The erudite UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, is a consummate diplomat who is widely regarded as having his ear to the ground. However, little did he know that the biblical analogy of the four horsemen of Apocalypse that he enunciated on January 22 as the principal global challenges in the UN’s 75th anniversary year would be overwhelmed by an unforeseen black swan event — the corona crisis.
Midway through the year, it is not geopolitical tensions, climate crisis, global mistrust or the dark side of the digital world — the four issues which Secretary General Guterres listed as primary threats — that ordinary people view as their principal preoccupation. The challenges the horsemen pose have, for now, been overshadowed by the uber crisis spawned by the black swan. 2020 will go down as the year of the corona crisis.
However, prudent planning for the day after requires an assessment of where the long-term existential threats stand. Even as the UN prepares for its 75th anniversary, are the horsemen reined in and locked away in the stables? Are any straining at the bit and wanting to be runaways?
The notion that the pandemic has not been “bad” for the environment is widespread. In April daily carbon emissions were down by 17 per cent compared to last year. New data in June indicates that they are 5 per cent lower than at the same point in 2019, indicating a spurt. The drop in emissions in 2020 — projected to be about 8 per cent down on last year — will just put us on track to where we should be, if we are to reach the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C. The threat of climate change, although raising its head again, has been constrained. The horseman whose threat is existential has given us a longer lease of existence, for now.
Cyberspace has been a digital saviour during the corona crisis. Constancy of virtual communications enhanced through various services, new apps, expanded coverage has been key to enhanced virtual lives for millions by increase of the avenues for working from home, video chat connectivity and online delivery of goods. Companies that have deftly used cyberspace have prospered the most. Amazon towers over all others with a net capital gain of over $400 billion in 2020.
However, there is a growing body of thought that “dark side” troubles are likely. A surge in cybercrime and cyber fraud is anticipated, if not there already. The logic being that cyberspace use has expanded without commensurate growth in security features. An article by Steven McBride in Forbes magazine in May predicted that the corona crisis practically guarantees that we will see the “largest cyberattack ever” in the next six months. Several others, too, are making dire projections of an impending “cyber Pearl Harbour”. This horseman is lurking in the shadows and a “breakout” cannot be discounted.
Instances of accentuation of geopolitical tensions during the corona crisis are well-documented. The US-China relationship was already deteriorating, the blame game over the virus has exacerbated it. The brazen behaviour of China in matters relating to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, South China Sea and the India-China border has added to the inflammable state of geopolitics. That there is no recourse to those involved reflects on the poor state of global governance mechanisms. Rarely has the world seen such paucity of international cooperation since World War II. The unraveling of the global infrastructure of institutions and partnerships that have been built since World War II is stark. The horseman signifying a rise in geopolitical tensions is trotting about.
The paucity of global trust amongst states has plummeted to its worst since World War II. The EU that touts an “ever closer union” has not been a pretty picture. When faced with corona crisis shortages, almost all EU states responded at the national level. Globally, at one time, more than 70 per cent of the world’s ports of entry — air, sea and land — restricted travel. According to a Global Trade Alert study, nearly 90 governments blocked the export of medical supplies while 29 restricted food exports.
In many regions where co-operation was flourishing all of a sudden there are rivalries and hard feelings between people where there have been no borders at all. For example, the Nordic region. Norway opened its borders to the rest from the region bar Sweden, because of its infection rate.
Lack of trust is also impacting diversified supply chains. The corona crisis is driving a shift from efficiency to self-sufficiency. Japan is paying companies to relocate factories from China. President Emmanuel Macron has pledged “full independence” for France in crucial medical supplies by year-end. Prime Minister Modi has called for self reliance and being vocal for local in India. In the US, support for “Buy American” benchmarks for government health spending has growing bipartisan support. Countries are preparing for individually forging recoveries when the crisis passes. This horseman is cantering.
Secretary General Guterres may not have gauged the speed with which the horsemen will gather pace but got the trends right. However, underpinning Guterres’s prognosis was that these threats beyond borders are best addressed by multilateral bodies. Alas, even while Guterres’ apocalyptic horsemen have been prancing around, the UN system has been missing in action, except at the fringes. Barring the descent of a guardian angel, the current multilateral order that Guterres presides over is in deep trouble.
The last time thinking about the multilateral order was cemented was at a time when India did not independently partake in the thought process. It resulted in our being confined to the category of “ruler takers” for 75 years and counting. Challenges that transcend borders are of cardinal importance to India’s well being. It is, therefore, time to conceptualise, in concrete terms, pathways to address them. This will need to include our envisaging the new order and India’s own role in it as well as who our partners in this venture are to be. Others are already working on their game plans. The here and now is important. So, too, is looking beyond the horizon. If we want to be “rule shapers” rather than being “rule takers”, then we need to start working in partnership at blueprints for change. It is never too early to plan for the future.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 2, 2020 under the title “Horsemen of Apocalypse.” The writer retired from the Indian Foreign Service in April as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
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