactions of states in the Global South as a whole to the war in Ukraine. The US thought that all these states would take the side of the US in that war and condemn Russia as the invader. While many do not endorse Russia’s military operation against Ukraine of 24th February 2022, most of the Global South is conscious of US and NATO expansion close to Russia’s borders and how that has led to the Russian response. The Global South knows that US hegemony and the use of NATO as a war machine constitute the real threat to global peace. That widespread perception is a measure of the decline of US political power in the contemporary world.
How much economic clout does the US wield today in the global arena?
Of course, the US is still in control of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, institutions which wield some influence over the global economy. The US dollar is still the world’s most important reserve currency. In a sense, the dollar is a much more crucial pillar of US hegemony than its military.
Nonetheless, things are changing. The de-dollarisation of the global economy has begun in earnest. A number of countries today no longer depend upon the dollar for their external trade. They are using their own currency for bilateral and even multilateral trade. This includes states that are generally seen as close to the US.
It is equally important to emphasize that the most important player in the global economy today is China. China dominates global trade. It is the major trading partner of the majority of states. It is also the world’s most critical investor nation. It has huge investments in infrastructure projects all over the Global South. The massive Belt Road Initiative (BRI) it has undertaken which is both a land based and maritime driven project involving numerous countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Europe will ensure that China remains the lynchpin of the global economy for decades to come.
What endows the Chinese economy with added strength is its huge national reserves. It not only bestows its economy with strength and stability but also enables the nation to offer credit to a number of other countries. Contrast this with the position of the US as one of the world’s biggest debtor nations. Its gross national debt hit 32 trillion dollars on the 16th of June 2023.
This huge debt is a stark signal of the decline of US economic power.
Has the impact of American culture upon people in the Global South also decreased in recent decades?
It is significant that a concerted attempt to ‘persuade’ others to accept a certain aspect of contemporary American culture has failed. I am referring to the practice of homosexuality and specifically, the projection of same sex marriage as a norm. The president of the United States of America himself, Barack Obama, sought to promote the idea in his tour of a number of African states in the last two years of his presidency. He not only presented same sex marriage as a human right but also as many champions of that practice in the West often do, clothed it as “an expression of love” between human beings. Many African leaders not only rejected Obama’s sales pitch. They saw it as an insensitive move by an American leader to impose a practice which was contrary to their own indigenous value system. For them it was nothing less than a form of cultural imperialism.
While opposition to cultural imperialism has been an integral dimension of the endeavour to preserve one’s own cultural heritage in many parts of the world for ages, it is the increasing popularity of aspects of various non-Western cultures in the Global South in recent decades that has reduced the impact of American and Western culture upon our societies. Korean and Hindi music and movies; Chinese and Indian cuisine; yoga and meditation have made inroads into many societies offering alternatives to what was associated with the West in the past.
The upshot of it all has been the relocation of Western culture or aspects of Western culture in non-Western societies as one of many choices available to the discerning citizen whose horizons continue to widen in a more inclusive direction.
Are societal standards associated with the US as ‘universal’ as they once appeared to be?
Because of the US’s decline in almost all spheres --- from the military and political to the economic and cultural ---- it has in recent years seized upon another measure to assert its power. It talks of standards that nations should adhere to. Invariably, the standards it highlights are standards associated with the West. For instance, it highlights outstanding universities. Most of them are leading universities in the US or Britain. Or the Western media may seek to enunciate standards in governance. The countries with the loftiest standards of governance are almost always in the West, though the US may not be among them. The idea is to project the West as the best. Or some group in the West may come up with the idea of ranking cities of the world according to their livability. While one or two non-Western cities may make it to the top ten, most of the winners would be from the West.
The criteria used to determine the ranking of nations or cities or universities are seldom subjected to critical analysis. They are accepted as ‘truths,’ without much reflection. Those of us who are in the non-Western world are expected to strive hard to attain the standards set for us. They are regarded as ‘universal’ when actually they may not be.
What we should do in the non-Western world is to subject our institutions and societies to vigorous evaluation. We should be self-critical and introspective. We should improve our performance by setting high standards for ourselves. we are told that this is how Japanese society charted its own progress. It drew example and inspiration from its own history and culture to develop institutions related to education, health care, social welfare and public safety.
What is the impact of US hegemony upon human rights, especially since the US has imposed unilateral sanctions on a number of countries in the Global South?
Unilateral sanctions imposed by the US upon various countries are a blatant violation of human rights. We know from the experiences of so many countries that sanctions have not only deprived people of food and medicines but have also led to numerous deaths. The cruel and inhuman impact of sanctions has seldom been highlighted in the mainstream media. There should be a concerted, organized effort by numerous bodies across nations and continents carried out over a long period of time to inform and educate people on what US sanctions have done to people.
People should be made aware that most of the time unilateral sanctions by the US are meant to punish a government leadership or a state that refuses to toe the US line or to weaken resistance to US hegemony mounted by a leadership that upholds certain principles such as the principle of self-determination or the principle of protecting national sovereignty. Cuba and Venezuela in Latin America, Iran and Syria in WANA are among the notable victims of US sanctions.
