in The Big Questions

Is Our Era of Peace About To End?

Era of peace

Despite 9/11, Iraq and the rise of global terrorism, we have lived in an unprecedented era of peace. All that may be about to change with ISIS, Donald Trump and the rise of nationalism.

At around 2 PM last Monday, I got a worried text from my sister which read “Blasts in Brussels!”. I was driving at that time — on my way to pick up our (me and my wife’s) passports with Schengen Visa issued through the Belgian embassy. Our upcoming vacation plan started and ended in Brussels.

I was assaulted by a mixture of emotions. After the initial shock came waves of intense anger. In that one moment I was blind to rationality, logic or calmness — it’s the sort of rage that comes out of fear, frustration and bewilderment.

I sent a quick note to the Airbnb host we were staying with in Brussels checking if he was alright. Then, intermittently through the day, I continued following the news to see what was happening. I was hoping that there wasn’t more to come.

Then came a disconnected moment of shame when I realized that the blast had such a big impact on me only because of my impending vacation.

An attack like this would have captured my attention, shocked me and saddened me momentarily. But, in a distant way — somewhere in the world there was an attack. It would have been a brutal reminder of the danger we all live under. But then I’d move on with life, the incident shelved under yet another global terrorist strike.

When I heard about the attack, my first thought was — how bad is it? Second thought — Will we be able to make the trip? And the third thought — Will we be racially profiled because we are brown?

And in the third question lies a portending of the next decade for the world which is going to become a dangerous place.

Having lived in India, you also tend to get desensitized to all this a little bit. We have suffered through too many of these that, sadly, the shock value of a new attack has diminished drastically.

On top of that, we do have a bias in terms of perceiving attacks depending on the geography. In this interesting piece Martin Belam talks about how news on Lahore attacks (which killed more people and targeted women and children) garnered much less interest than the Brussels story. When the west gets hit, we do feel a jolt that’s stronger and more shocking.

Murder and terrorism is brutal anywhere. It is shameful that we have this bias but maybe we cannot help it.

For most parts of the world (except the places that openly revile it), the west represents the promise of a better life; one where all basic needs are met and individual freedom is valued.

The west is an undertaking to the world that with the right governance, economic growth and development, we can all build a life that is safe, comfortable and free (It is also a constant reminder to us that over zealousness of power breeds evils like colonialism and racism). The west have had problems too but the citizens of developing countries wanted thoseproblems — not the ones they had (lack of basic literacy, poverty, amenities or comforts).

Perhaps that’s why the pain of terrorism in the West shocks us more. We are afraid that this axiom of growth we’ve all been building on might just become obsolete.

And, that the very concept of the West may just be falling apart.

3 Minutes to Doomsday

Between 1953 to 1960, we were at the precipice of an impending doomsday (according to the The Doomsday Clock that was set at 2 minutes to the eternal midnight). The height of cold-war tensions in a post-nuclear world during the Cuban Missile Crisis understandably made the the world jittery.

The doomsday clock’s been steadily marching back towards midnight

In 1984, the clock again came perilously close (3 minutes to midnight) as rising escalations between the US and Soviet Union kept the world waiting nervously on the sidelines.

In 2015, we are as close to doomsday as we’ve ever been in the last 50 years. Today, the doomsday clock stands at 3 minutes to midnight. Climate change and nuclear technology concerns triggered the shift.

The resetting of the clock comes with the following statement:

The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.

And we are piling on more bellicosity on top of this.

Inthe light of the recent events at Brussels it may be hard to believe but we are living in an incredible era of peace.

Despite the drama and panic of terrorism, in pure numerical terms these are benign times — a function of our horrendous record as species that relish killing. Homicide rates, assaults on women and children, autocratic crimes, genocide and major armed wars have all trended down consistently at a global level.

Interestingly, as one of the studies points out, we are at peace not because of the cost of warring but because of the profitability of peace itself. The rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, technological advancement and the internet have all created a confluence of events that made it profitable for countries to remain at peace than go to war.

But all that may change rapidly.

The very triggers that provided us a wonderful albeit unnatural (for our species) era of peace may itself be on the wane.

Energy (oil and fossil fuels) which was the bedrock of our advancement, is likely to be the catalyst for our slide back down. As it gets more expensive and scarce (in progress already) it is likely to start a vicious cycle of stalled growth, resentment, rising tyranny and the failure of the dream of economic utopia.

Governments, without a capitalistic utopia to keep its citizens in their coops, are likely to resort to the second best option — false patriotism, common enemies, religion and war.

Religion has been slowly snaking itself back to its radical, evil best in the recent years. Pew research indicates that the number of countries with religious hostilities in 2012 increased by as much as 70% from 2007 to cover one-third of about 198 countries ( a six year high which dropped somewhat to a little more than 1/4th in 2013). In 2012, nearly half the countries reported incidents of abuse of religious minorities in countries across the world compared to just one-fourth in 2007.

Radicalization of religion is extremely dangerous since it is capable of defeating rational thought process (because God wants me to kill) and it consolidates a large number of people (of the same religion irrespective of nation states). We are witnessing this at a global level in the form of Islamic terrorism. ISIS is just the current avatar but the fundamental problem has just been getting worse.

On the other side of the coin, then, automatically emerges an outrage and a sense of protectionism.

Nationalism, of the shrill and extreme variety, is emerging in response to the radicalized religion, sometimes along with it.

The pure definition of “left” and “right” in politics, left represents the ‘progressives’, ‘anti-capitalists’, ‘anarchists’, ‘communists’, ‘anti-racists’, ‘greens’, ‘liberals’ and more while right represents ‘conservatives’, ‘fascists’, ‘racists’, ‘religious fundamentalists’, ‘ capitalists’ etc.

