The term, ‘tapering’, has acquired prominence by the American Federal Reserve’s decision to gradually wean the United States of America and the global economy from the Fed’s stimulus in response to the economic crisis that began in 2008. The G-8’s preoccupation with economic self-preservation has overshadowed another tapering — that of the US as the global policeman. The rise and decline of any civilization may seem to be a gradual process, primarily because of the extended denial of reality that is sometimes mistaken by human nature for hope and optimism. The debate regarding the erosion of the US’s role as a global policeman has been intensified by several near events, although the decline has a longer history.
It is generally believed that the US may not have been drawn into World War II, first in Europe and, eventually, in the rest of the world, without the horror of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. The end of the war witnessed the zenith of America as sole custodian of the world order, stretching from Japan through Europe and beyond. This, in spite of potential challenges from its ally turned adversary, the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. The reconstruction of Japan and rebuilding of Europe with the Marshall plan, were not without profit and the mercantile instincts of America.
However, the tapering of American power commenced soon after World War II. America’s long drawn out wars, first in Korea and subsequently in Vietnam, were the early, but very subtle, signs of the erosion of the US as the world’s power house. The Chinese revolution realigned the jigsaw pieces of the first half of the 20th century. There was an amorphous period and an interlude provided by the schism between the Soviet Union and China. The distractions provided by the Chinese attack on India, soon after the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled Tibet and were provided refuge by India, followed soon. Not long after, there was the famous Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban missile crisis. These events provided further signs to suggest that America’s absolute hegemony as the world power was ebbing. However, the world was not ready to face the unfolding reality of the diminution of the US as the omnipotent world policeman.
Events related to this scenario were reinforced in the second half of the 20th century. The Soviet Union’s disastrous foray into Afghanistan became the last roll of the dice in what the British called the ‘Great Game’. The US-Pakistan relationship of ‘one side gives, the other side takes always’, which had its origins in 1947, subsequently became the US’s principal strategy to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. What the US seems to have ignored in this strategy was its continuous funding of its ally, Pakistan, whose goals and objectives were consistently and solely anti-Indian rather than anti-Soviet. The rest, as they say, is history. The rise of Osama Bin Laden, al Qaida and the Taliban can mostly be traced back to this period of funding and promotion of the Islamic jihadist by Pakistan, with active assistance of allies in the Middle East. Among the early signs, was the inability of the US to prevent the fall of one of its closest allies, the Shah of Iran. This also signalled the first signs of its waning grip on the Middle East.
However, throughout this period, the reality of the geopolitics and mercantile instincts of the US — as witnessed by the Nixon-Kissinger détente with China through the good and clandestine offices of the then president of Pakistan, Yahya Khan — remained strong and alive. Thus began the next and different chapter, opened by the reformist, Deng Xiaoping and the emergence of China as the new great global power. President Ronald Reagan understood the developments rather acutely, especially by the unfolding and gradual decline and eventual dismemberment of the US’s biggest adversary, the Soviet Union. However, the global alliances of the US, such as Nato, Seato, Cento, and so on, remained transient instruments to delay the taper.
The triggering of a new global crisis was set off by an unanticipated suddenness with the 9/11 al Qaida terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This was one unimaginable and eventful signal of a tectonic shift in the global power order. Nothing would ever be the same again. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the ‘liberation’ of Iraq became the third festering pustule after North Korea and Afghanistan. In the meantime, Pakistan clandestinely produced the ‘Islamic Nuclear Bomb’ with the financial support of Saudi Arabia and its other rich Middle Eastern clients. The Iran nuclear programme was then work in progress. Attempts to reach a détente with Libya went up in flames. Another great ally, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was overthrown and the Arab Spring turned out to be an Arab nightmare. The trust deficit in the Middle East now appears to be even more damaging than could have been imagined. The US’s estrangement with Saudi Arabia was, until recently, unimaginable. In keeping with the trend, Israel is spreading its odds by seeking even more trade with China, India and Brazil and possibly a longer term strategy to reduce dependence on historic friends.
