From World-Systems to Leadership: Adopting a Social Approach Towards the Transformation of Global Integration in the Coronavirus Period

Paul Nitze, an American strategist during the Cold War, summed up our current situation in three words: “All is uncertainty.” In a postmodern environment fraught with the recent coronavirus epidemic, everything we thought we knew virtually amounts to nothing. Our basic assumptions about reality itself are self-dissecting when considering the paralysis of ordinary economic life. As the writer William Goldman once said: “Nobody knows anything.” From a microscopic level pertaining to the virus itself, all the way up to the macroscopic level of world systems, mankind is left with more questions than answers.

From a macroscopic standpoint, certain world systems are beginning to fray and are laid bare in terms of their actual essence. We can focus on the Western world and the socioeconomic system known as “Liberalism.” From the beginning of the European renaissance and the enlightenment period, Liberalism began as a departure from religion and feudalism to become the main organizational force in Western civilization. In a general sense, Liberalism has capitalism, constitutionalism, individualism, and reason as its main tenets. The United States sought to make liberalism the equivalent of what the late Edward Said called “the redeeming idea” for global domination and a pretext to micromanage world affairs after Europe collapsed in the mid-20th century and the two major powers left were the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The attempt to dominate the world and to micromanage world affairs on the part of the United States has largely failed in the 21st century as a result of aspirations exceeding capabilities and the inability of one nation to enforce its will on the entire globe. America’s outward focus and its disproportionate expenditure of energy and resources outside its borders for the most part has left it hampered in its effort to combat the coronavirus. The glorification of an intangible idea like Liberalism and its imposition globally becomes a luxury when basic tangible materials are lacking to remedy a health crisis within your own borders as a result of offshore manufacturing.

Furthermore, the coronavirus has amplified what is already seen to be the fragility of Liberalism’s basic tenets such as capitalism, constitutionalism, individualism, and reason. Can capitalism withstand the external shock that is wrought upon it by the coronavirus? Volatility has always been a hallmark feature of this particular system, with detrimental effects. Eastern socialism from countries like Russia and China have proven the test of time despite immense pressure from the United States, and the rise of populist figures in various countries have shown that there are alternatives to the liberal system.

Furthermore, Western individualism does not jive with nations that are collectivistic and nationalistic and thus deeply rooted in culture and religion. Religion is the progenitor of law, and in turn the purpose of law is the promotion of ethics, which arguably cannot be enforced. Because ethics cannot be enforced, the idea of international law ultimately becomes ineffectual. The idea of “reason” or rationality also comes under scrutiny when faced with a situation like the coronavirus outbreak that cannot be comprehended fully by rational means. Irvin Yalom, a prominent existential psychiatrist, gives an anecdote to explain the limitations of the Western “weltanschauung” that is based on an empirical and mechanistic approach propagated by liberalism that many researchers eventually abandon in order to adopt a more existentialist and phenomenological approach to understand the human condition:

“It is also common knowledge that the great majority of clinicians stop doing empirical research once they finish their dissertation or earn tenure. If empirical research is a valid truth seeking, truth-finding endeavor, why do psychologists and psychiatrists, once they have fulfilled academic requirements, put away their tables of random numbers for good? I believe that as the clinician gains maturity, he or she gradually begins to appreciate that there are staggering problems inherent in an empirical study of psychotherapy.”

As a result, we are beginning to accumulate evidence of the failure of Liberalism to remedy what is basically the woefulness of the human condition. But what is the alternative to liberalism? Can socialism or religion really assume the position liberalism has held in the international system since the end of World War II? In other words, can religion or socialism replace Western liberalism as an organizational force that drives global integration as the latter shows signs of fraying in our current day and age? As theorists like Henry Kissinger have shown, there is no “world order” due to the differences in culture, religion, and civilizations that pervade the globe:

“In the world of geopolitics, the order established and proclaimed as universal by the Western countries stands at a turning point. Its nostrums are understood globally, but there is no consensus about their application; indeed, concepts such as democracy, human rights, and international law are given such divergent interpretations that warring parties regularly invoke them against each other as battle cries.”

