Murari Sharma: An inward-looking America is bad for America and the world

More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar, to Bangladesh, in recent months. This number is steadily rising towards a million. If President Donald Trump had not withdrawn the United States from the world, the generals in Naypyidaw probably would not have ordered the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Rakhine State.

Some American leaders and celebrities have declared President Trump unfit for his office. Some psychologist and mental health experts have doubted his fitness as well. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stieglitz says Trump “has fascist tendencies.” These things are for the American people to decide. 

I respect the American people’s decision. So I am interested only in how Trump’s policy and personality have been affecting the United States and the rest of the world, including Nepal.   

Donald Trump ran on the nationalist, anti-trade, and anti-regional arrangement agenda and won the election. Naturally, nationalists in general and far-right nationalists, in particular, have felt that his election has mainstreamed their own beliefs. Trump is not one of the mainstream internationalist Republicans, who believe in free trade. And he sees regional groupings and their collective strength to bargain antithetical to US interest.

His personality is volatile, impulsive, and unpredictable. His threat to North Korea or his urge to investigate Hillary Clinton’s already investigated emails, his tweets at 3 am, his Access Hollywood tape, his call on Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, his trashing of minority judges because they decided against him in court cases, etc. do not speak for his trust and dependability. 

Already, Trump’s policies and personality have produced some negative impacts for him, the United States, and the rest of the world. For instance, his military general has said he would not follow Trump’s ‘illegal order.’ His attorney-general has said cannot abide by his urge to investigate his opponent. Such cases put Trump’s command and control in doubt.  

The United States has already suffered some significant setbacks on the world stage. For instance, he withdrew the United from the Paris climate change agreement, and China and Europe stepped in.  Washington has lost the opportunity to lead and shape the climate change agenda, and it might miss the climate-friendly technology gravy train.  

Likewise, President Trump withdrew from the Transpacific (trade) Partnership negotiations, but the other countries in the region have decided to move forward with the negotiation without the United States. Washington has effectively ceded the leadership of and influence in the region to China. 

Citing that the agency was anti-Israel, Trump withdrew the United States from UNESCO even though it had rejoined the agency after staying out for several years. The agency will continue criticizing Tel Aviv, now without any moderation from the United States. 

Trump has threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if other members do not agree to amend it to America’s advantage. He has issued similar threats to several other countries. These countries will move on without the United States because they can do it now.

The United States is a major economic player, but it is not as indispensable now as it was 30 years ago. For example, according to WTO, the European Union was collectively the largest trading bloc in 2016 with the trade volume (export+import) of 3,821 billion dollars, followed by the United States 3,706 billion, and China 3,685 billion. China and Japan together posted 4,937 billion dollars. 

Similarly, while the US remains the foremost technological and financial powerhouse, other countries have been catching up and reducing US leverage. China is charging ahead in green technology. America is near the bottom in the industry’s share of GDP. London has superseded New York as the largest financial center.

During President Trump’s recent visit to Asia, the relatively reduced stature of the United States was visible. For instance, Japan and South Korea — where Trump’s trust rating is 17 and 24 percent, almost one-third of his predecessor — did not provide many trade concessions to oblige him. It is yet to be seen whether they buy American weapons in the volume Trump wants. 

China treated Trump nicely for not raising human rights issues and keeping at bay the dumping and currency manipulation issues, which he had raised repeatedly during his presidential campaign. It signed a few relatively minor trade deals. Beyond that, there was nothing to write home about. 

In Vietnam, the APEC countries rebuffed Trump’s single-minded emphasis on bilateral trade and decided to move ahead with the TPP without the United States. In the group photo, Trump was made to stand in the second row, slightly to one side.

In the Philippines, Trump endorsed his equally volatile counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been killing anyone suspected of being involved in drugs, blatantly violating human rights and the due process of law. And yet, Duterte made his soft corner for China clear as soon as Trump left Manila.

While there is nothing wrong for a leader to promote his country’s national interest, the problem is with the identification of such interest.  The Trump brand fails to recognize the fundamental logic that Winston Churchill had recognized long ago: With power comes resources and responsibility. If you do not have one, you will not have the other either. Paul Kennedy has asserted that the empires of yore rose and fell with their command over resources.

For instance, the industrial revolution gave Britain resources and power to bring much of the world under its control. When Britain was stretched thin, the resource-rich United States powered ahead. The colossal loss it suffered in World War I and II and in the independence of its colonies relegated Britain to the second, even third-rate power. 

If the Trump brand of Make America Great Again succeeds, the United States is likely to follow the British trajectory. To prevent such a course, the United States needs to continue building alliances to share the cost and maximize benefits for its friends and allies around the world.

That brings me to Myanmar. The Myanmar military systematically persecuted the Rohingyas, the Bengali Muslim minority, and the Nobel Prize-winning foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi did not stop them. She even sought to brush the issue under the carpet, including in her speech at the UN General Assembly in September this year.  

If the Myanmar generals had not witnessed the United States abdicating its global leadership, they would have thought twice before ordering the ethnic cleansing, thanks to the UN provision for humanitarian intervention in cases of extreme human rights violation. To be sure, the provision has been inconsistently implemented. But the mere possibility of it could have restrained the generals.  

As for Nepal, the outcome has been mixed in the past under Republican and Democratic presidents. For example, President Johnson, a Democrat, and President Reagan, a Republican, welcomed King Mahendra and Birendra in America, respectively. Often Republican presidents have been more liberal in providing aid and trade concessions.

