The Return of the West?

(NOTE: a shorter version of this essay was first published in Responsible Statecraft on MARCH 29, 2022. But key passages from the original essay were deleted due to the word limit, especially some lines concerning the effects of sanctions and the unity of “the West”, which are included in this draft.)

Does Putin’s invasion of Ukraine revive the fading idea of the West, or hasten the demise of the Western-led international order?

Amitav Acharya

American University

Among its wide ranging consequences for international order, Vladimir Putin’s of Ukraine adventure, triggering sweeping Western sanctions against Russia has rekindled hopes for a revival of US leadership and Western unity in global affairs. As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations writes “In one fateful step, the Russian president has managed to revive Western solidarity, reenergize U.S. global leadership, catalyze European integration, expose Russia’s weaknesses, undermine Moscow’s alliance with Beijing, and make his authoritarian imitators look foolish.”

Putin has given the idea of “the West” a fresh lease of life, at least in Western societies. Writing in Slate, Lili Loofbourow notes, “Pro-Ukraine feelings in search of an organizing principle are coalescing around a category of identification that hasn’t enjoyed real, popular international relevance in a good long while: “the West”—a category Vladimir Putin has long railed against, but which Westerners themselves haven’t, at least in recent years, claimed with much personal attachment or ideological loyalty.”

But Western analysts are not alone in thinking of this possibility. From China, Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, expects that as a result of the Ukraine crisis, “The power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and U.S. influence in the non-Western world will increase…no matter how Russia achieves its political transformation, it will greatly weaken the anti-Western forces in the world… The West will possess more “hegemony” both in terms of military power and in terms of values and institutions, its hard power and soft power will reach new heights.”

Not so fast. While the Russian invasion is deeply self-injurious, instead of reviving the West’s dominance of world order, it could hasten its demise, or create a more level playing field between the West and the Rest

The Ukraine conflict shows that Europe is no longer immune to major conflict, as it was during much of the Cold War. There is now a major war at the heart of Europe. The idea of the West as peaceful as well as prosperous has taken a beating.

The conflict also demonstrates that there is nothing special about European values or European approaches to institution-building and stability that is fail-proof or protects it from disorder. There was once much enthusiasm about Europe’s concepts such as “common security”, pan-European identity, or “European common home”, articulated by the Palme Commission in 1982 and promoted by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the Cold War ended. US presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton endorsed the vision of a Europe that is “whole, free and at peace”. Today, Europe is neither whole, nor free nor at peace. As The Economist magazine noted on 4th March 2022, “As much as the war’s reverberations are felt around the world, though, they sound most strongly in Europe. The invasion has upended the idea of a continent “whole, free and at peace”.

The implication is that European values, no matter how noble they may seem, are not universally shared, even without the larger European region. Instead, if pursued dogmatically, without regard to the interests and identities of others, they could cause conflict.

Second, the war in Ukraine if not resolved soon, will cost both Russia and the US dearly. While Russia reels from unprecedented sanctions, the US and the West will not go unscathed due to the interdependent nature of the global economy. Russia’s role as supplier of energy and critical minerals is not trivial, and they have already forced the US to look for support from such adversaries as Venezuela. This cannot be high point for America’s moral standing in the world.

Furthermore, the freezing of Russia’s assets, coming on the heels of those of Afghanistan after the return of Taliban, would send chills to those who keep their reserves in the US, such as China, who would consider reducing their holdings and developing alternatives financial arrangements. This would not be easy, but bilateral arrangements such as those between China and Russia may well dent the global dollar hegemony. 

As columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote commenting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “One of the defining features of the new era is that it is post-American. By that I mean that the Pax Americana of the past three decades is over.” Zakaria himself had written about the “post-American world” in 2008, but this was mainly about the rise of other powers relative to others. He had until now refused to accept the end of the liberal international order the US had built. In reality, as this author had argued in 2014, the US-led world order was in peril. The Ukraine conflict puts another nail on its coffin.

The Ukraine conflict may revive NATO, but that also means raising Europe’s defence burden, with Germany taking the lead with a major increase in its defense spending. This would dissipate Europe’s economic resilience. Higher energy prices would further stoke inflation, including in the West undermining post-pandemic recovery.

The Ukraine conflict confronts the US, the leader of the West, with a two front war; with Russia and China more closely aligned than at any point since the 1950s. The only difference is that this time, China’s is the senior partner, in terms of wealth while also being a significant nuclear power. And China is a much more comprehensive adversary of the US than an economically anemic and isolated Soviet Union. The Ukraine crisis may undermine if not reverse Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy which had built on Obama’s pivot to Asia and Trump’s considerable investment on the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogues (QUAD), which would be seriously compromised if the US was to retaliate against India’s purchase of Russian air defense missiles or its refusal to condemn the UN General Assembly resolution against Russia of 2 March, 2022.

Moreover, while condemning Putin’s aggression, the developing countries are not necessarily supporting the revival of the US-led liberal order. Aside from the fact that China, India and South Africa abstained on the UN General Assembly vote on 2 March condemning Russia, among African countries, voting on that resolution was 28 in favor with 17 abstentions.

The sweeping sanctions on Russia, which was criticized by Brazil despite having voted for the UNGA resolution, remind developing nations of the coercive economic power of the West, which may be used against them if they stray from Western interests and expectations. African and Middle Eastern opinion also points to the harsh treatment of refugees from these regions in Eastern Europe, including on the Ukrainian border. Then there is the issue of the West’s own record of military intervention. As Gilles Yabi, the founder of WATHI, a “citizen Think Tank” in Senegal, notes, “In Africa, we are…stunned by this invasion of Ukraine by Russia…This is unjustifiable, as were the interventions of the United States and NATO in many countries, sometimes under false pretenses and in flagrant violation of international law.” This shows attempts by Western policymakers and analysts to reject any moral equivalence between Russian and US/NATO interventions, are not entirely convincing in the non-Western world.

Some non-Western countries also resent the pressure from the West, as revealed in then Pakistani premier Imran Khan’s “are we your slaves” outburst in March when confronted with a missive from Western ambassadors to condemn Russia. 

One of the rays of hope amidst the gloom of the Ukraine crisis must be noted. It is not a “clash of civilizations”. In fact, the late Samuel Huntington, who coined that phrase, had written in his 1996 book, “If civilization is what counts, violence between Ukrainians and Russians is unlikely.”

Of course, violence has now taken place, but it is not due to a civilizational clash. Russia’s grievance against the West (real or imagined), Putin’s miscalculation of Ukrainian resistance, and the geopolitics of NATO expansion, are more important factors behind the conflict, which Huntington’s thesis had underestimated. Indeed, condemnation of Russia’s invasion cuts across cultures and continents: including Islamic Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, Buddhist Thailand and Cambodia, Catholic Philippines and Brazil and Christian-Muslim Nigeria. 

For the same reason, the Ukraine conflict does not imply a global breakdown of norms against war and imperialism. The nations that abstained on the UNGA resolution, such as India and South Africa, for their own reasons of national interest, have not endorsed Putin’s action. In short, the Ukraine conflict paradoxically highlights the importance of global norms against aggression and conquest, which is not surprising, since as I have argued elsewhere, those norms were not the West’s unique creation, but were crafted jointly by the West and the Rest.


Global South reacts to Western call for unity against Russia

The idea that the international order is stronger than ever is not shared by those often on the receiving end of its coercive tactics.

Amitav Acharya, Responsible Statecraft, MARCH 29, 2022

Among its wide ranging consequences for international order, Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion and its triggering of sweeping Western sanctions against Russia have spurred hopes for a revival of U.S. leadership and Western unity in global affairs.

