Oct 01, 2023
Oct 01, 2023
by H.N. Bali
Few anecdotes are as relevant to our times as the good old story of the boiling frog. It is about a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will, as the temperature continues to rise, be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that occur slowly and imperceptibly.
The common metaphorical use of the story is a caution for people to be aware of every change (howsoever gradual) lest they should one day be caught totally unaware to be able to cope with it.
What is true of anecdotes is equally valid to another old chestnut, namely, platitudes, which are trite, or prosaic statements directed at quelling cognitive unease. Platitudes are geared towards presenting a shallow, unifying wisdom over a complex, difficult topic. However, they are too overused and general to be anything more than undirected statements with ultimately little meaningful contribution towards a solution.
Examples of such platitudes could be statements such as middle ground, method to madness and the like. Platitudes are, all said, generally a form of an over-used cliché that terminates the thinking process.
Deeply influenced by moralistic platitudes and uncontrollable bouts of self-righteousness – common characteristics of the Nehru years – we Indians as a nation, haven't yet learned to come to terms with the realities of international politics and still wallow in the thralldom of platitudes. Are we capable of thinking beyond self-imposed boundaries of platitudes like peaceful co-existence and socialist pattern of society?
Let me take some common platitudes that have haunted our political existence since Independence.
The first platitude we have lived by since 1947 is that Wahabi Islam alone has kept propped up the failing state of Pakistan which would have irretrievably disintegrated by now but for the Saudi support. The truth is what kept Pakistan propped up so far was the 1979 Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan which suddenly made Pakistan strategically important to the United States. Its use by the United States as a launch-pad for its operations in Afghanistan ensured Pakistan a fresh lease of life.
Take another misconception of our times that the thesis of clash of civilizations propounded first by Harvard historian Samuel P. Huntington is a worn out cliché. Far from that! In the last two decades, for instance, there have been at least two major civilizational clashes: the first was the Soviet-Afghan war – incidentally far more crucial than the three Afghan wars that the British fought in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries – and the second, the Gulf War. The third such clash, in all likelihood will, sooner or later, be the India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. The Kashmir problem that Pakistan has spared no effort to internationalize is, as a matter of fact, only a symbol and not the cause of Indo-Pak conflict.
Now, take the rise and fall of Communism. Was Communism, as an ideology, inherently fraught with contradictions that could not be reconciled? Did the events of 1991 finally and conclusively validate the thinking of Karl Popper and Frederick Van Hayek, the two Western thinkers who – even during its ascendance – came out unsparingly against the Communist ideology and the system built thereon.
In our own society, there were only two men who had the courage of conviction not to be taken in by popular platitude and opposed the system even when they were in a pitiably hopeless minority and while it was fashionable to swear by the socialist pattern of economy. One of them was Minoo Masani, the author of Our India the Bible of my school days. And the other was the economist Ardeshir Shroff. (Remember his much-disapproved Forum of Free Enterprise in the heyday of Nehruvian socialism!)
While talking about our friends and foes, let’s face it four square: what matters in international relations is the military clout a country carries – a clout (and it is extremely important) - backed by economic power. (The reason for the collapse of the USSR, for instance, was not the lack of a military muscle – in terms of its arsenal of nuclear weaponry – but its basic economic strength in real terms to back it up for long). In our time, China is one such power that has its military strength supported by intrinsic economic power that is rapidly on the increase.
It would; for instance, be a downright lie for the American intelligence agencies to deny the stark fact that the Chinese have persistently reneged on their assurances to help some of the developing countries (particularly Pakistan) to obtain the necessary wherewithal to develop their nuclear capability.) But there are compelling reasons for the US administration to gloss over these uncomfortable facts. And perhaps the most important of these is the bothersome gargantuan trade deficit that the United States has with China.
It is, therefore, one thing to make suitable noises over issues like Tibet and Taiwan, treatment of political dissidents and human rights violations, and swallow all these on the quiet when dealing with the Chinese leadership. As a matter of fact, Jiang's recent visit to the US was aimed at reminding the Americans that there is for them another world power to deal with in the twenty-first century. And the Chinese are perhaps entitled to savor the feel of the Big League that they are going to join. So, forget about Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan and others in jail. The People’s Republic of China and the USA are going to learn to live with each other, airing their differences occasionally for public consumption.
