When India reassumes its engagement with successor states of the Safavid, Ottoman and European empires to its west up to the Nile and the Sahel in north Africa, it will renew dialogue with a region that has not had a good night’s sleep for at least two centuries. Analysis is not an advent of any blame game. The fault, as that crusty realist Shakespeare noted, may lie in ourselves, rather than our stars, but the destiny of men also has its profound cycles across the cartwheels of time. The past is littered with skeletons of nations which once ruled as much as the world as they could reach, and then imploded, leaving those who suffered colonisation to search for a new beginning within the debris. This search has never been easy, or short. All interventions disorient. Every collapse destabilises.
The one great incubation of the 20th century is that it has made the 21st a more egalitarian age. We should be careful, however, about how far we stretch the meaning of a more egalitarian spirit. It does not necessarily mean an equitable transformation towards democracy. But the era of acquisitive, or even domineering, empires is over. Great powers have to be more subtle in their manoeuvres, more guarded in their expectations. Only foolish powers, super or medium-sized, make non-negotiable demands.
The job of a contemporary diplomat, as he seeks to negotiate his or her way towards a better relationship, is certainly not to play God. The divine right of judgement is now best left to the sole custody of a historian. Nor can a diplomat afford to become a schoolmaster. The class will soon become empty. The world may not be a comity of nations that are equal, but it is certainly a more equitable globe.
The best diplomat is a geologist working within the turbulent geographic and mental landscapes embedded in fast-changing scenarios. The objective? How do you spot a port for a bilateral anchor?
India has one substantive advantage in West Asia and Africa. It does not have to deal with hostile governments. Most nations of the region host Indians, sometimes in millions, who work and contribute creatively to local economies. The crucial, if often diplomatically silent, question is: we may not have enemies, but do we have friends? More important: does friendship pass the strategic test? This is important because the nature of this region has changed. From the oil price revolution of 1973 to the beginning of this century, this region was, albeit to different degrees, synonymous with economic growth and hence a welcome partner for all nations with the ability to participate in that growth. Today, the prime determinant of relations has become response to multi-dimensional conflict.
There are many wars going on simultaneously, but by far the most dangerous of them is the deadly challenge posed by terrorism in its latest manifestation. In its previous phase, terrorism was a manic form of hit-and-run, or hit-and-die violence organised by small groups or militias, many of whom were used by regular intelligence agencies in the service of “war by other means”. The emergence of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has radically changed the metabolism and reach of this danger. It is true that ISIS rose from the swamp of contrary ambitions of regional powers. As always with Dr Frankenstein’s monster, the end-product has moved away from the range of his master’s voice. Today the pseudo-Caliphate has an agenda of its own, and threatens to destabilise regimes within its immediate periphery as much as it provokes murder and mayhem on more distant targets.
We in India understand this danger all too well. ISIS has formally declared India as an enemy. The diplomatic necessity is to raise sufficient awareness of the need for an uncompromising united front against ISIS. This pseudo-Caliphate has already acquired the geography of a medium-sized nation, and the revenue of a smaller one. But its enormous potential to destabilise lies in the fact that it has become the largest sanctuary of rogue-movements, sheltering under the banner of false fantasies but nurtured by the dialectic of radical Islamism. This is not new in the history of Muslims. Such extremist groups appeared in the time of the first four Caliphs, proving that the power to mislead can have as much traction as the ability to lead.
We know that we cannot be indifferent to this mortal danger, or take comfort in distance. The enemy is at our doorstep as well, and we are not speaking psychologically here. India must build strategic links and relationships with the major powers in West Asia in the common confrontation against terrorism and a terrorist neo-state.
—MJ Akbar is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.