Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, is the definitive account of the seemingly unconnected and localised actions that came together in the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in June 1914, to set off the “perfect storm” of World War 1. A tour d’ horizon of global politics today leaves one with a sense of deja vu. Strident nationalism, narrowly defined public agendas, egotistical and autocratic leadership. these are the defining features of the current political landscape. These were the forces described by Tuchman that slowly, unpredictably but inexorably, pushed the world over the abyss in 1914. With America seeking an isolationist shell, Europe reimagining its future, Russia looking to recreate the “Soviet Union” and China pushing to regain its past preeminence, the question arises: Which country will provide the international leadership to forestall another “perfect storm”? Is this an opportunity for India to bestride the global stage?
Last month, on November 11, the leaders of 70 nations gathered in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice day — the day Germany signed the instrument of surrender that brought World War 1 to an end. This commemorative event should have been an occasion for the assembled leaders to reflect on the devastating consequences of jingoistic nationalism, misdirected pride and inflated egos. Instead, most used it as a platform to pander to their domestic constituencies. President Donald Trump declared he was a nationalist and tweeted that Europe should pay for its own defence. President Emmanuel Macron retorted “Patriotism was the exact opposite of nationalism” and Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the creation of a joint European army. It was ironic that, on the day that marked the end of the bloodiest war in history, world leaders talked of institutions and structures of conflict instead of avenues for securing sustainable peace.
The phrase “perfect storm” describes the unexpected or unanticipated confluence of seemingly unrelated events that leads to massive, possibly systemic, adverse ramifications. This phrase is now used broadly and across all disciplines — finance, economics, geopolitics and social sciences. But it was first coined to describe a meteorological event. Bob Case, an employee of the US Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, forecast on October 27, 1991, based on satellite imagery, that a huge cold front was on collision course with a high-pressure system somewhere along the North American East Coast, and, “to add gasoline to the fire… the dying hurricane Grace (would deliver) immense tropical energy (and create thereby) a perfect storm”. Case indicated that the impact could be devastating. His forecast was prescient. The Eastern Seaboard was hit by hurricane-force winds and 100-foot waves, and the damage was extensive. The phrase entered common parlance after the release of a movie, The Perfect Storm (2000).
There is a connection between the commemorative occasion in Paris and the term “perfect storm”. The former revealed the chasm between the populist and narrow opportunism of the current political leadership, and the need for institutional structures to tackle the transnational problems of global warming, extremism, pandemics and refugees. The latter is a forewarning that if this chasm is not narrowed and eventually bridged, the world could, one day, find itself caught in the vortex of the “perfect storm” of resource scarcity, geopolitical chaos and climate-induced devastation.
In the aftermath of WW2, the world set up multilateral, rules-based and liberal institutions. The objective was to provide a forum for “jaw-jaw” and not “war-war”, to paraphrase Churchill. These institutions were effective, notwithstanding the onset of the Cold War. Today, this liberal order has been effectively upended. The UN has lost much of its teeth, the WTO is struggling to retain its legitimacy as the custodian of the international trading system, the idea of a confederated Europe has been effectively shelved, and, most worryingly, the “Make America Great” nationalism of Trump’s America has opened up space for China and Russia to cast themselves as the custodians of a stable international order. All this is happening when the world is in dire need of international institutions of governance.
The challenge of global warming highlights this need. The Paris climate summit was a major step forward in creating such an international fora but it clearly lacks the required authority or sanction. The UN has reported, for instance, that the developed countries have not fully met their Paris commitment to provide $100 billion annually to the poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. By itself, this might not be an issue. However, consider it against the scientific reality that temperatures are increasing but maybe not everywhere, that sea levels are rising, but stealthily, that fires are wiping out places, but locally — the wild fire that recently ravaged California is illustrative. Then, draw the analogy of the multiple conflicts that buffeted Europe in the early 20th century, which then converged following the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, to set off a global conflict. It becomes evident that one has to worry about the possibility that the gradual creeping of climate change caused by the absence of effective international institutions, may suddenly lead to the “perfect storm” of a global catastrophe.
Global warming is only one example of a problem that does not recognise national boundaries. Pandemics, migration, extremism and nuclear proliferation are some of the other problems that would be unresponsive to nationalist solutions.
The Subcontinent is, according to US former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, “the most dangerous place” on Earth. This is because two nuclear powers have an uncomfortable adversarial relationship. Furthermore, it is home to nearly one-fourth of the world’s population. These factors alone compel India to do more than simply hope that the above problems will not metastasize into a global catastrophe. It must proactively work to forestall such an outcome.
The principles of non-alignment were never popular with the superpowers. They did, however, enable India to punch above its weight. Today, India has the space and the moral heft to once again provide global leadership. It should not hesitate to do so.