But President Trump is different. He wants to cut aid, reduce trade concessions, terminate the Temporary Protection Status for thousands of Nepalis living in the United States, and end the diversity visa program. So, the prospects under Trump are not bright for Nepal. I will be happy if proven wrong.



Murari Sharma: Nepal’s Most Consequential Elections

We have seen nothing like this in Nepal in the past. I am talking about the upcoming national and state assembly elections. These elections might make or break democracy in the country.      

The ‘make’ part is easy to figure out. The elections will officially end the long political transition, convert the country de facto from a unitary state into federal, and mark the endorsement of the Constitution 2015 by the Madheshi parties.  

The Madheshi parties had refused to endorse the new constitution until their demands were met.  They had asked for one state, and not more than two states, covering all 22 districts in the plains, but the major did not agree. So only 8 districts have been included in the Madheshi only State 2 (the states are yet to be named). 

Now the Madheshi parties have decided to participate in the national and state assembly elections, partly due to the fear of losing their workers and voters to other parties and partly due to Indian suasion.

New Delhi had serious reservations about the constitution and imposed an economic blockade on Nepal for failing to fulfill its demands. But the UML’s  electoral success in the local polls and its nationalist stance alarmed India, prompting the Madheshi parties to participate in the federal and state elections. 

In the local election, the UML emerged as the largest party although it became third in State 2, where its nationalist stance lost many voters. This failure prompted the UML to reach out to the Maoists and other left parties towards an electoral alliance, which will make them competitive in State 2 and strengthen the hold of left parties across the country.  

This triggered the non-left parties to work their own alliance to remain competitive. But the beginning has not been as good for the non-left alliance as it has been for the left alliance. At both federal and state levels across the country, the left alliance has managed to agree on the official panel of candidates.  However, the other alliance has failed to agree on a common slate in State 2.

In State 2, therefore, there will be at least a three-way contest among the candidates of the left alliance, Nepali Congress, and the Federal Socialist Forum-Rashtriya Janata Party, a mini-alliance. 

At stake are 275 seats in the federal parliament, 165 to be elected by the first-past-the-post method and the rest from proportional representation. The number of State Assembly members will be twice as many in the same ratio. Which alliance enjoys the better prospects?  

In the 2013 general elections and recent local elections, the left parties were able to win nearly 60 percent seats up for the contest. If that ratio holds, the left-alliance will likely be a clear winner in the upcoming national and state elections. However, the rebel candidates against the alliance candidates on both sides might not let the outcome to so straightforward. 

Whatever the outcome, the emergence of the left and the non-left alliance is a good step in the right direction. If these alliances outlast the elections, it could be the beginning of a two-party state, like in the United States and the United Kingdom, which will contribute to political stability and offer a clear choice for voters.

But if the two alliances fail to become competitive, the ‘break’ part will likely ensue, harming democracy and the country.  Democratic elections make government representative and check it if it fails to deliver or misbehaves. But they also create autocratic leaders on both left and right. 

For example, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were members of socialist parties in Germany and Italy respectively. They started World War II, which took six million lives across the world. Currently, several elected leaders are either autocratic or fret about not having the freedom to be so. They include the Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump,  Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to name just a few. 

In Nepal, the prospect of something like this happening is real. If the left-alliance wins the elections comfortably, it will have two models of government to choose from. The Deng Xiaoping model and the Jyoti Basu model.

The Deng model — let me call it capitalism with a communist face — controls politics and gives entrepreneurs the freedom to invest and make a profit. If it wins a two-thirds majority in the federal and state elections, the left alliance will follow Antonio Gramsci’s advice and change things around from within. But it cannot go as far as converting Nepal into a one-party state like China and implementing the Chinese model.  

So the obvious choice for the victorious left alliance is the Basu model. The model — communism with a democratic face — keeps communists in power in a democratic country without economic development. Under this model, the Marxists converted West Bengal, once one of the most advanced and prosperous Indian states, into one of the most backward ones but kept Jyoti Basu and his disciples in power for nearly four decades. 

The trick was simple: On the eve of every election, redistribute resources from rich to poor through land reform, taxation, and unsustainable labor contracts to win the vote. While redistributing resources like this is the right thing to do to a reasonable extent, the Marxist government took the matter too far and drove the landowners and entrepreneurs from West Bengal. The result was reduced investment, economic opportunities, and jobs, hurting the state in general and the poor in particular, in the long run.

The objective of redistribution should be to promote development and equality in wealth, not stagnation and equality in poverty. For this, the pie must grow to give everyone a larger slice.  We have witnessed the inclination of Nepal’s left parties towards redistributing without enlarging the pie. For instance, several of the welfare provisions, including the old-age pension,  have been introduced, without commensurate measures to expedite growth under the left government.    

What is more, though both the UML and the Maoist have accepted multiparty democracy, for now, their ultimate goal remains proletariat dictatorship. If their alliance wins an overwhelming majority in the elections, will they remain committed to democratic freedoms and human rights as we know them? Will the non-left alliance be strong enough to prevent Nepal from being an illiberal democracy? Will India tolerate it? What will China do?

I have no answers to these questions yet. We will see whether the upcoming elections make or break democracy only after the vote, which will take place in two phases — later this month and early next month.