Image courtesy of foreignpolicy.com
‘A civilization no longer defends itself when it is no longer willing to defend itself’ – Carroll Quigley.
THE OLD AND NEW MAPS
Take a look at the map of post-Cold-War-Eurasia and you would find what used to be two major blocs – Soviet and the West, with non-Aligned states trussed mostly along a line and at pockets in the middle, change quickly to five. The Western Europe Christians, the East European Orthodox guys, China and surroundings, India, and the Islamic belt that spanned from Africa right to Pakistan. Leaving the smaller ones like Japan or Myanmar aside – these were the prime. It was almost like the entire landmass, busy with a bigger concern throughout 1945-1990 suddenly found themselves without an umbrella once the Berlin Wall came down, so they quickly grabbed the first one just beneath their skin. ‘Who we are’ came to occupy the centre-table the moment the USSR dissolved. It was to define the time that would follow. These five major Eurasian blocs tied through a cultural tribalism (as a broader marker, with substrata of religion and ethnicity) of sorts were to later get embroiled in a series of very complex and interconnected socioeconomic and political issues. Which interestingly, is the case when relationships hinge on different deep or shallow sense of history and identity. But there was a sense of a new beginning when these blocks were quickly reconfiguring themselves. They were to lead to major shifts in power equations; they were to lead to the ‘end of history’ for a decade or so – as they led to, for the first time, a multipolar world in senses more than one. It was also a time for significant realization: ethnic or religious identities had not disappeared as Communism would have hoped.
It was Europe’s violent intrusion into the rest of the world that gave the first sense of globalization – the world barely knew about each other before the Colonialists forced them to; it was Europe’s inability to make peace with itself that made way for devastations and an uneasy truce through the Cold War that later gave us a bi-polar world; and it was the death of these tectonic forces that held the world together in a vice-like grip which enabled us to witness the inability of the hold to generate enough cohesion to melt civilizational differences – for people around the supercontinent went back to the business of identity the moment the grip loosened.
‘Who we are’ being measured through ancestry, religion, culture, language, or history, carries its own set of complexities. It is unifying as an idea as long as we see Germany. It is divisive as an idea when other places like the Middle East, Yugoslavia, or Ukraine come into focus. It is optimistic while moving within the ASEAN states, confusing while observing India, and it triggers a sense of loss while traversing through Western Europe. The sheer complexity of it keeps it out of the usual binaries. And its state of flux portends the coming of a degree of chaos. The Cold War model of politics – which (at times) forcibly disregarded the geopolitics of the supercontinent is done and gone; 21st century has marked the return of the old identities. They are back to retake the core, and with a slight help of geography, are defining the new order.
Back to the map. In terms of the area covered, the two big identities that you would find are Islam and Orthodox Christianity, followed by regions under Chinese influence and Western Europe under Western Christendom. India, Japan, Tibet bring up the rear end of the trail. This is where the Tribal Game of Eurasia is being played out. A game that for reasons more than one has slipped out of the hands of the USA; a game that is, for the same reason, going to end the West the way we know it, and, along with that leave most of the tail-enders overwhelmed and possibly overrun in the next 50 to 75 years.
LESSONS FROM EUROPE
Europe has always held my fascination as a model to study the past present and future. Europe’s colonialism, Europe’s four decades of trade wars for coal and iron, Europe’s Cold War, Europe’s EU and the establishment of the grandest single market the world has ever seen, and now Europe’s ‘civilizational fatigue’- as Douglas Murray puts, leaves a lot to wonder, provides many learning points. A part of the fascination also stems from a few similarities between the patch and our subcontinent. Like the old civilizations, its incredible diversity in terms of linguistics and culture, like the number of small battles it fought within itself, like it later came to behave and held itself together (through Marshall Plan and EU) to usher a market that was in many ways a representative of the modern world, or like the way it is now being rocked by identity crisis. For reasons closer to home, Europe would always remain the most interesting slice of Eurasia.
The axis of the global economy has shifted. It was the middle of Atlantic during the last century. It is perhaps now in the middle of the Pacific, or somewhere in the middle of Eurasia. Or perhaps there are three of them – all existing together: the Atlantic and the Pacific axes being the first and second born of the USA, while the Eurasian being the joint effort of EU and China. Which makes sense in a multipolar world. Hegel was perhaps wrong when he had argued that the journey was linear; that Europe was the end while and Asia the beginning. The journey has become cyclical for the time now with the ‘beginning’ looking like a keen grandson of itself that has left its father Europe behind by the virtue of its default setting that points to the future.
