The painful redrawing of the geopolitical board

The expression “Do not throw the baby away with the bath wate,.”  is applied to those cases where the elimination of something undesirable carries even worse consequences than what we intend to correct.

Living together and alternation are central characteristics of modern democracy. Today, both are in full retreat. As the prevailing model of contemporary democracy has its origins in France and Anglo-Saxon countries—United Kingdom and United States—and the latter have been the epicenter of current globalization, with its growing rejection—especially due to its structural failures and excesses—democracy has also lost a large part of its legitimacy.

The positive contribution of democracy to human coexistence is the following: with its ups and downs it is a long and sustained process of substituting the arbitrary power of a few for a wider and fairer one, as well as guaranteeing popular participation in such substitution in a systematic way. To frustrate the arbitrariness of power and a monopoly of domination, modern democracy instituted two key procedures, among others: inter-party compromise and regular power alternation.

Such system disintegrates when one party monopolizes power and pretends to remain in power indefinitely, mistaking the part for the whole. As “there is no evil that lasts a hundred years,” single-party (or super-dominant party) systems eventually wore out in either disorder or the precipitous passage to the other extreme. Therefore, a pendulous, perverse swing between two extreme poles takes place[1]. Today, Latin America is suffering this bipolar alternation, between a quasi or pseudo popular socialism and rightist regimes, also with populist or pseudo-populist traits[2]. Both use the democratic system as a means and not as an end, that is, as a scaffold for obtaining the monopoly of power—but they are unsuccessful.

From a geopolitical point of view, such pendulous oscillation sets back development and favors the negative traits of one and the other pole. In the medium and long term, the oscillation weakens national and regional sovereignty, despite each side’s pretention of doing the opposite. Instead, a democratic system with rotation and compromise does not secure, but it does favor, not only economic development[3] but also the development of civil coexistence.

Countries and regions without much power that cannot arrive to consensus, unity, and solidarity through the wise management of compromise and rotation, become pawns on the larger game board of foreign powers struggles. Currently, such is the tragedy—with different modalities and acts—both in Europe and Latin America. For example: the obstinate stubbornness of large part of English population to obtain sovereignty outside Europe (instead of reinforcing a regional European sovereignty) is an eloquent case of a suicidal nationalism.

On the contrary, the current campaign of the French president consists of underlining the danger of nationalist temptation against continental unity, which is correctly considered as indispensable for having a voice and weight in the world[4]. Europe’s unity is in danger[5].  If the European Union were to disappear, the continent’s destiny would be the submission to extra-regional powers.

The case of Latin America is even more worrying.  The pendular oscillation from leftist to rightist regimes has inaugurated a new possible lost decade in terms of development and justice. In terms of Hegel and Churchill, the pendular oscillation dooms our countries to just consume a history produced by others[6]. They are pawns on an alien board or, to say it in gaucho vernacular, countries that run from one sidewalk to the other as “perro en cancha ‘e bochas” (a dog in a bocce court)[7].

External powers that will play with these pawns have three main characteristics: they are (1) strong, (2) viable for the time being, and (3) very unpleasent—a United States conceited and bellicose, a Russia that has become a despotic petro-state, and a neocolonial, authoritarian, and productivist China. The three are nationalistic and play on many boards: the classic board of the “Large Game” in Central Asia[8], the explosive traditional board of Middle East, the new board of a developmental Africa,[9] and the secondary boards of Europe and Latin America, with skirmishes in South East Asia and south of Rio Grande.

Some observations regarding powers and boards should be noted. In my first characterization, I called them as “strong.” That strength varies from case to case but in all of them it is the result of certain vectors, such as: a demographic vector in the case of Asia (a third of the world’s population) and a less significant one in the case of the United States (6% of the world’s population); but compensated until recently by a good flow of immigrants (today in crisis) and a privileged geographic location, bi-oceanic, with a large area with mild climate and relatively isolated.

