By Vijay Shankar*
Donald Trump in his inaugural speech, vowed “…this American carnage must stop here.” What preceded his vow suggested, with more intensity and less clarity, what the “carnage” was. Presumably he implied a host of current circumstances whose balm included the advent of an era marked by mass mobilisation, bellicism, end of idealism, a blow out of the liberal left, abrogation of the spoils of the political and power elites, imposition of a draconian immigration policy, discarding multilateral alliances in favour of the bilateral, a baleful threat to eradicate radical Islamic terror, and a promise to ease the agonising ‘reality of the citizen’s state.’ His prescriptive mantra was simplistic; nationalism, protectionism, a menacing portent of a war on radical Islam, and the nebulous abstraction of “America First” (an odd declaration; were not US interests always first?). And yet coming from the mouth of a democratically elected leader of the planet’s sole super power, it must indeed set the stage for serious debate of what foreshadows the immediate future. It is his mantra that will disproportionately influence any strategic prognostication.
Global events such as Brexit and the rise of the far right in Europe, Russia and other parts of the world are symptomatic and a precursor of the geopolitical trends that Donald Trump articulated.
Clearly the challenges are complex, and in an intertwined world of global economic and security networks, the need for reconciling competing and often conflicting perspectives through empathy and compromise is on a collision course with insular politics. Given events that disparage (often correctly) established leadership as corrupt and the quest for mutuality involving far-reaching alliances as acknowledgement of frailty; nationalism has been ignited to mould malevolent distinctiveness that threatens to derange the integrative forces that have brought north and south together in a beneficial embrace. All this has been fuelled by the rapidity of technological changes and the inability of leadership to fully come to grips with the reach of the individual, which extends far beyond the ambit of the nation-state. And yet, at a point in the evolution of a world order which begs for robust international institutions that manage and regulate current global shifts, the world is faced with forces that unhinge existing systems.
Nationalism, as one such unhinging force, conventionally, snatches control from the ‘gilt-edged’ and sets into motion undercurrents that progressively redistribute power. However, nationalism in the context of the masses damning ruling elites and challenging the beneficiaries of privilege has historically been double-edged.
While being a powerful dynamic of change, the history of the twentieth century has shown that it is invariably accompanied by anarchy in the absence of systems that serve to provide social solidity. Russia, China and Europe in the run-up to the First World War and in the frenzied interregnum between the two wars are all precedents that cannot be easily set aside. But the 21st century citizens’ voluntary and non-violent electing for chauvinistic administration is different. It is not only an indication of deep-seated frustration that targets the statusquo, but is also an expression of ‘disruptive discontent’, that is, a conception of the crisis without either the competence or the wherewithal to direct events. Paradoxically, it remains at odds with the gains of order, inclusive economics and globalisation. And because of the unique temper of contemporary times dominated by a cult of popular power laced liberally with nationalism, collaborative structures, both economic and security, that were hitherto evolving, are severely undermined.
A quick geopolitical scan will be helpful in putting the dangerous pall of instability in perspective. Russia, over the last quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the Soviet Union, has emerged out of strategic limbo and again transformed into a major global player. It is today expanding and assimilating the western confines of what was the erstwhile Czarist empire and has, with relatively more success than the US and NATO, established its influence in West Asia. Eastward, it is building bridges with Communist China. While China, on a winning march of influence over East Asia and the South China Sea, is yet to reconcile its autocratic rule with the aspirations of its people, leaving it a trifle inadequate to don the mantle of global or even regional leadership. Unfortunately, the tide of history is turning towards these authoritarian states. In the meantime, the promise of an Arab awakening in West Asia and North Africa has been belied. The stalled transformation has given way to implosions within and the rise of a host of medieval ‘jihadist ideologies’ bent on re-establishing a Caliphate through the instruments of terror and radical Islam. In what is historically an awkward irony, the very destruction of Saddam’s Iraq has paved the way for fragmentation of the Sykes-Picot borders and the tri-furcation of Iraq into a Kurdish enclave in the northeast, a Shia enclave in the south and the Islamic State (IS) running riot in the centre and in Syria. The delusion that a new West Asia was in the build flies in the face of the current situation. In the interim, radical Islam has spread its tentacles from Pakistan through Afghanistan, into the Levant, Yemen, Somalia and all of the Maghreb. The IS has swept from Syria into Iraq in a maelstrom of destruction. No political Islam or civilisational impulse here, just rabid intolerance.
In its wake it has disrupted the correlation of political forces in the region as the US seeks a quick blocking entente with Iran; Syria sees in the situation an opportunity to settle scores with the insurgency raging within; Shia organisations find common cause to offset the IS; Sunni states carry a cloaked bias towards the IS to the extent that recent reports suggest funding by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar; and terror organisations in Afghanistan and Pakistan welcome the new leadership that has displaced al Qaeda. As the fanatical outburst of xenophobia stretches south, west and eastward the IS’ influence has manifested in the fertile jihadist breeding grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many perceptive analysts have noted that Pakistan today represents a very dangerous condition as its establishment nurtures fundamentalist and terrorist organisations as instruments of their misshapen policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will unmistakably seduce the IS, underscoring the distressing probability of extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. These anarchic conditions have set into motion a refugee crisis that, unfortunately, no nation is willing to provide permanent relief to or even recognise.
The linkage between extreme nationalism, protectionism and authoritarian government is historically unassailable and its impact on the world as a rising force of global disarray is unmistakable. Civil society in Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere is in retreat, greatly pressured by governments fearful of an empowered citizenry and liberal thinking amongst them (the question is will the US take a slant in this direction?). Disinformation is now galvanised by the use of social media and international relations are marred by large scale cyber-attacks. States, quite openly, ‘loan’ tens of millions of dollars to nationalist parties in countries such as France, Hungary, Romania, etc to dislocate politics through electoral means.
Arbitrary laws constrain foreign entities into narrower channels of activity under increasing pressure. Misperceptions commonly provide the controllable framework not only for public discourse but also, as recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan has demonstrated, for intelligence services to weave “alternate facts.”
With the quickening of changed power relations, already apparent in the larger context of Brexit and the growing bonhomie between the US and Russia, the pulling away from multilateral alliances and the potential for new strategic orientation would appear to be the new norm. The strategic unleashing of Japan and its ramifications for stability in the Asia-Pacific could well redefine the power balance in the region. And lurking in the shadows is the real possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists, which along with the only comparable danger, in terms of scale of destruction, is environmental catastrophe; both must be seen for what they are, and perhaps, provide the imperative for unified response.
All the while what appeared to be an accepted ‘post-internet globalised world view’ is rapidly confronted by an absolutist conception of national sovereignty. The shaping influence of this complex of events that have so far been deliberated deliberated has just begun to loom large over the new century. More than anything else, it separates the world of the 20th century from the 21st. Efforts to cope with this globe splitting xenophobic embrace, particularly for a large developing nation such as India, is not just to rapidly advance its internal pattern of growth, development, demand and consumption but also to ensure that its security is in no way jeopardised through either appeasement or due lack of preparation. This will remain an abiding balancing act to master in the remaining years of this century.
* Vijay Shankar
Former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India