BEIJING-Much to the amazement of the rest of the world, Pope Francis and the Vatican have been steadily raising their profile in international affairs over the past couple of years.

The latest expression is a historic meeting in Havana, Cuba that took place between the Pope and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Feb. 12. A symbolic “kiss” in an airport VIP room symbolized the first meeting between two leaders of the churches in 1,000 years in a political gesture also aimed at Russia. The pontiff also broke precedent on Feb. 2 by sending a Chinese New Year’s greeting to President Xi Jinping. He also called on the world “not to fear China’s rise” in an exclusive interview with Asia Times.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis embrace in Havana.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis embrace in Havana.

At first glance, this may appear to be a miracle. But the developments have deep historical roots. It is a continuation of the Vatican’s past approach to world affairs that shows itself more clearly due to the failure of the US, its competitors, the UN and other existing agencies to provide leadership in the world. Sensing a political vacuum, the church has moved to fill the void.

Reaction to US failure

In a nutshell,  the Pope realizes that confrontational policies, as practiced by the US and its allies, are not working with China, Russia, or in the Middle East. Neither are the UN or other international agencies fostering a dialogue with afflicted parties. He also sees efforts to equalize trading rules among nations failing to defuse what amounts to a clash of civilizations.

But to grasp how this came to pass, it’s necessary to look back a few decades. After the Cold War ended and in the first years of the Clinton administration, Washington made a massive push to globalize the world economy. The morphing of the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade into the World Trade Organization were pivotal parts of that effort. America assumed it could apply its own investment and trade rules to the rest of the world.

Figuratively, it was a time when people ruled out any other world view and believed the world was “flat.” This one-dimensional view of reality was boosted by the expansion of the Internet and mobile communications, two US-led industries.

This steady march hit its first major snag with the 1997–98 Asian Financial Crisis. Speculators managed to force the devaluation of the mighty Japanese yen — then the second most powerful currency in the world. But they failed to topple a then much weaker Chinese yuan, which was shielded by primitive government administrative measures.

There was another wrinkle. Since the late 1990s, it had become clear that China was benefiting to a much greater degree than the US in the brave new world of trade freedom. The loosening of trade barriers had allowed China to flood the US market with ever-cheaper exports. The US dollar’s victory lap was also interrupted by the birth of a new currency, the euro, which would be used to settle transactions in the largest economic federation in the world — Europe.

Such hurdles weren’t enough to stop the US in executing its global economic strategy. But the obstacles were, nonetheless, unexpected. The world wasn’t becoming flat, as many US planners hoped, despite all the promising signs at the the Cold War’s end.

The economic issues faced by the US compounded into even bigger problems in international affairs. Since 2001, there have been two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated further by a wave of jasmine revolutions in the Middle East. The expenditure of US blood and treasure failed to produce the desired results by transforming the Middle East and Central Asia into models of economic success and communication.

The upshot was America failed to impose on the world clear economic and political leadership. Other players, on the other hand, failed as well. Europe, collectively, or as single countries, failed to exhibit the necessary complex political and economic leadership. Russia, through the present, has tried to advance its agenda. But it fell far short of advancing former Soviet ambitions. Japan caved in politically. It forgot its drive of the 1980s to compete with the US. It was happy to play second fiddle to America in Asia.

China, for its part, squandered a golden moment for global leadership after the financial crisis erupted in 2009. Beijing garnered prestige in the region for the better part of a decade by helping to blunt the impact of the Asian Financial Crisis. After he was elected in 2008, Barack Obama, almost hat in hand, went to China asking for a revaluation of the yuan.

But Beijing misjudged the moment. It didn’t realize Obama’s request represented not just American, but global pressure against a cheap yuan. Starting in 2010, a slew of territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with other nations in the South China Sea put the Chinese in the eye of a growing storm.

In the end, as the US failed to exercise its power, China and other potential competitors failed to pick up the ball and ended up failing worse than America.

Stepping into the void

Into this void stepped Pope Francis. In doing so, he followed an old historical script. The church spoke for peace in the run up to World Wars I and II. It played a role at the end of the Cold War by helping to bring down communism in Poland. Later on, it did the opposite by helping to preserve communism in Cuba.

Sensing the world’s leadership vacuum, the Pope sought to bring the Holy See back into the international limelight. His aim is to bestow church a centrality in world affairs that it last enjoyed during the Renaissance, before Christianity was fractured by the fall of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire in the late 15th century to the Turks and the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe in the early 16th century.

His forward-looking energy resembles that of the Jesuits in 16th century, the Franciscans in the 13th century—or Paul in the 1st century. Those periods also mirror present times. Five centuries ago, Rome was under siege by the Protestants in the north and the Muslims in the south and east. The Jesuits, in response, moved eastwards. It echoed the search during the Middle Ages for Prester John, a fabled, but mythical Christian king of Asia.

But its true purpose in the 17th and 18th centuries was to search for converts in the kingdoms of Asia — especially in places like China, Japan and the Philippines. Through this the Catholic Church regained some of its lost prestige and influence in Europe, helping it to rebound even in Protestant countries like Germany or England.

A decline followed. The Jesuits became too successful and were disbanded. They lost the huge inroads they had made in China (where they got very close to the emperor) and in Protestant countries.

What exactly is the Pope’s game now? He realizes that confrontation with China, Russia, or the warring parties in the Middle East is leading nowhere. The magic bullet of boiling everything down to equalizing the rules of trade has turned into a false bullet. So has bringing the world under the old roof of the UN and other international organizations born out of World War II.

The key question in all this is will America, the predominant, though not absolute political power in the world, follow or oppose the Pope? What about other countries? It’s an extremely tough balancing act.

Costs and benefits

The Pope’s gambit seems to be off to a promising start. Washington clearly recognizes that it was helped by the church in thawing ties with Cuba. And so far, there are no loud voices against his rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The pontiff seeks reconciliation with all the world’s orthodox churches, of which Russians represent half of the 300 million members. He also wants to extricate Russia from its current isolation and to do this without alienating America or the Greek or other Orthodox Churches.[1]

It sounds like Mission Impossible — but that is his business. On the China side, despite some reservations and opposition in western circles, there was no fierce opposition against the Pope’s groundbreaking statements on China.

It remains to be seen how the various hypotheticals and the complex political dynamics set in motion by Pope Francis will play out. One of the near-term questions is whether Putin will use “his” Orthodox Church’s future links with Rome to break the political isolation Russia has suffered since the start of hostilities in Ukraine. In this instance, the church might play a positive role by mediating between Moscow and the West. But like all mediations, there are likely to be costs as well as benefits for the Vatican.

[1] See on Vatican Insider La scommessa russa di Papa Francesco

Gianni Valente and Parolin: l’incontro tra il Papa e Kirill segno di intesa per il mondo

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Related story: Pope and Patriarch in Havana: Quo vadis?

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