There are times that the US seeks legitimacy from the UN Security Council to impose the sanctions it intends to against a certain state. UNSC legitimacy does not diminish the injustice of the sanctions imposed in any way. The manipulation of the UNSC in this manner should be roundly condemned by all concerned. Sanctions should be recognized for what they are. They constitute an act of war. They should be abolished. Can we think of a situation where a state violates all civilized norms, killing people without mercy and oppressing the masses……. would we impose sanctions against the leadership of such a state if it is the only way of putting an end to its roguish behaviour? In such a situation, one could perhaps seek the endorsement of 90% of the members of the UN General Assembly to act against the leadership of the rogue state. Even then, the sanctions should be carefully monitored to ensure that only the leadership pays the price, not the people. And those sanctions should be lifted as soon as the objective is accomplished.
For a number of years, the US leadership has projected itself as a champion of democracy and yet we know that it has given unstinting support to dictatorial regimes in Latin America, Africa and Asia who are ever ready to advance US interests. How does one explain this contradiction?
That the US has no qualms about sidelining a democratically elected leader and replacing him with an autocrat is borne out by an episode that occurred in Iran in 1953. The Iranian prime minister at that time was Dr Mohammed Mossadegh, a popularly elected leader who felt strongly about ensuring that the Iranian people controlled their own resources --- specifically its abundant oil ---- and benefited directly from it. The British oil company that controlled Iranian oil was against the new policy. Subsequently, British Intelligence teamed up with US intelligence and plotted to overthrow Mossadegh. They reinforced the position of the monarch who then faithfully obeyed American and British dictates on Iranian oil.
In Indonesia in 1965, the US staged a coup to marginalize President Sukarno who sought to preserve the country’s independent, non-aligned position and brought to the fore a general, Suharto, who was inclined towards pursuing US interests, specifically its geopolitical goals in Southeast Asia. An even more dramatic move took place in 1973 when the US orchestrated the assassination of the elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, who was planning to nationalize the country’s copper industry. In Chile, as in Indonesia, a general, Pinochet, was installed in power. Pinochet, needless to say, was ruthless in his authoritarianism. His rule proved once again that when it comes to pursuing its narrow economic interests, the US does not hesitate to crush democratic institutions or values in a particular society.
There are apologists for US hegemony who argue that setting aside democratic principles for economic interests or geopolitical considerations is something that happened in the past, in the fifties, sixties and seventies. US policy in the 21st century, they say, has given more weight to democratic concerns. This is not true at all. In 2006, the US government spearheaded the Western chorus that refused to recognize Hamas’s clear-cut victory in the Palestinian general election. There was a concerted attempt to isolate Hamas because of its electoral triumph.
If Palestine is a special case because of Israel’s unique relationship with the US --- as some opine --- one has to look at just one other episode to convince oneself that geopolitics and economics continue to trump democracy in the superpower’s calculations in the 21st century. Oil rich Venezuela has faithfully upheld democratic freedoms in the last few decades, including holding a series of free and fair elections but because it is committed to socialism and an independent foreign policy, it has become the target of US wrath. On 11th April 2002, the US engineered a coup to oust its elected president, the late charismatic Hugo Chavez. The coup failed because the people rose up and through mass action returned Chavez to power. Even after his death on 5th March 2013, there have been numerous attempts by the US and its underlings in the region and within the country to undermine his successor, Nicolo Maduro, who has remained committed to socio-economic reforms that empower the poor through the democratic process. Venezuela is a vivid illustration of the US’s lack of fidelity to democratic principles when such norms are linked to socialist egalitarianism.
In general, please tell us how a multipolar world will benefit humankind and what can all of us, especially citizens of the Global South do to expedite the emergence of a world where power is diffused and dispersed?
In a multi-polar world there will be numerous centres of power. There will be no single state or coalition of states dictating and determining global politics or the global economy or global culture or the global media. As of now, China and Russia are two centres of power. Some would argue that Iran is a third centre of power. Within that region which some analysts describe as ‘ Eurasia’, Turkiye and Kazakhstan given their demographic strength may eventually emerge as centres of power. looking at other parts of the world, in Northeast Asia, Japan is already a centre of power. So is South Korea. If South Korea and North Korea are re-unified one day, which is a possibility, a single Korean nation will exercise a great deal of power and influence regionally and internationally. southeast Asia has two nations that stand out. Indonesia has the fourth largest population in the world. It is a culturally diverse nation with 7000 communities. It is also the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population. In developmental terms, its progress has been sure and steady. Vietnam is another nation with a fairly substantial population, of a 100 million . Its socio-economic development in the last decade and half, has been remarkable. The people are resilient --- a resilience acquired through their struggle against the French colonisers then the American imperialists. The Vietnamese have also striven to protect their independence in the face of challenges from its large Chinese neighbour.
