IS AMERICA LOSING LEGITIMACY OF POWER?

A few years back my brother travelled by a British Airways flight from Delhi to London. Those were the days when India faced terrorism on regular basis, most of it Pak sponsored. But our protests, frequent proofs of terrorist camps in POK and in Pakistan, and refusal to talk to Pakistan unless it reined Jihadis engaged in cross-border terrorism, fell on deaf years. The reason was that the West was not yet at the receiving end of terrorism. My brother said that the British crew was so put off by the “stringent” security checks before departure at Delhi that immediately after take-off the Captain made an announcement apologizing for such “unnecessary” checks.

Cut now to the present day scenario post 9/11 and the liquid bomb scare. The Time magazine cartoon of the year 2007 showed a man having waded through 7 hours of security checks and having been asked to remove everything. Finally, he had only a boarding pass to cover his manhood. As a final mortification he was asked to show his boarding pass just before boarding the plane.

This only goes to show that the West ignores threats that other countries like India face until they too are exposed to these. After that they go overboard and paranoid with their own measures to protect their own citizens. It goes to such an extent that people are hounded in flights if they have beards or are overheard by flight staff in having “suspicious” private conversations.

Does the West feel that lives of their citizens are more precious than those of, say, Indians?

After 9/11, since America had faced spectacular terrorism at home it engaged other nations in a Global War on Terror. President Bush Senior declared immediately after 9/11 that not only the terrorists but those who “harboured” the terrorists were enemies of the United States. It conveniently forgot that Jagjit Singh Chauhan (or Chohan), the original founder of Khalistan movement, who was openly seditious against India and indulged in terrorist acts, was “harboured” (given asylum) by the United States in 1989 even when the Indian government had cancelled his passport. Why such double standards? Why is one country’s terrorist another country’s “freedom-fighter”? I am not going into the merits or otherwise of Chauhan’s case. But, the fact was that the United States harboured a proclaimed offender of the Indian government.

How would the United States have felt if some country had to give asylum to Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden?

When the global leader indulges in double standards and does exactly what it accuses others of doing, it sounds most preposterous. Two incidents come into my mind; one, terrorism related and the second related to economy. The first is in Jul 2006 when the then Indian Home Minister LK Advani mooted the idea of hot pursuit into POK to flush out terrorists carrying out bloody and fatal attacks against innocent Kashmiris in India. Even though our government and nation did not have the guts to carry this out and it was only an idea, the kind of opprobrium that we earned put a brake on any such “adventurism”. Once again, cut to present day Drone attacks by the US into Waziristan. It has been argued by the United States that these are legal and legitimate in exercise of right to self defence. Some American think-tanks have even put up results of their “research” that civilians in Waziristan actual welcome such attacks. How ironical that India does not have the right to exercise self defence with its irresponsible immediate neighbour but Americans can do it thousands of miles away from home when their civilians are not even directly threatened by the Jihadis?

The second event is about American exhortations to countries like China to end protectionism of their financial institutions and to allow “free flowing” financial transactions. However, post recent recession which started in 2007, mainly caused by Americans’ greed, when the Federal Bank came to the rescue of American banks in trouble, one of the economic writers wrote in the Newsweek that at that stage there was nothing to choose between China and the US.

That brings us to the question of this post: Is America losing legitimacy of power? It is the sole superpower; the global leader militarily, technologically and financially. But, is it losing the moral right to be the leader of the world?

When the decline started two years back, Fareed Zakaria published his thought provoking book ‘The Post American World’. It talked about there being three power shifts in the world in the last 500 years: the first one being the shift of power to the West during the Renaissance; the second being the US becoming the sole superpower after the breakup of USSR; the third is emergence or re-emergence of other powers like China and India.

Simultaneously we had authors like Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore writing about ‘The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Power to the East’.

But, I think the book or the concept most relevant to our poser is 1992 book ‘The End of History and The Last Man’ by Francis Fukuyama. It was written at a time when the USSR was collapsing and end of Cold War was in sight. Fukuyama was emphatic about the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy when he said, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

Simultaneous with Fareed Zakaria’s book, Robert Kagan published his seminal work ‘End of Dreams, Return of History’. It bemoaned the autocracies in various parts of the world especially China as being the biggest threat to Western liberal democracy. The interesting point that it brought out was that such order that exists in the world today is not because of goodwill of people but because of foundation laid by American power. He said, “People who believe greater equality among nations would be preferable to the present American predominance often succumb to a basic logical fallacy. They believe the order the world enjoys today exists independently of American power. They imagine that in a world where American power was diminished, the aspects of international order that they like would remain in place. But that’s not the way it works. International order does not rest on ideas and institutions. It is shaped by configurations of power”.

I tend to compare this with the final chapter of Fareed Zakaria’s book in which Zakaria gives guidelines to the US in the post American world. It talks about not just Legitimacy of Power but brings out that Legitimacy is Power. Zakaria exhorts America to maintain excellent relations with everyone, rather than offset and balance emerging powers.

