Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Eurasian Moment in World Politics

The world of politics is changing profoundly. It is not just about the rise of the strongmen rulers - President Xi of China, Prime Minister Abe of Japan, Prime Minister Modi of India or President Duterte of Philippines - or their perennially ubiquitous counterparts in Mr Putin, Mr Erdoğan, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Zuma. The shift that we are seeing is more than the shocks, such as Brexit or a Trump Presidency, or the ascendance of extreme nationalists like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Netherlands or Nobert Hoffer in Austria. The anti-Semitic rallies in Poland, the authoritarian Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the absurd Beppe Grillo in Italy and the abhorrent Golden Dawn in Greece are all part of a big shift, which is not just about the rise of nationalism and breakdown of the post-war institutions. There may be a more fundamental shift underway.

Discussion about such a shift is not new. This has been discussed in the scholarly circles for some time. But, since the last year, it has reached mainstream media, for good reasons. It does seem that the anticipation of such a shift is now central to strategic decision making in various large countries, including Russia, Germany, China and Turkey. And, after Trump's ascendance to Presidency, such a shift has become one of the key factors in strategic decision making even in the White House. 

I am referring to the shift of power from Atlantic Seaboard to Eurasian plain, something that the Nineteenth century British geo-strategists foresaw. That their vision did not come to pass is perhaps because of the rise of America as a global power in the dying years of the Nineteenth century, when the American industrial might and the American Military ability and willingness to engage changed everything else, followed by the Great War, Russian Revolution and subsequent dividing lines drawn through the world. Eurasia faded out of spotlight as a strategic theatre as Europe emerged.

Indeed, this was not just a twentieth century affair: Eurasia dominated world history ever since the decline of the Romans, but its relative decline started with the improvements in long haul shipping and the voyages of Columbus and Vasco Da Gama. But it was back in contention in the Nineteenth Century, with the Russian and the British empires jostling for influence, until the Americans entered the fray (after a deeply divisive national debate) and changed everything. For the next hundred years or so, American power, primarily represented by the overwhelming power of its carrier groups, dominated the world. The unfortunate Eurasian expeditions by the Russians in Afghanistan ended badly, and led to a breakdown of that empire. 

There are several reasons to think this may now change. The global nature of American power is not well supported by shared prosperity at home, and the domestic considerations may force a disengagement from wider global policing and in favour of limited and specific engagements required for 'national interest'. In many ways, this is a result of the over-reach of the Bush Years and the consistent Foreign Policy failures under Obama, when America's overseas engagements became costly and meaningless. The 'isolationism', if we call it that, was always a force in American politics, but George W Bush's adventurism and Obama's indecision has now undermined the case for 'interventionism' so much that the former makes sense to most Americans. 

This change that we see does not undermine the United States, as it controls the world's most powerful military and is the biggest economy. It, however, means its disengagement from Europe and greater engagement in Eurasia. It also means an economic revival of the Eurasian region, as President Xi builds infrastructure and brings manufacturing and trade to inner China. It also means a great human movement, as the Global Warming melts the Siberian Ice Cap and some of the great rivers running through South and South-East Asia starts faltering (and indeed, global warming may also mean some of the coastal cities can be completely lost). 

From the vantage point of the Trump administration, which wants to reduce global engagements and restructure the American economy and society, such a shift is only problematic if one has to cling to the dated geo-politics of the post-Cold War world. They, along with many other nations in the world, are adjusting to this new geopolitical reality. In a perverse way, Britain's shift - from Europe to the old Commonwealth - is also a pivot in this direction. Germany, with greater engagement with China's OBOR, is already signalling its understanding of this shift. 

I believe this shift is real, not just because of the geo-political logic but also because of the conscious actions of the countries and the leaders. There are countries which are blissfully oblivious - India seems to be one among them - while the others are scrambling as they see themselves losing out, such as Britain. We may be at a moment that comes once in many centuries, a turning of a long term trend visible only from the long-view vantage point. This would impact not just politics - though this may be where it starts - but business, economies and lives of people. 

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