The World at War
Air Vice Marshal Mahmud Hussain (Retd)
Retired air force officer. He served as High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Brunei Darussalam from November 2016 to September 2020. He served as the Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB). Presently, he is working as the Distinguished Expert at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Aviation and Aerospace University (BSMRAAU).
Historians are often wont to think through the metaphors they use to draw parallels of global phenomena. Hegel was one of them. So was Francis Fukuyama. The title of the latter’s book The End of History and the Last Man was surreal. His analysis was that the Cold War was over, and the United States was the only superpower at the fall of the Soviet Union. In this condition of historical existence, the fate of “big wars” was over. The reason for such optimistic mood lies in human aspiration for good governance and wealth. For Fukuyama, the two most inveterate elements of happiness were the liberal democracy and free market economy. Hegel, his scholarly mentor in historical dialogue, saw the convergence of conflicting wills toward a progressive development of human condition along similar lines.
However, the most scintillating event of the fury of the end of the Cold War was not so much the death of the Soviet Union which seemed to be in the making for sometime but the fall of the Berlin Wall. The laws of Germanic peoples, broken through years of artificial separation, were bound to be reconciled through the enactment of physical manifestation of yearning for unity. It was a moment of enlightenment. But history of one great nation cannot constitute the life of peoples of whole mankind. Germany was not the woe of physical war but the angst of an ideological one artificially reproduced as scientists reproduce proofs to suit their results in laboratory tests.
Forty years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world leaders thought it best to divide another unified nation, Korea as the consequence of a post-War peace negotiations. North Korea and South Korea are the two artificial symbols on world map that reject the thesis of theory embedded in nation’s historical unity while interpreting its movement in practice. Fukuyama’s intellectual project remained incomplete with such anomalies straddling the space of geo-political landscape. In ascribing an epistemic value to history’s philosophical interpretation, Hegel even denied a place to India as a role model. Fukuyama, though not denying the possibility of conflicts in small scale among tribal groups, border skirmishes and internecine clashes, rejected the appearance of wars among great powers on ideological grounds. How much both seem to be at variance with the developments that have happened after the start of the post-Cold War era.
The first ideological war came with the binary lingual dexterity, “either or or”. The post-Cold War era was not even in its second decade that the world was divided into two dialectically opposite anti-theses. The first Gulf War can be seen in the light of unipolar moment’s benign attempt at creating a secure environment for state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Global war on Iraq was an invocation of US President Woodrow Wilson’s invention of the doctrine of “collective security”. The motto of ‘a war unjustly on one will constitute a war on all” was the fundamental premise that nations with high survival instinct but weak body would unfailingly rally behind a strong protector. But by the time the moment for the second Gulf War arrived, the United States’ liberal democratic and free market interests had obviously run out of its steam of unilateral sacrifice. Its large power also had its limits. It was at this point that US leadership required followers after all. In reality, if Hitler can be blamed for starting the second World War, then a mild parallel can be drawn pointing to George W. Bush jr. as the cause for putting the world at War in the post-Cold War period. His administration could very well have avoided risking America’s liberal and benign image. The unipolar world order that America came to represent after the end of Cold War could have been sustained with US leadership providing for the moral instinct representing History’s benevolent spirit. It is, in practice, that after the second Gulf War, the world has been no more under the aegis of unipolar world order. It is multipolar now with unpredictable consequences on History’s movement.
The Global War on Terror (GWOT) was, in fact, a brief but costly affair. Like the Cold War compulsion on dividing the World into two distinct sub-sets of worlds, GWOT shaped the rupture of the civilizations with the West forming a citadel against the putative islamophobia. It was not a small conflict as Fukuyama would have liked it to be. Its branches spread far and wide entangling both states and non-state actors. Its trans-national character rejected the view of Clausewitz that “war is an instrument of politics”. In its place, it said that “politics is an instrument of war”.
