Slow news week and month to-date (and months to follow?) are inescapable with the world under corona lock down conditions. There’s need for some laughs or at least diversion from what one’s doing — re-reading classics (Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War) and watching television shows one didn’t find time for (6-part BBC series from the Nineties of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with the incomparable Alec Guinness playing George Smiley, the counter-intelligence MI5 head ferreting out a longtime Russian spy in the British secret service). It means transiting from the sublime to the ridiculous. Let’s do so any way and deal with the latest instance of foreign policy-related tripping by Ram Madhav, RSS pracharak and General Secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Like his earlier literary efforts, this too is unfailingly sophomoric.
In an op/ed published today (https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/covid-19-and-the-contours-of-a-new-world-order-analysis/story-DUqursm0t8sunJl1gaBJmO.html), Madhav grandly pronounces the end of US’ current “America first” type of nationalism — and by extension the ‘India first’ kind of thinking that Prime Minister Narendra Modi once swore by, and the rise of a “more integrationist” “post-Covid-19” world. As evidence, he refers to America turning to China, India and South Korea for hydoxychloroquine and medical equipment (masks, ventilators, etc.). It is a simpletonish take on international developments that mistakes powerful countries making decisions to serve their national purpose of the moment, such as obtaining from abroad this or that item unavailable or in short supply at home, for a geopolitical trend. It certainly does not make for a growingly interdependent world for God’s sake! To top it, Madhav thinks that a country with a nationalist approach and looking to advance its national interests is also, ipso facto, “isolationist”! Really?
Undeterred by the prospect of seeming deranged and rendering the PM’s endeavours grandiose, he likens Modi facing the corona crisis, his so far failed attempts at rejuvenating the economy, and his over-modest initiative to involve other South Asian states in mustering a collective response to this disease to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s confronting the Great Depression of the 1930s, beating Hitler and, after the Second World War, building the international system anew! How such an Indian effort, even if eventually successful, that stumbled at the first (Kashmir) hurdle, can be equated with the US and Allies defeating the Axis powers and building post War “global institutions”, etc. may boggle the mind of some of us but does not faze Madhav any because he next calls on Modi “to don the Rooseveltian mantle and take the lead” in shaping a new post-covid order!
Madhav raises Modi’s sights still higher in the next paragraph, urging him to look farther back in history and reprise for, what he plainly believes is an expectant world, US President Woodrow Wilson’s role in the First World War and realize the ideals he voiced of “liberal internationalism, democracy, non-intervention, collective security and humanitarian cooperation” to which, he says, Modi “has shown his commitment”. If these were the Sixties one would be tempted, using the idiom of those days, to wonder “what it is that he [Madhav] is smoking!”
The fact is there are no common contextual factors from that era for Modi to work his new Wilsonian magic with. Further, Madhav may do well to heed the fate that befell Wilson’s pet project — the League of Nations, the precursor of the equally hapless United Nations of our day: It ended in a shambles, beginning with his own legislature (the US Congress) rejecting America’s membership in it, and even more Wilson’s guiding principle: “Open covenants openly arrived at”. Because, quite simply, that’s not how the international system of sovereign states worked then or works now, a 100 years later. Ethics and morality are distinguished mainly by their absence in practice, if not in rhetoric, and the meanest, narrowest, interpretation of the national interest is all that drives foreign policies.
Madhav’s oped suggests his reading is limited to newspapers and periodicals, that he picks up on names — Joseph Nye, Yuval Harari, and Parag Khanna — in intellectual fashion, and whom he quotes by way of inaptly constructing the case he does. But because he seems fascinated by it and lest he again draw any serious parallels, may be, he should bone up on the history of Wilsonian idealism at the core of which was protecting and advancing the US national interest.
By way of fundamentals, to believe that India and Modi today are in the same position as the US and Wilson were in 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles when the US became the predominant global power, or America and Roosevelt (and Harry Truman) were in 1945 when the US consolidated its numero uno status, is beyond silliness and to make a laughingstock of India and Modi. Feeding a leader’s ambition is one thing, fueling his megalomania is something else altogether. Modi, by all indications may get his ego regularly massaged by Madhav, foreign minister S. Jaishankar and their ilk. But the PM, one hopes, is more of a realist than he lets on, or these servitors around him, believe. But what if the latter have read Modi right?