By James M. Dorsey
Rarely is out-of-the-box thinking needed more than in this era of geopolitical, political and economic turmoil.
The stakes couldn't be higher in a world in which civilizationalist leaders risk shepherding in an era of even greater political violence, disenfranchisement and marginalisation, and mass migration.
The risks are magnified by the fact that players that traditionally stood up for at least a modicum of basic economic, social, political and minority rights have either joined the civilisationalists or are too tied up in their own knots.
The United States, long a proponent of human rights, even if it was selective in determining when to adhere to its principles and when to conveniently look the other way, has abandoned all pretence under President Donald J. Trump.
Europe is too weak and fighting its own battles, whether finding its place in a world in which the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance is in doubt, Brexit or the rise of civilizationalist leaders within its own ranks.
The long and short of this is that civil society’s reliance on traditional strategies and tactics to exert political pressure serves to fly the rights flag but is unlikely to produce results.
The same is true for traditional often heavy-handed and violent government attempts to quell protests.
In some ways, this weekend’s landslide vote for pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong lays down a gauntlet for the governments of the city and China.
“Even if the current wave of protests recedes, the instability will very likely persist for some time and may even become a permanent situation… because the problems that cause the protests appear unresolvable by means of the current political and economic system,” said Israeli journalist Ofri Ilany.
Mr. Ilany put his finger on the pulse. This decade’s global breakdown in confidence in political systems and leaders not only spotlights the problem but may also create opportunities for out-of-the-box thinking.
The key lies in the fact that protesters across the globe in Santiago de Chile, La Paz, Bogota, Port-au-Prince, Quito, Paris, Barcelona, Moscow, Tbilisi, Algiers, Cairo, Khartoum, Beirut, Amman, Tehran, Jakarta, and Hong Kong as well as movements like the Extinction Rebellion essentially want the same thing: a more transparent, accountable and more economically equitable world.
The Middle East and North Africa, the one part of the world that exasperates the most, also represents the worst and the best of responses to the global clamour for change.
While Egypt under general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is almost a textbook example of what drives global protest, Tunisia and Kuwait, offer lessons to be learnt. So do some of the world’s longer standing success stories such as Singapore.
Tunisia has emerged as the one country that experienced a successful revolt in 2011 and was able to safeguard its achievements because its leaders, much like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, saw power as a tool to secure national rather than personal interests and at a time of crisis worked with civil society to engineer a national dialogue that crafted a way forward.
Similarly, Kuwait, a constitutional semi-democratic anomaly in a region governed by secretive autocrats, recently opted for a more transparent competitive approach towards politics.
As a result, Kuwait saw this month its ruling family take its internal differences and disputes public. The differences forced the government to resign as members of the ruling family accused each other of embezzlement in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for next year and a possible succession in which the assembly would have a say.
Achieving protesters’ goal of more equitable and accountable political and economic systems involves not only adherence to the rule of law, including the implementation of international law, and application of the principle of equality before the law of not only individuals and organizations but also states.
It further involves the need to make principles of right and wrong and of respect of human dignity the moral and ethical underpinnings of the architecture of a new world order by which all ranging from an individual to a state are judged.
That is the fundamental message of protests across the globe that denounce a world in which financial or economic benefit justifies violations of rights and civilisationalists have abandoned any pretence of adherence to international law.
Heeding the protesters’ message means ensuring that at least international law provides an effective mechanism to hold accountable security forces that use lethal force against largely peaceful protesters as well as politically responsible officials that authorize unjustified brutality in what often amounts to mass killings.
The need for morals and ethics is gaining momentum with hardline realist proponents of the projection of power as well as some leaders raising the alarm bell.
The rise of artificial intelligence persuaded former US secretary of state and national security advisor Henry A. Kissinger, a symbol of realpolitik and the wielding of power, to recognize the importance of morals and ethics.
Writing in The Atlantic, Mr. Kissinger warned that the consequence of artificial intelligence “may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.”
Threats resulting from the abandonment of international law and the lack of moral and ethical yardsticks were evident in this month’s unilateral recognition by the Trump administration of the legality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory long viewed by jurists and the international community as illegal.
The move highlighted the link between protecting individual rights and freedoms and national security.
Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad warned that the administration’s move meant that “we are no longer safe. If a country wants to enter our country and build their settlements, that is legal. We cannot do anything,”
Mr. Mahathir was projecting onto states a sentiment of vulnerability among protesters and minorities across the globe that results from the random, unrestricted employment of power by those in positions of authority.
Similarly, Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon warned last month that "countries increasingly adopt a zero-sum mentality in eschewing multilateral agreements as shackles on sovereignty and a burden on economic growth."
Mr. Menon’s words must have been music in the ears of Norway’s successful US$1 trillion rainy-day oil fund that has proven that growth and profitability are achievable without abandoning norms of moral and ethical investment.
Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund returned three percent or US$28.5 billion to the country’s pension pot during in the second quarter of 2019.
Guided by Norway’s Council of Ethics, which monitors the fund’s investments, GPFG recently
blacklisted shares in British security company G4S because of the risk of human rights violations against its workforce in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Said New York Times columnist David Brooks: “The world is unsteady and ready to blow… The big job ahead for leaders…is this: Write a new social contract that gives both the educated urban elites and the heartland working classes a piece of what they want most.”
To achieve the kind of social and economic justice as well as live-and-let live environment that Mr. Brooks advocates, leaders, governments and civil society will have to rediscover and readopt the moral and ethical values that are embedded in the world’s multiple cultures and common to much of mankind.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture