At the festival of summits to which the Philippines dutifully played host last week, three basic standpoints by which humanity describes and criticizes the state of affairs in the world vied for space.
The first is the human rights standpoint, the modern version of the value placed by natural law on human dignity and equality, which today is encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The second is the semantics of national self-determination, which became deeply entrenched in the era of decolonization. The third is the working-class perspective, which took shape in the last century with the rise of socialism, but is now mostly expressed as a critique of neoliberalism.
These competing viewpoints were not visible in equal measure at these summits. But, the resonance of particular issues, alongside the muted presence of others, gives us a good picture of how today’s leaders are reacting to the complex problems brought about by globalization. These problems include the massive flows of migrants and refugees, terrorism, bigotry, uneven development and sharp inequalities within and across countries, mass poverty, ecological disasters, and war. They are problems that need the kind of global perspective for which multilateral talks might have been suited.
But, the hands-down winner in these summits has been the nation-state perspective — and the vocabulary of national sovereignty, noninterference, and peaceful coexistence, in which it is officially articulated. The other name for it is the Chinese template. Rather than global agreements transcending nation-state divides, what we find instead are the bilateral deals by which every country tries to secure from another what it needs for itself.
No one could have formulated this standpoint more bluntly than US President Donald Trump, who had won the presidency on a campaign to put “America first.” Even as he railed at the glaring trade imbalance between the United States and China during his recent official visit to China, he ended up praising his host. To resounding applause, he declared: “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.” For the abysmal state of affairs in which the United States finds itself today, he blames Barack Obama instead.
Though it sounded like a backhanded compliment, his fawning comment on China’s behavior merely underscores the point that in the end it is the economic interests of their respective countries that matter most to these world leaders. Not surprisingly, Trump ended his China visit with about $250 billion in commercial deals between American and Chinese companies.
Trump’s deal-making pragmatism may appear to many as a pathetic reversal of America’s defining role in the world as the voice of humanity’s highest ideals. But this is a symptom not only of America’s decline as a world economic power but, more importantly, of the emergence of a world system without a center.
As Trump himself concedes, China has indeed become the model for today’s world. But, make no mistake about it. What this template represents is neither socialism (not even working-class solidarity) nor the primacy of universal values, but, rather, the advantages of a state-led capitalism with an authoritarian face.
On the side of the Asean Summit, there were separate summits with the United Nations and with the European Union. But, compared to the events attended by China, there was little interest in what was taken up at these meetings. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres would have been the logical interlocutor for human rights concerns. At the Asean-EU summit, he did speak briefly on the Rohingya crisis, drawing from his experience as former UN High Commissioner on Refugees, and called for humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya. But, while he expressed interest in helping to strengthen the Asean human rights commission, he avoided mentioning extrajudicial killings, speaking at length instead on the threat from terrorism and violent extremism.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who represented the European Union, took more or less the same tack in his address to the Asean leaders. He politely avoided any mention of human rights issues, and dwelt almost entirely on the need for international cooperation to combat radicalization and terrorism. This is in stark contrast to the human rights concerns persistently aired by EU delegations in recent months.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the only leader who was bold enough to bring up the sensitive matter of EJKs in his brief one-on-one meeting with President Duterte on Nov. 14. He did so in the most courteous way possible, prefacing his remarks with an admission that his own country is guilty of neglect and mistreatment of its indigenous peoples. Trudeau thought that he and Mr. Duterte had “a very cordial and positive exchange.” But, after he left, Mr. Duterte wasted no time in telling the media what he thought of Trudeau’s human rights comment — “a personal and official insult.”
And so this vicious reaction unfolds, where any hint of criticism of another government’s treatment of its own nationals is treated as an insult and an affront to national sovereignty. Given such a standpoint, one wonders how it is possible — except in the most limited terms — to express any concern for global problems such as the plight of migrant workers, of refugees, of children, and of the millions of victims of racial bigotry, religious oppression, and misogyny across the world.