'Global Order no more' ~ HE MK Narayanan

HE MK Narayanan predicted a change of guard in the global hierarchy of nations in a post-COVID geopolitical scenario at the Synergia Forum.

HE MK NARAYANAN:

M K Narayanan is an immensely experienced Indian diplomat and former IPS officer. He is an expert in security matters and shares the wisdom gained through his service with the Indian government, on topics like national security, Indian politics, and policies, etc. He headed the IB from 1987 to 1990, before heading the Joint Intelligence Committee. He became Chief of the IB again in 1991, before retiring in 1992 – which was also the year when the government of India awarded him with the civilian honour of Padma Shri. He served as the Special Advisor for Internal Security to the Prime Minister of India beginning in 2004 and became the governor of West Bengal in 2010. He was awarded the Gusi Peace Prize in 2011.

Speaking during the Synergia Webinar on 23rd April on “The Geopolitical Consequences of COVID 19,” HE MK Narayanan predicted a change of guard in the global hierarchy of nations in a post-COVID 19 geopolitical scenario.  The swing of the pendulum may veer in favour of China vis a vis India, he said, if one goes by the sheer display of state craft displayed by China in handling the pandemic.

IS THE POWER OF THE WEST ON AN ECLIPSE?

While the West appeared to maintain its lead in terms of economic development, education, social welfare, public health, technological innovation, and military power, their dealing with the pandemic has been suboptimal. The decline in the primacy of the U.S. in the global power equation has been evident, from President Obama’s initiation of the withdrawal of an overstretched military from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East to President Trump’s mixed signals in Syria allowing for a vacuum to be exploited by competing powers. President Trump  was forced to conclude a deal with the Taliban, with few clear gains and this  further  diminished the shine on Pax Americana.

The West, has made its fair share of mistakes, especially in the invasions of Iraq and Libya, the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, and the global financial crisis of 2008. Yet the most glaring one as of now seems to be the way the pandemic has been handled, especially by the US and the UK. As of 28th April, the US stands with the highest number of deaths in the world due to COVID [47,980], while the UK, France, Italy, and Spain follow close behind with an average of 23,000 deaths per country.

THE COMPETING STRATEGIES

The USA's healthcare system is not designed to meet the challenges of a pandemic. The public health system has seen neglect with private health care flourishing but remaining out of reach of most people. This coupled with the initial cavalier approach to the pandemic, claiming that everything was under control, when the reality was quite different. “The throwaway remarks of the President and going on the offensive when it was prudent to seek advice and cooperation from other countries has turned the US inside out,” remarked Mr Narayanan.

In his view, Europe has not fared any better if we go by the mortality rates and the sheer lack of direction in dealing with the pandemic.  The British Prime Minister started bravely enough with his firm conviction that herd immunity was the only way out in the absence of a vaccine but confronted with rising deaths, he lost his way and took resort to a total lockdown, albeit as a way out and not as a well thought out strategy.  Though the British National Health Service (NHS) is a formidable institution, years of neglect in funding was evident when its lack of preparedness to face an epidemic was cruelly exposed from the lack of basic PPE. Sadly, many of the NHS health workers themselves were struck down by the virus.

“The one country which was the black swan and is attempting to masquerade as a white swan is China, ” remarked M K Narayanan. The Chinese regime could take strong measures and enforce a severe lockdown over a vast swathe of its population; something the liberal democracies could implement only when the situation became desperate ant that too with marked reluctance and against strong public resistance.  China is well on the path of recovery with its economy stirring back into action.  However, questions are now emerging about its transparency with respect to the onset of the pandemic.  In its efforts to appear as a responsible world power, China is now seen sending medical experts, protective masks, and respirators all over the world to help others combat the pandemic.

Most other Asian countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, India, and Singapore, have shown great control over the disease. India has also emerged as being the provider for the drug that’s shown the most promise with COVID-19, hydroxychloroquine, and it was sent to nearly 55 countries. It shows a reversal of roles - the East is the one led by science and quick action, while the West pushes aside the science.