The hordes of international investors, fashion brands, and so on, which rushed into China over the years since Deng belled the cat, are not able to quite reconcile with the mounting restrictions on their operations as a part of China’s policy of readjustments and reforms or publicly acknowledge their ‘real profits’ from China. All of these events have coincided with the economic crisis in Europe, especially in the south, and the erosion of the United Kingdom as a mercantile nation of consequence.
The recent developments in the region of the South China Sea are indeed even more alarming. China needs to flex its international muscle to balance with some difficult domestic reforms and possible tapering of its own economy. But its threats to Japan and its other neighbours are not empty. The beginning of the economic recovery of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may indeed be timely and opportune, at least as a temporary counterweight in the region. It is evident that the US, which had defeated and disarmed Japan after the War, may now have to enable Japan to develop world class defensive and offensive capabilities to counter China. None of the other nations in the South China Sea can match the capabilities of Japan. The Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so on, may actually welcome these as positive developments rather than depending solely on the US to protect them.
The year, 2014, is possibly the beginning of one of the most uncertain and challenging periods for India. The withdrawal from Afghanistan of allied troops in 2014, the rise of the Taliban, the unsettled state of Pakistan’s economy and political uncertainties in Bangladesh and Nepal have the potential to turn into a heady cocktail, which may lead to a chain of unanticipated crises. China also cannot be unaware of the danger that its neighbour poses to the Islamic regions of Xian and elsewhere.
In terms of real time, for the Middle East and South Asia, 2014 represents an unprecedented existential threat. The global spread of al Qaida, inadvertently funded by the US and directly by some oil-rich Middle Eastern kingdoms, is now a global juggernaut capable of laying waste vast parts of the world. It is unlikely that any amount of prior knowledge may be able to help ford the avalanche. As the world contemplates the events unfolding in 2014, the US and parts of Europe see a silver lining for revival of their economy. It is being more frequently seen in the media that developing countries like China, India, South Africa, Turkey and Brazil may now be in the grip of a slowing economic spiral, while the developed world is on the way to recovery.
China may desire to have, but is yet to demonstrate, qualities that could make it the 21st-century global power successor. By compulsion or fatigue, the US is gradually ceding its role in search of a mercantile alternative, which, however, could turn out to be unsustainable without the support of ‘gun boats’.
While the US has been a willing and able world policeman, it has sought to legitimately share the cost of this responsibility with its Nato allies. The allies have been enthusiastic partners, but not entirely forthcoming materially. One of the stronger signals of the tapering of US power and reach is the growing unwillingness in the West to accept casualties and returning body-bags. Hence, the rising clamour for unmanned warfare. Although somewhat fanciful and futuristic, this objective has already been triggered by the US’s deployment of drones in Afghanistan and Yemen. In this context, one may recall Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ initiative, which was not fanciful either.
Technological development for the unmanned warfare of the future now preoccupies the Nato. This is supposed to be at a stage comparable to that of Shockley and Bardeen discovering the semi-conductor. Their discovery triggered the explosive growth of e-commerce and, eventually, real time e-surveillance. For example, electronic surveillance of individuals, corporations, organizations and nations are now a reality. It may be that advances in e-warfare could follow in a shorter time. These transitions have been playing out over the past 70 odd years. The financial crisis of 2008 is turning out to be the proverbial straw. While the US economy is recovering and is also on the cusp of achieving energy self-sufficiency by 2020, it surely must contemplate the impact of this on the Middle East and the possible domino effect on other parts of the world.
A new state of power entropy will define the emerging world order. To take advantage of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements, history has taught us time and again that they have to be underpinned by powerful defensive and offensive capabilities. It may not appear to be polite to lump the two together, but if they are not, then the cycle of the rise and fall of nations and civilizations will continue. Wishful thinking is what keeps humankind going. Nasty surprises are thoroughly disliked — 9/11 and 2008 were nasty surprises. The world must remain alert to the peril of such nasty surprises being consigned to history and their lessons forgotten. Beware the Emperor as he sheds his clothes and the tapering of power sucks the world into a vortex.