If India wants to strike a working relationship with China and the United States, it has to build up its economic muscle. In the world of realpolitik, steel production, ballistic missiles and air power matter, and not the homilies on co-existence and democracy.
Cultivating the United States
There’s a Hindi proverb that while dwelling in a river you can’t really afford to be on terms of enmity with the crocodile. If not real friendship, you have to strike as amicable a working relationship as possible with the giant reptile. American hegemony at least for the time being is a fact of international life. Hence, the need for India to strike an equation with the US. The above earthy aphorism is, thus, eminently applicable to India (or for that matter to any other country whose economic and military clout doesn’t confer on it the status of a power to be reckoned with). It is in our short, medium and long-term interests to work for a durable and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States (The self-proclaimed emphasis on our being the world’s largest democracy carries no weight in American reckoning because America’s policy-makers excel in wooing dictatorships abroad while practicing democracy at home).
One of Narendra Modi’s achievement since the BJP Government came to power in May 2014 is to quickly mend fences and strike an amicable equation with the American President. Modi, for instance has had six one-to-one meetings with Barrack Obama in the last 14 months. The belated realization of this need is a heartening sign of the onset of serious thinking based on realpolitik that demands abiding interest in, and deep understanding of, what the Americans declaredly – and, more so, really – stand for, how their institutions work, and how we can align our national interests with their geo-strategic and commercial stakes in the fast-changing global scenario.
And for this we should really understand America. Do we really?
One of the most perceptive foreigners ever to visit United States – way back in the nineteenth century – was the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. The French Government had sent him on a trip to report (of all the things in the world) on prison conditions in the USA, which everyone knows are deplorable. He very wisely decided to widen his brief beyond recognition. His work – Democracy in America – turned out to be a profound study of the very nature of American democracy – “its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.” After more than a century and a half, Democracy in America is still rated as one of the most insightful studies of the American political system. More importantly, de Tocqueville’s central theme hasn’t lost (nor probably will it in the future) a bit of its relevance, i.e., what is there for the rest of the world “to fear or to hope” from what straddles the world stage as icons of Americana. These “fears” and “hopes” have acquired, after the collapse of the Soviet Communism, a new thrust and relevance in our yet-unipolar political world.
New Centre of Power
At the end of the Second World War, the geopolitical centers of power shifted in Europe from England to Soviet Russia, and across the Atlantic, to the United States. That brought into being a new bipolar world. The collapse of Soviet Communism in the early 1990s consigned bipolarity to the have-beens of history. Thereafter, most (if not all) of the “fears” regarding America’s key role in world politics have converged on what has been described as American “hegemony”. Most Europeans (except the French) accept it grudgingly (The only exception, of course, is Britain which has tacitly accepted for itself the role of the honorary fifty-first State of the Union). However, the American panache of displaying its military muscle isn’t much to the liking of other members of the world community. At the height of Vietnam War, Senator William Fulbright reminded his countryman of the dangers of what he called The Arrogance of Power.
How would he have reacted, today, at what America did in its bid to make Saddam Hussein wear the sack cloth? How dare a country object to the presence of Americans (even if they are CIA spies) in the UN weapons inspection team? Isn’t it aware of the firepower of the American military whose defense budget, even after the collapse of its only supposed military rival, is more than the combined defense spending of all other industrial nations of the world?
The forbidding prospects of military adventurism of the world’s sole superpower have been brought out by Ronald Steel (who teaches international relations at the University of Southern California) in his remarkably candid study Temptations of a Superpower. The biggest challenge before the occupant of the White House, according to Steel, is to curb and control America’s grandiose ambitions. While dealing with America, it should always be borne in mind that expansionism and imperialism are not new phenomena but have been – and will continue to be – part of the American dream. There was a time – how the world wishes it had stood still! – when the thirteen colonies nestled east of the Allegheny Mountains. Then came the urge to relentlessly march westwards to occupy the whole continent. All possible stratagems were resorted to ranging from unprovoked wars with neighboring Mexico to downright cash purchases of territory from France and defeated Mexico and helpless Russia. Perhaps the most forthright statement of American dream was by John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States (1825-29). As President James Monroe’s Secretary of State, he was responsible for the enunciation of what came to be called (in the then President’s name) the Monroe Doctrine – a declaration in 1823 that any further (or renewed) European colonial ambitions in Latin America would be deemed as threats to American security. But for the (then) all-powerful British Royal Navy, President Adams would possibly have annexed most of South America.
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