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Pax Indica and a multipolar world

July 12, 2004 11:56 IST

The images of an America struggling to assert its will in Iraq have startled many observers. Here is a country devastated by a decade-long embargo; its paramount ruler has been hunted down in a humiliating manner; and yet the mightiest power ever known to man has been unable to impose Pax Americana thereon. Vietnam and the specter of imperial hubris are on everyone's mind.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the United States, by far the most powerful nation in the world today, will continue to remain so far into the foreseeable future. This prospect worries many non-American historians and analysts, who believe that an impregnable, unstoppable hegemon will surely ride rough-shod over everyone else. They have good reason to believe this: historically, imperial powers have never been known to be gentle.

But this begs the question of whether America will in fact continue to be the absolutely untouchable power that it is today. Militarily, with its thirteen aircraft carrier groups, a plethora of high-technology weapons and its nuclear stockpile, the US is impregnable. Economically, its component parts are huge powers in their own right: for instance, the state of California on its own is the world's sixth or seventh largest economy.

In the realm of soft power (see Joseph Nye's recent book Soft Power, the means to success in world politics), America remains supreme. Its culture, literature, music, films and even fast-food are the benchmark for millions all over the world; its newspapers, magazines and television channels dominate the media. Foreign students flock to its universities; foreign researchers love to work in their labs.

Yet, there is a malaise in America. Columbia's Jeffrey Sachs in the Economic Times of April 7th ('The Illusion of Permanence') and the Hoover Institution's Niall Ferguson in the Wall Street Journal of June 21st ('The End of Power') discuss several reasons for America's possible fall from grace. I agree with much of their analysis, and add a couple of my own thoughts:

  • Budget crisis: despite the good times in the last few years, there is a huge budget deficit of $500 billion; furthermore the trade deficit is some $200 billion and rising. It is hard to sustain deficit financing and a huge public debt, as economists keep telling India in regards to its combined state and central deficits.
  • Massive borrowings from abroad: some $2 trillion in US Treasury Bills are held by Asians, including $750 billion by the Japanese. There is a deep and growing debt burden; and no power in history has been able to sustain itself for long as a net debtor. Successful great powers extract capital from others, as evidenced by Britain's $10 trillion loot of India.
  • Demographics: the US is a net importer of people; its small volunteer army is already spread thin fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The demographics of the US is also changing: there will be more and more non-white Hispanics, Asians and Blacks in the US. The current militaristic approach of the Bush administration is supported primarily by white Christian fundamentalist men. They have a 'backward looking agenda' and a 'Manichean world view' both of which may be unsustainable when Hispanics will reach 24%, blacks 14% and Asian 8%: together 50% of the US population, according to Sachs. 'The dream of global empire most likely will fade,' claims he.
  • Competitiveness: The rest of the world is catching up. The narrowing of the economic gap will naturally reduce America's geo-political advantage. The furore over the outsourcing of white-collar jobs is evidence of this erosion of competitiveness. Globalization, oddly enough, seems to work both ways, which was not anticipated by the powers-that-be. In the last twenty-five years, the gap between the lives of middle-class people in India and the US has shrunk noticeably.
  • The destruction of the Soviet Union may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. It is true that the US dared the Soviets into an arms race the latter couldn't afford. But it remains to be seen if the US could really afford it either. Besides, the strategic forces including the thirteen aircraft carrier groups and nuclear stockpiles were meant to fight the last war, projecting US power massively. These are of no use against an Al Qaeda with its suicide bombers and 'sleepers' deep in US territory.
  • Ideological challenges. Many thought that the end of Communism marked the beginning of a new era in which American-style capitalism would be the unchallenged victor. But new ideas from China and India, both with peculiar local economic philosophies, may well prove that there are alternatives.