As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations has written, “In one fateful step, the Russian president has managed to revive Western solidarity, reenergize U.S. global leadership, catalyze European integration, expose Russia’s weaknesses, undermine Moscow’s alliance with Beijing, and make his authoritarian imitators look foolish.” 

Putin has given the idea of “the West” a fresh lease of life, at least in Western societies. “Pro-Ukraine feelings in search of an organizing principle,” according to  Slate’s Lili Loofbourow,  are coalescing around a category of identification that hasn’t enjoyed real, popular international relevance in a good long while: ‘the West’—a category Vladimir Putin has long railed against, but which Westerners themselves haven’t, at least in recent years, claimed with much personal attachment or ideological loyalty.” 

But Western analysts are not alone their assessment of a possible Western revival. From China, Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, expects that as a result of the Ukraine crisis, “[t]he power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and U.S. influence in the non-Western world will increase…[N]o matter how Russia achieves its political transformation, it will greatly weaken the anti-Western forces in the world… The West will possess more “hegemony” both in terms of military power and in terms of values and institutions, its hard power and soft power will reach new heights.”

Not so fast. There is another school of thought, that while the Russian invasion is deeply self-injurious, it could hasten the West’s decline, or at least create a more level playing field between the West and the Rest when it comes to moral leadership of the international order.

“One of the defining features of the new era is that it is post-American,” charged Fareed Zakaria after the invasion was launched. “By that I mean that the Pax Americana of the past three decades is over.” Zakaria himself had written about a “post-American world” since at least the 2008 financial crisis, but he was referring then to the rise of other powers relative to the U.S. Until now, he had refused to accept the breakup of the post-1945 U.S.-built liberal international order. In reality, as this author argued in 2014, the U.S.-led global system had been moving toward life support. And the Ukraine conflict has moved it closer to pulling the plug.

Aside from the fact that China, India, and South Africa abstained on the U.N. General Assembly vote on March 2 condemning Russia, those developing countries that voted in favor of the resolution were not, by doing so, voicing their support for the revival of this U.S.-led order. Among sub-Saharan countries, for example, voting on that resolution was 28 in favor with 17 abstentions. 

At the same time, no matter how much Western leaders may dislike the term, “moral equivalence” between Russian invasion and past U.S. interventions is being drawn. To cite Amin Saikal, an Afghan-Australian scholar and a leading authority on Middle East: in invading Ukraine, “President Vladimir Putin has deftly observed and exploited the past misdeeds and current limitations of the United States…The Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos are a powerful reminder of the moral lapses and human tragedies that the U.S. and some of its allies were responsible for in those countries.” 

In other words, it is not entirely inconsistent for the “Global South” to both condemn the Russian invasion on principle and express criticisms of Western “internationalism” and its double standards. 

The sweeping sanctions on Russia, which were criticized by Brazil despite having voted for the resolution, remind developing nations of the coercive economic power of the West, which may be — and has been used — against them if they fail to protect or uphold Western interests and expectations. 

African and Middle Eastern governments and media have also pointed to the harsh treatment of refugees from their own regions in Eastern Europe, including on the Ukrainian border, not to mention the issue of the West’s own record of military intervention. As Gilles Yabi, the founder of WATHI, a “citizen think tank” in Senegal, noted, “In Africa, we are… stunned by this invasion of Ukraine by Russia… This is unjustifiable, as were the interventions of the United States and NATO in many countries, sometimes under false pretenses and in flagrant violation of international law.” 

The attempts by Western policymakers and analysts to reject any moral equivalence between Russian and U.S./NATO interventions are not entirely convincing to the non-Western world.

Some non-Western countries also resent the pressure from the West, as revealed in Pakistani premier Imran Khan’s “are we your slaves” outburst in March when confronted with a missive from Western ambassadors urging Islamabad to unequivocally condemn Russia’s invasion.  

Much depends on whether the Ukraine conflict ends with the humiliating defeat of Russia or the collapse of European and Western unity. But a war at the heart of Europe that has already taken a terrible toll in human lives and inflicted major damage on both Ukraine and Russia is not a glowing advertisement for the approach to regional and international order that the West had envisaged. It shows the limits and dangers of the post-Cold War European project of continental peace and stability.

For background, as the Cold War ended, European concepts such as “common security,” pan-European identity, or “European common home,” as articulated by the Palme Commission in 1982 and promoted by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, drew global attention. U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton enthused about the vision of a Europe that is “whole, free and at peace.”  

But as the Economist magazine noted earlier this month, “As much as the war’s reverberations are felt around the world…[it] has upended the idea of a continent “whole, free and at peace.” With this the idea of Europe (and the West) as a model of conflict management for other regions such as Southeast Asia, Africa, or Latin America, takes a beating. 

In its most recent Strategic Compass issued on 22 March, the EU reminded of it being “a consistent leader investing in effective multilateral solutions,” of its “crisis management missions and operations operating on three continents” and its “global security responsibilities.” But if Europe cannot put its own house in order, how can it be taken seriously as a conflict manager outside.

Finally, while a debate rages over whether Putin’s imperial ambition or the threat posed by NATO expansion was responsible for the Ukraine invasion, it is also clear that many Western policy-makers, including George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretaries William Perry and Robert Gates, and current CIA Director William Burns, had warned against the latter. That such warnings went unheeded not only smacks of America’s geopolitical arrogance or incompetence, or both, it also reminds the world of the perils of the U.S. entanglements in security alliances in general.

What Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Means for World Order, Barron’s

Amitav Acharya

Barron’s, Feb. 25, 2022 

There was a time not long ago when Europe was seen by much of the world as a model for peace and cooperation. The Cold War had ended with the peaceful implosion of the Soviet Union. The European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other similar institutions were seen as a beacon for the rest of the world, including Asia and the Middle East, to emulate. Europe was “primed for peace,” wrote Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Stephen Van Evera in 1991. Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg concurred: “The movement toward democracy, equality, and cosmopolitanism in each of the states in Europe, the increasingly dense and diverse linkages between them and the mounting costs and declining benefits of war among them have mutually reinforcing effects” and “taken as a whole their impact would be ‘overwhelming’” in creating conditions for peace.

Today all these claims are shattered. How did Europe come to this? What are the implications for world order? While the Ukraine situation continues to evolve, some consequences immediately come to mind.

To begin with, the Ukraine crisis is another nail, perhaps the final one, in the coffin of postwar liberal order. The order was already fraying due to a global economic shift from the West to China, among others. That shift was in motion even before President Trump assumed office with a foreign policy agenda that distrusted both economic globalization and multilateral institutions. President Biden upon taking office pledged to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” But the Ukraine crisis would go on to impede multilateralism, paralyze the U.N. Security Council, and severely limit cooperation among the major powers. It would return the world to opposing power blocs where the U.S. and its NATO allies faced Russia and China.

Predictably, in confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden has turned to NATO. There have been celebrations about renewed NATO unity brought about by Putin’s provocations. But NATO has been as much part of the problem as of the solution. Writing in the New York Times in 1997, George F. Kennan, the father of the U.S. “containment” strategy against the Soviet Union, warned, “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” Kennan’s warning has proven correct. Some influential commentators, such as former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul vigorously reject the view that NATO expansion had anything to do with Putin’s Ukraine move. But alliances are known to provoke as much as deter conflict. In fact, recognition of the war-making effects of Europe’s alliances led President George Washington to pursue a foreign policy “to steer clear of permanent alliances,” while the same distrust led Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to advocate a universal security system.

