Looking for new world order

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While EU teeters on the verge of collapse, a self-confident India seeks a new world order. India flirts with everyone, hoping to squeeze into some club. It is perhaps yet to realise that a new world could emerge from a new way of thinking.

When George Soros told media persons in India recently that the European crisis would impact the world more than the US recession that followed the September 2008 Lehmann Brothers collapse, what could he have meant? After all, the debt problems now confronting Europe can be traced back to that fateful day when the financial giant collapsed, leading to a string of failure of financial institutions across countries.

It was only a matter of time before the contagion spread to national economies, starting as it were with the weakest link, from Iceland to Ireland and then to the southern tip of the mighty EU itself. In that sense, the European crisis is simply the second chapter of that 2008 meltdown and we still haven't seen the end of it.

But in an unintended sort of way, Mr Soros has a point: The European crisis could have profound implications not just for the global economy but for post-World War II regional groupings and institutions meant to ensure a less conflict-ridden world than the one that led to frequent business crises, a prolonged Depression, fascism and two world wars.

EU and Habsburg

What a possible collapse of the European Zone or, at least its inability to raise the funds required to hold together its surly, heavily indebted members at the periphery of ‘western' Europe would entail, is a repeat of history. Exactly a hundred years ago, the last sustained European “union” under the Habsburg or the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the empire of “Kakania” in Robert Musil's unforgettable novel, The Man without Qualities crumbled in a similar way. The reasons were uncannily familiar: Trouble on its southern non-Germanic provinces and a stubborn Emperor at Vienna desperate to hold together a syncretic ‘union' at any cost.

The Euro Zone has neither reached that stage nor has it been forged out of force or military conquest. But its structure and club rules, indeed its functionality with its vast bureaucracy at Brussels, aren't very different. Like Austria of old, Germany and France are the dominant partners; a currency union, like the German speaking army of “kakania”, pulls weaker economies into what has retrospectively turned out a bad bargain for them.

The debt contagion emerging in the union's southern borders could spread and, despite claims usually emanating from the ‘centre' itself that the crisis would indeed strengthen the European idea, it could, in fact, undermine it in the years to come.

What the debt crisis has shown member countries and, indeed, the world is that pan-national formations such as the European Union may foster common markets. But the costs are huge for those members with weaker staying power on whom hegemonic rules — that forbid, for instance, national governments to tweak currencies in times such as these, and fiscal deficit interdictions — can create as much havoc as speculative greed did.

Crisis and anomie

What we now see in Greece, Spain and other countries unwilling or unable to bear the austerity imposed by Brussels (France and Germany, that is) is the emergence of a double-edged nationalism: A hostility to the pan-European idea and on the ground a growing animosity toward the weakest segment, the non-European immigrant.

Failure to resolve the debt crisis and crank up the EU's growth prospects may spawn social anomie that precedes fascism, an intolerance borne out of deprivation and a consciousness about who is “responsible”: The moneybags and the migrant.

India and China

The European crisis now located in the slow collapse of a pan-European social formation and the recrudescence of petty nationalism may have already impacted the rest of the world, especially China and India, in more ways than the purely economic. For both rising suns, the European debt contagion (and the ineffectiveness of the IMF to contain it) is being read as the terminal stage of the post-World War II “world order” created by western economic resurgence since the 1950s. In China, this recognition is deliberately underplayed, devoid of strategic visions of any kind: No Brotherhood of EMEs or a Yuan Neighborhood sort of thing, at least not right despite the trillions. Instead, they get the purely historico-materialist perception that economic supremacy is a necessary and sufficient condition to work for their aspiring hegemony: Its political or diplomatic articulation can wait.

New World Order?

India can't wait. Drawing sustenance from its growth numbers and the fact that the 2008 crisis toppled many developed countries from the upper rungs of the growth ladder, India wants to strut a stage it thinks is fast emptying of world “leadership”.

Increasingly, voices are heard for India to assume the authorship of a “New World Order” for that statesman-like qualities that inspired Nehru to co-author the Non-Aligned Movement.

More often than not, the search for the new order requires the policymaker to do no more than search for new friends to ward off old or freshly assumed enemies. The realisation of that “order” depends unabashedly on institutional structures such as the IMF (an Indian at its helm!) or on parodies (BRICS, SAARC) of transnational groupings that have outlived their utility.

Unclear about its status as global power, lacking a vision of that power's constitutive elements —10 per cent GDP? ICBMs? Large corporations? Bollywood? All of these? —India flirts with everyone hoping to squeeze into some club, yet getting nowhere close to a new world “order” even as that world could do with a new way of thinking about itself.

As T. S. Eliot wrote “ Between the idea and the reality/between the motion and the Act/Falls the Shadow.”

Published on January 10, 2012
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