It is a sense of loss of epic proportion that haunts Europe. If Europe’s cultural identity was through Christendom, that has been weakened severely owing to the atheist movement, political correctness, and resultant overall gentrification to a point of no return. [It would be considered a great achievement only if the rest of the world operated somewhat along the same time scale and there was a progressive dismantling all over the world, of all those aspects of socio-culture and religion that were not considered ‘in sync’ with the current times. Unfortunately, that sense of balance was missing, and now Europe must pay the price.] If Europe’s martial identity was its colonial prowess, that disappeared back in 1945. If Europe’s intellectual identity is through its Enlightenment and scientific state of mind as native experience, that has been overrun by East Asia. One visit in these parts introduces one to a society that is absolutely obsessed with technology; as Bruno Macaes quotes ‘…particularly in the case of East Asia, where an infatuation with technology seems to have its own logic, detached from practical use… Returning to Europe after a visit to China feels akin to stepping back in time’.
At its weakest now, the Atlantic Axis holds little promises as EU desperately turns to the Eurasian Axis and towards the East. A century ago, this would have meant some or other form of imperialism. A few decades ago, it would have meant negotiating from a vantage point. The Europe of today – restricted to being shopkeeper for over half a century – lacks that potential. The ground is open for an expansionist, universalist culture to take over. And forces larger in scope today than the idea of West, are moving in.
AT THE EURASIAN HELM
This here is an interesting picture the world witnesses. Western Rimland of Europe turns its focus towards the South East yet again, and as a result, a fair number of diplomats, political analysts and think tankers from continent lend their voices in the hopes of a Eurasian integration of sorts. Not the political integration that Vladimir Putin probably envisions. These statesmen hope for an economic dovetailing: a shared vision of the kind of overland trade-routes like the OBOR proposes, gas and oil lines streams from Russia and the Middle East and so on. While they still face a dilemma when it comes to balancing Russia with USA, they are open about embracing the rest of the supercontinent.
China stands on a dual advantage. The second wave from the Western globalized order and its access to open sea saw it build itself into a gigantic coastal hub. [The first wave transformed Singapore, HK, South Korea and Taiwan.] Now with its ambitious Silk Route Project, it has begun focussing on its west, which it thinks it had overlooked for long. Professor Wang Jisi says: one of the problems is the West, which is particularly interested in fixing China into the category of an East Asian nation, which in turn makes China limit its outlook.’ True; only as far as its span is concerned. China stretches right from the east Asian coast to the middle of Eurasia – a journey of three thousand miles that perhaps many seem to overlook.
The rest of the argument sounds speculative as far as China’s ‘outlook’ is concerned. In hindsight, that overlooking of its Central Asian end looks more like a part of China’s prioritization. China’s prolonged focus on its eastern seaboard had as much to do with economic transformation as much as creating and leaving of a universalist imprint around the entire neighbourhood.
Tribal assertion arises in response to a challenge, or on the identification of a gap. The gap here was Japan and perhaps South Korea too. Their obsession with Western civilization made them blind to the chance that they had (1950 onwards) to promote an East Asian / Korean / Japanese identity; perhaps one more interesting “what-ifs” of this world. The East Asian belt that we see today are economically prosperous, tech-driven nations and people, with each country rivalling the other as a formidable manufacturing hub that has left East and parts of South Asia as coastal cluster of a highly productive belt – a workshop for the whole world. This picture is predominantly a Chinese amalgam of leftovers from Confucianism, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Xiaoping’s Reform & Opening, a version Chinese materialism. And perhaps marginally Japanese, Korean, or Singaporean. This is an identity.
There are issues of course: of dissatisfaction and resentment, mostly along the South China Sea. Some of them are natural and some are not. Just like there were issues within Europe. But like in the case of the West many hundred years ago, the high-reach-low-resolution umbrella has just acquired a life of its own. And it is quickly consolidating around the neighbourhood. A future where PRC is not the leading powerhouse of the region maybe a possibility; but a future sans East Asian sense of enterprise just does not appeal anymore. They are indispensable in today’s world.
