As Russia and China push their way to the top of the power heap, and the United States balks at playing global police force, expect fundamental changes to accepted norms governing international affairs.
BOGOTÁ — We live in contradictory times.
On the one hand, nations have, to a universal and unprecedented degree, agreed upon certain rules of an international system. The principle of nation-state as defining political actor has spread to every corner of the Earth — bar Marie Byrd Land, that unclaimed territory of the Antarctic. Even marginal and rebellious states like North Korea are slowly integrating into the international rules system.
On the other hand, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, several non-Western powers have given themselves authority to violate the principle of national sovereignty. The previous international order revolved around another idea: that only the Western powers could violate the sovereignty of states without provoking a violent reaction from other powers.
The idea that states have a sovereign right to determine their affairs is a laudable principle, yet it is as fragile as ever, increasingly violated in different regions around the world.
Several weeks ago I wrote about how Russia's challenge to Ukraine's sovereignty indicated a change in that imbalance of power, which prevailed after the 1990s. Moscow's challenge is that it too can now invade and occupy the territory of states with impunity, though the case is not restricted to Russia.
The Taiwan question
Emboldened perhaps by the drama unfolding in Eastern Europe, one Chinese diplomat said a few days ago that if Taiwan insisted, with American backing, in advancing toward its independence, war was likely.
This was another warning that the Taiwan question remains unresolved. It is impossible to foresee how long China will choose the solution of a no-solution for Taiwan, and one can only take the parties' declarations as a guide. The Chinese Communist Party insists that the island known as the Republic of China will eventually join the People's Republic of China. That makes the present situation provisional, until one side or the other decides on a permanent solution (though really, in historical terms, all solutions are provisional).
This is the first time since the Cold War that war could break out between the great powers. The two sides would be more or less the same as those of the Cold War, though the situation could always change completely.
A demonstrator wearing a mask with the face of Chinese president Xi Jinping in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 10
The democracy question
Ultra conservative Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson recently asked a political expert invited to his show why the United States was backing Ukraine, not Russia, which Carlson said was surprising. His guest responded that historically, the United States has always sided with democracy. Well, those of us familiar with Latin American history know this is not true. We may go further and say the claim is not "historically" true, even for people living inside the United States.
The U.S. is a young democracy.
The rise of fascism in the United States, the success of strategies to weaken its internal democratic system, and the Republican Party's brazen contempt for the electoral system suggest there will be changes.
The United States is actually a rather young democracy. Like South Africa, you couldn't say it was a fully democratic country until it had granted full civil rights to its African-American population, which happened only in 1965. Democracy, national sovereignty and the guarantees of international law appear to be firm, but are actually quite fragile. They are uncertain, and subject to an unending process of negotiation.
The United States might put itself on Russia's side or refuse to continue backing Taiwan. In these unstable times, anything could happen.
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