The Ukraine crisis not only challenges peace in Europe, it will also test U.S. global strategic goals. The U.S. is now facing the prospect of a two-front war, especially if Putin’s military moves go beyond Ukraine. In sending troops to Ukraine, Putin has threatened to inflict “consequences you have never encountered in your history” on countries that try to stop him, a threat directed more at Europe, including the new NATO nations in the Baltic, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, than at the U.S. Biden has said that the U.S. had “no intention of fighting Russia”, but he also wants to “send an unmistakable message that the United States together with our allies will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO.” Some of that territory could well turn out to be those of these Baltic states. But it is not unreasonable to ask: Will the U.S. risk a nuclear war to defend Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn?

More important, can Washington put adequate resources to defend NATO while also pursuing a vigorous Indo-Pacific strategy directed at China? The U.S. was able to win the Cold War by concentrating on one enemy—the Soviet Union—especially after U.S.-China rapprochement neutralized Chinese hostility following the Nixon visit almost exactly half a century ago. This helped the U.S. to counter the Soviet Union’s geopolitical adventures in places such as Cambodia and Afghanistan, ultimately leading to its decline and fall. Now, Russia and China are ganging up against the U.S. Beijing, as an ardent defender of nonintervention, has remained almost silent in the U.N. Security Council debates over Ukraine.

China could secure geopolitical gains if Washington’s attention and resources are diverted to Europe, an ironic reversal of the “rebalancing” strategy pursued by the Obama administration, and working against the purpose of the withdrawal from Afghanistan conceived by Trump and completed by Biden with unseemly haste. The Ukraine invasion comes at a time when China is mounting new military pressure on Taiwan. It may be argued that Ukraine could turn out to be Putin’s Afghanistan, thereby sparing the U.S. the strategic burden of a two-front war. But Ukraine is no Afghanistan. It is much closer geographically and culturally to Russia than Afghanistan. The strategic stakes for Russia in Ukraine are far greater than they were in Afghanistan, not the least due to the continuing pressure from NATO. Putin is not going to leave Ukraine alone without significant concessions from the West, including non-membership in NATO, which the U.S. has ruled out. And if Biden makes similar commitments to nation-building in Ukraine as the U.S. made to Afghanistan, it will turn out to be Biden’s Afghanistan rather than Putin’s.

Interview with Dr Roeslan Abdulghani, Secretary General, Asia-Africa Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, 1955

The video of the interview is available at:

Transcript: Interview with Roeslan Abdulgani

Former Foreign Minister of Indonesia and Secretary-General of the Bandung Conference

Interview conducted by: Professor Amitav Acharya

April 25, 2002

Preface to Interview with Dr Roselan Abdulghani (Amitav Acharya)

Most students of Asian politics and international relations have heard about the Asia-Africa Conference held in the Indonesian town of Bandung between 18 and 24 April 1955. Attended by 29 nations, the conference discussed cooperation among the nations of Asia and Africa, their social, economic and cultural problems, problems affecting national sovereignty, racialism and colonialism, and the contribution of Asian and African countries to world peace and cooperation.

The Secretary-General of this historic conference was Dr Roselan Abdulghani. At the time of the conference, he was the secretary-general of the Indonesia Foreign Ministry. Later, he became President Sukarno’s Foreign Minister, and the Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the UN.

On April 22, 2004, I had the privilege of interviewing him in Jakarta. Dr Roselan was 88 years old, frail, but in good mind and spirit. Our conversation lasted for an hour. During the interview, I had the opportunity to seek his reflections on several aspects of the conference:

  1. Why did Indonesia organize this conference?
  2. What were the main issues discussed and debated at the conference?
  3. How effective were the procedures adopted at the conference?
  4. What was his impressions of some of the key leaders at the conference, such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Chou En-Lai of China? And
  5. What is the main legacy of the Bandung Conference?

In the interview that follows, Dr Roselan provides clear and insightful answers to these questions. What comes through here is one of the finest diplomatic histories of that time by one of the most distinguished and ablest diplomats the developing world has ever produced.

AA: Tell me why Indonesia decided to organize the Bandung Conference.

RA: Well, as you know, in 1953, 1954, we faced the danger of the Vietnam War spreading to Southeast Asia. We felt that there was a danger. Secondly, we were fighting, at that time, against Dutch colonialism about West Irian. And that was a tough struggle, and we were of the opinion that colonialism was an international problem. So to fight off colonialism, we should also fight on an international level. That means that the Asian-African countries, who were at that time still colonized, should be mobilized. Thirdly, we wanted an economic cooperation between these countries who were not yet technically developed. And lastly, there was President Sukarno’s dream in 1930, 1932, during the colonial period. He said that the benteng of Indonesia, the bullof Indonesia, should cooperate with the lembu mandi of India, with the barong, the dragon of China, with the tiger of Philippines, also with the white elephant of Thailand. And if we all cooperated in fighting against colonialism, then we would win. Therefore, his idea of having a Conference of Asia and Africa was motivated by the situation at the time, but also by the dream he had in 1930.

For the Colombo Conference between the five South Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma and Indonesia), we had the idea that we would like to invite China, and so, this was discussed. Not only China, but also the other countries that were more or less involved in the Cold War. Because we knew that between the Colombo powers at that time, there was the problem of Pakistan and India. Pakistan was a member of a military alliance, while India rejected military alliances – we knew that. When the Bandung Conference was opened, 29 countries were there. So you have endless ranks of the 29 countries.

You have countries who are members of a military alliance, and also countries who are neutral, which means non-aligned. This posed a problem because in one of the resolutions we talked about the right of defence, and it required very tough bargaining to come to a balanced decision, especially in terms of the wording. Later on, the right of self-defence, singly or collectively, was recognized. This had consequences for countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, and other countries who were members of NATO or SEATO. We recognized that they had the right of self-defence collectively, but we would prefer that they had the right of defence individually as well. The verdict on the right defence, singly or collectively, is recognized, but there should be an abstention from the use of military alliances to serve the particular interests of the great powers.

There was a big debate. Nehru, Indonesia, and all the countries who were against the military alliances, said: “Alright, you have the right of self-defence collectively. But you should abstain to use that military alliance for the special interests of big powers.” Pakistan could not say that they were serving the interests of the big power, because Pakistan said “No, if we are a member of SEATO, we are after our own security.” So that was a compromise. And that was one of the delicate problems at the Conference which was solved.

That would also solve the problem of Communism. Because we invited China, and China is Communist. Moreover, China is considered to be an annex of Moscow. In Bandung, there were other opinions, especially from Nehru, but also from Indonesia, and from Zhou Enlai himself. Zhou Enlai said, “Look, we are Communists. I am Communist. But this does not mean that we follow everything that Mao Zedong says.” And that’s how the idea came that Chinese Communism is different from Moscow Communism. So when Sir John Kotelawala presented the idea that there is a new form of colonialism, and the relationship between Moscow and East Europe, we said: “No that is not colonialism, that is up to them.”

Therefore, the meeting about this problem of colonialism, and all its new forms, ended with a compromise. And the compromise was this. We are going say that there was a very antagonistic debate about colonialism in all its forms, because the idea of Sir John Kotelawala was that Communism was colonialism in another form. This was rejected by Zhou Enlai, and also by the other people. No, you cannot say that communism is colonialism. But how could we solve this problem?

We agreed not to mix up the problem, and interfere in the relations between Moscow and the Eastern countries. That was up to them. We don’t want to be mixed up in that. And then, said Zhou Enlai, “If you would like to have colonialism in all its manifestations, then I agree. And he used his hands, like this, showing the Conference. This is colonialism, and its manifestation is in the political field, in the economic field, in the social field, in the ideological field, and so on. But this is manifestation. If you change colonialism in all its manifestations, it is an evil that should be brought to an end. Then I agree.”