And as far as the Eurasian side of China is concerned; ever heard of the name Khorgas? This is a Chinese town bordering Kazakhstan, that is invisible on most maps. The Chinese built them from the scratch in three years. Today, this is a sprawling network of broad roads with tree-lined footpaths, seafood restaurants wine shops and hotels, and even an ambitious dry port a thousand miles from any ocean – a proposed dock area for freight trains from Europe and Asia to unload and reload their containers. One among many of China’s target spots for the modern meeting point of Eurasia, Khorgas – a young city – is brimming with the ambition of young people from all around the area including Xinjiang. Speak to their residents and you would realize that they have, in a very short period of time sailed over those psychological divides that keep Europe, Russia or East Asia separated in the minds of most others.
One of the other things relating to BRI/OBOR that come to the mind immediately when we think of China’s focus towards the Eurasian end of its country is the treatment of the Uyghurs that has been making rounds off-late. That is of interest here. Northwest China is chiefly Islamic. China considers them ‘outsiders’: holding an identity that is completely different from its Sinic (if I can use the term) core. Like it used to consider Tibet. And for those that CPC considers outsiders, it has a strategy that hinges largely on deception and coercion. Expecting them to change that would border on ignorance and stupidity. Given that, the cultural assertion along this part of the map would be quite unlike what we have witnessed along its seaboard.
[Is the Islamic world fine with it? By the look of it, this looks like a temporary truce between them and China. These two great expanding identities have other important orders to attend. A contest – I am absolutely certain there would be one – would come much later in progression.]
During a seminar sometime in 2017, Xi said: ‘The overall trend of world multipolarity, economic globalization, and democratization of international relations remains unchanged. We should guide the international community to jointly build a more just and reasonable new world order.’ Evidently, China has embarked on a mega-project that aims to reengineer geopolitical and sociocultural concepts. During the times of Old Silk Route, goods trading would take place. But their scope was severely limited when looked against the scope of cultural exchanges. They were limited in size, quantity, weight, etc. What was unlimited was the exchange of ideas that used to take place; one that was to later change the global history. That is what China aims at. A universalist cultural influence touching over an ever-widening group of people and places to impact them in the way the West was pervasive at a time not many years ago.
The other predominant culture in Eurasia is that of Islam. Scripture-driven like Marxism, Islam has its own prefixed visions, the political aspect is underlined by its reactive nature, and it calls for rejection of a whole host of existing values and practices across every other culture. All things considered, this kind of an idea has a universalist characteristic which is visible in its immense reach; one that stretches across geography and ethnicity. If this looks like an anomaly in the eyes of those that subscribe to the idea of geography as the key driver of cultural clustering, it is. For Islam has defied geography thus far.
There were some efforts to bring about a change along some of these pockets of Eurasia during the 70s and 80s. This was the time that portions of the Arab world experimented with western concepts such as Democracy or Communism and their different avatars. Suffice to say those did not work out well. The two main reasons that come to mind are a) Islam’s authoritarian nature and messages, and b) the West’s disinterest in anything other than Arab oil. These two joined hands against the ideas that had come to define the West, when they surfaced in Islamic Eurasia. While Islam’s issues with Western ideas of enlightenment is understandable, this is perhaps the only time in recorded history that, when presented with a chance to advance their core values, the globally dominant West was uninterested. Or short-sighted. Or both. Eventually Soviet Communism too, would implode and lay discredited, and that would also affect a number of Islamic nations and progressive institutions and people within them.
Though not perhaps as a consequence, nonetheless there happened a kind of consolidation of the symbols and beliefs, of the rituals and the behaviour that touched the entire stretch from Morocco to Indonesia during the 70s and 80s. This was the time when KSA was flush with petrodollars and a free hand; this was what USA encouraged and endorsed. A resultant appropriation of the sub-cultures by a more universalist culture was accomplished, and today in 2020, you would thus have larger number of burqa-clad women around you wherever you stay – a rarity during the time most of you were probably growing up, or, the subcontinental Muslims’ Urdu based vocabulary slowly being replaced by Arabic words and phrases.
Some call this cultural imperialism. But there would be a good reason to also consider this as soft-power appeal.
Political Islam is interesting. And apparently unstoppable. Here are a few reasons why:
A) It does not emanate from a single source today (I have detailed it in my essay Liquid Jihad).