In South Asia, all three heavily populated states, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are present and potential centres of power. India, with the world’s largest population, is already a centre of power. Besides, it has a solid scientific base and is one of a handful of states that is actively involved in space exploration. west Asia presents a more complex situation. If Israel ceases to oppress the Palestinians, and gets rid of its racist, apartheid character, it would join the ranks of the centres of power from the region. So would Palestine if it is liberated and allowed to attain full nationhood. Its highly educated populace and the resilience it has displayed in its valiant struggle for justice suggest that the Palestinians have the potential to become a great nation. Iraq is a third nation in West Asia which could become a centre of power. It is strategically located and blessed with oil. But it must first regain its economic strength attain political stability, and achieve a degree of social cohesion.
Turning to North Africa, Egypt, given its history and demographics, has the potential to become a centre of power. Libya and Algeria, both endowed with oil wealth, also have the potential. The latter has a revolutionary past as witnessed by its heroic quest for independence from French colonial rule.
In the rest of Africa, there are countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa which will play a prominent role in the regional and international arenas in the decades to come. Nigeria, numerically the biggest among them has a population of 213.4 million. However, it has to overcome deep ethnic and religious and ethnic schisms within before it can make an impact. Tanzania and Kenya have populations of 63.6 and 53 million respectively. Like many other countries in the Global South, they are also grappling with challenges of development. South Africa, with one of Africa’s most ethnically and culturally diverse populations, is confronted with both developmental challenges and the daunting mission of uniting a divided society made even more complicated by the legacy of apartheid. But still it is a nation of hope and promise led in its initial years in the nineties by a magnanimous soul called Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s magnanimity remains one of South Africa’s assets as it moves forward.
There are hopeful signs in Latin America too. Brazil has a population of 214 million and is once again under the progressive leadership of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. It is attempting to pursue people centred policies within the framework of BRICS ( Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) a grouping that seeks to chart a path to progress that is distinguishable from the neo-liberalism of the US and its allies. If Brazil becomes a centre of power within that framework, it would make a significant contribution towards the evolution of a relatively just world order. Argentina with 45.8 million, Peru with 33.7 million and Venezuela with 28.2 million will feel the Brazilian breeze. Venezuela as we have observed has already formulated and implemented pro-poor policies. Venezuela ‘s socialist egalitarianism was deeply influenced by the example of yet another Latin American state, the small island of Cuba of 11 million people. Because of its moral impact upon not just Venezuela but Latin America as a whole I would regard Cuba --- in spite of its size --- as a splendid example of a centre of power of the kind that the world badly needs if humankind is going to survive. For the survival of humankind is only guaranteed if it makes justice and compassion the leitmotif of our existence.
Our survey of the numerous states that may emerge as the centres of power in a post-hegemonic world will not be complete if we do not say something about those states that are at the fulcrum of the present hegemonic world. The US because of its scientific foundation, its technological range, and its economic prowess will no doubt continue to be a centre of power. But as one of so many centres of power, some larger than the US, others smaller than the US, its role will be entirely different from now. Some of the US’s allies such as Britain, Canada and Australia will also be middling centres of power within a new post-hegemonic environment. Other states such as Germany, France and the Netherlands will also be centres of power partly because of their science and technology. Germany in particular will continue to exercise some power and influence within the new paradigm if only because its current economic strength surpasses that of other European states.
What all this shows is that when the hegemon is no longer dominant, it is quite likely that there will be genuine dispersal and diffusion of power through various centres . Of course, some centres of power will be more influential than others. But no single centre of power will combine within its arc of power all the different dimensions of power as the US did immediately after the Second World War. This is already becoming obvious now. If China is economically powerful, Russia is militarily strong. If aspects of Korean culture are globally popular, India appears to have more clout than some others in international politics.
More importantly, when global power is diffused and dispersed, there is a greater possibility of the different centres of power, and of different states and regions, adjusting to, and accommodating one another. The interests of the various actors, big and small, will have to be given due consideration. As a result, there will be some sort of equilibrium, a just balance.
It is in ensuring that there is justice in every sphere of life that citizens groups in the Global South and the Global North will be able to play a significant role. They should take advantage of the environment created by a multipolar world to campaign tirelessly for the just implementation of international law. There should be no discrimination. There should be no bias. Any actor who violates the law should be punished without fear or favour.
It is not just in the implementation of law that citizens groups have a role to play. They must also do all they can to ensure that global institutions charged with preserving global peace function the way they should. Again, in a multipolar world, it should be easier for citizens groups to mobilise public opinion to persuade bodies like the UN to be proactive in protecting peace. The UN should be able to bring parties involved in a conflict together for negotiations at the early stages without any hegemon blocking its intervention.
Apart from ensuring the just implementation of international law and the effective functioning of bodies like the UN, citizens groups should be in the forefront of the articulation of reforms to the international economy and the global financial system. They should be suggesting changes to global political structures and practices which aim to make them more principle centred and less power oriented. They should be re-appraising dominant cultural attitudes and mores to see how we can transform the human being from a creature prone to violence, war and aggression to one who has an abiding commitment to peace, justice, love and compassion.
So there is a lot of work for citizens groups to do in the interest of a multipolar world. We have no time to lose. We have to act now.