Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, in the 18th century, made that statement of timeless value: “The only thing for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” That observation comes into sharp focus these days when big powers are engaged in hyper rivalry with highly potential ramifications. Scratch the surface and the simmering causes of clash between the major powers ooze from various quarters reiterating what has become transparent in the past five years. Unbridled acceleration in this regard sends shivers down the spines of any fair mind.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned of military response if Russia felt threatened by NATO at Russia’s door step. He wants “security guarantees”. After a pro-western government got installed in Ukraine in 2014, a referendum was held in the Crimea territory, largely populated by people of Russian descent, though NATO members questioned the process in which 90 per cent of voters supported merger with Russia.
Winter of discontent The subsequent conflict in east Ukraine has counted more than 14,000 casualties while Moscow supports separatists in eastern Ukraine. Winter of discontent and despair has gripped Ukraine even as foreign forces take deep interests in that country’s strategic position. For a man with 70 per cent public approval rating even after 22 years in office in contrast to his American counterpart Joe Biden’s 43 per cent in his first 12 months at the White House, decisive moves can be expected if Moscow’s security interests get ignored.
Vehemently opposed to Ukraine being admitted to NATO, Moscow wants the pullout of foreign troops from countries that joined the military organisation after 1997. Its persistent protest includes: “We are no longer able to put up with the situation unfolding in the direct vicinity of our border, we cannot put up with the NATO enlargement.”
From the ashes of World War II, including the unfortunate experience of being the only country to directly suffer the horrors of the atomic bombs being dropped, Japan revived and regained its economic muscle after submitting to American prescriptions for conducting international ties. But it never acquired the image and recognition of a major power to reckon with. Kissing a big power blindly means missing an opportunity to exercise discretion, whose price is not exercising an independent policy on crucial international issues.
A case in point: 65 nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games. Four years later, the now defunct Soviet Union and 14 of its allies refused to join the Los Angeles Games. Albania, Iran and Libya also stayed away from the meet but not for the reasons the Soviets cited. Many of the absentee nations had generally dominated the Olympic events previously.
This year, for political mileage, the United States brought up human rights issues in China’s Xinjiang Province and spearheaded a boycott campaign against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Beijing dismissed the US charges as a “farce” and an exercise in “self-deception”. Except for traditionally known American allies, much of the world prepared for participating in the Beijing Winter Games.
The US and its closes allies said they would send their squads to the Winter Olympics but without government representatives attending the spectacle. Two days after Christmas, the US personnel filed their application forms for the required visa to the organising committee. In short, every time China steals the limelight on the world stage in any form or shape, the West turns edgy and even cranky. It gets sleepless nights, if not nightmares.
On another front, as a “speed freak” China’s breakthroughs have been dazzling. In one of its latest feats, a technology to build hypersonic passenger plane with the capacity of carrying 10 people to any destination in an hour is being developed. The aircraft’s speed is more than five times the speed of sound. Further work should bear a breakthrough within this decade.
By 2045, the technology is expected to advance far enough to build an aircraft capable of carrying 100 passengers at one time. The time saving prospect takes people’s breath away. Air travel time is destined to be enormously reduced. The big strides in hypersonic technology are making regular news in the Western media. Superpowers’ pride and predatory instincts can fuel crises — often for others and not infrequently for the perpetrators as well. The unfortunate victims who happen to be located in the crossfire shake fearing they might crash like shooting stars, even if briefly brightened by the imminent downfall and destruction.
Relearn old lessons Imaginations, when run riot, reduce an individual to servitude, loss of creative initiatives and probable alternatives. This reminds what the French writer Stendhal, in the 19th century, advocated: “Life is very short, and it ought not to be spent crawling at the feet of scoundrels.” In December, a proposed series of human rights reforms in Britain was greeted by a storm of criticisms. Well over 200 groups aired deep concern about the move to narrow the definition of human rights, terming the proposed reforms dangerous, blatantly unashamed power grab.
Even as Human Rights captains warned that the proposed bill would create a de facto authoritarian regime, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab justified it for, among other things, deterring migrants from illegally entering Britain. Meanwhile, Russia's Supreme Court ordered the country's most prominent human rights group, Memorial, to be closed for breaching the law on foreign agents. Russian law terms foreign agent any non-governmental organisation, media outlet, informal movement or individual a foreign agent if it obtains foreign funding and engages in political activity.
Now, that brings up for discussion a regular scenario in many developing countries, where NGOs and civil society groups are funded by not only British government agencies but other organistions in different garbs. It is no secret that aid giving governments plant intelligence agents on aid disbursing agencies operating in various countries.
If the big powers did not raise their defence budget for only one year, and invested the surplus thus accumulated, much of the existing poverty in the world could be reduced substantially. No such thing will happen because of the big gap between rhetoric on humanitarian considerations and sheer greed for power and desire to dominate others.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)