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What a post-COVID-19 world may look like

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
May 06, 2020 19:26 IST
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'Whatever else may or may not happen, China and its people are likely to pay a very heavy price for the lack of transparency of its Communist regime,' predicts Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

IMAGE: Artists perform a scene depicting a doctor killing coronavirus in Bikaner, May 6, 2020. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

There is a general consensus that the post-COVID-19 world will be a different place.

A geopolitical earthquake comparable to the end of World War II is predicted by many analysts.

Many think-tanks the world over, including in India, are busy in this exercise as I write this.

But before we can speculate on the changes the world may see post-COVID-19, it is essential to understand the current world system.

The roots of the COVID-19 crisis faced by the world today go deep into the history of the last 300 years.

To a large extent the reason for the current crisis is the fact that while much has changed in these 300 years, the basic principles of the world's political system have changed very little.

Contrary to many Hollywood disaster movies wherein the world comes together to fight a common danger (of course under leadership of the US president), instead today we find the situation exactly opposite.

Partly this is due to the fact that at this very crucial moment in history, the world is ill-served by the leadership of the two major powers. One has a comic character who thinks it is reality TV and other a megalomaniac.

But even more than this accident of history, the very political system militates against any kind of collective action.

Westphalian sovereignty, or State sovereignty, is a principle in international law (external link) that each State has exclusive sovereignty (external link) over its territory.

Political scientists have traced the concept to the Peace of Westphalia (external link) (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War (external link). The principle underlies the modern international system (external link) of sovereign States (external link) and is enshrined in the United Nations Charter (external link), which states that "nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State."

According to the idea, every State, no matter how large or small, has an equal right to sovereignty.

The end of World War II saw a slew of international organisations come up including the UN. But the purpose of these organisations was to solidify and institutionalise the prevailing power balance and consolidate the position of the US. Its economic counterparts were the International Monetary Fund and the World bank.

The end of WWII also saw the beginning of the Cold War between the socialist and capitalist camps led by the USSR and the US respectively. The Cold War ended in 1992 with the break-up of the USSR and victory of the capitalist world and a democratic system of government.

There was a brief opportunity between 1992 and 2000 when the US was the sole superpower and was unchallenged. It was an opportunity for the US to shape the world order keeping in view of the ideals of the American constitution.

This opportunity was frittered away by a US leadership that was more interested in sexual peccadillos than reshaping of the world order.

In the meanwhile, the march of technology, of travel, communication and trade integrated the world economically as never before while the political system continued to be of 17th century Europe.

The UN security council continued to reflect the power balance of 1945 rather than of 2000.

All these old problems left over from the last century have come to roost in 2020 when the world finds itself divided in the face of a major challenge to mankind's existence.

The UN is paralysed and the security council has not even been able to discuss the threat, leave alone a unified plan to fight it.

The only silver lining is that professionals like doctors and scientists have come together despite their governments.

China, on the other hand, has still not come clean on the start of the pandemic or authentic data, hampering the world response.

Whatever else may or may not happen, China and its people are likely to pay a very heavy price for the lack of transparency of its Communist regime. Economic and political isolation of China in the post-COVID-19 world is a distinct possibility.

But to predict the future course of world events and make reasonable assumptions, it is first necessary to look at historical precedents.

It is this lack of genuine understanding of history and processes that led leading American think-tanks like the Rand Corporation to predict the 'end of history' when the Cold War ended.

The Francis Fukuyamas of this world are busy in writing the obituary of the pre-COVID-19 world and like him may prove to be totally wrong and end up with egg on the face.

The reason for this intellectual illness is that the 21st century has seen, along with globalisation, the rise of intellectual ghettos led by the liberal Western elite who have long ceased to be thinkers and instead have become an echo chamber or a privileged club.

The one thing that Indians must be extremely cautious about is the free advice and opinions that will and are being proffered from the likes of The New York Times, sundry think-tanks and many NRIs settled in the US.

These analysts have such a long record of being wrong on India that it is only due to our 'comprador' elite that these views get prominent display in the Indian media.

Just as an example, one of the most prestigious American think-tanks, the Rand Corporation, and its analysts in the work The Year 2000 (Herman Kahn and A J Wiener) published in 1967 predicted chronic food shortages and food riots in India.

Reality: In 1992, when Russia was in turmoil and facing food shortages, India gifted 2 million tonnes of wheat to Russia. This year, Indian grain reserves are likely to exceed 100 million tonnes!

Yet, the perception that India is chronically short of food persists thanks to the negativity constantly peddled by a small section of the elite that has benefited hugely from selling Indian poverty worldwide.

Views, opinions and suggestions coming from the West that has been badly bruised in the COVID-19 pandemic must be taken with a tonne of salt!

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian.

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