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Wed. May 22, 2024
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A Year of Autocratic Power Politics, and America's Role in Defending Freedom
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2022 marked the ultimate shift in the regional and global peace and stability spectrum, as we witness the long march of autocracy and power politics that have been framed from a misguided narrative and being justified by playing the victim card and turning the tables on the accepted norms and rules in casting the defenders of rules as the aggressors, and the perpetrators of acts of violations as the ‘victims’ that were compelled to act out of necessity. The entire framework of us versus them, or good vs bad, has been hijacked to frame the narrative of the need for an ‘alternative view on justified aggressions’.

The growing appeal and submission to the tightening grip of authoritarian control are based on the inevitability of conventional coercion. Repression has been justified based on national security grounds, thwarting Western influence in domestic affairs and hyping nationalism to preserve regime continuity through all means possible. The rise of autocracy in bigger waves from Tehran to Beijing has gained threatening momentum.

Decades of peace, stability and have now been threatened by rising revisionist powers out to capitalize on their perceived victim cards and seizing upon the waves of propagandistic and disinformation drives capturing the new generational sentiments and politics of emotions. The long peace that is allowed through America and other states who share the common yearning for values of freedom and democracy and rules-based engagement has been taken for granted. 

America’s steadfast defense and protection of this system since the end of the Second World War has now been framed as unnecessary and futile, where appreciation of our current system that is guided by rules has been fast dwindling. It has created complacency around the world, and it has been strategically capitalized on by regimes that aim to capture power in the international order, pouncing on the dwindling resonance and ideals of the rules-based order that have guarded progress up to this point.

In 2022, Russia acted to invade Ukraine, blaming the US and NATO for intentionally instigating it to act with their continuous incitement of eastward expansion and purposefully goading the Kremlin into a conflict. Framing it as an act of necessity and natural response, the invasion stirred global fall-out of chain repercussions and marked the official return of state-led traditional threat dominating the global security spectrum, after years of rising tensions and wariness caused by both the Russian actions in Europe and Chinese actions in the Indo Pacific. The ingrained rules-based order that has governed the nature of world politics and international relations among states, has been under serious threat by the intent of Beijing in changing the regional order to its dictate and interests, citing its rightful justification for its status and power as the leader of the non-Western world in standing up to supposed injustices and hegemonism of the US-led Western order that has put the others at a ‘perpetual losing end’. 

In the Ukraine conflict, the success of this narrative has reverberated the world over, causing a divide in various players including ASEAN, Africa, and the Middle East, in trying to respond accordingly, assiduously not to harm crucial ties with Moscow which many states are still hugely dependent. By refusing to outright condemn Moscow for this biggest violation of the rules-based order since the great wars, they were also trying to send a message to the West that its approach has not been warmly received, and they continue to pine for a need for alternative order that will not be Western-centric.

The US has continued to be singled out as the ultimate instigator, being framed as the world’s biggest perpetrator of conflicts in goading nations into war, out to contain China and Russia, ruling the world by proxy, and enriching its cronies and its greedy military-industrial complex. The Ukraine conflict has been seen by these anti-US forces as the pinnacle of the efforts of Washington to ensure the long-term financial survival of its military complex with tens of billions of dollars of lucrative military supplies and assets. 

When the Kremlin is targeted with sanctions and is accused of upending the global food security and supply chain of critical resources, the US is blamed for having the sinister hidden plot of ensuring Russia is taken down for good in the long term, with China next. Washington’s actions in blockading access to critical technology in the chips and semiconductor industry and in limiting Chinese firms and technologies are framed as yet another American drive to contain China.

People remain hidden from the glaring factors and justifications for these actions by the West to both Moscow and Beijing. Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are as clear a violation to the UN Charter and international law and norms as Beijing’s agenda in the South China Sea and its regional power intent. Sanctions and military support serve not only as a needed deterrence, but more importantly, gives a clear message that the global order and rules that have guarded world peace and stability cannot be violated at one’s own whims and fancy, to the threat of millions of lives and a country’s basic sovereign rights. 

The same goes for Beijing’s various tools used in expanding its power and influence, from outright military coercion and intimidation and violations of the international law and rules in the South China Sea, to espionage and cyber and digital actions, and economic blackmailing that have risked and violated other countries’ rights and sovereignty.

Years of forceful transfer of intellectual property and critical technological know-how from the US and the West, where a large part is used to bolster its military prowess and advancement, coupled with unfair trade manipulation and practices and human rights suppression in Xinjiang and others have all created a tacit adherence to rising impact of autocracy, and in compelling others to accept the new normalization of authoritarian approaches in solving pressing issues in the name of stability and a country’s ‘unique characterisation of contextual need’.

In 2022, China’s glaring show of force in an unforgiven manner has been at its pinnacle in years. The bellicose actions in Indo Pacific especially in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan, projected a new unhindered drive by Beijing to up the ante in its regional and global intent, realizing the urgency of the long game now cut short by its internal structural pains.

