A series of far-reaching events are shaping the 21st century. The current conflict in Ukraine, while grabbing headlines and engrossing the G7 summit in Hiroshima, may not seem as pivotal if one is situated in a different part of the world. To most, this is still a festering neighbourhood conflict that Europe must manage. It does not animate lives everywhere; neither does it shape anxieties or future partnerships.
India, Africa and Latin America are not indifferent to the crisis in Europe. They simply have more pressing matters to attend to — the imperatives of nation building being the most urgent. That they now also must navigate the collateral impact of the war makes them all but an interested party.
The first lesson from global reactions to the war is geography still matters. East-West and North-South binaries may be captivating, but proximity and the neighbourhood are considerably more important. We may be hyper-globalised, but we are also more local than ever before. Social media, trends in technology and politics, and a host of other factors have bracketed us into narrow spheres of interest. Thus, while India respects Europe’s difficulties, for it the 2020s began not with Ukraine but with Chinese aggression, the virus from Wuhan and the surrender of Kabul.
Social media, trends in technology and politics, and a host of other factors have bracketed us into narrow spheres of interest.
The second lesson pertains to the UN vote condemning the Ukraine war. Of the 140 countries that voted and condemned Russia, only a fraction sanctioned Russia. Studying the list of countries that were the earliest to receive vaccines in the pandemic could prove to be productive. It might explain which countries have sanctioned Russia. It will also offer valuable lessons about globalisation, its hierarchy and therefore, its discontents. Those sanctioning Russia today are not merely the victors of World War II, but also of globalisation and development. Others are well within their rights to challenge the status quo.
It is often stated, unthinkingly, that India is on the fence. India is not on the fence — it is only standing its ground. It will choose its priorities just as every other country has done. The recent spate of visits by European leaders to China shows that value-based frameworks are untenable. Nations are driven by self-interest and in this case, the need to maintain lucrative economic relations. India is no different. Even as it confronts the Chinese on the Himalayan heights, trade continues where the economy needs it. Distance matters; interest matters even more.
The third lesson derives cumulatively from four recent events: The pandemic; the fallout of the Doha Agreement and the abandoning of Afghanistan; the Chinese aggression on India’s borders; and new sanction regimes and their impact on the loosely termed “Global South”. The Covid-19 outbreak saw the overt hijack of medical equipment and access to vaccines, and growing gaps in treatment capabilities.
Nations are driven by self-interest and in this case, the need to maintain lucrative economic relations.
Indeed, when the pandemic struck, there was no superpower, there was no great power, and there was no big power. There were only selfish powers. Similarly, the Afghan people were betrayed and abandoned because it was expedient for higher powers to flee the country at a particular moment. And Chinese territorial incursions have provoked a range of self-serving responses from different actors otherwise keen to defend democracy.
Put bluntly, there is no moral high ground. All that remains is the ruthless pursuit of national self-interest. Two actors epitomised this approach in the 1960s and 1970s, one actor in the 1980s and 1990s, and several new voices have joined the fray in this century.
If meaningful international dialogue is to be conducted, nations must right-size some of their perceptions about each other and themselves. In this context, the tendency to frame the Global South as a possible bridge actor between competing positions has its merits. But the “Global South” is itself a deeply reductive term, which elides the group’s innate heterogeneity. Very few countries would like to be categorised as “southern” as they continue to rise and shape global systems. Five years from now, Brazil and India might bristle at such a label themselves.
The neatly packaged idea of the Global South fails to recognise that there will soon be far more decisive swings within the group than outside it. How the countries of the South organise themselves over the next decade will have a far more profound impact than the West on the global balance of power, and on the contours of the new world order. As this century progresses, an East and West will emerge within the Global North and South.
LLPs will come to constitute the geometry of politics, and countries will work together on specific issues, for specific purposes, and for specific outcomes.
Concomitantly, international engagements of the future will organise themselves around the standard operating principle of law firms — as limited liability partnerships (LLPs). LLPs will come to constitute the geometry of politics, and countries will work together on specific issues, for specific purposes, and for specific outcomes. With the transition to the new LLP ethos of geopolitics, we will not be burdened by the need to focus on anything other than the narrowly defined collaborative interest at hand, and can build relationships that are more strategic, if also more transactional. This is a gritty, realist world. We may not like it, but it’s here — and here to stay.