So this delicate problem was compromised. Everybody knows that we were treating very delicate problems. That was the success of the Bandung Conference – to eliminate sharp conflicts of ideas, and to come to compromises. This was possible because the rules of procedure made it possible. There are no fixed rules of procedures. It is up to the Chairman to conduct the procedure, the debate, on a very wise way. And that is avoiding floating. How will you come to a decision? By consensus, which is a very interesting problem. I think in Indonesian society, we used four things: discussion (mushawarah), and then we come to mufakat, which means consensus. So if you have two different opinions, you cut off the sharp points of both, and you come to a compromise.

Therefore, the final Communiqué of the Bandung Conference, actually is full of compromises. But without compromises, how can you come to an agreement between twenty-nine countries, which was nearly half of the world, at that time where the United Nations consisted of sixty members. And twenty-nine countries were in Bandung.

AA: Do you think this idea of consensus was Indonesia’s idea? From Indonesian village culture? You also thought this was the most practical way.

RA: We suggested that.

AA: You suggested that? Indonesia suggested?

RA: We know that the other countries, such as the Islamic Arab countries, also agreed that it should come to consensus. Because in the Qu’ranic verse it is said that you should always come to an agreement. Of course you have different opinions, but if you have different opinions, you should try to persuade the other with reasoning, by being very kind, and patient, but also think of the time. That is what the Qu’ran said. You cannot talk for months. So we said: “Of course we should think of the time. And therefore you should come to a consensus because the situation was dangerous at the time. The situation of the Cold War.

The Bandung Conference affected the whole world. From Southeast Asia spreading to the Middle East. That is what I think is the greatest achievement of the Bandung Conference. And the idea that the world is not divided into two blocs. Why should the world be defined by a liberal democracy with capitalism on the one hand, and on the other, an authoritarian Communism with an altruistic ideology. Why should that be the world? No. We said no. There is a Third World.

The idea of a Third World actually came up at the Bandung Conference. The rest is divided into Moscow and Washington. Both had the glory that was Rome, the glory that was Greece, the glory that was Christianity. We, what you call the East, we had the cradle of religions, the cradle of philosophies, the cradles of life – Mesopotamia, the Ganges, the Indus in India, and then you have the Nile. And that is non-Western. So why should we submit to the idea that the world is divided in only these two blocs, and that there is no alternative. You must choose, or you are off the radar. No, we will not choose. We will choose for ourselves. And that is the idea, that we nurtured in the Bandung Conference, and later on it was materialized in the Non-bloc movement.

AA: Can you tell me about the role of China, and especially Prime Minister Zhou Enlai?

RA: It is very interesting, because at first we thought that Zhou Enlai would be a hardliner. Because he was a Communist, and he admitted in his speech that “I am atheist.” We were all frightened, but we didn’t expect his openness. He said: “Why I am an atheist? We, Chinese Communists, respect religion. And we don’t want to have a religion war. And we are not against religion, but religion should be fighting against colonialism. Because religion should be fighting against colonialism, because colonialism is against the religion and against the other communisms. That was revealing of the man. This man is very tolerant. And then he said, “Don’t worry about me. I am an atheist. But that doesn’t mean that I do not recognize, and respect others. In my delegation, there are Muslims. And there were.

This is what we mean by peaceful co-existence. We may differ, but we have a          peaceful co-existence. We will not quarrel over this problem, because we are facing colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and so on. This is what Zhou Enlai revealed to us. This actually was not new, because Nehru also had this idea. But this came from the man we thought was a hardliner. And this was revealing.

In his role, he was very, very cooperative. He listened to the speech of Sir John Kotelawala. And then in the mid-afternoon he stopped and said: “Sir John Kotelawala, are you expecting me to fight against you? No!” John was amazed. “Look, I would like to see your text. I will reply tomorrow. But I am not here to quarrel with you. I am here to come to a peaceful settlement of our ideas.” And that is what the whole conference respected, this attitude of Zhou Enlai.

The next morning he made a very short speech. He said, “ I have listened, and I have disagreed, but I have talked to Sir John Kotelawala about it.” And later on, John Kotelawala said that he did not mean Chinese Communism when he spoke.

A very positive role, and very constructive role.

Another thing was that he was adamant. He did not want to recognize Formosa. He is a man of the One-China policy. And he knows the second fleet of the American army is around there. He said, “No, we cannot accept two Chinas.” That is his only stubborn, if I may use the word, attitude.

AA: There was a compromise on the question of military pacts and also on the question of colonialism. Do you think that compromise, that military pacts collectively or singly is OK, but should not be used for the interests of a superpower. That formula, or that compromise, did it have an impact on SEATO later? That it got the Asian countries to think that military alliances are not good.

RA: Of course, we know what will be the attitude of these two big powers. But we said to them that this is our position, if there is a Cold War problem. Because one of the purposes of the Asian-Africa Conference was to feel the professions of Asia and Africa in the World today. That was one of the purposes. We feel our professions in the Cold War. If there is a problem of Cold War in Korea, in Vietnam, in Berlin, our profession is mediation. We try to mediate. We do not use nuclear weapons. We do not use force. If it comes to colonialism, then we fight against it. If America supports colonialism, we will fight America. And if the Soviet Union supports colonialism in Eastern Europe, then we may fight them. But when it comes to the problem of Cold War, we will mediate. That was clear. These two big powers began to think about it.

AA: How about the question of sovereignty, and the principle of non-interference, non-intervention of states? Was there a lot of discussion?

RA: Oh yes. That was also discussed. We rejected any intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. But of course the big problem is economic, because we were all from the Third World. We urged an oil-policy, because we know that we need countries that have oil in Middle East, and here as well. The idea of having an oil-producing organization, like OPEC, was conceived in the Bandung Conference.

AA: Question about Nehru’s role.

RA: Prime Minister Nehru had a very, very leading role. Not only because he has such great charisma, but he is considered the man who is the forerunner of the freedom movement, in India and so on. He mastered the English language, he mastered politics, and he knew all the tactics and strategies of the Great Britain colonial policy. And that is reflected in his ideas when he is talking about this. So his role is a very leading one. That is what I can say. He is a state senior. Of course, he was always criticized by Mohammad Ali. But that does not make any sense, because we know that they were brothers who fought, so we tried to mediate between them.

The problem of the impact of the Bandung Conference, was the non-Aligned Conference. They had a membership that started at 24, later it was 50, showing the relevance of the Bandung Conference. If you ask me whether the ideas at Bandung are still relevant today, mostly they are. But we should also understand the changes of the world. Not all it is still useful. But the basic things, about peaceful co-existence are still valid. Now the people say that the Cold War is over, but there is new war coming. That is the war between the developed countries and the countries that are underdeveloped. This should be bridged. That is why we addressed the debt problem, the problem of technology. The peaceful co-existence idea, I think, is still relevant today.

What we see today, the problem of Zionism against the Arab, Islamic World, and the Third World. Zionism also has its roots in America. It is different from anti-Semitism. If you ask me how to solve this, I believe that you can still use some of the ideas from Bandung.

AA: Did it have an impact on ASEAN. Later on, when Southeast Asian countries led by Indonesia, decided to have their own regional organization, ASEAN. Did Bandung – the process, the principles – have any impact on Indonesia’s involvement in ASEAN?

RA: I think ASEAN has its history. ASEAN has its contribution to the problem of stability in Southeast Asia. But later on, it becomes too limited. So ASEAN must expand its membership, and therefore you now have APEC., the problem of new regional cooperation. I understand that the original ASEAN members would like to keep the ASEAN idea. But you cannot keep it limited.

AA: But what I was asking you also is that ASEAN also operates on the basis of consensus. And ASEAN is also trying to develop, in the 1950s and 60s, a policy of neutralization of Southeast Asia. Do you that some ideas of Bandung had an impact on Indonesian foreign policy, and in the foreign ministry. And when Indonesia became a member of ASEAN, it was trying to make ASEAN in the same mold as the Bandung principles of consensus.

