Profound global changes happen long before human beings realize them. The world, for example, went multipolar before a lot of us could even guess what multipolarity truly meant. It initiated multipolarity when the West, in its attempt to ‘connect’ the globe through globalisation, literally shipped out its different lifelines to different corners, without a thought about what pundits like John Mearsheimer calls ‘balance of power’ politics. It was when the effects of China in the WTO started surfacing that a partial realisation of sorts – that the West could have been cavalier in its attitude towards its own future – hit. That the same attitude has cost them their post-Soviet upper hand (unipolarity and end of history etc) is coming under light now in 2022, with the way the Ukraine crisis plays out. Let us check a few of the signs.
Sanctions are not working
The US Treasury has recently clarified that Russian fertilisers, grains, and other agricultural sector products do not come under Western sanctions any more. “If the fertilizers don’t flow, then the world will produce less,” United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) chief economist Máximo Torero said in an interview. “That’s why we’re saying that next year we could have a problem of food availability, and also of food access like what we have today.” The main fear now is that the rise of international food prices (10-30 per cent) is just the beginning; lack of fertilisers would mean loss of productivity, and that could cascade into a global food crisis.
Turkey is already trying hard to negotiate – one can be sure that this has the approval of the West – the passage of Ukrainian grains out through the Black Sea. And Russia has promised a safe passage till where there are Ukrainian sea mines; which means that Ukraine has to clear its own mines if it wants its grains to travel around the world and help its war-torn economy. The Lithuanian blockade of Russian sanctioned goods trains is also over.
Consequences of being stuck in the 60s
Europe, with its compulsions due to its reliance on the USA has had to face the brunt of the Arab oil embargo once. And with no lessons learnt apparently, the same or perhaps worse is about to hit them again in 2022 with Germany – the powerhouse of the EU – looking like the one to be affected the most. Price increase and industry shutdowns (not including the self-goal of shutting down nuclear energy), can be wholly ascribed to its decision of stopping cheap Russian gas from entering the EU. One hopes that like the change in stance on Russian freight trains and fertilisers, this too shall be addressed before it exacerbates.
It is a complex web of a world today
Simply speaking, in a world this interdependent as globalisation has created, while it might be easy to isolate a relatively inconsequential nation (like Bosnia for example), it is quite difficult to cut off ties with most others; the Ukraine crisis is demonstrating just that by poking the West in the eye, which throws a few questions on structures like QUAD or I2U2 (India, Israel, the US, and the United Arab Emirates).
While trade and commercial blocs have managed to move out of the shadows even if partially, strategic and military blocs remain typically Cold War in their nature. As briefly highlighted in the above few paragraphs, exclusive alliance is impossible these days for potentially consequential nations. (Europe’s unknown compulsions to stick to its Cold War avatar by remaining a hostage to the US orders and the result of that is a great example) and even if there was a remote possibility of remaining exclusively aligned to, the leadership quality of the country that demands such allegiance – the USA in this case – is the biggest suspect in today’s world. They do not have the leaders; they do not have the planners; and they do not have the intention to follow through on commitments.
India and the Region
For the same reason, India should tread the path of QUAD and I2U2 with utmost caution. In case of I2U2 for instance, one would find it difficult to locate a single advantage in the US act of forcefully injecting itself into an India-UAE-Israel equation other than serving its own interest of finding a platform to remain relevant in the affairs of west Asia. There is nothing there that India, UAE, or Israel could not persuade on their own through bilateral or trilateral among between themselves. Things have improved a lot between the Middle Eastern nations off-late, and there are even signs of KSA and Iran trying to find common grounds – no matter how insignificant those grounds seem right now. The Middle East, in other words, is looking better than it did a decade ago. The question then is: what is the need of a so-called global policeman?
India too, has so far managed to balance its international priorities well throughout the Ukraine crisis. Regionally, it has managed to carve a steady relation with most Middle Eastern nations including Iran, it is doing reasonably well in the APAC, and New Delhi’s issues with Beijing notwithstanding, the two countries have about USD 115 billion worth trade between them in 2021-22 – a rise from USD 86 billion in 2020-21. Commitment towards any bloc spearheaded by a nation that is continuously on the lookout for a shoulder to fire its cannon from – as is visible in Ukraine, or is habit-bound to make a force-entry into regions that show signs of stability and potential growth – is not a good idea.
The Cold War was a different time and almost a different world. That was when nearly the entire global South had gained freedom from colonial rule; they were mostly poor and without relevant experience or foresight. Complete (or partial, like Non-Aligned Movement) alignment according to their dominant ideologies for the sake of development was perhaps the only option. Efforts towards globalisation – and we have to thank the West for that – has addressed those concerns in many cases. Ironically, it has also brought balance of power politics back in a game that has gotten vastly complex – something that was unimaginable during the Cold War era. Naturally, a Cold War worldview is incapable of addressing this complexity.
The US efforts to push the world back into the 60s and 70s is unfortunate not just because a 20th century worldview would put a blanket over 21st century issues instead of addressing them, but also because Americans can no longer boast of the kind of ace architects and planners that ensured their victory in the Cold War.
For the time, the way ahead – as foreign minister Dr S Jaishankar says – is to embrace multi-layered multipronged transactional relationships. Let the fallout of Ukraine 2022 remain the only example needed.
(Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical enthusiast and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed. He tweets at heartland_ari.)
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)