President Xi’s new grip on power in cementing his ironclad hold on the country’s direction and shape of actions actually hastens the decline of Beijing’s future power parity and potential. In his new power-led drive in his pursuit of a Chinese-revitalization dream through absolute force in a direct and confrontational approach, it produced counterproductive implications in creating new fears and anxieties which have seen new counter-actions taken by other players. These containment measures and the 5-4-3-2 containment approach as termed by Beijing, are then being used as the pretext for Beijing’s even more forceful use of hard power in justifying them as needed as a response to these containment threats, at the same in bolstering its agenda in securing its regional hegemonic status and repelling Western efforts in the region. Beijing’s continuous scramble for

Both Beijing and Moscow drive global messaging in pursuit of being at the common victim ground of Washington’s abuse of its global hegemonic power, in selectively targeting rising powers that pose a threat to its influence and power. Past American actions in the global war on terror, the involvement in the Vietnam War, and various other instigation of conflicts during the Cold War era to today’s contemporary security settings have been singled out in portraying Washington’s unquenched thirst of being a warmonger with hypocritical intent of human rights violations despite its standing for democracy and freedom.

In short, Russian action in Ukraine and Chinese action in Indo-Pacific have all been successfully narrated from their perspective of being ‘justified’ and even critically needed amidst the need to stem the tide of US-led western efforts.  All these lopsided messaging and strategic and successful use of the victim card and the clever narration in turning black into white, have indoctrinated both the global population and the different players in continuing the agenda of overturning the current global order to one that is Beijing and Moscow centric, at the expense of norms of freedom and democracy.

Growing swaths of people and governments the world over have been engulfed by these new intense narratives and models of actions, to continue to be entrapped by these settings both out of ignorance and fear and simply being left with no other options because of the ingrained dependence and fear of repercussions. Regimes fear for their security and survival, common people fear for their own economic survival and this created a perfect platform for both Beijing and Moscow seize upon the wave and continue their grip, and repel the West through this array of measures used.

Washington gets the worst deal and remains a victim of its own moral high-ground pursuit. It remains a victim of its high moral standards, as it created and pursued the values and principles of good governance, freedom, and democracy.

The US could have chosen not to be restrained by the conduct of justice, honor, and mutual respect that it created for the global order, but could instead have expanded its unrivaled might at the end of World War II and the Cold War. It did not: Washington chose to remain on the moral high road. With all the power America has at its disposal for now and for decades to come, it could have been so easily tempted to use the power to its interests and to create a one-sided world order under Washington’s orbit. It did not. 

It could have chosen the same undemocratic path used by Beijing and Moscow in using destructive means to challenge other powers in protecting their own, and in violating international law and repressing human rights to protect their power security and power expansion, but Washington did not. America chose to be on the right side of history and to remain on the moral high road.

With these fundamental values at its core, the US has been disadvantaged in pursuing economic and political power around the world.

On the other hand, Beijing has been quick to pounce on opportunities to expand its global economic power and soft power, and it imposed no self-restrictions. Mistakes have been made, but mechanisms of self-correction and checks and balances have created much-needed natural progression. US self-righteousness and willingness to act unilaterally have occasionally caused resentment, even among those that share the values supporting US policies.

However, the US has remained steadfast in its approach and is likely to continue to be a world leader in the ongoing struggle for human rights. American diplomacy has been the cornerstone of the world’s peace and stability that have been enjoyed by all for almost a century, in solving conflicts through the might and sway of basic human values and principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights and dignity.

Younger demographic groups that have little to no historical resonance or affiliation with past conflicts and wars and who do not relate to the relatively long peace for the past decades are easily vulnerable to this push for a new change in the global order, one that is non-America centric and in yearning for the so-called rightful alternative that will herald a new era of global progress. People and governments do not resonate and realize the urgency of the threat, therefore easily succumbing to the narratives set by anti-US and anti-West forces.  People do not see China and Russia as a threat, but the US is seen as the main threat to global peace. The perceptive coin has been flipped to their favor, and threat perception has been effectively shaped by Moscow and Beijing who are now at their warmest ties in responding to a common threat in Washington.

When push comes to shove, a global superpower has to stand up for a global cause that transcends its national cause, out of sheer obligations, and a profound moral conviction and sense of duty with the power it possesses. It comes with the readiness to forgo certain segments of self-benefit for the bigger picture of greater returns to humanity and civilizations. A mighty and thankless task, but a duty that reverberates across creeds, nationalities, and religions. Lacking this power credibility and capacity to deter and enforce, Moscow might have been venturing further into Europe, Beijing might have long created powerful bastions all across the world and retaken Taiwan by force, and Pyongyang might do the same against Seoul, all of which leading to global anarchy and prolonged major wars with an unimaginable toll on human sufferings. 

 It might seem to be an old cliché but the truth remains unbendable and that a proven system of peace preservation and a rules-based architecture of international relations that has maintained the global order and peace for almost a century must continue to be protected. For we have been too complacent or ignorant of the peace dividend we have enjoyed for decades, at our own future expense. The year 2022 has been a turning point in history, marking a potential world and life-changing decline of democracy and freedom which have been under the most serious threat in decades.

 The future of sustainable world peace, progress, and stability rests on the need to continue to preserve the structure of diplomacy, rules-based order, respect for sovereignty and steadfast preservation of the values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. It dawns upon us to continue to be bold and unyielding in this pursuit and for the US and other powers to continue to receive support to stand up for these fundamental human principles.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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