RA: That is true, but it depends on the cabinet in Indonesia, whether it was intensive enough, or just superficial. So we had times were the cabinet in Indonesia was only superficially doing it. But there are times where we are going to be intensive.

Look at the period of Suharto. Suharto is committed to ASEAN. Because ASEAN, at birth, was to keep peace in this area, and not to be a communist organization. But later on, it could not control the influence of China. But China also changed. In the later period, Suharto went to China. Then you have the Habibie period, but it was too short to say what it was. Then came Gus Dur who tried to intensify ASEAN. And now Megawati, I don’t know. The new foreign Minister talks to me as a senior person, and his staff also. I ask him what he is doing: “You cannot keep ASEAN the way that it was. You have to move on. The world is moving, so you need a larger regional cooperation.

In this respect, we were also very clear with Zhou Enlai. Do not interfere anymore. Do not interfere in other states. That is what we told Zhou Enlai. Because colonialism is not only a monopoly of the West, but also exists in the East. He understood. He later on invited me to go to Ulan Baator, in Outer Mongolia.

AA During the Bandung Conference, Nehru said that if you join a military pact, you degrade yourself. The countries that join military alliances are not very sovereign countries. Is there a sense that if countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Thailand, and Philippines join military alliances with the US, and use the alliance against other countries in Asia, that means they are not acting as sovereign states?

RA: That’s true, which is why we acted to protect the right of self-defence collectively, that you should abstain from the use of collective military arrangements for the specific interest of the people. Of course, this is just a formulation to caution them. Don’t be used by America as a weapon against other countries. You can see from the “Ten Principles of Bandung” that the right of self-defence singly or collectively is recognized. But you should abstain the use of collective military alliances for the specific interest of the big power.

Hinduism and Buddhism are the so called hydraulic civilizations. They are of the rivers, big rivers. The Rhine is also big, but there are no civilizations.

AA: I think it is interesting to see that you are recognized as one of the key players in the development of non-alignment and Afro-Asian cooperation. And I’m very glad that you are still able to participate in many of these functions. It is a real privilege to meet you.

RA: Professor Amitav, this should give us new inspiration and some confidence that Asia can compete with the rest.

AA: That concludes my interview with Dr. Roeslan Abdulgani, who was, in 1955, the Secretary-General of the Bandung Conference. This is in Jakarta at 11:30 am.

A “Third Way” for World Order After COVID-19

The pandemic will accelerate the development of a “multiplex” world

by Amitav Acharya July 21, 2021

In responding to COVID-19, nations—large and small, democratic and authoritarian—have predictably behaved in similar ways. They have put sovereignty, borders, and their national interests ahead of international cooperation. This phenomenon proved prominent for the United States and China, the two strongest powers, and with small nations, such as Singapore and New Zealand.

Of course, the U.S. and Chinese responses to the pandemic have raised more questions about how the actions of these two countries might affect world order. Contrary to conventional thinking, Chinese and American behavior during the pandemic is not producing a new Cold War or a resurrected liberal international order. Instead, the pandemic is most likely to shift many countries to pursue a different kind of world order—one that reflects multiple centers of authority and capacity in global governance.

The pandemic is most likely to shift many countries to pursue a different kind of world order—one that reflects multiple centers of authority

Different National Responses

The U.S. and Chinese responses to COVID-19 pursued geopolitical goals but with divergent approaches that produced different outcomes. According to Johns Hopkins University, as of July 7, 2021, the United States lost 606,121 lives out of 33,758,758 million cases. China reported 4,848 deaths and 103,948 cases. Even with doubts about its official COVID-19 statistics, China protected its people better than the United States protected the American people. But, for the rest of the world, the more pressing question was whether China, as the country that experienced the first outbreak, and the United States, as a long-standing leader in global health, did enough to protect people in other nations.

The United States and China responded to COVID-19 in very different ways internationally. Under President Donald J. Trump, the United States embraced an “America First” ideology and shunned international cooperation. By contrast, China pursued an activist foreign policy. As President Trump denounced globalization, supply chains, and the World Health Organization (WHO), President Jinping Xi defended globalization and doubled down on Chinese support for, and leadership claims on, global governance. While the United States shopped the world for masks and ventilators, China launched ambitious global mask and vaccine diplomacy efforts.

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves next to Premier Li Keqiang and former president Hu Jintao at the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China on July 1, 2021.

Similar World Order Implications

Yet, more than a year after WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, where is the global standing of these two powers? The pandemic has undercut China’s influence, especially in Asia. This region is critical because it is not only the fastest growing part of the world economically but also the primary geopolitical center of gravity that holds the key to China’s rise as a great power. John Mearsheimer asserted in the Tragedy of Great Power Politics that a regional sphere of influence is a necessary “stepping stone” for rising powers. In the End of American World Order, I argued that the key to a rising power’s global leadership and influence is gaining its own region’s trust rather than securing influence through coercion, as Mearsheimer implied. In Asia, Beijing’s “trust deficit” increased to 63 percent during 2020 compared with 60.4 percent before the pandemic, measured by the percentage of respondents who had “little confidence” and “no confidence” in China doing “the right thing in the interests of the global community.”

The United States and China responded to COVID-19 in very different ways internationally

Nor did China’s successful domestic response establish the supremacy of the “China model” of governance. China is not the only nation to have handled COVID-19 well. Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore also responded effectively, despite different political systems. To be sure, the pandemic response has made Australia look more like China than Great Britain, but China has not made Singapore—itself critical of Western-style, liberal democracy—seethe with jealousy. As Bilahari Kaushikan, a former official of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, said: “Beijing first bungled by trying to cover up, allowing the virus to take hold in China and rapidly spread beyond its borders. But the draconian measures only a Leninist system is capable of taking brought it under control, albeit at great cost, not all of which was borne by China.”

No matter how strongly China has complained, people around the world continue to associate the origins of COVID-19 with China. International media have highlighted China’s denials, repression of Chinese citizens for their early warnings, and doubts about Beijing’s transparency and cooperation with WHO, which delayed WHO missions to China and undercut the findings of those missions.  

In the United States, the Trump administration “chose not to provide leadership during a global crisis,” as Thomas Wright put it, and failed to respond effectively to the pandemic at home. The absurdity of President Trump and his loyalists rejecting mask mandates and social distancing in the name of “freedom” became a caricature of American values before the global audience. 

A person walks past the art installation "IN AMERICA How Could This Happen..." by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, on the DC Armory Parade Ground, in Washington D.C., U.S., October 23, 2020.

President Biden has made efforts to restore U.S. credibility and influence abroad. The administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance wants the United States to “lead and sustain a stable and open international system” that features “strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.” Pundits will recognize these objectives as elements of the liberal international order. The United States’ success in developing vaccines, the Biden administration’s impressive domestic vaccine campaign, and the administration’s vaccine-sharing initiatives bolster U.S. efforts to rejuvenate its vision of a liberal international order.  

Yet, the toxic partisanship of U.S. domestic politics dampens cheer and hope. Trump’s rejection of the result of the 2020 presidential election, attempts to overturn it through lies and coercion—including the January 6 insurrection—and the prospect of Trump returning to power undermine international respect for the United States. In these circumstances, the Biden administration’s revival of the U.S. commitment to multilateralism and cooperation will not restore a U.S.- or Western-dominated world order. The United States faces a long and daunting challenge in restoring faith in its global leadership. 

