In his meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on September 16 last year on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that today’s era is not of war. His remarks were widely welcomed by Western leaders who saw in them a direct criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While India has refrained from directly and publicly criticising the Russian action, it has spoken of the adverse consequences of the Ukraine war on global well-being. India, therefore, wants the conflict to end through diplomacy and dialogue. This is an entirely correct view; India has advocated it since the beginning of the war, though there seems to be no prospect of the end of hostilities even after almost a year of the invasion which began on February 24 last year.
Significantly, Modi elaborated on his views on the validity of war in contemporary times in an article he wrote on the day India assumed the G20 presidency — December 1, 2022. He opined, “Our mindsets are shaped by our circumstances. Through all of history, humanity lived in scarcity. We fought for limited resources, because our survival depended on denying them to others. Confrontation and competition — between ideas, ideologies and identities — became the norm.” He went on to assert, “Unfortunately, we remain trapped in the zero-sum mindset even today. We see it when countries fight over territory and resources. We see it when supplies of essential goods are weaponised.”
Modi proceeded to argue that modern technology had made conflict over resources outmoded. As he put it, “Today we have the means to produce enough to meet the basic needs of all the people in the world.” And “Today we do not need to fight for survival. Our era need not be one of war. Indeed, it must not be one.” This is because “Today’s technology also gives us the means to address problems on a humanity-wide scale.”
Aware of the argument that the seeds of war lie in human nature itself, Modi specifically emphasised, “Some may argue that confrontation and greed are just human nature”, but he refuted this proposition by writing “I disagree”. To back his view, he pointed to the spiritual traditions pursued by human beings as evidence of the higher instincts that lie embedded in humankind. While many Indian political leaders have focussed on the path of diplomacy, dialogue and negotiation instead of taking recourse to violence and war to resolve inter-state disputes, it is only Modi who has sought to provide a theoretical underpinning to his view on the causes of wars between states and that past reasons for war are no longer applicable because of technological advances. Modi’s thinking is noble. His view of human nature is idealistic. This is exceptional in a practising politician who has displayed a mastery over the art of realpolitik. The theoretical proposition that emerges from Modi’s view on war is engaging: technological advances that can benefit humankind as a whole are making war redundant for they will enable humankind to escape the tyranny of scarce resources. And war does not spring from human nature itself.
Modi’s view, especially regarding the relationship between human nature and war, is novel and new. Indeed, after the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi action to exterminate some races, including the Jews, a direct correlation between human nature and war was accepted as dogma. No wonder the Unesco Constitution began with the words, “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed.” And these ‘defences’ had to rely on stressing the equality of human beings and the removal of ignorance and prejudice which stood in the way of accepting the principle of equality of all human beings.
The questions raised in the Unesco Constitution continue to be valid despite the wherewithal which the digital age, with its comprehensive scientific and technological advances, is providing for human welfare. Ancient prejudices and the desire to correct historical wrongs, real or perceived, ensure that economic factors alone do not sway human beings. Social notions of superiority despite the political acceptance of equality cannot be wished away. These, too, lead to conflict within states and between states. In contemporary times, feelings of political powerlessness and discrimination in some social groups can be potent causes of conflict. While the international community has correctly held that nothing can justify the use of terrorist violence, the fact is that violent theologies are fed not only by poverty — which can be addressed through what present and future digital technologies would provide — but also by perceptions of discrimination and injustice.
Nation states also nurture grievances, as has been most vividly demonstrated in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It cannot be justified, but in Putin’s mind the Russian action was a response to Western perfidy and the Ukrainians turning their backs on the sacred places of Rus which were the centres of Russian civilisation without which Russia is incomplete. There is little doubt that some assurances were also informally given by major Western leaders to the Soviet leadership at the time of the unification of Germany that Nato would not be extended eastwards so that the security of Russia was never threatened. Modi correctly, if indirectly, told Putin that the way to address Russian grievances on Ukraine was not through war but diplomacy and negotiation. The question is if Modi’s theoretical reasoning on why the current age is not an era of war would cut any ice with Putin.
There is another, more important, aspect of Modi’s ideas on war. These apply to China’s questioning of the rules of the world order as laid down by the West after the Second World War. As it aspires to a higher position in the international order, China is unwilling to follow the norms of the world order. Its leaders would not readily agree to the idealistic views on human nature or war as expressed by Modi.
Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer