HTLS 2022: Sowing the seeds of peace and prosperity for a changing world

Updated on Nov 07, 2022 12:23 PM IST

Recalling the correct takeaways from history and dissecting the present objectively helps in reading the future

An elderly woman waits for distribution of humanitarian aid in the town of Izyum, in Kharkiv region, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)
An elderly woman waits for distribution of humanitarian aid in the town of Izyum, in Kharkiv region, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)
ByRajiv Bhatia

Recalling the correct takeaways from history and dissecting the present objectively helps in reading the future. If this yardstick is applied to identify key foreign policy challenges and future patterns of relations among great and middle powers, the contours of multipolarity in the current decade become visible.

The current geopolitical backdrop is marked by intensifying United States (US)-China strategic contestation, the continuing high costs of a worldwide pandemic, the war in Ukraine and its global fallout on energy and food security, and tense bilateral ties between India and China. The questions that governments face today will shape the policies of tomorrow.

Will there be peace or war, poverty or prosperity, equity or inequity in international trade, technology, vaccines, and responsibilities to counter the climate crisis, and stagnation or progress in reforming global governance? In short, while envisioning a new tomorrow, will nations head towards cooperation or conflict?

Judged by two recent developments, the warnings are ominous.

First, the eight-month-old Russia-Ukraine war shows no sign of ending. At a deeper level, it is a conflict between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Hence, the end game will be complicated. No serious mediation bid is underway at present. Russian President Vladimir Putin supervising drills by nuclear-capable forces has sent alarm bells ringing rather loudly.

Second, the consensus among China experts on the takeaways from the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress indicates three things: The emergence of President Xi Jinping as the undisputed lifetime leader with absolute authority, the party’s commitment to China’s rejuvenation and make it the world leader, and the primacy assigned to Taiwan on which Xi promised to strive for “peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost effort,” adding meaningfully, “we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”

What is the probability of war or peace in Europe and Asia? Anxiety is palpable across regions. The continuation of the war in Europe has brought devastation to Ukraine, hardships for Russia, economic slowdown and energy shortages in Europe, and severe stress for developing countries that are compelled to pay more for food, fertilisers, and energy supplies. Even a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons could trigger an unthinkable chain of reactions that will last for decades. The only way out is dialogue and diplomacy.

Despite the fears expressed by some experts, it is difficult to imagine that President Xi will risk China’s recent achievements in a bid to capture Taiwan by force. This may inevitably draw forceful reactions from the US. A Ukraine-type war in Asia may not necessarily turn in China’s favour – as Putin has experienced in Europe. Besides, if the Chinese are long-term strategists keen to win without firing a shot, they may still opt for coercion rather than a kinetic confrontation with the US camp. There, then, lies hope, at least during this decade.

A secure future needs equity in trade, technology, energy, climate finance, vaccines and reform in global governance. Will justice be done to those who continue to suffer from the acts of those who have appropriated so much of the world’s resources for their benefit? Will the North find it feasible to accept the justifiable demands made by the Global South? Unlikely. But this should not prevent the developing world from persisting, increasing its solidarity and upgrading its capacity. A group of middle powers and a great-power-in-the-making, India, need to show leadership and a vision that appeals to nations across Latin America, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific to secure the future.

Relations among the leading poles of power – the US, EU, Russia, China, India, Japan, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – need to be managed to promote the cause of peace and security for all, and equity and justice for the developing world. India’s foreign policy is driven by the desire to secure these goals. So, what more can India do, leveraging a strong prime minister (PM) with a flair for summit diplomacy and an articulate and purposefully peripatetic external affairs minister?

Three suggestions merit consideration.

First, as president of the G20, India should not be content merely playing host to meetings and the summit. It must launch a serious mediation effort to end the war in Ukraine. Its chances of success may improve if PM Narendra Modi leads a group comprising two other leaders – Emmanuel Macron, president of France (because it follows an independent foreign policy) and Joko Widodo, president of Indonesia (because as G20 president, he secured some success in his diplomatic efforts). Then, PM Modi may consider visiting not only Moscow but also Ukraine. After that, foreign minister S Jaishankar may consider shuttle diplomacy to secure an early cessation of hostilities.

Second, New Delhi should think of convening a special conclave of leaders from the Global South, help them prepare an agreed charter of their immediate needs and expectations, and ensure serious deliberation on it at the next G20 summit.

Third, the ministry of external affairs may want to engage more with think tanks and business chambers in a wide variety of cities for a truly pan-India response.

The 1920s represented a period that saw hopes of peace after World War I dashed, giving way to the turbulent 1930s and World War II. A century later, may the 2020s utilise the learnings and address the root causes of conflict to sow the seeds for future peace and prosperity. This is the way to plan for a new tomorrow.

Rajiv Bhatia is a distinguished fellow, Gateway House, a former ambassador, and the author of three books. The views expressed are personal

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