The Pandemic and the Emerging Multiplex World 

In short, COVID-19 makes neither the United States nor China appealing to the rest of the world. A sizeable number of countries could, with good reason, take a Shakespearean “plague on both your houses” approach to world order in the wake of the pandemic. A similar thing happened during the Cold War, when many countries rejected both superpower blocs and worked to create alternative forms and mechanisms of international cooperation. Such a “third way” is possible now.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping ® inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on December 4, 2013.  REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool

As I have argued elsewhere, international relations before the pandemic exhibited characteristics of “multiplexity”  that neither balance-of-power frameworks (e.g., bipolarity, multipolarity) nor the Western-led liberal international order captured. The emerging “multiplex world” is “not a singular global order, liberal or otherwise, but a complex of crosscutting, if not competing, international orders and globalisms.” In governance terms, a multiplex world is “a G-Plus world, featuring established and emerging powers, global and regional institutions and actors, states, social movements, corporations, private foundations, and various kinds of partnerships among them.”

Rather than locking the world into a new bipolar structure or resurrecting the liberal international order, the pandemic will accelerate the development of this multiplex world. Recovery from the devastation wrought by COVID-19 requires G-Plus governance and cooperation because neither geopolitics nor U.S. global leadership can manage multiplexity effectively. The failures of China and the United States during the pandemic underscore the need to explore and facilitate alternative configurations of governance authority and capacity in the post-pandemic world order. This imperative requires looking past conventional wisdom about the U.S.-China rivalry and the rhetoric about “America is Back” to find new ideas and possibilities, especially those percolating in the Global South.

This essay first appeared in the Think Global Health series, Council on Foreign Relations.

President Biden’s Foreign Policy Challenge: Revive World Order and Restore America’s Image

Biden can reverse a good deal of the loss of US prestige and influence during the Trump era with renewed commitment to global cooperation and multilateralism, and policies such as ending Trump’s anti-immigration stance, including the travel ban on visitors from several Muslim nations.”

Amitav Acharya

[Washington, DC] There is little question that the Biden administration will focus first and foremost on domestic challenges, especially the economic downturn and the COVID-19 pandemic. But four years of Trump have also severely damaged US standing and credibility globally. In particular, the Trump years severely undercut US credibility and prestige around the world and damaged world order, or what pundits call the liberal international order, which was created and led by the US since World War II.

Sand sculpture by renowned artist Sudarsan Patnaik @sudarsansand
on Puri beach, Odisha, India. Source:

The Liberal International Order was founded on a combination of globalization, including free trade, and multilateralism. Trump’s 2016 electoral victory was significantly helped by the failure of that order and the US foreign policy that sustained it, to address the concerns of American domestic constituents left behind by free trade. Trump was able to exploit the backlash against globalization which was already brewing in some parts of the US, such as the mid-West, which had suffered job and income losses as factories and companies moved to other nations such as China, where production was cheaper and more efficient. His “America First” and “Make America Great Again”  slogans had deep resonance among the rural white lower middle class constituents (including white supremacists), who dislike globalism and have little understanding of the benefits of multilateral institutions. As Covid-19 pandemic hit, Trump condemned global supply chains – a key driver of globalization – as a threat to US national self-reliance on medical products. Trump was able to sell his base constituents the idea that the US had got a “bad deal” from multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization, which was responsible for promoting global trade and the WHO which favored US competitors such as China at the expense of the US.

Trump’s “America First” policy, disdain for multilateral institutions, disrespect for US allies, and dismissal of democratic values not only weakened the liberal order, but also emboldened the more powerful challengers to that order, such as Russia and China.

Domestically, the Trump regime’s toxic mix of corruption, nepotism, racism, and ineptitude caused a serious erosion of US prestige and credibility around the world. Just look at the US death toll from the COVID-19, which now stands at 400,000. Such a high toll was not inevitable, with proper policies and management. Trump’s incitement of the Capitol insurrection on Jan 6, 2021 has made the US appear unstable and made a mockery of the US democracy and rule of law.

While repairing the damage will not be easy, there are several factors that might now help the Biden administration to stabilize world order and restore America’s global standing.

To begin with, defeat of Trump, the preeminent populist leader of a major nation in modern times, would discourage populist rulers. The fact that Trump not only lost the Presidency and the Senate but also leaving office with a one of the lowest approval ratings ever for a US president, is not a great advertisement for populism.

Biden’s victory should also be a warning to the current populist leaders in Brazil, Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, Venezuela, Poland and even India. Moreover, while Biden is unlikely to push for democracy promotion abroad, the regime change in Washington would dampen the spirits of the leaders of authoritarian regimes around the world, including North Korea, who got support from Trump. Nor can one expect President Biden encouraging populist policies in democratic nations, as Trump did within the US itself and in the UK, when he embraced Boris Johnson and Brexit.

President Biden brings back a high level of personal decency to the White House. His Vice-President, Kamala Harris, as well as his choice of senior level officials in his administration, symbolize the new administration’s respect for diversity and multiculturalism.

Biden can reverse a good deal of the loss of US prestige and influence during the Trump era with renewed commitment to global cooperation and multilateralism, and policies such as ending Trump’s anti-immigration stance, including the travel ban on visitors from several Muslim nations.

If Biden he succeeds in ensuring economic restoration, then he will steal thee thunder from other powerful nations in the world.

While the US faces major economic and political challenges, so do Russia and China as well as other emerging powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa. By being able to change its government and electing one with such fundamentally different ideology and political approach, the US actually has an advantage over other nations.

The Biden administration would restore the vigour of US alliances and multilateral institutions. Here, the damage inflicted by Trump is not irreversible. Without exception, US allies would welcome renewed US attention and engagement with them. To be sure, thanks to Trump’s affronts, the EU, led by France and Germany, have talked about “European sovereignty”, including greater self-reliance on security. Such talk will not disappear, but the rationale for this will be weaker if US reengages with its European allies through NATO and EU. The EU itself faces multiple challenges which would stifle its search for security self-reliance. It can do with American support.

America’s Indo-Pacific allies, especially Japan, South Korea, Australia remain heavily dependent on US security umbrella and would be relieved if, as likely, the Biden administration, pursues a more positive and respectful relations with them. All indications are that Biden’s foreign policy and security team would pursue a consultative approach towards the US allies, especially when and where their interests and involved.

On the multilateral front, Biden’s policy of returning the to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization would be universally welcome. Regional organizations such as ASEAN would also expect a more positive relationship with the US, after the snub of Trump years.

The multilateral system faces a long-term structural crisis caused by financial difficulties, as well as demands for reform to make the UN more democratic and accountable. These problems are beyond the capacity of any single nation to resolve, but having a sympathetic US leadership committed to liberal internationalism helps. Trump rejected globalism in favour of patriotism and nationalism. No leader would reject patriotism, but President Biden is likely to find a way to reconcile nationalism with globalism.

To be sure, the US cannot bring back the golden years of its global primacy. Nor can it restore the liberal international order to its fullest previous extent. The emerging world order is going to be more pluralistic, “multiplex”, or less US- and West-dominated than it has been for the past few centuries. But if Biden can contain the pandemic and stabilize the US economy, while revitalizing US engagement with the world through respect for international norms and global institutions, the US would reemerge as a very respected and influential player in the changing world order.

Jake Sullivan, Distinguished Lecture at School of International Service, American University, Nov 8, 2012

Jake Sullivan, Distinguished Lecture at School of International Service, American University, Nov 8, 2012

(Summary of key points)

The world is changing.  Power shifts, new technologies, and empowered non-state actors are transforming the international arena.  And, according to Jake Sullivan, Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. needs to keep up with those changes, while still maintaining the leadership role that has characterized it since World War II.

During a talk  organized by the Transnational Challenges and Emerging Nations Dialogue, at the School of International Service on November 8, Sullivan gave his thoughts about the model of foreign policy that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have implemented.  For the past four years, he has travelled to 112 countries with Secretary of State Clinton, and seen “up close and personal” the role of the U.S. in the world.