It is an inconsistent definition of two ends of the spectrum which we’ve never bothered correcting. Real-world governments are never fully left or right. Whenever they have been either of those, the results have been catastrophic (think hardcore communism or nationalistic fascism).

“Shifted from center” has been the government position of most developed world depending on which way they leaned. Any political group that oriented itself in the extreme had been relegated to the side lines.

That narrative, however, is changing.

Rightward-looking Europe

Ina recently concluded regional elections in France, the far-right National Front party led six constituencies before being finally defeated. Led by Marie Le Pen, the National Front stands for protectionism and a strong-arm rule closes the borders to immigration. While it did get defeated, the fact that it led nearly half of the total regions in the first round has scared the mainstream parties. Their popularity is on the rise and the 2017 elections in France will be the real litmus test.

Even in defeat, the story is concerning. The candidate who beat Marie-Le-Pen, Christian Estrosi, himself took a hard-right stance. He had advocated banning flags of other nationalities in Nice during the world cup and the use or preventive detention for suspected terrorists.

This is the narrative that will lead up to France’s primary election in 2016 and the main election in 2017.

What makes this trend even more concerning is that there are all the markings in Europe for such a view to thrive.

Economies are failing, security is under threat and the influx of refugees has made immigration an immediate tangible issue.

Take Greece, for example. Golden Dawn, a party with clear, known neo-Nazi affiliations, today holds 18 seats in the parliament. Their logo looks like the Nazi swastika and they combat-train their members.

Hungary. The third largest party, Jobbik, is a far-right one. It is associated with statements like these: Time to draw up a list of Jews in parliament and government, on the ground that they represent a “certain national security risk”.

While all these parties fight on local issues in their countries, they have similar views and opinions on certain things like Immigration, Islamization, and a fear of loss of national identity.

Donald Trump

There was a point in time when US politics determined the fate of the world in totality. It’s not so one-sided anymore. For one, US does not wield the same monopolistic power that it once did as multiple power-centers have emerged. And two, the world has gotten more connected and a little less susceptible for massive black-swan events of politics and governance. There are fewer chances of something emerging that no one paid attention to and suddenly changes the world. Everything is shaped by a combined narrative that includes the voice of people, leaders, experts and commentators that you wonder if we are all actually shaping the world one tweet at a time.

However, The US continues to be a behemoth capable of causing economic and security tsunamis across the world.

And, Donald Trump is scary.

When we see destabilizing forces, we always look for force and confidence and bravado in our own might for comfort. And therein lies the might rise of Donald Trump.

If Donald Trump were to somehow win, it would be the tipping point for the world to enter a new era. The Economist’s Intelligence Unit rated this at the same level of risk as the risk of jihadi terrorism in destabilizing global economy.

Trump win a major world threat

A Trump victory will set off a series of events that will be serve to accelerate the chasm towards which the world is likely headed.

For one, Trump will represent the perfect enemy for ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups. And having a perfect enemy is the recipe of a perfect meltdown. It will be in ISIS’s best interest to provoke a Trump-led America into using overt force and might. It provides the perfect narrative for recruitment and consolidation.

And two, the policy making from Trump will likely descent US into aneconomic meltdown with collateral damage on a global scale. This in turn will be perfect breeding grounds for ultra-nationalistic sentiments.

But the scary part of it all is how viable Trump has become as a candidate so quickly. As events like Brussels unfold, there are definite moments when the scale tips more and more in his favor.

Trump may never win the presidential election but even if he runs a good, tight race, it will be a tectonic shift. It would represent what the voting ‘America’ is thinking right now and the entire political leaning of the country is likely to change.

If anything, Trump is just a powerful manifestation of a ground swell of closed, nationalistic thinking that’s emerging within a large group of ‘voting America’ (and many parts of the world) driven by their anxiousness about an uncertain future. And that cannot be easily defeated.

India’s Right

Interestingly, the ‘left’ in India has slowly been relegated to just a memory. Our ultra left-leaning policies of the past had left us in shambles economically. But over the last decade, we‘ve been shifting center in terms of politics and policies. That changed in our last election. A clear right-shift has taken place and I am not even talking about religion. The strong nationalistic (even bombastic) narrative that started with the last elections were symptoms of a nation eager to turn right and look for a strong hand.

Perhaps after decades of numbing left-leaning slumber, we needed that — a shot in the arm for taking pride and thinking of our place on top of the world.

At least that was the premise.

But it seems to be turning into a full-on plunge into a fevered nationalistic sentiment. The world nationalism is being used more and more aggressively. We are over-stating our own greatness and bloating the achievements of our past beyond reason.

I fear that after decades of insipidness about our nation-state, we are perhaps coming out with an unwarranted aggression about our national identity.

But despite all this when I look around the world, India seems better placed to deal with these changing times. For decades, we have grappled with the issues that majority of the world is suddenly experiencing. Immigration, terrorism, dissent, divergence, extreme voices, etc have been part and parcel of our nation building. We do seem to have created some sort of a self-balancing environment which seems to soak it up and move forward.

It’s bruising. It slows us down. But at least it keeps us on our feet.

Currently, we have two of the most dangerous though-processes we’ve had as a species (Religious extremism and Nationalism) taking stronger roots. The world wars taught us that hyper-nationalism is a bad thing. Scores of religious wars and crusades have shown its devastating ability to decimate entire populations.

Yet, we don’t seem to have learned those lessons. We may be at the edge of a precipice; a calm before an impending storm.

My only hope is that I am truly, completely wrong about all of this.