Now if all this means America's pre-eminence will come to an end, who are the other potential super-powers? Here are some candidates:

  • Old Europe: The continent has become soft, in many ways; maybe it is the centuries of internecine warfare; maybe its civilization is exhausted, in senescence. That aging is reflected in its demographics as well: they are increasingly old societies. Europe may well like become one of those gated senior citizen communities in California, fortified against outsiders. Or else they may have to allow large-scale immigration, mostly of Muslims from North Africa. And they will bring their own cultural baggage.
  • China: The house of cards in the Chinese economy is likely to come crashing down soon, based as it is on a deeply flawed banking system. Says Ferguson. 'An economic crisis in China could plunge the Communist system into crisis, unleashing the centrifugal forces that have undermined previous Chinese empires.' The Communist empire could unravel the way of the Qing and the Ming.
  • Islam: Many people have started talking about 'Eurabia,' a Europe overrun by Arabs/Muslims. And the fervent faith of Muslims is in stark contrast to the jaded post-Christian modernism of Europeans. Yet, Muslims remain deeply divided: even among Arabs there is no unity of purpose. Furthermore, the oil that fueled Islamic revivalism may become superfluous if alternate energy mechanisms are popularized. Also, Muslim military might is diffuse and has not proven itself competitive in modern warfare.
  • India: Despite many of the ingredients for super-powerdom, including a rapidly growing economy, skills in intellectual property, and a particularly positive demographic bulge, India has been too unwilling to assert itself. Besides, it has many problems of its own making, and those imposed by outsiders containing it.

Many, especially Indians, would be surprised at my including India in this list. Certainly, westerners like Ferguson do not accept India's candidacy. But, to paraphrase Marlon Brando, India 'could'a been a contender', and in fact it is. Westerners consider India too weak and too pliant. But in a way that is one of its strengths, because if you look at the above list, plus America, all these are cultures based on authoritarian ideologies, with the exception of India. India is the only potential superpower that has always championed free-thinking, which has tolerated and even nurtured heresies.

And every new great power rises out of the ashes of the previous ones, based on its ability to innovate. Can you see China innovating? Frankly, I cannot, for they have never in their long history created a single earth-shaking idea. Practical innovations like gunpowder, paper, the compass, yes, but never great ideas. Europe innovated after their so-called Enlightenment, for instance by inventing colonialism and racism.  Americans created the idea of capitalism as religious dogma: 'the business of America is business.'

What might India's innovation be? I wish I knew. But India has a tremendous, under-appreciated, advantage in the realm of ideas. Unbeknownst to most Indians, many of the greatest ideas of all time came from this land. To take one magnificent example, Panini's grammar, dating back 2500 years, and encapsulating the complete structure of Sanskrit in four thousand context-free rules, is arguably the greatest achievement of a single human mind in all of history.

The sheer audacity to imagine capturing the infinity of language in the finitude of a set of rules is simply breathtaking: it could only have come from ancient India which invented the ideas of the infinite and the infinitesimal, and the correspondence between the two. The concept of context-free languages was re-invented only in the 1950s by computer scientists, since ambiguity is unacceptable to computers.

To take mathematics and astronomy, Madhava, Nilakantha and Parameswara of the Kerala school invented the ideas of the calculus and infinite series (including the so-called Taylor series) circa 1500 CE, and these were most probably transmitted to Europe by Jesuit missionaries. The so-called Pythagoras theorem was discussed by Baudhayana about 500 years before Pythagoras. Aryabhata calculated pi to six decimal places in 499 CE. Saayana appears to have accurately calculated the speed of light around 1370 CE.

All this bespeaks a tradition that revered knowledge and science and encouraged discoveries and innovation. If India is able to rekindle its ancient, questioning spirit, its intellectual brilliance will go a long way towards making it a great power. It may be noted that, not coincidentally, the great powers of the day have also had the most prestigious universities: from Nalanda-Takshasila in India, to the great German universities to Oxford/Cambridge in the UK to Berkeley-Stanford-Harvard-Yale-Columbia-Chicago today.

