Global war: What if?

Current international tensions call for preparedness on our part on a non-partisan basis, by bouncing what-if ideas among well-meaning interested parties. It is important to look beyond our narrow domestic preoccupations

I was agreeably surprised last Saturday by a discussion hosted by a local private radio station (Radio Plus) relating to the risk of a third world war. Issues of concern were well laid out at the very beginning to enable listeners to react. The point is that most of the time, our public debate centres around local issues, mostly around the doings, non-doings and wrong-doings of personalities. This debate thus marked a welcome departure from our usual insular concerns.

For a country such as Mauritius, dependent on the outside world of international trade and relations, happenings and events in other parts of the world are critical. They need to be analysed to the finest detail for strategic reasons. We can ignore them only at our cost.

For example, when the price of oil quadrupled in the 1970s, we were almost economically knocked out by the country’s surging oil import bill. There’s not much we could have done about OPEC’s decision to cause the oil price to soar by reducing its global supply (they and their Russian supporter are trying to do this again at present as a consequence of which price has gone up from $30 to $56 a barrel currently). But we might have used the occasion to analyse our vulnerability to being dependent for up to a fifth of our total imports on imported oil. We could even have debated how to implement a lasting plan to curtail our dependency on and growing consumption of imported oil.

International instability

Tensions have of late been mounting in different countries and parts of the world. There are at least two reasons behind this tense situation.

First, globalisation has created winners and losers. There are those who have lost their jobs due to shifting of production among countries. On the other hand, the elite has enriched itself.

Governments of worse-hit countries used to rush to support the losers when such structural shifts occurred by extending welfare measures in their favour. Instead of that, several governments, caught in a philosophy of austerity after the crisis of 2007-08 in particular, have not extended this kind of support to the victims of globalisation. They have let cold “market forces” run the show, causing millions to be laid off without compensating the losers by rebalancing taxes and subsidies.

The revolt against this is spreading out, the tendency being for individual countries to move over to protectionism, closing in upon themselves. This kind of move represents a threat against our ability to export.

Turkey has apparently just voted itself into dictatorship. But Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, earlier, were an expression of the same revolt. The Netherlands averted the danger, but other EU countries are not yet out of the woods. We should hope it will not generalise further as that could throw our international dealings out of kilter.

Second, some leaders not having a global view have emerged in certain prominent countries. Their objective is not to refashion the global order in an alternative viable and stable setup. It is rather to deal with issues one at a time, unmindful of harmful consequences. We saw the tensions in the South China Sea over territorial claims. Crimea was summarily annexed to Russia once Ukraine was disrupted.

Donald Trump, who got himself elected to the American presidency, is now busy disavowing the views on which he was elected. Under international pressure, Bashar al-Assad of Syria who sent away last year, under international pressure, tonnes of chemical weapons, allegedly ordered the dropping of a bomb of Sarin (a mortal gas) in Idlib (Syria) in the first week of April on civilian population, killing over 75 of them through asphyxia. In an apparent affront against Russia (which befriends Syria’s al-Assad), Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory missile strike against a Syrian air base retaliating the chemical gas attack on Idlib but after giving a two-hour prior notice of the strike to Russia.

A semblance of US-Russia tension arose from this situation. It helped to drown growing accusations being made in the US against Russia for interfering in the last US presidential election in favour of Trump. Not to be outdone, Trump distracted attention even further away from the alleged Russian interference in the US elections by sending an American fleet towards North Korea, apparently to deal with the latter’s continuing nuclear-testing defiance of UN decisions, unmindful of how that might affect South Korea eventually. In reality, the latest information has it that the American fleet was instead moving away from North Korea. Gimmicks. The war front was nevertheless shifted to this new centre closer to China.

A motley crowd of power wielders has thus emerged in the midst of a lot of policy inconsistency in the world today, not forgetting the spreadout of some sort of a global guerrilla warfare fuelled by religious extremism, the latest casualty of which was Stockholm, after Nice, Berlin, Sydney and London.

Some of the new leaders may be playing roles as in Reality TV but others like Putin of Russia and Trump are minded to secure advantage at each other’s cost. The least miscalculation could spark off an international conflagration, as it happened for World War II.

What if war broke out?

To all appearances, a new struggle for a re-composition of global power is already at play. Neither the UN nor any other international forum has been in a position to act as a stabilising force for the diverse interests clashing against each other. Nor is there a unification of the forces for good capable of persuading power seekers not to take it too far.

Populations facing the brunt of political power struggles are suffering (South Sudan, for example, is on the brink of famine just like Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen caught in the web of war) and that is helping bring power-hungry leaders to the world’s front stage.

In the event of all-out war breaking, countries will stand isolated from each other. Destruction will bring many of them to their knees. It will take a lot of time to repair the damage wrought by the warfare. Priorities will change.

International trade deals with other nations have been at the basis of our economic success. In the event of an international war, the operation of force majeure will disrupt the normal operation of whatever trade deals we have. Both demand for and supply of what we sell abroad and what we buy from overseas will cease to play out smoothly. Dislocations of supply and demand – especially over a prolonged period – might cause serious havoc. We have to take precautions.

Such considerations are enough to force us to remain focussed on international developments. Changes to the existing geopolitical equilibrium are already raising some amount of stress with our business-as-usual. Other than being exposed at risk to prevailing fragile international situation, we are not getting the right productive investments into the economy. We are not making new openings on international markets. There are also rapidly changing tastes and technology impacting the composition of global demand for goods and services across the board. Jobs are on the line and one needs to prepare a suitable response.

What-if ideas

All of this calls for preparedness on our part on a non-partisan basis, by bouncing, for example, what-if ideas among well-meaning interested parties. It is important to look beyond our narrow domestic preoccupations.

In a world in which each country will be fighting for its own survival, Mauritius will suffer. Its economic scope will get shrunk. The longer it takes to restore normalcy at the global level after the world has been taken to the edge, thanks to the prevailing histrionic politics the world over, the more painful will be our recovery period. It is therefore in our best interest not to let mavericks unleash the dogs of war.

Anil Gujadhur

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