AFunny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a 1962 Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical based on a Roman farce by Plautus (254–184 BC), that became a 1966 musical movie by Richard Lester. The story is about a Roman slave named Pseudolus, who tried to win his freedom by persuading his owner Hero to win the heart of Philia (the girl next door), who is promised to Roman soldier Miles Gloriosus. The show became a great success when Stephen Sondheim changed the opening song, “Love is in the Air” to “Comedy Tonight”, showing how romance is better sold as comedy.
The musical enjoyed various reruns, including a Cantonese version that was staged in Hong Kong in 2009. I was reminded of this raunchy farce when watching the latest G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in New Delhi on YouTube. Indian Prime Minister Modi set the tone by reminding all the G20 Foreign Ministers that India’s G20 theme this year is “One Earth, One Family, One Future”. He noted that “no group can claim global leadership without listening to those most affected by its decisions.” The NATO G20 members were clearly not listening, because there was no agreement on a joint communique that demanded a condemnation of the Russian invasion. The Western G20 members were so indignant about their righteous stance that they broke the first rule of all gracious hosts. Guests do not go to parties with an open condemnation of other guests, and hosts want their party to be a great success of unity and harmony. The Rest came to realize that after the West disposes of their identified existential threats, they will be next.
Today, every major Western event starts with an obligatory video or physical address by President Zelenskky. Each NATO leader then repeats his or her reaffirmation of values and rulesbased order, followed with an exhortation that listeners (the Rest but mostly those in the South) must join in their cause or else face “consequences”.
What has happened on the way to the new Roman forum is that the Rest (East and South) is answering back. The former slaves, colonies or near-colonies will no longer be silent when the former slave masters are insisting on the old order where they rule and you obey. This is not about the West’s hypocrisy when they preach “democracy versus autocracy”, or values and rules-based order. Hypocrisy is not unique to the West. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer put his finger on the key reasons in his article “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order” (2019).
First, a liberal multilateral order implies shifting of national sovereignty to multilateral institutions that are essentially controlled by the rich West with one billion people. The legitimacy of Western control of these institutions is being contested with the shift of economic power to the Rest, because the majority (7 out of 8 billion world population) rightly want a voice on how these rules are being drafted and enforced.
Second, the US used its unipolar and unchallenged power to dominate the Cold War order up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it no longer has the resources to fully control the post-Cold War order to its will. Rome was never dangerous when it was secure. It was most dangerous when it felt its position was challenged.
Third, the post-Cold War liberal order is doomed to collapse because its foundational policies are flawed when nationalism and balance of power politics will not only block its implementation, whilst resources spent on foreign wars would be corrosive on domestic politics.
In short, the arguments for the idealistic liberal democratic rules and values based order falter on the morality, logic and evidence of who rules, whose values and evidential outcomes. First, the Rest will support the West if it continues to deliver global public goods as moral leader. But not only are global public goods declining as Western resources are constrained, war and sanctions cannot be the solution to global ills. Every central bank from the Rest fears the fate of the Afghan central bank whose foreign exchange reserves were confiscated or frozen after the country was invaded, then abandoned by the United States.
Second, if Western leadership moves from moral standing to transactional aid or sanctions, then the Rest must hedge their bets using the historically tested “balance of power” approach whereby no single power can be dominant in the new Order. Reflecting the uber-realist Acton maxim of “no permanent friends or enemies only permanent interests”, the South will not take sides with either East or West without making sure that their own interests are looked after. They will side with one to balance the other.
Third, the historical evidence so far in countries where the West, or through NATO, has intervened so far on bringing democracy or human rights, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, have experienced failing or failed governance.
My feeling after listening to the recent Munich Security Conference is that this was a talk-shop about Europe’s own massive insecurity. Europe sleep-walked into its old history of perpetual wars, lulled by an exceptional peace in the last 70 years. The European leaders who insist that their exit strategy is full victory by Ukraine do not make rational sense to any objective observer.
Since Russia will not accept defeat, attempts to achieve full Ukraine victory will mean that Europe will be at permanent conventional warfare until it is stopped by nuclear war, complete exhaustion of Europe or absolute destruction of Ukraine. Who wants to follow leaders who think that war can be fought to the last cannon fodder without sacrificing their own sons and daughters?
The West is in a Metaverse of its own imaginative creation, whereas the seven billion Rest is trying to figure out realistically how to survive the existing liberal order.
The Romance with the West is over, Comedy is turning into Farce. That is what is happening on the way to the New Roman Forum.
(The writer, a former central banker, is a distinguished fellow at the Fung Global Institute.) Special to ANN.