Having said this, what India has lacked is political will, because its rulers have been dazzled by the aforementioned authoritarian systems: they have neglected the diamonds in their own backyard. One of these days, India will finally outgrow that inferiority complex: the first step to that is the creation of textbooks that teach history truthfully, instead of negating it as the powers-that-be have been wont to do.

But going back to the multipolar world, Niall Ferguson's warning is salutary. He suspects that instead of a multipolar world, it might be an apolar world. This is of course a little self-serving, coming from someone who whose perspective, one assumes from his name, is molded by immediate-past hegemon (the UK) and current hegemon (the US).

Nevertheless, he makes the point that the last time there was an apolar world was during the so-called Dark Ages when Europe was a mess: around 800 to 1000 CE, when the older empires were gone, and enterprising barbarians ran rampant. He talks about waning empires, religious revivals, incipient anarchy, a retreat into fortified and defendable cities, deglobalization, and a vacuum of power.

It is true that a Pax Romana or something similar does impose a certain discipline. India therefore should bid to be one of the new poles of power: Pax Indica, certainly, in the Indian Ocean and its littorals. However, this can only happen if India becomes a military and economic power, one that it confident of its own strengths. The good news is that this dream is within our grasp. The bad news is that there are many Indians who so actively work against this goal that they are in effect fifth columnists of other powers. They must be deprogrammed, and pronto.

Postscript

On a trip to Kerala, I was delighted to be caught up in an old-fashioned southwest monsoon again. It rained, it poured, almost like old times. June is my favorite time of year: as I said in an old column, 'Sibilant, sinuous, sinister,' the rains are a balm to the soul. The rains come with accompaniments: the wind whistling through the treetops, causing huge mango and jackfruit trees to be all a-twitter, banging stray windows and causing things to fly off clothes-lines; but no lightning or thunder during the idava-pathi, or mid-Taurus rains. Just rain, wonderful rain, sheets and buckets of it, as the heavens open up. And there's no place like Kerala in the rains: it is truly God's own country, as can be seen on a train trip on the coastal route via Alappuzha.

I also greatly enjoyed the daily half-hour Gita classes in Malayalam on Asianet TV delivered by the remarkable Swami Sandeep Chaitanya of the Chinmaya Mission, who is young, humorous, and astonishingly erudite. I realised that it makes a world of difference to listen to the Gita being interpreted in one's mother tongue rather than in English. The words and concepts being the same in both Sanskrit and in Malayalam, it is far easier to relate to than in English. Now if only these classes were available on a CD or DVD for easy reference! If they are, please let me know.

Incidentally, I commend the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra for their small book, 'Awakening Indians to India,' www.chinmayapublications.org which has a lot of facts about Indian contributions to the world of ideas, although they could be better presented.

Malayalam newspapers have long been talking about the exploitation of Indian workers in American-run Iraq. Here is a story on the same topic www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5336483  (In Iraq, two kinds of workers') from the Washington Post of June 30th . Indians hoping to make a decent living in Kuwait were duped, enslaved, endangered, and pauperised in Iraq. Yet again they are making it clear that the value of an Indian life is less than the value of white lives. I am not surprised.

This is the sort of thing the UPA government should be spending its time on: ensuring the safety and security of Indian citizens everywhere, not pursuing vendettas and tilting at textbooks, Don-Quixote-style. Or is it Canute-style? Standing up for its citizens is what will get India to be a superpower, not repeating stale 'Hindi-Chini bhai bhai' slogans; which China reciprocates by saying no way India should be considered a nuclear power.

I note with regret the passing away -- on this 95th birthday -- of famed and acerbic Malayalam writer Ponkunnam Varkey, lapsed Catholic whose trenchant criticism of the church did not endear him to the faithful; his Vazhthappetta Kochappi (The Beatified Kochappi) remains one of my favorite short stories, as it bitingly exposes the hypocrisies of commercialized religion.

 Comments are welcome at rajeev.srinivasan@gmail.com

Rajeev Srinivasan