The pointless Russian invasion and the images of wanton destruction in Ukraine have been dominating the world stage for last several weeks. Most of us have been unable to understand the current turmoil. But it is fair to say that the current world anarchy was foreseen by many students of world affairs. The old world-order, in force since 1945, in reality; ended in 1991. The unraveling began with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait over the issue of Kuwait ‘stealing’ Iraqi oil. Saddam Hussein’s actions in Kuwait in 1991 were unimaginable only a few years before. The truth is that with the dissolution of erstwhile USSR the nuclear balance of terror that kept peace between nations had ended. The restraint imposed by the ‘Duo’ Polar balance no longer existed and no new ‘world order’ replaced it. A ‘world order’ aimed to secure the interests of the Western developed nations.
The period of 1990 to 2000 saw the US as a sole super power and this was an unprecedented opportunity for the US (in its own long-term interest) to construct a rule-based world order. Unfortunately, myopic leadership in the US squandered that opportunity and instead the US indulged in unilateral actions to en cash the Cold War dividend. 1991 invasion of Iraq by the US, NATO actions in former Yugoslavia, Libya and various ‘colour’ revolutions in former Soviet republics was an attempt to consolidate Anglo-Saxon domination of the world. Evolving new rules for international conduct was farthest from American mind. Another element of this period was a desire to ‘punish’ the erstwhile allies of USSR.
Many including this author were alarmed at this situation. I had specifically commented on this danger by pointing out that what happened in Baghdad yesterday could happen in Bombay (Mumbai) tomorrow (2 March 1991 ‘Sunday Observer’). Many strategic analysts came to conclusion that an overt possession of nuclear weapons by India was the only guarantee in the new uncertain situation. Our Pune based think tank -Inpad (led by Lt. Gen. Eric Vas, the original thinking General) – lobbied for this course of action even when many in Delhi were still singing the old tune of ‘unclear ambiguity’ or an asinine concept of ‘recessed deterrence’. In effect the impetus for Pokhran II (nuclear test carried out on 11 and 13 May 1998) was neither China nor Pakistan but the dangerous situation that India and the world faced of one power dominance. In retrospect and after seeing Ukraine, even the critics of those tests would agree that it came not a day too soon.
Ever since the end of Cold War, many strategic analysts have been struggling with the idea of how to renew the Cold War era strategic restraint without the ‘balance of terror’ that was the constant factor during the Cold War. In the late 1950s, historian Arnold J Toynbee had foreseen the shift in world power balance. He wrote in his Studies in World History that once the modernization/industrialization in India and China reaches its logical conclusion, the huge populations of these countries will begin to weigh in world balance of power. Such invigorated Giants will then demand their share in World resources, currently heavily skewed in favour of European powers. While China seems to have proved Toynbee right, India seems to be lagging behind in ‘hard power’ due to low quality political leadership. On the flip side, India with its open and pluralistic society seems to have gathered sufficient ‘soft power’ over the years and many nations in Asia do look up to it.
In the long term historical view European domination of the world order is only 400 years old and began in the 17th century. For the rest of the period of mankind it was Asia that was dominant economically, militarily and culturally. Of course it was not an interconnected world and it is unfair to compare 13th century with the 21st. Suffice it to say that Asia was autonomous and independent. As the world power balance shifts there is bound to be a reaction from the losers. One has seen this phenomenon domestically in the US when perceived loss of power by WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) has seen an electoral backlash in triumph of a lout like Trump.
To many historians the world situation resembles the one obtaining on the eve of first world war. A scenario of several middling powers and no international governing mechanism to sort out disputes. Like in 1914 there is a crumbling Russian empire and an emerging power in China that is challenging the established power like the US. But unlike in the early 20th century, the presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of 7-8 countries makes it imperative that a tragedy like the first world war is not repeated.
Comparing what is happening in Europe and the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libia), Indo-Pak or Sino-Indian relations could be described as ‘model’ for others. Despite the border clash in Galwan in 2020, both India and China have shown remarkable restrain in containing the conflict. The cease fire on LOC (line of Control) between India and Pakistan has been holding firm for over a year now and even accidental firing of missile has been taken in stride.
It is time that India and China keep aside their bilateral issues and contribute to world stability. For India to play a meaningful role, it must control its internal dynamics and not abandon its pluralism and freedoms. India, in order to play a larger global role needs to not only preserve but enhance its ‘soft power’. That is only possible though good governance and internal peace.