Over the barrel: How to save the world from ‘perfect storm’

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Published: December 3, 2018 2:47:11 AM

Global warming is just one example of a problem that does not recognise national boundaries. Pandemics, migration, extremism, nuclear proliferation are some of the other problems that would be unresponsive to nationalist solutions. Someone has to rise to the occasion.

The subcontinent is, according to previous US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, “the most dangerous place” on earth.

Barbara W 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 of Austria in June 2014 to set off the ‘perfect storm’ of World War 1. A tour d’horizon of global politics today leaves one with a sense of déjà 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 re-imagining its future, Russia looking to recreate the ‘Soviet Union’, and China pushing to regain its past pre-eminence, 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, France, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 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. US President Donald Trump declared that he was a nationalist and tweeted that Europe should pay for its own defence. French President Emmanuel Macron retorted that “patriotism was the exact opposite of nationalism” and, with German 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 hitherto, the leaders talked of institutions and structures of conflict than 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. But it was first coined to describe a meteorological event. Bob Case, an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US, 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-feet waves, and the damage was extensive. The phrase entered common parlance after the release of the film ‘The Perfect Storm’.

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 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 World War 2, 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 Winston Churchill. These institutions were effective, notwithstanding the onset of the Cold War. Today, this liberal order has been effectively upended. The United Nations (UN) has lost much of its teeth; the World Trade Organisation 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 worrying, the ‘Make America Great Again’ 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 for 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 for a, 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. In itself, this might not be an issue. But when considered 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—and draw in the analogy of the multiple axis of 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, one has to worry about the possibility that the gradual creep of climate change caused by the absence of effective international institutions may confluence suddenly into 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, nuclear proliferation are some of the other problems that would be unresponsive to nationalist solutions.

The subcontinent is, according to previous US 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 the above problems will not metastasise into a global catastrophe. It must pro-actively 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.

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