A Funny 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 film. It’s about Roman slave Pseudolus who tried to win his freedom by persuading his owner Hero to win the heart of Philia next door, who is promised to soldier Miles Gloriosus.
The show became a success when 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 in Hong Kong in 2009.
I was reminded of this raunchy farce when watching a video of the latest Group of 20 foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone by reiterating the G20 theme: “One Earth, One Family, One Future”. He said: “No group can claim global leadership without listening to those most affected by its decisions.”
Nato’s G20 members were clearly not listening, because there was no agreement on a joint communique that demanded a condemnation of the Russian invasion. Western G20 members were so indignant and took such a righteous stance that they broke the first rule of being a gracious guest.
Gracious guests do not go to parties openly condemning other guests. The Rest are coming to realise that after the West disposes of its identified existential threats, they will be probably be next.
Today, every major Western event starts with an obligatory address by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Each Nato leader then repeats an reaffirmation of the values- and rules-based order, exhorting listeners (the Rest, but mostly the South) to join their cause or face “consequences”.
What has happened on the way to the new Roman forum is that the Rest are answering back. The former slaves, colonies or near-colonies will no longer be silent when former masters insist on the old order where they rule and you obey.
This is not about the West’s hypocrisy when it preaches about democracy vs autocracy, or about values and the 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 2019 article “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order”.
First, a liberal multilateral order implies a shifting of sovereignty to multilateral institutions essentially controlled by the rich West. This legitimacy is being contested with the shift of economic power to the Rest, because the majority rightly want a voice on how these rules are drafted and enforced.
Second, the United States used its unipolar and unchallenged power to dominate up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it no longer has the resources to fully control the post-Cold War order. Rome was never dangerous when it was secure. It was most dangerous when it felt its position challenged.
Third, the post-Cold War liberal order is doomed to collapse because its foundational policies are flawed – not only will nationalism and balance-of-power politics block its implementation, but the resources spent on foreign wars also corrode 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 the evidential outcomes.
First, the Rest would support the West if it continued to deliver global public goods as a moral leader. But global public goods are declining as Western resources are constrained, and war and sanctions cannot be the solution to global ills. Every central bank across 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 US.
Second, if the Western leadership shifts towards 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.
The South will not take sides with either the East or the West without making sure that their interests are looked after. They will side with one to balance the other.
Third, the evidence so far in countries where the West, or through the transatlantic security alliance of Nato, has intervened 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 massive insecurity. Europe has sleepwalked into its old history of perpetual wars, lulled by an exceptional peace in the last 70 years. The European leaders who insist their exit strategy is a full Ukraine victory do not make rational sense.
Since Russia will not accept defeat, attempts to achieve a full Ukraine victory will mean a Europe at permanent warfare until it is stopped by nuclear war, its own complete exhaustion, or the destruction of Ukraine. Who wants to follow leaders who think war can be fought without sacrificing their sons and daughters?
The West is in a metaverse of its imaginative creation, whereas the Rest are trying to figure out how to realistically 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.