Yet, there is a need for “world order” and the management of world affairs due to growing economic and social interconnection between individuals and nations brought about by globalization and technology. The coronavirus epidemic places a fork in the road within the course of human history. There is the possibility of “de-globalization” where cooperation between states breaks down, thus contracting the global economy by breaking down global supply chains and leaving individual states to fend for their own survival until a form of global leadership arises which in turn mitigates what are commonplace differences in culture and religion and is able to forge what is known as a “global state” that transcends the largely failed international state system that is borne out of nationalistic conflicts and wars. In other words, the remedy for realism is not necessarily liberalism. Rather, the remedy comes in the form of a socially-constructed global leader or group of global leaders who enable parallel American and Chinese systems to share the overload of issues and problems that are burdening the globe despite the two systems’ differing standards. First World and Third World differences and standards no longer apply in the coronavirus era. The world is now homogenized due to a single virus that cannot be fully explained medically or scientifically. There are theories as to how the virus emerged (bats, fish, soldiers, etc.), but there is nothing concrete to prove the origins of this virus. More importantly, one country cannot micromanage world affairs especially when there are intense systemic pressures being brought on by the coronavirus.

From both a scientific and religious perspective, leadership that transcends cultural or religious differences between men serves as the only mechanism that would lead mankind out of the global crisis we are facing at the moment. After all, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership during World War II that brought Western nations out of global strife and into a system of cooperation underpinned by the United Nations Charter. The relapse into realism and the Cold War occurred when Roosevelt passed away and his leadership was absent. After World War II, European leaders also undertook a wiser approach towards international relations by forging a European community that initially was premised on economic cooperation and the pooling of resources and later political cooperation through the creation of the modern-day European Union. And despite Richard Nixon’s tarnished reputation in the annals of history, his administration with the help of Henry Kissinger managed to extricate the United States out of the grueling war with Vietnam and towards rapprochement with China.

From a scientific perspective, leadership is the key factor in bringing individuals and nations out of crisis and into order and stability despite our highly bureaucratized system of governance in the Western World. Leadership is the only remedy for our woeful situation even when looking at world affairs from a religious perspective. The Judeo-Christian tradition sees the Messiah as the figure that would precipitate the return of Jesus Christ and usher in a period of peace. Islam concurs with the Judeo-Christian tradition and considers the arrival of a savior known as “Mahdi” as the juncture of world history that will usher in the return of Jesus Christ and thus a perpetual peace. The Hindu tradition believes that a savior known as “Kalki” will come to eradicate extremism and bring prosperity to the globe.

While everyone awaits a savior to steer us away from anarchy, chaos, and premature death, nations and their leaders must accept their cultural and civilizational differences in the short term in order to achieve long-term results for humanity. America’s insistence on shaping the world in its image must take a back seat and there must be an acknowledgement on the part of American policymakers that differences in culture and religion will remain until a leader or a group of leaders arise to put those differences aside in the spirit of global cooperation. For now, China says that it is too big of a country to adopt a Western-style electoral system of governance. Based on what the late Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his final book titled “Strategic Vision,” Russia wants to join the European economic community as long as it can preserve its political system internally, which is largely a cultural heritage of the Russians.

Considering that the British historian E.H. Carr informed us that all democracies will eventually be overrun by the rich and the powerful, how different is the West from other major powers in a world of realpolitik? Given the fact that the rich and powerful rule in every country, there are more similarities than differences between individuals and nations. In other words, we live in a world of haves and have-nots, and this fact shapes social outcomes to a great extent.

But if we are to avoid a global situation in which individuals and nations will be forced to settle or even scramble for the bare essentials for survival such as food, clothing, and shelter in a state of anarchy, autarky and chaos stemming from de-globalization due to the coronavirus, leaders must bring us together and serve as the impetus for the realization of our highest ideals, principles, and values. Instead of fostering a global situation based on anarchy, conflict, and social strife by balking at their responsibility of being stewards of the earth, leaders must be conscious of their primary obligation and task, which is the establishment of global order and the maintenance of global stability.

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