Talibans just took about twenty years to reclaim their seat of power, and proved that the future of world history cannot be judged merely through the ideas of philosophers, but also has to leave space for those who are its destroyers. Human dignity and freedom do not make for divine grace among every nation. GWOT was a historical aberration enacted at the behest of reason’s irresponsible constraint. We no longer talk about GWOT as though it has completed its mission. The world now seems to have learnt to tolerate so many authoritarian states as part of History’s unshakeable determination.
In the beginning of the 21st Century, the rise of China was a historical phenomenon. As a great nation, its ability to create History is undeniable. It had two contesting turfs to deal with the United States: its economy started expanding through prodigious growth which gave it a tall order in geo-politics but its most conspicuous ambition was represented in its grand project of Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). Was there anything by any great power of such grand scale that could compete China’s dream? “Belt” refers to the overland routes for road and rail transportation, whereas “road” refers to the sea routes. It constitutes two major programs called “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”.
The Silk Road Economic Belt connects three major routes like China to Europe, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, while the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is based on waterways linking coastal Chinese cities via a series of ports in Asia to Africa and the Mediterranean. BRI aims to reach 65 countries, covering 70% of the planet’s population, three-quarters of its energy resources, a quarter of goods and services, and 28% of global GDP —— some $ US 21 trillion.
This China hubris is seen as China-Model of Globalization. Despite its grand nobility, the West started feeling nervous about China’s game plan. Hegel who thought Europe and its current mirror-image, “the West” to be the philosopher of History in mankind’s historical movement, would be surprised to see China rising to the lofty ideals of maker of history. China’s initial move was steady, silent and peaceful. China claimed that its rise was benevolent, and not meant to be a driver for Realpolitik. But it was difficult to find a metaphor that could transform China’s eminence look like an innocuous political expedition. It was not so much China that was suspect to the eyes of the west but the rise of Asia seen through Chinese landscape which was unnerving to the west.
With Xi XinPing at the helm of affairs, China started challenging the United States upfront. It has now become an open confrontation. With sharp rise in economy, China’s attitude in the Pacific spelled fear and anxiety amongst its neighbors. South China Sea was perhaps the first geo-strategic attempt at which China displayed its military strength. Countries have disputed over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, but war-like tension has grown in recent years.
China has sweeping claims that include sovereignty claims over Spratly and Paracel islands, and their adjacent waters. This has angered competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China has gone so far as to lay its spatial rights with island-building and naval patrols. The United States says it does not take sides in territorial disputes, but has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands in what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations. Even Hollywood got caught into a controversy over a portrayal of map showing nine-dash line of South China Sea. Senators in the Philippines also criticized the map’s inclusion in the movie. One Philippine law-maker said that the movie should come with an explicit disclaimer that the nine-dash line is a figment of China’s imagination.
Whether fabrication of mind or reality, the South China Sea is, no doubt, a major shipping route. It is estimated for over 21% of global trade amounting to $3.37 trillion transiting through its waters every year. While China’s legal warfare over the claims about South China Sea may not be so convincing, its military power and the threat of economic pressure to the neighbors are. Thus, while its effects may not be felt immediately, it has appropriately raised the alarm among regional states and the international community.
China’s President Xi Jinping says that Taiwan’s reunification with China is inevitable, and if need be, it will use force to fulfill a territorial unification mission to reclaim History’s legal claim. China sees self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province. But Taiwan sees itself as distinct from the Chinese mainland, with its own constitution and democratically-elected leaders. China reiterates that Taiwan was originally a Chinese province. But the Taiwanese contend that they were never a part of the modern Chinese state that was first formed after the revolution in 1911, or the People’s Republic of China that was established under Mao in 1949. China could bring about a “reunification” by non-military means such as strengthening economic ties. But in any military confrontation, China’s armed forces would overwhelm those of Taiwan. China spends more than any country except the US on defence and could draw on a huge range of capabilities, from naval power to missile technology, aircraft and cyber -attacks. But the puzzle of war between China and Taiwan does not end at their mutual rivalry; it will drag the United States into the foray, thereby affecting the grand sea-routes of trade and commerce. Its picture will be far grimmer than that between Ukraine and Russia.