POST COVID WORLD

Mr Narayan predicted disruptions in the global pecking order with the advantage accruing to Asia.   “Post the pandemic I think the world is going to be very different. Which country in the world is in a position to stand up? Most of the areas we mentioned are hit by terrorism, West Asia is about to implode because of the oil issues and the other conflicts that they have. In the United States of America, people are starting to talk of it in terms of a declining power etc. Most of the countries in the world are in deep depression of one kind or the other. So, many of the measures we could have implemented if the governments around the world were strong enough like the past, but are not. We are going to face the biggest depression the world has ever seen, with vast numbers of people without jobs, huge numbers without health. I think few governments are prepared for this and the only country which has come out of this and is preparing to take over the world in some ways is China. As I said, countries like the USA and Western Europe are going to take a long, long time to recover from the pandemic. The world will have to decide how we are going to deal with this new situation where a country that doesn’t believe in international rules and conduct is going to be a dominant power at least in this part of the world.”

EAST OR WEST, WHAT IS BEST?

This isn’t the first time that the soft power of the West has been questioned. The appeal of the American model was also sullied by gun violence and the mismanagement that led to the 2008 global financial crisis. After the 2008 Great Recession, most of Asia was relatively unscathed while the US and Europe floundered. Presently, the EU saw most countries keeping their resources for themselves due to the fear of shortages at home. After long talks, emergency packages were finally set up to allow the countries to share their collective resources. 

This is not to say that the East holds all the answers. Mr MK Narayanan highlighted that with leaders in the East, whether it be Mr Xi Jinping in China or Putin in Russia, “the current so-called ‘successful’ leaders are those who are practitioners of, for lack of a better word, personal authoritarianism. There is now a willingness to restrict a degree of securities in the belief that public good takes precedence over everything else.” This, undoubtedly, raises the question of what is the perfect balance between authoritarianism and democracy, and whether when emergency services are put in place, is there the trust that they would be rolled back after the emergency fades?

THE COUNTERPOINT

Naturally, it wouldn’t be that easy to dethrone the West. Above all, leadership in global governance requires a combination of performance, diplomacy, and principles. It isn’t that the West lacks these - it is just that the pandemic situation brought out the instability of its capitalistic practices. The West still stands for upholding a world-class education system. Most of Europe has nationalised healthcare, and the Scandinavian countries (albeit small) are examples of the balance between public welfare states and democracies. There is also concern about the violation of people’s rights in the East under authoritarian regimes, and rightly so. The Uighur Muslim crisis, along with the subduing of free speech in India has raised concerns about whether authoritarianism can be an option at a time when people’s identities and personal beliefs are louder than ever. There is the concern that once these regimes employ such powers, would they also then equally pull back these measures when the time comes, and not take advantage of their powers? The state knows best is the answer to most questions.

In a broader perspective, Mr MK Narayanan states that "the whole concept of the international community is coming under question. The point we need to realise is that if there is no global community, there is no globalisation.” The only way a global community exists is if the East and West play of each other instead of trying to one-up each other.

ASSESSMENT

  • This was the perfect opportunity for the “ globalised village” to pitch in with all their combined skills, resources and technical know-how and wrestle with a virus that does not respect political boundaries. It only seeks a human host irrespective of colour, race or creed.  Sadly, the world powers, the powerful multilateral agencies and even regional trade blocs failed mankind. The all-powerful UNSC could not come to any worthwhile decisions, its members fearing to even convene in their chambers and the WHO stands discredited.  But slowly we see a silver lining with the EU nations pooling over $8 billion to expedite the search for a vaccine and IMF coming forth with emergency funds for the needy.
  • The East has shown a stronger face in the fight against the pandemic, mostly due to the authoritarian governments it features. This has helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Asia. While the current pandemic may not officially establish the shift from West to East in the short term, yet the way the pandemic has been handled by Asia does pose a challenge to the long established Western dominance in world affairs.

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