Branko Milanović – The Summit of Democracies is a wrong idea (for the world)

Posturing at this grand scale bodes ill for the world.

Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest  book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”

Cross-posted from Branko’s blog

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More than 100 nations’ presidents, prime ministers and kings will virtually meet at the Summit of Democracies on December 9 and 10. It is the first such meeting in history, where the application, or the ostensible application, of the democratic principles in the governance of national affairs is used as a criterion to invite the participants to an international meeting.

There are three ways to look at the summit. A naïve view is to consider it as a meeting of like-minded states interested in learning from each other about how to improve the application of democratic principles at home. (For that, however, there are have many other venues and there was no need to create a new one.) A more realistic way is to see it as an attempt to create a loose association of states that would try to promote abroad their model of governance under the assumption that it is compatible with the aspirational ideals embodied in the UN Charter of Human Rights. The most realistic way however is to see it as a prelude to the creation of an unwieldy association of states that will be used by the United States to spearhead its ideological crusade in the escalating geopolitical conflict with China and Russia.

This is why the summit is, from a global or cosmopolitan perspective (which it pretends to reflect), exactly the wrong idea. It aims to divide the world into two incompatible camps between whom there can be little intercourse and even less understanding. If things are taken to their logical conclusions, conflict is inevitable.

The clash between China and the United States is a clash driven by geopolitical considerations: the rising relative power of China and its attempt to reassert its historical prominence in East Asia. It has nothing with to do with democracy.

The clash has acquired an ideological dimension by the insistence of each side that its system is more attuned to the world’s needs. China puts the emphasis on its system’s technocratic nature which, it claims, efficiently responds to what people want; US puts the emphasis on democratic participation of the citizenry.

The geopolitical and ideological clashes however enter into a truly dangerous territory when they become transferred into the area of values. For geopolitical conflict can by solved, as has been done many times in history, by one or another formula of balance of power. The same is true regarding the economic or ideological competition of the two systems. It may be even beneficial to the world as each side, in trying to outbid the other, pays more attention to global issues such as poverty alleviation, migration, climate change, the pandemic and the like.

But if one side believes that the values it incarnates are in total opposition to the values held by the other side, it is difficult to see how the conflict can, in the long-run, be avoided. Compromise between different interests is possible, but not between different values. The creation of an association which enshrines or cements the view of value-incompatibility between the American-type systems and the Chinese-type systems contributes to elevating the original clash of interests to a plane where compromise is near impossible.

The formalization of the conflict forces all countries, whether they like it or not, to choose sides. Such alignment projects the US-China clash across the world and exacerbates it.

The lesson that we should have learned from the first Cold War is that the refusal to divide the world into two implacably opposed camp has diminished the intensity of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and probably prevented a number of local wars. This was the contribution of the non-alignment movement. But this will be impossible now: there will be no third way. According to the logic of the Summit, you are either with us or against us.

The Manichean logic of the struggle between the good and the evil pervades today’s attitude of many Western media and politicians. Many may truly believe that they are on the side of angels, or might have convinced themselves to believe so, but they do not realize that by doing so they participate in a very self-serving reading of history and bring the world closer to an open conflict. In fact, what they are doing is the very opposite of what peace-seeking, compromise-building, cosmopolitan approach would require them to do: seek common ground between systems and countries, and allow them to naturally evolve toward a better state of affairs.

All great conflicts begin with great ideological justifications. Crusades started with the idea of wresting the control of Jesus’ tomb from the “the infidels.” They turned into plundering expeditions that destroyed all societies, Christian or Muslim, in their stead. European colonialism was justified in either religious (evangelization of the “heathens”) or civilizational terms. They were smoke-screens for the system of servile labor in Latin America, enslavement in Africa, and control of internal policies elsewhere (India, Egypt, China, and most of Africa). At the end of the First World War, a similarly megalomaniac project by Woodrow Wilson, while pretending to follow the great principles of self-determination and democracy, degenerated into a rubber-stamping of colonial rule under the label of “protectorates” and “mandates”, and sordid territorial deals.

This new grandiose project, if it remains alive, will end the same way: as a flimsy cover-up for much more mundane objectives. This is why the first summit of democracies should hopefully be its last.

Branko Milanović

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