Concert of what now? By Farrukh Khan Pitafi

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Words have power. When words are put together hurriedly, selfishly, or unimaginatively their power is mostly destructive. It was Karl Marx who had said history repeats itself first as a tragedy then as a farce. The world we live in was shaped and reshaped by giants of men. Their vision and wisdom informed us in time of the approaching disasters and hence the democratic side won in the end. Hitler did not need to be invented. He was there. But had it not been for Churchill’s farsightedness appeasement would have continued until it was too late. Amazingly, the US took a long time in making its mind about the Nazi threat. Why? Because that’s what perverse powers do. They put you under their spell. The book, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States, tells a strange tale of American lobbying groups that were in Hitler’s thrall. Another a bit more controversial work by Robert G Ferguson titled, The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich, have some shocking revelations which go beyond the scope of this piece. Had it not been for men like Churchill perhaps we would have been living in a world quite similar to the one found in Man in the High Castle.

Similarly, Harry Truman was the unlikely giant who reshaped the post-war world, signed the UN charter and informed by intellectual legends like George Kennan and Paul Nitze, laid the foundation of both the international liberal world order and the Cold War.

That was history. Now starts the tragedy. When the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended and a unipolar world was born, a businessman turned ex-spymaster was the president. In his admirable haste to reinvent the enemy his business acumen and spymaster paranoia would take him, his country, and allies to Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein’s stranglehold on Kuwait. Was this the birth of a new enemy? Not so fast. Compared to America’s might Iraq was still living in the stone age. If you need an enemy at least it should not be so laughably inconsequential. Then surprise surprise, a Democrat-leaning intellectual goes to American Enterprise Institute, the hotbed of American conservatism and delivers a speech with a set of stunning predictions. America was not alone. It was part of a broader entity called the Western civilisation which was about to be challenged by exotic but wholly alien civilisations. The Islamic and the Confucian civilisations. But wait, what? The Muslim world that lay fractured into a hundred irreconcilable pieces? And what Confucian civilisation? China is a communist country. This was before China established the Confucius Institute and Al Qaeda rose to its destructive prominence. Throw depressed identities a bone, they would inhale the propaganda and someone eventually would provide you with the pretext to call them the enemy. And then the reign of fear, blood and death emerged. Terrorism was the new enemy. While this speech was presented in 1992, it was published as a paper in the Foreign Affairs magazine the next year. It was being edited by Indian American Fareed Zakaria. Since then policy wonks both in the West and non-western countries have allowed the ghost of Huntington to define them. Tragedy done? Now let us look at the farce.

The War on Terror started by Bush 41’s son George W continued beyond his term and consumed Obama’s. And then came two shocks. Brexit and Trump. And pundits in Washington grew convinced that the much-predicted rise of the illiberal democracy and the hour of post-American world had arrived. Incidentally the phrase “the rise of illiberal democracy” was introduced in modern scholarly lexicon by Zakaria as title of an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs in 1997. His book, The Post-American World, came out in 2008.

But Trump was no ordinary president. While he shook the moorings of American society and the international system, he took Nixon’s madman theory to a new level. Remarkably the application of this theory would be absent in case of only three countries. The first has remained in the news throughout his tenure. The Russian story is known to us all. The second is Israel and quite predictable. The third is the most surprising because no one talks about it at all in the western press. India never faced his ire.

Now the meat of the story. On March 23 this year, the same Foreign Affairs published a curious article by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan. Dr Haass is the president of the Council for Foreign Relations (the independent think tank that publishes Foreign Affairs). And Dr Kupchan is the organisation’s senior fellow. “The New Concert of Powers” is a unique essay because it is a dramatic departure from Dr Haass’ otherwise brilliant writing style. The language is so insipid, vapid, and inorganic that one is compelled to think that it was conceived to be read as the riot act before the huddled masses. The authors are convinced of two things. The rise of illiberal democracy and the birth of the post-American world. Therefore, they offer a remarkable suggestion. To abandon the liberal institutions created three quarters of a century ago because they have gone stale and instead go back further in time to imitate the Concert of Europe but on a global scale. And who should be the members of this concert? The US, Russia, China, Europe, Japan and… wait for it… India. It is significant that the list leaves out two of America’s closest allies: the UK and Israel. Perhaps I do the idea injustice when I surmise that the concert would mean that old structures be abandoned. No, it does something even better. “It would sit atop and backstop, not supplant, the current international architecture by maintaining a dialogue that does not now exist.”

Read the entire piece. You will realise that the inclusion of Japan is a mere nicety. While the piece bemoans the UN’s bureaucracy but includes the world’s second largest international bureaucracy, the EU, replacing France and the UK and overlooking Germany. It complains about the red tape in the UN and the lack of any in G-7 and G-20. In fact, the concert will kill G-7 (India is not a part), but perhaps G-20 should survive (hello India). Interestingly, the three countries it seeks to reconcile, the US, China and Russia, all have veto and are perfectly content with the status quo. Japan is in G-7.

May I humbly submit that India is frustrated because its bid to join the UNSC as a permanent veto power has been failing. So why not create a supra structure above the UN? As for the purported decline of the US, well I do not see any proof. It is still miles ahead of the rest of the powers. Nor the decline of democracy except in India itself. In fact President Biden’s victory has proven that the democratic project has the staying power. Finally, why abandon the UK, France and Israel, three countries that have been instrumental in India’s acceptance in the West? Because they have outlived their purpose. How transparent? If it was a text message, I would have ended it with a grinning smiley.