The Strategist

The Blind Men of Hindostan

21 Sep, 2016    ·   5133

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar weighs in several crises that define these times and the political domain’s inability to deal with them

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

Edited Transcript of Valedictory Address to the International Conference on Non-Traditional Security Threats, Christ University, Bengaluru, 03 September 2016.

In coming to grips with threats and challenges that confront a nation, the lines that demarcate the traditional; by which is meant those that demand a military response, from non-traditional is blurred. The confusion renders discernment problematic as very often one morphs to the other leaving little trace of what first causes were. It also places leadership in a quandary of comprehension as to what nature the threat is and what combination of tools from the State’s armoury of national power would be appropriate to confront it. The dilemma is analogous to a story in primary English text of my days titled “The Six Blind Men of Hindostan.” The tale is told of six blind men who came upon an elephant: each felt and sensed different parts of the pachyderm; the first wrapping his arms around a leg swore it was as the trunk of a tree; the second ran his fingers along the torso exclaimed, no it is like a wall; while the third holding the tail vouched it was more like a rope; the fourth stroking its head and feeling the swish of the elephants ear deposed, forsooth it’s like a fan; while the fifth and sixth grasped the tusk and the trunk and vowed it must be akin to a spear or related to a snake. But, as we know, the truth in its entirety is composed of all six vital elements that made the elephant. The same may be said of the various threats that speakers thus far addressed; each one’s subjective narrative is true, but it is limited by the inability to account for the totality of truth, that is the elephant-of-state is an integrated whole of all those elements and the State can be destabilised by trauma to any one of them.

Contemporary history of the Anglo sphere has had disproportionate influence on structuring world order and defining economic and societal values. Driven by the philosophic motivation of free will and a belief of liberal laws delivering what is best for mankind it does not make an attempt to transform the dangerous inequities amongst nations, the tyranny of the carbon economies, the domination of military power or indeed the ‘emperor of challenges’, climate change. The last is intertwined with all other threats, traditional or non-traditional, whether in the political, economic, demographic or military dimension. And therefore it is to climate change that I shall focus your attention.

Amongst Mahatma Gandhi’s many pronouncements on the ills of mercantilism and industrial capitalism the one that was prophetic in its sweep and profundity were his lines written in December 1928 for Young India: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism in the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Gandhi intuitively came to the conclusion that industrialisation was designed for inequity and an anarchic carbon economy was untenable as we quickly snuff-out life on the planet.

There is today no doubt that the climate predicament has been accelerated by the manner in which the carbon economy has evolved. Its impious upshots have the world’s people’s finger prints on it for its impact has broadened and intensified while its sway on politics and society comes at a time when politically the global perspective is more diffused and society blinkered in its view of development. The November 1970 Bhola cyclone that hit the entire coast of erstwhile East Pakistan is one of the deadliest natural disasters of living memory; the official death toll was estimated at 500,000. The storm surge partially inundated the Sundarban island of Bhola, displacing millions unleashing mass migrations the effects of which were political, military as well as demographic. The consequences are apparent even today. One of the chief causes of the disaster was global warming, melting ice-caps and rising sea levels; these are manifest in the increased periodicity of calamitous climate events and the scale of disasters.

The on-going civil war in Syria has left 250,000 people dead and millions either displaced within the country's borders or have sought refuge abroad. And, while the proximate causes were largely political, new perspectives argue that climate change helped to trigger Syria's descent into violence. The recent Syrian drought is the worst in 500 years. The dry spell, which has lasted about 15 years, has caused farms to fail and livestock to perish. The continuous collapse of harvests forced as many as 1.5 million citizens to migrate to the urban centres of Homs and Damascus. The drought had displaced Syrians long before the conflict began, and what is alarming is that we completely missed it. Climate change, displacement and war are the trinity that have changed the face of sub-Saharan Africa, Libya and Iraq. It has set into motion violent demographic dynamics as the planet has not seen before.

There is another foundational problem that is linked to the system that we live and labour in. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established a new system of political order in central Europe, based upon the concepts of coexisting sovereignty; balance of power and non-interference. As European influence spread through imperial conquests, these principles, especially the concept of sovereign states, became central to prevailing world order. The scheme of nation states is structured to channelise political energies towards nationality, sovereignty and the urge for domination rather than concentrating on new ideas to relieve and reconstitute the relationship between States such that uncertainty and turmoil that currently obtains is replaced by the larger reality of common destiny. However, the awkward irony is that these principles that came into acceptance among and within what was essentially a cohesive entity, are at odds with the globalised world that we live in. Perhaps the time has come when the Westphalian model itself requires a critical review for the ‘emperor-of-challenges’ is provoking man to think of an alternate way to exist.

In this belligerent milieu of nation against nation and nations feeling the heat of relations within and without; illusions of world order stand in denial of reality. Some of the symptoms that have emerged are an increased and vicious securing of spheres of power and economic influence; competition between autocracy, liberalism and collectivism; an older religious struggle between radical Islam and secular cultures; and the inability to regulate the anarchic flow of technologies and information. As these clashes are played out the first casualty is the still born hope of an enlightened order that comes together to face its common destiny. Sovereign democratic processes have feeble impact on the challenges ahead be it the carbon economy, climate events or in restructuring the system we live in. Communications which can serve as the vehicle that catalysis the spread of new ideas of the larger reality has failed us, finding satiation in egocentric intrusiveness. The reason for the inability to mobilise collective action are amply clear, for it is the spiritual nature of the quest for development to the exclusion of all else that blinkers political philosophy to things ‘as they are rather than what they could be.’

So why has the political domain remained unaffected by the many crises that antagonise man? Is it myopia or a self-destruct lemming-like impulse? If it is the latter then our destiny is sealed if the former then there is at least the hope of the corrective lens of statesmanship that may generate a future more benevolent, less bigoted, more tolerant and clear eyed about man’s common destiny and a philosophical passage from the individual to kinship.