A world in disarray, a concern about the future

The absence of leaders who command influence across the world, new alliances, economic issues and the progress of current technologies are some of the factors

April 19, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 02:10 pm IST

‘While the ‘rules-based international order’, basically a creation of the West, is virtually dead today, it did succeed for a time in maintaining a semblance of peace across many regions’

‘While the ‘rules-based international order’, basically a creation of the West, is virtually dead today, it did succeed for a time in maintaining a semblance of peace across many regions’ | Photo Credit: AFP

Seldom has a concatenation of circumstances across the world led to this degree of concern about the future. Many factors are responsible for this. Reckless leaders such as Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who are at the centre of the ongoing conflicts, have neither the desire nor the understanding to try and end the conflicts they are involved in. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, shows equal disregard for the eventual outcome of the war in Ukraine, and displays intense myopia as to what can be done to achieve his end objective. The United States, which initially hoped that by strengthening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) it could inflict a decisive defeat on Russia, and restore the immediate post-1945 world order in Europe, finds itself in a serious dilemma.

In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu, caught napping by the massive Hamas attack in October 2023, has reacted to it in a manner typical of his general reputation, and is venting his frustration on the citizens of Gaza — which virtually approximates to genocide. This has inflamed opinions across the world, but more specifically in West Asia, and is further widening the political and religious divide. An unexpected fallout of this has been Iran’s reemergence as a key player in determining the ‘roll of the dice’ in the affairs of this region.

Growing chaos, an absent leadership

Since 2022, geo-politics has been in various stages of disarray. While the ‘rules-based international order’, basically a creation of the West, is virtually dead today, it did succeed for a time in maintaining a semblance of peace across many regions. As the West seemed to weaken, and alongside the rise of China, new alliance patterns emerged. None of them, however, possessed sufficient heft to sustain a peaceful global order.

Today, large parts of the world are in chaos, though ‘shooting wars’ are limited to a few pockets such as Ukraine and Gaza. What is more disconcerting is the absence of leaders with a sober mien, who command a degree of influence across nations and continents, whether it is Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin or Joe Biden. The vast majority of other western leaders clearly lack the qualities needed to sustain a peaceful international order. Many increasingly face problems in sustaining their fiefdoms. Meantime, the march of history and the progress of current technologies threaten to confine most of them to the detritus of history.

The situation is only about to worsen. The stalemate in Ukraine continues with Mr. Zelenskyy, Mr. Putin, and the West all unwilling to consider a reasonable compromise. The year 2024 will, thus, see a repetition of what has been taking place in Europe for the past two years. Whether a continued stalemate will force leaders of these countries to consider the ‘unthinkable’, viz., use of battlefield nuclear weapons, is again a matter for debate.

The situation in West Asia is, meanwhile, turning critical. Israel has been acting more and more like a ‘wounded tiger’, inflicting unpardonable casualties on the citizens of Gaza. It now confronts a direct threat from Iran, which has already fired opening ‘shots across the bow’ at Israel, for the attack on its consular premises in Damascus and the killing of Iranian personnel recently. All indications point to the spectre of a resurgent Iran, thereafter, taking over the leadership of militant ‘Jihadism’ directed against the West and ‘infidels’ of different kinds. The implications of an all out Iran-Israel war are dire indeed.

A new set of alliances

Today, great power rivalry seems a little more than a shadow play, which has hardly any meaning. Outside war-torn Ukraine, and the time bomb that West Asia resembles at present, the U.S. and China are indulging in feints, using proxies to try and achieve their objectives. The U.S. has yet to overcome its hubris following the series of setbacks it has been facing since Afghanistan in 2020, which has removed much of the sheen attached to its being touted as a superpower. In the case of Europe, having leaned on NATO to protect itself from Russia’s offensive, it has little to offer. Europe again has little influence on Mr. Zelenskyy, notwithstanding the huge cost to their exchequers. Seldom has the situation across the region seemed less propitious.

In the east, China’s economic ‘woes’ have stripped it of the afterglow of being a near superpower, one well positioned to challenge the U.S. and the West, militarily and economically. Over the past several months, China has been compelled to operate under the radar and its image as a superpower has diminished. Nevertheless, this has not prevented it from forging many new alliances across West Asia. Currently, the China-Russia-Iran axis has put a question mark on the predatory tactics of the U.S. and the West across much of West Asia.

There is a well-known aphorism that stipulates that ‘wisdom lies in knowing when to stop’. Even as global power politics appear to lose all meaning, we are witness to a whole new set of alliances that makes little sense. What is missing in the thought processes of world leaders, however, is that it is the economy and technologies today that are the main ‘drivers’ and ‘spoilers’ in today’s world. Most world leaders are not paying adequate attention to forecasts about the future of the world economies, more specifically when they include the economies of the more developed countries as well. For instance, experts warn that the U.S. economy is set to face problems sooner rather than later, while the economies of the United Kingdom and much of Europe are already in a parlous state. China’s economy, despite Xi Jinping’s efforts, is again not improving and it has had to cut back on many of its intended plans.

The disruptors

The politics of oil again is something that the world cannot ignore for much longer. The growing proximity, and the axis between China-Russia-Iran, indicate that military alliances apart, the politics of oil is set to roil the world in the near future.

In such a milieu, today’s sanctions have ceased to have any meaning. The world, according to economists, should, hence, be prepared for a major slowdown. The implications of this could be far more disruptive than the current wars in Ukraine and Gaza or a potential conflagration in the Pacific.

Next, technology is all set to become the ultimate disruptor. Manifest attempts are being made by several leading countries to enhance their national security by protecting vital technologies, over which they possess a near-monopoly today. Artificial Intelligence is already a potential threat as far as conventional war methodologies are concerned, but while the U.S. and China are touted as militarily the most powerful today, smaller nations are beginning to pose a challenge, employing Artificial Intelligence, to level the playing field. This dimension needs to be better understood, alongside the havoc being caused in the battlefield in Ukraine by the military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) revolution, and the relentless stare of visual infrared and electronic sensors carried by drones, aircraft, and space assets.

Finally, it is also necessary to recognise that with most arms control agreements having frayed, new nuclear warheads and cruise missiles are possibly, if not already, being designed, and also, possibly, being kept in readiness for use. A nuclear makeover is already in the making and it is only a matter of time that demands are raised by countries that possess them to seek their use. An intense debate is already on as to whether in response to the possible use of low-level battlefield nuclear weapons by Russia, the U.S. and the West should not raise the nuclear threshold by employing nuclear weapons of lower magnitude. Doomsday predictions are perhaps nearer than what many believe.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser, and a former Governor of West Bengal

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