I think America has done, in the last nine years, exactly opposite of that. This has made people all around the world take notice that if this is what can be achieved through Western liberal democracy, why is it better than autocracies and military rules? Lets not forget that both Bush Senior and Tony Blair hoodwinked their respective democracies about WMDs in Iraq against all evidence and intelligence.

In the light of discussions so far, let’s sum up how America has lost Legitimacy of Power:

  • Curiously the US has found it easier to do business with autocracies and military rules than with democracies.
  • The kind of double standards that it has followed on many issues including the most overwhelming issue today of terrorism have tarnished its image.
  • At one time, pre 9/11 era, America was regarded as a “benign” colonial power. Presently, it has put itself in a position where it is being detested not just by the Islamic world.
  • The reason that it is being detested is because it seems not to care for lives of people other than the Americans. For example, at the time of writing this, Wikileaks has brought out how tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed post 9/11 due to US operations. This is something similar to carpet bombing of Iraqis at the end of Kuwait war.
  • In AfPak region, it demonstrated that it does not even care much for the lives of its own soldiers because it paid the Pakistanis for killing them; the only country in the world to have paid the enemy to kill its own people.
  • Any number of its think tanks have brought out that Pakistan is the biggest exporter of terror in the world. However, the US rewards it by more and more funds to – hold your breath – “fight terrorism and extremism”.
  • It made the pretence of helping Pakistan in flood relief since it is a poor country that cannot afford relief material but simultaneously sold them more F16s. Even Pakistan’s own intelligensia has questioned it. How will F16s be used in fighting terror is anybody’s guess.
  • The criticism that disasters, crises and terror attacks tend to aid American arms and homeland security industries has now started to stick.
  • The great American balancing act, much against Zakaria’s guidelines, now extends to over half the globe from Russia, to Iran, to AfPak, to China.

Dear Obama, as you step on Indian soil for your first official visit, we ask you to take stock of degenerative illegitimacy of power that America enjoys today. Much was expected out of you to right the moral balance after the Bush eras; but, you have failed us. We love the Western liberal democracy; ours is as messy as yours, but, we still love it. We love Americans and we want to be like them. But, the fact is that America has done enough to promote love-hate relationship not only with us but also with many other countries. Your country has coined a catch-phrase: “to protect American interests”. Are you really?

© 2010 – 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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3 Comments

  1. We Indians tend to be idealistic when it comes to posturing on international relations, perhaps it stems from Mahatma Gandhi’s influence. We followed the so called nonaligned policy during the cold war though practically we were supporting the USSR thus in the eyes of the west and particularly the USA we were in the enemy camp. Pakistan the fountainhead of the terrorism and nuclear proliferation was their camp follower. Pro-China policy of USA is also the result of cold war.
    Let us not forget that the business and trade is at the core of their national self-interest and their war industry is a major force in their exports. For USA and most other countries in the world their National Interest comes first (India is more idealistic). By now the USA must have realised the danger of terrorism to them and are working to protect the US citizens first, they seem to have done a good job in their home land security
    We all wish the USA had done more to contain the terrorism in our neighbourhood but from their world view India never sent any troops to fight on their side
    In the real world, it is the right of the might and India has to learn to leverage to protect it’s national interest. If USA is supplying the F 16 and other weapons to Pakistan and India feels strongly about it then we can cut down military imports from USA but will our government will take such a step?
    If we put our house in order, the world will follow us

  2. Americans come in many hues.There is a certain section of people which would drive exploitative agendas across the world.Though it is not correct to see Red in everything that the US does or says but we need to watch for those who come with hidden motives.After all the peak levels of prosperity in a continent size country were not achieved by saintly means.Extraordinary hard work,entrepreneurship and zeal which led to spectacular development in the States had to be supported by steady supply of resources,no matter where(and how) it came .Add to it the military dimension and you have a heady cocktail of wealth,supremacy and ambition.It is a vicious cycle hard to break.I guess the new generation Americans will pay the price.But an interesting spin off to this is that it has drawn Indians closer to the superpower in more ways than one.We have emerged as their long term bet on many common areas of cooperation.

  3. Washington’s projection of power had always invited questions about legitimacy. Her involvement in Nicaragua was as illegitimate as the invasion of Iraq. The unqualified support to Israel provokes disquiet even among supporters of the US. In spite of a recognition about this within the country, contradictory policies irrespective of who is in power are set to continue because American foreign policy is driven by domestic politics than in any other country. It is a country with corporate lobbies, immigrant groups, ideologically tinted think-tanks, all trying to influence policy makers. No President will be able to change the domestic dynamics as the separation of powers and federalism in a way facilitate a messy state of policy making. President Obama has been able to do only a little, because a motley of opinions in a theatrical democracy constrains political leadership. Still he has been able to do his best to repair legitimacy as his realism has partly suppressed the right and the left alike.
    And it is not America alone which is to be blamed. Even if America changes its policies overnight, people like Ahmedinejad, Nasrallah and Chavez are not going to cosy up because their very political survival is contingent on their denunciation of America.