Another vector is technological innovation, where the United States takes the lead. A large part of the inter-power struggle is played on this board in three dimensions: invention, application, and scale; each with different weights according to the powers and different participation model among public and private sectors (the fight for the dominance of the 5G platform and artificial intelligence is the most

A third vector is military power, where appearances are deceiving. For example,  American military superiority is surprisingly inefficient in the ostensive function that is winning wars (which it cannot), but efficient in its latent or disguised functions (sustaining public employment, high-end and large-scale technological investment). Unlike the Chinese model but closer to it than most think, it is a sui generis and disguised model of state capitalism. On the other hand, rival powers are capable of asymmetric challenges that paralyze their superior adversary and compensate for their own weak position[10].

The fourth and last vector is cultural. The traditional Western advantage (especially American) of societal example is changing due to internal and external causes. These are related precisely to the upsurge of a “nationalism” that has little to do with retrograde European nationalisms such as the Hungarian version and closer to the present boisterous and kitsch style of Trump. The latter makes the United States abdicate their once universalist and evangelist calling. Without a doubt, it is a setback of the so-called soft power—more imposition and less seduction.

On the contrary, large rival powers reclaim ever more energetically their everlasting and massive cultural particularism. This is a new nationalism that is not limited to the traditional nation-state[11] and is not subjected to western universalism, but rather  finds its expression in what we can call a “civilization nationalism”—for example, “Hindu civilization,” “Chinese civilization,” and “Slavic civilization.” Therefore, the way of expansion of these powers is not, as it happened before with western imperialism, moralizing and inclusive, but rather more respectful of other cultures but at the same time more hierarchical (“do not imitate us, because we are superior”) and tributary (“we can help you being yourselves but in exchange for a material tribute defined by our interests”).

Today, behind Eastern serenity and poise, a new type of arrogance emerges in the world.

When the first Hindu Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was asked what he thought about the American civilization, he answered with a big smile: “I believe that it would be a good idea.”

 “What do you think have been the consequences of the French Revolution?” Henry Kissinger, the then American Secretary of State, asked Chou En-Lai, Chinese Prime Minister in 1971 while they were walking around a garden. After a reflexive pause, Chou answered: “I don’t know. It is still too soon to draw conclusions.”

In conclusion: at every coronation of a Pope, the Vatican master of ceremonies kneels before the pontiff and reminds him “Pater Sancte, sic transit Gloria mundi!” (Holy Father, the glory of this world is only transient.”)


[1] . My first attempt to apply this outline to Argentine’s development was published as The Fitful Republic. Economy, Society, and Politics in Argentina (Denver: Westview Press, 1985). See: http://journal.telospress.com/content/1985/65/178.abstract

[2] . Populism, regardless of its orientation, is actually a façade that disguises other shortages.

[3] . As I argue in my book Strategic Impasse (2018), it is also possible to obtain commitments and sustainable mixtures of capitalism and socialism in economic terms.

[4] . Victor Mallet, “Macron in drive to head off EU nationalists,” Financial Times, 5 March 2019, p.2.

[5] . However, be aware: European nationalisms are not the cause, but rather the consequence of the strategic mistakes made in the design of the European Union. See, Juan E. Corradi, Why Europe? The Avatars of a Fraught Project: https://www.amazon.es/Avatars-Fraught-Project-Opinion-Collection-ebook/dp/B00CYQP2FG

[6] . In 1831, Hegel saw Latin America with a typically European disdain: “America has always showed to be physical and psychologically impotent in itself and it has remain as such until today.” In 2019, it is Europe’s turn to share such destiny. However, the judgement need not to be decisive.

[7] . A milonga by Anibal Troilo has that name and refers to the urban traffic:

De una vereda a la otra // From one sidewalk to the other
de asombro en asombro vivo; // from astonishment to astonishment I live;
cuerpeando los colectivos //confronting the buses with your body
como
perro en cancha ‘e bochas. //as a dog in a bocce court.

[8]https://documentop.com/china-en-asia-central-el-nuevo-gran-juego_59fc4c8f1723ddad6dddfa7c.html

[9] .  I recommend the presentation of the Chinese game in Africa: https://www.lemonde.fr/international/video/2019/02/22/pourquoi-la-chine-investit-l-afrique_5427046_3210.html

[10] . Andrew E. Kramer, “Russian General Pitches ‘Information’ Operations as a Form of War,” The New York Times, 2 March 2019.

[11] . Gideon Rachman, “The rise of the civilization state,” Financial Times, 9 March 2019, p.9.

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