The Obama model is based on three premises: that the United States still has great convening power, that other countries still look to it for leadership, and that the world is changing. 

“The key point is that effective leadership has to look different than it did 20 years ago, because the world looks different,” said Sullivan.

He described four core values that will fulfill the task.  The first one is “leadership with purpose.”  Sullivan commented that, as in the past, the U.S. needs to work “beyond self interest…driven by the desire to be on the right side of history.”  This, according to him, is important in order to counter perceptions created by the most recent wars that the U.S. “is not a friend.”

The second value is “leadership through burden sharing.”  The aim is to have mutual responsibility, respect, and dialogue.  He mentioned the sanctions imposed by multiple countries on Iran as instructive of how burden can be shared. 

Nevertheless, he highlighted the importance of the U.S. in solving such problems.  “While it is true that no global challenge can be solved by just any one country, no global challenge can be solved without us.”

The third value is “leadership through enforcement of the rules.”

Professor Amitav Acharya, who is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Director of TRANSCEND at SIS, said that the biggest challenge for US foreign policy in the coming decades is how to deal with the rising powers, who want changes in international decision making structures and rules. According to Sullivan, the U.S. has to keep the international order, albeit with adjustments to global changes. Acharya noted that the U.S. needs to be more clear about which rules it wants to be kept and which it won’t mind changed.

Sullivan emphasized that they cannot allow any country “to pick and choose” the rules. However, Acharya argued  that “Western countries are as selective as the rising powers. There is no guarantee that the U.S. will play by the rules that it claims to advocate.”

The final value is “leadership by example.” “This means we need to put the house in order,” said Sullivan, referring to building a strong economy and political consensus.

With those guides, Sullivan seemed hopeful about what the United States could do for the rest of the world. “I have become jaded about many things in my job, but one thing I haven’t become jaded about is getting off that plane and thinking of what we can deliver to that country,” he affirmed.

American University Fall 2020 Convocation Address by Amitav Acharya, Scholar-Teacher of the Year

A video of the speech and the convocation is available at:

The following is the text of my address to the Fall 2020 Convocation of American University, Washington DC. The speech was live online on Aug 21, 2020 at 1pm. The address is traditionally given by the winner of American University’s highest honor: the Scholar-Teacher Award. The address included images of the Acharya in Robben Island prison (where Mandela was held), President Kennedy’s Conmencement Address to American University in 1963, and images of Mandela’s biography and Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s autobiography.

A write-up on the AU Scholar-Teacher Award at:


Hello the newest members of the AU community. Greetings.

I am the child of a pandemic. My father was born in a small village in India in 1915. Those days, India, like many other poor parts of the world, was plagued by killer infectious diseases, including small pox.

My father was a small pox survivor who bore its scars on his face for his entire adult life. And he lost not one, not two, but six siblings to small pox.

But my father persevered. He went on to become the first person from our village to earn a university degree. In fact he got two: in Arts and in Education. He built a very successful life as a High School headmaster. It was because of my father that I chose an academic career.

Today, you are embarking on the most important journey of your life in the most challenging of times. 

Never before in history have so many students the world over begun a new academic year entirely on-line.

Yet, these unprecedented times are also a huge opportunity to prove ourselves.

Your success at AU will both reassure and inspire the world’s present and future generations.

Through my life’s experience, I recognize diversity and inclusion when I see it.

You will not be alone. We the faculty and administrators of AU will be there with you every step of your journey with us.

Among AU’s most cherished qualities is our commitment to diversity, excellence  and inclusion. I have no doubt about it.

The first American whom I remember is President John F. Kennedy. Not that I meet him. I was only one year old when Kennedy was assassinated. But I remember him vividly because there was a framed picture of him and the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in our home.

In 1961, a year before I was born, Nehru visited Kennedy in the US.

The two had much in common. Kennedy was the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy. Nehru was the leader of the world’s largest democracy.

Both were staunch liberal internationalists, passionately committed to promoting diversity and cooperation in the world.

My father was a huge fan of both leaders. He clipped and framed a news-magazine cover of Kennedy and Nehru taking a stroll in the White House lawns. You can find that picture on the internet.

That picture was my first impression of what an American looks like.

That picture first inspired me to study and teach international affairs.

And that American, President John F. Kennedy, is a big part of American University. It was on this very campus that President Kennedy gave the Commencement Address to the graduating class of 1963.

There Kennedy said, and I quote:

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

The outdoor podium from which Kennedy spoke is still there. I urge you to visit it when you are next in campus, I hope very soon.

Three decades after Kennedy’s AU speech, another great leader of the 20th century, another of my personal heroes, invoked Kennedy’s words. His name is Nelson Mandela.

In an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993, Mandela wrote that he would strive, and I quote,  

“To promote institutions and forces that, through democratic means, seek to make the world safe for diversity.”

Thus Mandela wrote the very words that Kennedy had uttered on this very campus. I repeat:

“To make the world safe for diversity”.

In 2011, I had the privilege of being appointed as the Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of International Relations at Rhodes University, South Africa. Rhodes is located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, where Mandela was born. Visiting Mandela’s birthplace as well as the Robben Island prison where he was imprisoned for 27 years, are among the most moving experiences of my life.

Even though I am no politician, the words and actions of John F. Kennedy, Jawaharlal Nehru and Nelson Mandela have profoundly shaped my own academic leadership.

My best opportunity to do so came in 2014. That year I became the first non-white person to be elected as President of the International Studies Association. This is the world’s largest and most respected association for faculty and students in International Studies. In my Presidential Speech, I put the pictures and quotes of Kennedy and Mandela on a single slide on the screen, along with their immortal words.

And there I urged the academic community to make the study and practice of international affairs “safe for diversity”.

These words apply to every field of study…in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and beyond.

Today, as we cope with a deadly pandemic, it is equally vital that we strive to respect our diversity and promote inclusion.

And there can be no better place to do so than our very institution, American University.

As scholars and citizens of the world, each of us should persevere, as did Kennedy, Nehru and Mandela – and as did my father in his own time and way – to make our world safer for diversity.

Welcome, to American University.

Irresponsible Superpowers Must Cooperate

Irresponsible Superpowers Must Cooperate

Amitav Acharya

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Governments that endured the SARS pandemic in 2003 were generally more prepared for Covid-19. Such pandemics emerge with little warning, challenging a global multilateral system largely structured around collective security and trade. Both diseases – linked with globalization, a complex phenomenon not easily reversed – offer lessons for global governance, signaling the need for adaptation and cooperation. “In recent years an array of emerging actors in a range of areas, including trade arrangements, climate change, humanitarian relief and health have contributed to growing fragmentation of global governance,” explains Amitav Acharya, distinguished professor of international relations at American University. The United States and China as leading powers each had missteps – the former abandoning global leadership and the second delaying global reporting. Angry exchanges of blame overshadow legitimate concerns expressed by each country. “The bottom line is that both the United States and China find the other’s conduct irresponsible and dangerous even as the world needs a norm of ‘responsibility to inform,’ as much as a ‘responsibility to protect,’” Acharya writes. He urges cooperation on global governance reforms to prepare for the new range of threats and, especially, a requirement for swift reporting of new and deadly diseases. – YaleGlobal


Irresponsible Superpowers Must Cooperate

Covid-19 response reveals that global powers and multilateral organizations need to improve their game on reforms, fact-finding, funding and more

Amitav Acharya

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

WHO and Xi

WHO is responsible for the delay? Director-General of WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 28, but the joint fact-finding mission did not start its investigation until February 16; the world expressed amazement after the country imposed a lockdown for the city of Wuhan in January


WASHINGTON, DC: In the Covid-19 pandemic, neither China nor the United States has offered a creditable performance, and this puts immense pressure on the multilateral system.

