Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Superpowerdom - Why USA? And how come India?

There has been much talk about emerging powers and the threats to USA's dominance in world affairs. Just how valid are the assessments?

So what exacty is the essence of a world power? Why can it be much longer before a China or some other country level next to USA?

Power takes more than just coffers full of gold and armies with formidable force. The greatest powers have moulded civilizational leaps ultimately not by force of conquests, but by appealing to many by governing them.

I believe that great nations that cause civilizational leaps depend on the ideas they further. Similarly, their fall too is determined by a compromise or failure to make those ideas universal. The Roman and Islamic empires were largely known for having incorporated diversity of ethnicity an background in their governance and they prospered. Their subsequent neglect or rigidity led to their downfall.

The Islamic as also the later Roman, Portuguese and Spanish empires sought the idea of religion to bind a diverse set of people. But this did not
hold and individual ambitions set in leading to their downfall.

Similarly a liberal British empire set forth an idea of commerce under one crown being that great cohesive for people. They aspired an empire where a person could be a subject with any religion as long as you swore allegiance to the crown. But this too failed over time as the concept of identities separate from a titular crown persisted and the overarching role of religion (protestant work ethic) remained evident, first in the formation of USA and later the deluge of independence movements given new direction by India's peaceful resistance movement.

The communist idea most notably under USSR was again a benevolent thought but it too undermined an essential ingredient - that of free will and that differing human ambitions need vent which cannot be indefinitely sponsored by a state. And similar failings too led to the fate of fascist movements.

USA demonstrated something incremental to the British empire. Its credit belongs to the vision furthered by Lincoln who interpreted the power of the nation, not by it's constitution, but by its Declaration Of Independence. He set in motion the wheels of a nation that believed in individual liberties, in equipping them with competence through promoting world class educational institutions, in protecting intellectual property through patent laws, in promoting enterprise and attracting all hands willing to work and grow on merit. It bound people only to a basic principle that "liberty" must be mutually respected and protected.

USA has depended on capitalism but more so on democracy and "meritocracy for all" to make it the super power that it is. No one understood this better than F D Roosevelt who softened capitalism to strengthen democracy. The military and economic power of USA is a result, not the driver of it's dominance.

It follows that US's failing dominance has something to do with its own failing ability to live by the principles it has championed. It has confused itself between being the protector of capitalism rather than democracy. The nation's politics is bitter and divided by interest groups. It's actions in establishing "democratic" regimes else where in the world suspiciously smell of commercial interests superseding the good of the effected people. It's unilateral actions in the middle east and growing inability to impress the world community by showing it's doing the right things is hurting. This is what is leading the global surge in looking for the new star on the horizon. But caution before crowning the new prince.

At the heart of being a super power lies the need of a great idea that can get different people together - the principle of universality.

And it is on these grounds I believe that while nations like Germany, Japan and China can win enormous admiration, but they cannot yet be a super power of USA's proportions. They need something more if they aspire to go beyond being admired and considered impressive. This will require a major shift in demographics, policies and motivations.

My view is that despite the growing economic and military influence, china is not the star on the horizon just yet. Like it or not, the only immediate star remains USA and it is in our collective interest to see it strong.

But this should not dissuade us from exploring that next big idea that will make the world a safer and happier place. And that is why I bring up India.

USA became a super power largely as a white, Christian and English speaking nation. To it's credit, it has assimilated people and territory to create a new culture decidedly different from it's British origins. But the idea of their nation still has more to prove.

USA promises liberty and meritocracy, but it's just beginning to understand whether diversity can co-exist with this goal. It's discovering whether it is necessary for all to homogenize to preserve their revered principles. In US, you still can't become president if you're not Christian.

Can liberty and diversity co-exist? This is the main question before our generation. This is driving various issues of identity and identity led conflicts witnessed in the world - whether it's terrorism, islamic or european revival or countries like china aspiring for dominance / "a place in the world". Problem is that these responses are divisive and fundamentally not capable of universality.

The principle of universality requires living proof that people of diverse ethnicity, religions, cultures and languages can co-exist under it's banner. While US is commencing this journey, it is a fact that no country on earth is better placed to show the way than India. India is a huge nation built by her founders on the belief that it's diversity will be it's strength. They did not seek homogeneity. They sought liberty and meritocracy with the right to let diversity coexist. They bound people to the basic principle that "liberty and diversity" must be mutually respected and protected. Today India thrives as a nation with more than 25 national languages, vast religious and ethnic differences and so many more cultural and ideological variations.

History and the age demographic have placed India at the cusp of a major civilizational leap. This is an experiment in whose success the whole world has a stake. This is not the case of the old giving way for the new, rather this is where the world has an opportunity to see the new creating space for the old to also thrive. It is a profound possibility.

The idea is substantial, but is it's leadership equipped to deliver? Divisiveness is growing, naxalite movements exist, vital necessities do not reach people. The issues are many, but all issues can be singularly pointed to the absence of the finest people in governance today. The nation needs it's finest and sincerest to step up, preserve and foster the founding ideals and work with the world in this pursuit. This cannot be done without political participation. And this is the one great worry before India. Indians profess a love for democracy and shun politics to let the mediocre or the ill-intentioned run the country. Even civil society movements cannot yield much if the politician is not competent.

While wishing the best to US, every Indian must also heighten the awareness of what happens if US fails without credible alternatives in the horizon? Let the moment not be squandered for a lack of will to set right our politics. Every Indian, especially the youth must reflect on the path for their life ahead and step up to contribute in seizing this momentous opportunity.

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