Hearing echoes of 1914 in 2014

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The spread of power centres all over the word (rather than its concentration in Europe as was the case in 1914)—may prevent global war

Noted Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan in a thoughtful essay titled The Rhyme of History identifies several worrying trends from the eve of the First World War in 1914, which have startling parallels a century later.

Among these trends are the downsides of globalization, notably the rise of the aspirant middle class, particularly in the emerging economies; the rise of nationalism and sectarianism, evident in Japan and the Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East; the temptation of client or rentier states, such as Pakistan, to instigate conflict despite the efforts of their patrons; the delusion that deterrence, especially nuclear deterrence, alone will prevent conflict; and the failure of leadership both at the national and the global level. Many of these trends have a direct bearing on India and its neighbourhood.

The parallel from 1914 notwithstanding the essay does not suggest that a global conflagration of great powers is inevitable or even imminent today but cautions of “our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident”.

Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US and author ofMagnificent Delusions, echoed these concerns at a recent panel discussion organized by Brookings India. He pointed out the ability of unpredictable state actors (such as North Korea) and non-state actors (such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, al Qaeda and the Taliban) to instigate conflict regionally and globally. This, coupled with the lack of effective regional cooperation, particularly in South Asia, underlines the concerns highlighted by MacMillan’s essay.

However, other experts challenged this central thesis. Kishore Mahbubani, the author of The Great Convergence, for instance, offered a spirited critique while also presenting a more optimistic outlook for this century.

He argued that the essay presents a wholly western and overly pessimistic perspective while ignoring the perspective of Asian societies in particular. Mahbubani asserted that these are the best of times in human history with fewer wars and deaths than at any time before and a real prospect of ending poverty by 2030.

While acknowledging the rising geopolitical rivalry between Asian powers, particularly China, Japan and India, he is certain that a rebalancing of power between them would occur without the outbreak of conflict, despite tensions.

Shyam Saran, the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, endorsed this perspective. He pointed out that while China and India have several outstanding bilateral issues, such as the disputed border, there is also the potential for both of them to work together in shaping the emerging global norms, particularly in the areas of climate, energy, food and space security where no universally accepted rules and institutions exist at the moment.

Besides, he noted, the economic interdependence among nations today is deeper and more entrenched than it was in 1914.

Similarly, the increasing multi-polarity—the spread of power centres all over the word (rather than its concentration in Europe as was the case in 1914)—will also contribute to preventing global war.

Despite this optimism, all the experts agreed that the lack of leadership was particularly worrying. On the one hand there are unlikely to be heroic leaders of the mould of Nehru. Instead, there will be weaker leaders willing to follow the popular will rather than lead it.

On the other hand, the established powers—the US, its allies and other permanent members of the UN Security Council—are unwilling to relinquish space on the global podium to the emerging powers. This was evident from the treatment of Brazil and Turkey following their initiative on Iran’s nuclear file in 2010.

MacMillan’s essay offers a useful survey of the perils from history.

Ensuring that these trends do not become a reality in the 21st century will require an order of leadership that is presently lacking.


This column first appeared in Livemint, on January 19, 2014.