B) Though it is hegemonic at its core, Islam of 21st century doesn’t wage wars; it proliferates through the concept of jihad al wilada and a resultant demographic shift over time. Historically this has resulted in gradual Islamization of much of the Middle East; Europe is waking up to it as we speak. Hilaire Belloc predicted this about a 140 years ago in 1870 that “the recrudescence of Islam, the possibility of that terror under which we lived for centuries reappearing, and of our civilization again fighting for its life for what was its chief enemy for a thousand years, seems fantastic.” Though the ‘terror’ has reduced substantially, I doubt if Europe of today still finds it fantastic enough.
C) As a concept, it carries a certain primordial appeal. This appeal entices a large section of first world youth – the off-springs of a moribund culture – who often find themselves looking at a nihilistic future otherwise. That results in a large number of white Europeans converting on a regular basis or enlisting for terror outfits like ISIL before and during the Syrian crisis.
D) After the failure of democracy imported to the Middle East and the success of Wahhabi culture exported around the world, today, Islam is confident of its ‘ummah’ appeal. The way the resurgent Islamic minority pockets around the globe embrace what they have come to regard as a part of a larger identity that has not been bent by wave after wave of western ideologies is one fine example of that.
E) Money. The Islamic Propaganda stems from there. It is a futuristic, tech-driven, highly advanced ecosystem that exists solely for the purpose of forwarding the universal idea of Islam and has wonderfully incorporated what one Saudi official once said: ‘We want to modernize, but not necessarily Westernize’. I am sure we all have enough and more examples of the same in practise that transpires around the globe on almost an hourly basis. This concept of modernization is an increased and heightened frenzy of several things together: of religious observance, dress and culture, institutional communications, going hand in hand with cell-phones, internet and social media. The Islamic propaganda industry is where the 21st century soft-power appeal of Islam originates from.
There are transit lands. A transit land like the subcontinental Northwest Frontier, or different passage routes along the Caucasus region between Caspian and Black Sea usually contribute to the imaginary mind great stories, great histories, of resistance influence bravery and fate. To the majority of the people that travel to these places and who are not expected to scratch beyond the surface, these areas are just what ‘transit’ means: a mostly non-descript middle of nowhere go-between, comprising of weathered, roughened tribes that are a mix of many races. These places seldom make it to their list of Top 50 Places. A transit can and at times eventually consolidate as a ‘destination’ – the end of a journey. That usually involves getting a fix on the cultural identity besides creating a formidable army if they have the political definition of a state. Example – Turkey. The ‘connector’ of Europe and Asia has predominantly remained Islamic in identity during recent past (a ‘Kemalism’ in between accentuates this). There are little ambiguities today about who they are.
Then there are melting pots. These are patches around the world which remain cluttered like a delicious buffet table, brimming with colours and legacies of many cultures and religions, philosophers, artists or scientists that left imprints as life had progressed in these lands. These are any traveller’s delight: on his list of top 5 Places. Melting pots are an assortment of identities where no one identity consumes the other(s); certain amount of space for harmony and exchange remains. My favourite example is that of Mitteleuropa – the fabled Middle Europe that last shone briefly during the 90s.
Melting pots cannot consolidate because they are not deterministic in their character. Their pluralist existence survives, often at the mercy of other more universalistic cultures that surround them. If and when they consolidate – they are usually forced to – they cease to be. Mitteleuropa disappeared because it was what Mackinder called a ‘crush zone’, sitting in the middle of Atlanticist West Europe and Eurasianist East. This is a civilizational irony; the same zone that builds them extracts a price when the time comes. That marked the end of their identity.
India is one such melting pot and, if not a crush zone it almost certainly is a stress zone when viewed through the glasses of the Eurasian Tribal Game.
The two smaller reasons for being a stress-zone are: A) Physically, though not in the accessible plains of Central Asia and though guarded by the Himalayas, India is reachable through its northwest and has had its share of invasions since centuries. And we are back to a time when overland routes are to acquire special importance in the Eurasian landscape. Then there is the open sea. B) Politically, India does not strike a definite chord. If we look at some of the major international routines that a political state is supposed to carry out, they are: defining political boundaries, maintaining armies and fighting wars if needed, conducting diplomacy, negotiating treaties, interfacing with international institutions, promoting trade and commerce, etc. Except maintaining a huge standing army, India does not fare consistently well in the others. It is not a politically strong state.
