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LESSONS OF HISTORY
- The acknowledgement of interdependence is most important

There is a story about a British diplomat being asked what he would like for the New Year. Being a modest man, he declined a gift but on being pressed, reluctantly agreed to a small box of preserved fruit. Imagine his chagrin on reading in the papers next day that his Soviet and American colleagues (this was at the height of the Cold War) had asked respectively for peace throughout the world and dissolution of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe.

That flippant anecdote comes to mind at the end of a year of Islamist violence culminating in nature's fury across the Bay of Bengal. Both point to the crucial role that the United States of America can, and must, play in global affairs in this coming year. It alone can bring justice to Palestinians and allow Iraqis the freedom to choose their own future. Only the US has the resources to spare Asia a repetition of its recent ordeal. The slogan of last year's 14th World Conference on Disaster Management ' 'When the unthinkable happens, they turn to you!' ' might have been addressed to George W. Bush.

Traditionally, Indian women blow on conches to warn of earthquakes and other natural disasters for people to rush out into the open, as they used to toll church bells in medieval Europe. Bangladeshi cyclists tinkle bells for people to flee to high ground when cyclones approach. We need to replace these customs with an Indian Ocean equivalent of the Pacific warning system that the US administers under United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization supervision. The network's beginnings go back to 1946 when storms washed over Hawaii. A similar catastrophe ravaged Alaska in 1964. Six sensors along America's Pacific coast, one near Chile and 14 in Japanese waters collect and feed data into the powerful computers of the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centres in Hawaii and Alaska. Japan's network of fibre-optic sensors records seismic activity while strategically positioned buoys measure the speed of tidal waves. Warnings can go out in two minutes flat. California's electronic system sends them by e-mail and via pagers.

Jan Egeland, the UN's under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, who so coordinates its emergency relief, sounds sceptical about replicating this in Asia. 'I think it would be a massive undertaking to actually have a full-fledged tsunami warning system that would really be effective in many of these places,' he was quoted as saying. But it must be done. The UN and the Commonwealth have stressed the need for a similar early warning network for the Indian Ocean. Australia's John Howard has promised to take a lead in setting it up. Japan has spoken of expertise. More ambitiously, India has announced a Rs 125-crore deep ocean reporting system. But only the US, which has already pioneered a US-India-Australia-Japan core group for international relief, has the capability to cover the entire affected area. Even that will not suffice without Asia's own matching rehabilitation infrastructure. The $250,000 cost of each Pacific sensor is a small part of the overall expense of a sophisticated warning, rescue and rehabilitation system covering more than two dozen Pacific rim and island states.

This is our fatal weakness. Money and technology are not the only impediments. Political and cultural divisions, bureaucratic sloth and corruption are equally serious obstacles. American scientists, who tracked recent seismic disturbances off Sumatra, apparently just could not communicate their findings to the affected governments. Theoretically, these countries would have had nearly three hours to evacuate coastal villages before the wall of water hit them. In practice, evacuation would have been impossible without organized communication, transport, rehabilitation centres, potable water, sanitation, food, clothing and medicines. Chandrika Kumaratunga candidly admitted that Sri Lanka had no contingency plans for such a heroic operation. Costly instrumentation is ineffective without such support.

If the new year calls for a frank acknowledgement of America's global role, it also demands an admission of Asian disunity coupled with an affirmation to work in unison. Asia is still only a geographical expression, to adapt Metternich's comment on Italy. The scourge of death and devastation, with disease grimly predicted to follow, should inspire a resolve to transform geographical accident into strategic partnership. Geological maps explaining how disaster struck are a reminder of Sukarno's claim that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an extension of the Indonesian chain, borne out when one finds that the Nicobarese Holchu have a language in common with Sumatrans and Javanese but not with Indians from the mainland. In today's context, the link gives India a southeast Asian identity.

Regionalism is next to globalization. The Western world is rediscovering the Mahavakya Upanishad's clarion call of nearly 3,000 years ago, Vasudhaiva kutumbakam. 'No man is an island, entire of itself,' sang the Metaphysical poet, John Donne. 'Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

The bell that tolls for Saddam Hussein in Baghdad tolls also for George Bush in Washington. This is not a question of crude vengeance but interdependence. It is not that murder in Jenin or Gaza had to be avenged in Bali, but as the tsunami's havoc also took its toll of Western resources and lifestyles, it became clear again that there are no tidy compartments of suffering. Pain is indivisible and the response must be universal. No lashing storms, rearing tidal waves or upheavals under water can wipe out two of the most shaming images of 2004, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, that darken the coming election in Iraq and cast their shadow on the prospect of world peace.

Only the US can decide whether the challenge of Muslim discontent should be defused or provoked into escalating into as massive a destructive force as the tsunami. Bush's response might reveal whether in his second coming the US has absorbed something of the lessons of history, learnt to take the temper of Asian nationalism and come to realize that the greatness of the world's only superpower lies in its capacity for healing. Its unquestioned military might and technological skills do not have to be flaunted in the posturing and aggressiveness of the bully on the block.

An exultant Richard Nixon crowed when the Soviet Union collapsed that the time had come 'for America to reset its geopolitical compass' and grasp 'a historic opportunity to change the world'. His concern was realpolitik but Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy Programme and author of The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets, had more humane expectations from US supremacy. Aware that altruism also drives the American Dream, as evident in Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms and Harry S. Truman's New Deal, he compared American policy after the Cold War to a doughnut with 'lots of peripheral interests, but nothing at the centre'. The return to military orthodoxy by Bush's neo-conservative advisers continued and aggravated that imbalance. They have a chance now to redefine power, as a former defence secretary, James R. Schlesinger, advised, to include economic competitiveness, productivity and industrial investment. The message is that great responsibilities go hand in hand with great power.

Earlier plans for two sensors in the Indian Ocean, one near Indonesia, were dropped because funds ran out. That must not happen again. But to ensure that it doesn't, Asian nations must cooperate to set up the appropriate infrastructure. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations can take this up. It will no doubt figure at this month's World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe. It ought to be on the agenda of the 15th World Conference on Disaster Management, scheduled for Toronto in July.

Neglect can only mean that unwilling to make an effort, Asians rely on a cruel and outworn Malthusian thesis that disregards the utility of manpower to solve their economic problems.

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