Most countries escaped SARS-CoV-1 in 2003. The virus hit 26 countries and only eight Americans tested positive for SARS, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States and many other nations were not prepared 15 years later when a new coronavirus emerged, much more threatening to lives and well-being. The SARS-CoV-1 virus infected just over 8,000 people worldwide and left 774 dead. By comparison, with SARS-CoV-2, nations report more than 3.1 million confirmed cases, with 225,000 deaths. As I wrote in 2003, such perils, rooted in globalization, cannot be defeated permanently.


Disruptors: Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was a preview for Covid-19, but many nations did not prepare (Source: US Centers for Disease Control and Johns Hopkins University)

Of course, pandemics are not the only threat confronting the world. But unlike armed conflicts where early warning is available, or climate change, which threatens lives in a slow motion, pandemics emerge unexpectedly. And that is a severe challenge for the global multilateral system, in place since World War II. That system was built around big multilaterals of the UN system, such as the International Monetary Fund; the World Bank; the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, later the World Trade Organization; along with specialized agencies like the World Health Organization, founded in 1948. Despite many agencies and tasks, the system was fundamentally geared for collective security, the foundational principle of the UN system, deterring and defeating aggression. The system must adapt to newer threats that can be far more deadly than war.

In recent years an array of emerging actors in a range of areas, including trade arrangements, climate change, humanitarian relief and health have contributed to growing fragmentation of global governance. But none compares with Donald Trump, whose disdain for multilateralism is visceral. Under Trump, the United States abandoned responsibility to lead common responses to common challenges, whether on its own or through alliances and institutions.

Before the virus hit, the Trump administration proposed cutting $3 billion in global health funding, including $123 million for the World Health Organization for fiscal year 2020. At an 8 April White House briefing, Trump warned that the United States would “put a very powerful hold” on WHO funding and criticized the Covid-19 response: “They missed the call…They seem to be very China-centric.”

By rejecting travel restrictions, initially accepting China’s early denial of human-to-human transmission, and not declaring Covid-19 a global pandemic until March 11 – after 118,000 cases of infection in more than 110 countries – the WHO leaves itself open to criticism and investigations. Early warnings and fact-finding missions are critical in pandemics.

COVID Timeline

China remains a much stronger supporter of the existing multilateral system, at least in theory. But China has also moved to create parallel mechanisms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. The country, which has provided considerable bilateral aid to virus-stricken nations, first reported the coronavirus outbreak to WHO on 31 December. The WHO-China Joint Mission did not start until 16 February. It is fair to question whether an earlier mission might have provided timely information, prompting more action from the international community. According to a New York Times report, China held back on allowing a WHO mission, with sources blaming secretiveness, negligence, complacency and even a desire among Chinese scientists to produce the first publications on the new virus. WHO could have raised international attention, applying pressure for an earlier mission.

China also condemned Trump’s actions, such as ban on flights from China, as “excessive,” an example of how America “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic.” Yet the United States was not alone in banning flights, and Trump soon did the same for other nations. And the caution was warranted.

An angry Trump has suggested that if China was knowingly responsible, there “should be consequences.” The United States, the leading donor for WHO, is investigating whether the virus originated from a research laboratory in China, even though the organization suggests that no evidence suggests as much. Convincing proof is unlikely.

Still, any attempt by the United States to enter a confrontation with China would further destabilize the multilateral system, including global health cooperation. More US funding for global health would go to national and bilateral channels, or supporting a smaller health agency that might exclude China and other rivals.

The theatrics may have overshadowed efforts by others in the Trump administration to raise genuine concerns about China’s responsibility for transparency during the early stages of the crisis. As underscored by Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, any country first exposed to a pandemic, has “a higher moral obligation on communicating and transparency.” Whether China met that transparency test, she added, could be investigated once the pandemic subsides. China would likely resist any such multilateral investigation into its domestic affairs. Still, other nations could develop a framework, as she advises, and “figure out really what has to happen for first alerts and transparency and understanding very early on.”

The bottom line is that both the United States and China find the other’s conduct irresponsible and dangerous even as the world needs a norm of “responsibility to inform,” as much as a “responsibility to protect.”

The multilateral system cannot address transnational threats like Covid-19 on its own. Such threats are linked to globalization, which cannot be entirely reversed. Pandemics emerged and spread during the Mongol Empire’s much smaller scale of globalization during the 14th century. That plague probably emerged in China before killing half of Europe’s population, then spreading on to India, Africa and the Middle East – eventually reducing the global population by almost 100 million.

As I wrote of the 2003 SARS crisis, the origins of pandemics cannot be regarded as exclusively external or internal to the region: “Rather, they emanate from external forces interacting closely with the internal vulnerabilities of states.” Hence, reducing internal vulnerabilities is a crucial first step.

Countries and territories that have done the early creditable work in containing Covid-19 were those that invested well in public health and early alert systems, after being devastated by SARS: Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore – the latter experiencing a spike in new cases, mostly among migrant workers.

At the same time, highly exclusionary and inward-looking responses will not work in the long term and could impose severe economic costs. Closing national boundaries, as many nations have done, can only be a temporary measure. It’s noteworthy that SARS 2003 did not lead to such closures, mainly because of the disease’s lower transmissibility and absence of asymptomatic transmission, but also because the world was operating under a climate of trust and coordination with fewer populists.

Hence, old attitudes towards sovereignty and non-interference that prevent fact-finding and international monitoring must change, especially in countries like China that aspire to be leaders in global governance.

The multilateral system can also do better. For example, giving WHO more funding is not enough. Stronger mandates are also required. Instead of cutting funding and emasculating the organization, the United States and other nations should push for the UN Security Council to require mandatory reporting and allow WHO fact-finding missions within days of a major outbreak. National reporting on terrorism to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, now mandatory, could provide a model for pandemic preparations, with a shorter and incident-based reporting period.

The failure by any state to report outbreaks promptly and allow international fact-finding missions should be the equivalent of aggression. Most nations should readily agree after so many have endured thousands of human lives lost and trillions in economic losses.

Amitav Acharya is Distinguished Professor of International Relations, American University, Washington DC, and a 2019-20 fellow of the Berggruen Institute in California. He is the author of The Making of Global International Relations (Cambridge 2019); Constructing Global Order (Cambridge 2018); and The End of American World Order, 2nd edition (Polity 2018). 

This article was posted April 29, 2020.

Don’t Kill the WHO, but Make Its Reporting and Fact-finding Role Mandatory

China first reported the coronavirus  outbreak to WHO on 31Dec2019. Yet, first WHO mission to China began Feb16th. An earlier mission would have provided timely information & action by int. community? Early-warning & fact-finding critical here as in conflict zones

According to a New York Times report, China held back on allowing a WHO mission. Why? The reasons are explored in the article: Some have blamed it on the political system’s usual secretiveness and lack of transparency, negligence, complacency, scientific competition (desire among Chinese scientists to get the first publications on the new virus out),

In the meantime, Trump threatens further funding cut to WHO which was US$123 million for fiscal year 2020. At the White House briefing on 8 April, 2020, he said: The United States is “going to put a very powerful hold” on its funding of the WHO, adding “They called it wrong. They missed the call…They seem to be very China-centric…We have to look into that.”

Instead of cutting funding and fatally emasculating the WHO, the US and other nations should push for the UN Security Council to make it mandatory for states to report & allow WHO fact-finding within days of a major disease outbreak. It should treat failure by a state to report outbreaks promptly & allow WHO fact-finding missions equivalent of aggression

Terrorism reporting is now mandatory. The United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) can be a model, but shorter & incident-based reporting period for disease necessary.