(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)
Intelligence is all about deciphering what lies ahead – analysis of what happened in the past and a capacity to determine what entails for the future in the goings-on of the present, certainly help but Einstein's famous dictum "imagination is more important than knowledge" also speaks of the relevance of the versatility of the human mind that could see beyond what the 'facts' presented to the analyst meant and thus enrich the assessment. All of this seems to have guided the US National Intelligence Council's 20-year forecast of where the world would be, published recently.
It is a sobering thought that today strategic assessments have ceased to have a long life since the world could change faster than the calculated shifts and therefore the best that such an exercise could do is to project the trends and legitimately conclude where these, if unchecked, would end. Global readings are premised on the doings of human beings as a whole and the NIC has rightly identified five crucial areas in play where manmade changes would contribute to the shape of things to come – international relations, global economy, technology, environment and domestic management of governance. Long-range trends can be established and their cumulative effect read through a competitive analysis in which legitimacy of 'imagination' as mentioned above would also play a part. But what about a crisis not directly created by man, like Covid? An infliction by nature that affected the entire humanity would set the clock back for the analysts in the sense that they would have to recalibrate their entire readings afresh.
'A more contested world' is the total summation that the NIC report makes and regardless of the details that might have gone into this assessment, there is no denying the fact that this is a brilliant prediction of the direction in which international relations are headed. In a very broad picturization, it is prudent to consider the end of the Cold War as a reference point for examining what is shaping up the new global order ever since. The success of the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan leading to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from there and a rapid dismemberment of the USSR, the mighty Communist superpower, that followed, brought down the curtains on the Cold War leaving the USA as the only superpower commanding all military and economic initiatives at the global level. The transformational event, however, was accompanied by three new developments that would further affect the world in the future. Still in play these, it is hoped, did get into NIC's calculus.
One is the impact that the Soviet collapse made on China, the second most powerful Communist power. President Deng Xiaoping did not fail to notice that the USSR had cracked under its internal economic contradiction, had acquired military strength but not built its economy and had moved towards an oligarchy. Deng was set on seeking the economic route to becoming a superpower, learning from the failed Soviet model and opening into the global economy in a controlled fashion. China has built a huge balance of trade in its favour, reached out to Western centres of knowledge through investments in the universities there and harnessed technology in all fields.
The second transformative change that coincided with the end of the Cold War was the success of the IT Revolution that shifted the world from the Industrial Age to the Age of Information. The new age brought in the Knowledge Economy created borderless markets and set new benchmarks of competitiveness wherein a rival could appear from anywhere on the globe making better use of information that came into the public domain as soon as it was produced. There were no obscure corners in the world any more as a global outreach accessed them all. The end of the Cold War interestingly produced a large number of border conflicts, insurgencies and cross-border offensives as many national identities that had been suppressed during the Cold War asserted themselves. This phenomenon is still at play in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and is a significant factor affecting international relations.
The third development – and this posed a lasting threat to world security – was the rise of the new global terror, a product of faith-based motivation from the same battleground in Afghanistan that had ousted the Soviet army from there. The anti-Soviet armed campaign was directed on the war cry of Jehad and led by the Pak-controlled Hizbul Mujahideen, the radical Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Toiba of Osama bin Laden with equal force. The success of the Afghan Jehad was followed by the installation of the Afghan Emirate at Kabul in 1996, on the initiative of Pakistan that was headed by the Taliban's Mullah Omar working in close concert with Laden. That regime of Islamic radicals soon bared its fangs against the US-led West, the Shiites and the idol-worshippers and compelled the US to oust it. This, in turn, laid the turf for Al Qaeda's offensive of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of the 'war on terror by the US-led World Coalition against Islamic radicals, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.
With Islamic radicals enjoying considerable support within the Muslim world spread across Asia and Africa and in particular receiving shelter in Pakistan, the 'war on terror' leaves behind a lasting conflict between the West and radical Islam, rightly described by the likes of Samuel P. Huntington and his mentor Prof. Bernard Lewis as a 'clash of civilizations. The rise of China, the advent of the cyber world and the revival of radical Islam are thus the three paradigms that are shaping the world and pushing it in the direction of a new bipolar order. Even factors like economy, environment, technology and internal governance are in some way adding to this new post-Cold War cleavage created by international relations.
The geopolitical contours of 'a more contested world' are getting crystallized, as viewed from India, along with three courses. First is the significant development of the advent of the Biden Presidency restoring the traditional US-NATO alliance which was weakened in the Trump regime. This is in line with the Biden administration looking at China and Russia as the antagonistic powers much like what the position was for the US in the Cold War. Biden looks at Russia's Putin with great distrust – Donald Trump gave the impression of being in a comfortable equation with the Russian President and perhaps regarded Russia as another white nation across Europe. The new level of energization of QUAD achieved in Biden administration was directed against the aggressive designs of China in the Indo-Pacific but it has evoked a sharp reaction from Russia and created a sense of strategic unity between Russia and China. Japan is the anchor of QUAD in the region and this has led to Putin cautioning India against becoming part of an 'Asian NATO', particularly after the appearance of France on the scene through its participation in the naval exercises with QUAD.
Another course of global alignments that has a long-term implication is the divide between the democratic world and the autocratic regimes spawning across Asia in particular, which was of direct concern for India. The Chinese strategy of gaining influence in South and South-East Asia – through the Sino-Pak alliance on the one hand and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on the other – demands an effective counter-strategy from India. RCEP is a trading partnership of China with the ten ASEAN countries along with South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The challenge for India is that its political appeal to ASEAN as a democratic power is pitted against the overbearing economic pressure of the Communist neighbour which is testing India's 'Act East policy. India has to work for multi-polarity in Asia to counter China's dominance here. India has to be in the democratic camp in Asia, on the side of the US and its allies in the region. The participation of Prime Minister Modi in the first QUAD summit was a sound decision in this context – it serves the cause of the security of the Indian Ocean as well.
It is the third geopolitical trendsetter however, that is perhaps the most important for India's national security and international relations – the shifting alignments within the Muslim world that weighed in favour of Pakistan despite the falling image of that country as a principal harbourer of Islamic extremism. This adds to India's concerns as Pakistan is encouraged to step up its terror offensive against India and also cause internal destabilization here. This goings-on strangely does not bother the Biden Presidency so much – even though, ironically, the 'war on terror' against Islamic radicals was all along led by the US-led world coalition. The Sino-Pak alliance is working for Pakistan on the Afghan issue while a new grouping within the Islamic world – of Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia – is becoming supportive of Islamic radicals and recalcitrant towards the supremacy of Saudi Arabia, a committed ally of the US in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
If President Biden withdraws US troops from Afghanistan with a half-baked truce with the Taliban, Pakistan will retain its sway in that country and cause further problems for India. Meanwhile, pro-Pak lobbies are active in the US on the issue of Kashmir and there is a meeting of minds between Pakistan and China on countering India's hold in the Ladakh sector that was now directly administered by the Centre as a Union Territory. Also, there is a revival of Islamic radicalism in many parts of Europe including France and Belgium because of the history of colonialism and even the legacy of the Crusades. The US-led West and India have a convergence of interest against the threat of 'radicalization' but the NIC report does not seem to be impacted much by the latter. India does not have the comfort of distance that the US had on the threat from Islamic radicals – it has, therefore, to counter it largely on its own. Mobilization of the democratic world against the faith-based global terror has to be kept up. (IANS)