Human rights face uphill struggle


Many experts have proclaimed the death of the post-1945 liberal international order, including the human rights regime set forth in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to “realist” international relations theorists, one cannot sustain a liberal world order when two of the three great powers — Russia and China — are anti-liberal. Writing in Foreign Af fairs, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa argue that the era when Western liberal democracies were the world’s top cultural and economic powers may be drawing to a close. Within the next five years, “the share of global income held by countries considered ‘not free’ — such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia — will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies”.

There are several problems with this argument. For starters, it relies on a measure called purchasing power parity, which is good for some purposes but not for comparing international influence. China’s annual gross domestic product is $12-trillion, and Russia’s is $2.5-trillion, compared with the United States’s $20-trillion. But the more serious flaw is lumping countries as disparate as China and Russia together as an authoritarian axis.

Although Russia and China are authoritarian and find it useful to co-operate against the US in international bodies, they have very different interests. China is a rising power that is intertwined with the international economy, including the US. In contrast, Russia is a declining country with demographic and public health problems, with energy rather than finished goods accounting for two-thirds of its exports.

Declining countries are often more dangerous than rising ones. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a clever tactician, seeking to “make Russia great again” with military intervention in neighbouring countries and Syria, and by using cyber-based information warfare to disrupt — with only partial success — Western democracies.

But the revival of Cold War-style information warfare has done little to create soft power for Russia. The London-based Soft Power 30 index ranks Russia 26th.

China is different. It has announced its willingness to spend billions to increase its soft power. At meetings in Davos in 2017 and Hainan in 2018, President Xi Jinping presented China as a defender of the existing international order, but one with Chinese rather than liberal characteristics. China does not want to overturn the international order but rather to reshape it to increase its gains.

It has the economic tools to do so. It rations access to its huge market for political purposes. Norway was punished after dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Eastern Europeans were rewarded after they watered down European Union resolutions on human rights. Singaporean and Korean companies suffered after their governments took positions that displeased China.

The Chinese government’s massive Belt and Road Initiative to build trade infrastructure throughout Eurasia provides ample opportunities to use business contracts to wield political influence. And China has increasingly restricted human rights at home. As Chinese power increases, the regime’s global human rights problems will increase.

But no one should be tempted by exaggerated projections of Chinese power. If the US maintains its alliances with democratic Japan and Australia and continues to develop good relations with India, it will hold the high cards in Asia. In the global military balance, China lags far behind, and in terms of demography, technology, the monetary system and energy dependence, the US is better placed than China in the coming decade. In the Soft Power 30 index, China ranks 25th; the US is third.

Xi has torn up Deng Xiaoping’s institutional framework for leadership succession but how long will Xi’s authority last? In the meantime, on issues such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism and financial stability, an authoritarian China and the US will benefit from co-operation.

The good news is that some aspects of the current international order will persist; the bad news is that it may not include the liberal element of human rights.

Human rights may face a tougher environment but that is not the same as a collapse. A future US administration could work more closely with the EU and other like-minded states to build a human rights caucus. A G10, comprising the world’s major demo-cracies, could co-ordinate on values alongside the existing G20 (which includes non-democracies such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia), with its focus on economic issues.

Others can help. As Kathryn Sikkink points out in her new book, Evidence for Hope, the US was not always very liberal during the Cold War, and the origins of the human rights regime in the 1940s owed much to Latin Americans and others. Moreover, transnational rights organisations have developed domestic support in many countries.

In short, we should be concerned about the challenges to liberal democracy during the current setback to what Samuel P Huntington called the “third wave” of democratisation. But that is no reason to give up on human rights. — © Project Syndicate, 2018.

Joseph S Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defence and chairman of the National Intelligence Council, is distinguished service professor emeritus and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Is the American Century Over?

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