China’s post-Cold War geo-political struggles has left it isolated, distant and somewhat tragic. A country which seemed once to compete the West in a fashionable way providing its own model of economic prosperity and home rule is now underdone. The euphoria is fading now. Even Australia considers China a threat. In a recent dialogue of the Australian strategists, it highlighted that the United States is, no longer, the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific. That is also the reason for Australia to cling tightly to America to avoid being caught unawares in the event of a possible war with China. Australia must balance a fear of being lonely against a reasonable fear of entanglement. Putative threat of China has made America wanting to institutionalize cooperation with Japan and South Korea. In a recent trilateral discussion of the US, Japan and South Korea it was disclosed that the Indo-Pacific is under China’s assertiveness, belligerence and aggression.
No less than 40 countries are there in the Indo-Pacific region, and 13 countries with declared Indo-Pacific strategic document. The strategic significance of the region is understood when the United States renamed its Pacific Command to a new Indo-Pacific Command. Indo-Pacific is undoubtedly the geography for America to contain China in its contemporary version of the Great Game to “containing the Soviet Union” first assayed by George C Kennan in his The Long Telegram at the start of the Cold War.
In the latest development amid the long-standing Sino-Indian border dispute, China, in recent times, officially released the 2023 edition of its “Standard Map” where Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin region, Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea are all included within the Chinese territory. Surprisingly, the development came days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping conversed at the 15th BRICS Summit in South Africa. The two leaders agreed to intensify efforts at disengagement and de-escalation to restore normal relationship between the two warring countries. A probable Sino-Indian War is reminiscent of Hegelian interpretation of Europe’s dominating role in creating and re-creating human history. India and China, being the two Asiatic giants, must come to terms with power shifts and their implications.
The coming of China and India together is a prospect that the west may not like. It pleases them to see India as a counter-weight to China. But this also makes the world’s biggest continent suffer with majority of the countries trundling in poverty and chaos. No wonder, the greatest Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, in 1924, urged China to reject materialism and “free the human soul from the dungeon of machine.” But The Economist says “it will be a more realistic path towards a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship between Asia’s titans. In the 21st Century, they will prove Hegel wrong if the world’s two greatest civilizations with magnificently rich ancient past can be tasked with reshaping the future “Global Civilization” on the triptych of scientific, arts and human advancement.
The world is still at war. It is time for Russia and Ukraine to mend their ways to stop the war. But they alone cannot do it, now that Putin’s grand strategic plan to wrap up Ukraine within a few days has failed miserably. The great nations of the post-Cold War era —- the US, China and India —- have a combined role to play. But their leaders —- Biden, Modi, Xi —- are unique, and it is hard to believe which one is sincerer in his rhetoric. The most important thing for them to understand is that, in order to stop the “World at War”, they have a role to play. It is not by isolating this or that particular great power that the World Order can be restored, but by engaging themselves means and ways can be found to prevent them from fearing war. Once again, History becomes our repertoire to choose from. Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Concert of Europe (1815) serve us with a model. In that sense, Francis Fukuyama was right.
We started our discourse with the thought of great philosophers. We must also rely on them for our understanding of state behavior. Their precepts are even more significant today when the world is making tremendous advancement towards science and technology. The philosophers of the yonder developed their theories based on the histories of nations. Each nation had its own unique civilization and cultural spirit. But in the 21st Century, the world has become almost unitary through the integration of scientific knowledge. Science has given us wealth in terms of material capabilities, but it has also made us bankrupt in ontological thinking. The future of this world lies not so much on rhetorical expression of state sovereignty and human rights, but on the philosophical intellect of the statesmen who will be the leaders of great powers.