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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

There is still hope for a more compassionate, united world

Vikram S Mehta writes: In spite of vaccine nationalism and dithering over environmental issues, there is still hope that binding commonalities of humanity – trust, compassion, friendship, conversation – can usher change.

Written by Vikram S Mehta |
Updated: July 5, 2021 9:37:09 am
The international world order is currently built around the principles that were first enunciated in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that brought the 30-and 80-year overlapping wars in Europe to an end. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

I recently lost a close friend, Rashid Kidwai, to Covid. His family organised a moving tribute to him last month. It was not a prayer meeting, but a celebratory retrospective of his life captured through reminiscences, photographs, videos and heart-rendingly appropriate background music. I suspect that many of the 700 plus people that had logged onto the virtual event struggled to keep their tears in check. I decided to start this article with a reference to my friend because as I listened to the remembrances and visuals of Kidwai’s life journey, I was struck by the thought that a surer way of tackling the problems of the 21st century would be to move beyond the principles of national sovereignty upon which decisions are currently based to a redesigned system built around the somewhat abstract concept of humanity.

Like so many of us, Kidwai despaired about the state of the world. He was concerned about global warming, environmental degradation, the eroding legitimacy of the institutions of governance, cross-border conflicts and social and economic injustice. But perhaps unlike us, he did not allow this despair to dampen his infectious optimism. His optimism was grounded in the belief that individuals will ultimately see the future through the prism of the living and the “yet unborn” rather than, as is increasingly the case today, the lens of the inanimates of technology, money, status and power. He saw the glass to be half full not half empty.

The international world order is currently built around the principles that were first enunciated in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that brought the 30-and 80-year overlapping wars in Europe to an end. They were later reaffirmed in contemporaneous language in the Articles of Association that provided the frame for multilateral agencies like the UN, WTO and WHO created in the aftermath of the Second World War. The central thrust of these principles was that countries have an exclusive right of control over all matters arising within their territorial boundaries and that this “right” is not compromised by their signed commitments to multilateral governance. There have been efforts in the years since to dilute this “right” especially by advocates of humanitarian intervention, and multilateral rules do carry moral sanction but, in the main, these principles continue to influence decisions.

A revealing illustration is the response to Covid. The first reaction of almost every global leader was to hunker down behind national walls. Scientists did collaborate across national boundaries to develop the vaccine, but when it came to distribution, the politicians focused first on securing supplies for their domestic constituency and only then consider meeting their commitment to share supplies with the less developed world. “Vaccine nationalism” became a commonplace term.

Another illustration is the continuing equivocation over the implementation of the “green agenda”. The G7 leaders have, for instance, often committed to financially supporting the efforts of the poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to global warming with a $100 billion package. They have not yet, however, put the cheque for the full amount in the post. More recently, there has been much talk about net-zero carbon emissions, carbon taxation and clean energy. Here too, when economic push comes to the political shove, the talk gets shown up for its looseness. The independent think tank “Carbon Tracker” has, for instance, recently reported that there are 622 coal projects under construction (368 in China alone). This suggests that carbon dioxide emissions remain on a rising trajectory and that the target date for zero carbon emissions set by many countries is, in realpolitik terms, just that — a date. Comparably, President Joe Biden has reportedly backtracked from his pre-election campaign to stall the construction of oil pipelines in his push for clean energy. He is allowing just such a project to continue in Minnesota. These inconsistencies are not surprising. They reflect the realities of electoral politics.

Politics today is a hard-nosed, 24/7, winner-takes-all and opportunist profession. It brings to mind the fable about the lion and the gazelle. “Every morning, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning, a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” With the narrowing margins between electoral victory and possible political oblivion, today’s politicians have no option but to remain continually in election mode. They cannot afford to rest on their laurels even in the aftermath of victory or pause to reflect on the longer-term ramifications of their decisions. They have to keep running to stay ahead of the opposition.

Thoughtful leaders, therefore, confront a dilemma. They know that if there was ever a need for statesmanship, it is now. The problems facing the world require decisions today that leaders can look back upon decades hence with satisfaction because they were the right decisions. But they also know that in this hardened political environment, they do not have the luxury to take such a long view. They know that their political future depends on fragmenting the opposition by stoking separatist identities and harnessing nationalistic sentiments. They may agree intellectually with the call for a redesign of the Westphalian principles and the current hardware of electoral politics. But they will not support it practically as they are the beneficiaries of the incumbent system.

So, does this mean the world is headed towards a dead end? I do not think so. The event last month provided a glimpse into not just the strength of the binding commonalities of humanity — friendship, compassion, conversation and trust — but also the impact of individual effort to bring about change. It affirmed the Burkean thought that “no man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he felt he could do so little”. A world order redesigned around these principles is the reason for hope.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 5, 2021 under the title ‘World without narrow domestic walls’. The writer is chairman, Centre for Social and Economic Progress

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