The larger reason however lies in the fact that this game is about identities and tribal appeal. And India’s ambiguity in its identity is an unsurmountable problem that it carries to the game. From a Bengali to a Tamil, from Hindu to Muslim, most of us carry our sub-national, religious, or ideological identities that are whipped out at the drop of a hat. Government after government (for their political gains) have either remained deliberately indifferent towards the different universalist cultural interferences from sources external, or have, across places and instances catalysed these interferences. The three pillars that have quickly morphed India into a stress zone, are:
Secularism – India’s much touted virtue (which interestingly remains quite vague in its practical application within the subcontinent) – ceased to be a credible singular cultural identity around the world at the end of the Cold War. And finally, while the neighbouring East Asia rides high on a wave of industrial and technological metamorphosis and where the default mindset is in the future, India’s productive economy has nearly disappeared during the past few decades in its effort to mirror the West’s financial economy and service model. Now the one identity left is that of a nation of software coolies – as PK Varma had once put.
Which leaves us with the question: who ARE we really? We take a lot of pride in our ‘soft-power’ when International Yoga Day is celebrated. But is that really soft-power? Bollywood numbers and Diwali lamps in White House? Tell that to an average SE Asian middle-class member who is fixated with technology, Confucian value of thrift, family, work, and discipline, and an incredibly rapid technocultural revolution that they consider themselves to be a part of. Or, to the average farmer/shepherd along an erstwhile Soviet satellite who is fairly happy to have returned to the folds of Islam after half a century, even if marginally.
Soft appeal is not cosmetic; it is sociocultural value(s) as lifestyle. And it springs from an identity.
What is our identity? Are we Aryan/ South Asian/ Hindustani/ Indic/ Vedic/ Quranic/ Curry people/ Jugaad people? How are we perceived by outsiders? Clearly different from the ‘Arabs’ or the ‘Asians’ of pop classification, what is it that binds? If these questions define civilizations today, India’s inability to answer that question is unenviably high.
Transit zones are hardwired for survival. Obviously. When someone is a part of a corridor that marauding forces across both sides use to wage wars against each other, survival is the primary occupation. They choose religion, identities, alliances with survival in mind. Melting pots? Their permeable nature creates a moment in time where the colours are at their brightest, but their inability to set limits to infusion turns them into a morass. And in front of that version of universalism that that predicates itself on imperialism, a melting pot is the first in queue that falls out of favour.
The Tribal Game of Eurasia is a protracted manoeuvre aimed to consolidate the cultural grouping, and drive identities of the two advancing universalists, and a few pockets scattered here and there running out of time trying to hold on. [I am not considering Orthodox Europe and Russia in this part].
The only time when this could cease is perhaps when the oil runs out? Or triggers like Covid-19 stop the Chinese juggernaut? I am not sure. For the entire world to come together to unanimously decide to get back to pre-globalization era is highly improbable. Besides, this is not only economy we are talking of. The Confucian ideals mixed with materialism is now shared by most countries between Korea and Vietnam. Collective worth, concept of work, discipline, respect for authority, or complete rejection of inferior education, laziness, or mental stagnation – are principles that strike a universal chord, just as the Islamic doctrine appeal to billions. These notions have transcended nation state or economy, and on the off chance that they or the story of Khorgas appeals to the readers, that there is an evidence that they do not restrict themselves to the image of the PRC government.
Common necessity of resistance to external threats are great civilization builders. Three instances of solidification of Europe into a continent comes to the mind. One, the Turanics – Hun-Magyar-Khazhar-Cuman invaders that amounted to existential soul searching for Europe about its identity, scope, and survival, and that led to the Goths, Franks, and Romans standing side by side on the fields of Chalons, the Pope negotiating with the Huns, or the foundation of Austria and the fortification of Vienna to stop the Avar raiders. Two, the Mongols Khans of Kipchak. The golden horde that kept Russia a wasteland of a tributary for nearly 200 years, forced Europe to rapidly coalesce and advance on the face of their threat. Three the Seljuk Turks. These Central Asians overran the Saracen rule in the Baghdad-Damascus belt and were particularly cruel to the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. That led Europe’s Christendom to unite and wage the Crusades.
Where are our stories? Why do they hide from our books, our narrative? Do they even exist?
“To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted” – Thomas Kuhn