The American author Sue Monk Kidd's award-winning novel The Book of Longings has a sensational beginning, despite the simplicity of the phraseology: It starts: "I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus bin Joseph of Nazareth". It would be impossible for anyone not to swallow this bait with enormous curiosity, and follow through with reading what is well and truly a 'page-turner'. The book is crafted to be breezy and exciting, necessary perhaps to better deliver its message. This historical work of fiction was the subject of discussion at a recent seminar organized by the Dhaka -based 'The Reading Circle'. The event was held in a 'hybrid' format, an experiment of the Circle in consonance with the evolving practices of the Covid era. There was a core of participants in Dhaka, and other members joining in from London, Paris, and Singapore. Chaired by Professor Razia Khan, the list of speakers and commentators included Niaz Zaman, Nusrat Huq, Tanveerul Haque, Ameenah Ahmed, Shahruk Rahman, Asfa Husain, Nazmun Nahar, Sarazeen Ahana and myself. The following essay is based on my remarks made on the occasion.
Coral Bell, one of the finest strategic thinks of contemporary times had famously, but somewhat optimistically, advocated that peace-treaties be written without first fighting the wars. Her image of a 'crisis slide' saw the process beginning when adversaries are persuaded that there is no way out other than going to war. Thereafter it becomes an inexorable descent to the abyss of a military conflict. This simple but incontrovertible logic was extrapolated from her perception of global politics through the lens of a 'classical realist'. So, can it be argued that China and the United States are slowly but surely approaching this dangerous watershed point? Rapidly evolving events following Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to Taiwan sadly point to this possibility.
Despite the fact that the post Second World War period witnessed the growth and proliferation of a plethora horrendous weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear bombs, human intellectual ingenuity managed to keep the slide into catastrophe at bay. The idea was proffered, and largely accepted, that these weapons were meant not to fight wars but to prevent them. During much of the Cold War period, when nuclear weapons proliferated, particularly among the superpowers, peace was maintained on the premise of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Since the key superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had the capacity to destroy each other many times over, rational logic prevented both from initiating a nuclear war. Defence was achieved by deterrence, that is preventing the enemy from attacking with threat of overwhelmingly unacceptable level of retaliation (“nuclear deterrence”)
Pakistan’s impossibly debonair and incredibly urbane cricketing star turned politician, Imran Khan, is a man of a myriad parts. Where English is spoken and cricket is played, he remains a hero. Time was when leading his team in many a Test match he caused blood to rapidly pulsate through Pakistani veins. In a nation buffeted by the vicissitudes of misfortune and thirsting for pride, he had fulfilled his people’s dream by winning them the ultimate prize in cricket, the World Cup. But then he switched games and went into politics. The fates, with him for a while, eventually withdrew their favour. He gambled with a tactic that was no more than a political stunt. Alas it failed, and the Courts in his country refused him relief. But this essay is not so much about him. It about the Courts that finally caused his fall. It is also about the role the judicial organ of the State has played along the inscrutable path of Pakistan’s constitutional and political destiny.
One of my great joys, if present in America on Independence Day, has been being out at the fireworks on the Fourth of July with my daughter, son-in-law, and my two grandchildren. The glorious denouement of the event has often been a final spray of brightly lit colours against the azure sky, with delighted crowds cheering along with the resounding crescendo of the volley of cannon-fire, the flamboyant finale of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture! Can those happy moments of such experience be at the risk of being altered or even eliminated from our lifestyle?
Coral Bell, the great Australian political thought-leader had lucidly described in the 1970s how a “crisis-slide” could become unstoppable as it morphs into a catastrophe: “Gradually, imperceptibly but inevitably there is a build-up of events”, she writes, “rain falls in ever increasing volumes …becomes progressively more irresistible… until the dam breaks”. Ideally, the crisis management process should have been put in place as soon as the relevant observer notices the rains grow heavy, she argues; the disaster of the bursting dam was owed to the delay. A simple but profound metaphor, so apt for crises in international relations, also underscoring the challenge of the choice of appropriate timing for leaders.
Change is a uniquely predictable phenomenon in nature. Also, by logical extension, in politics. Ions ago the observation of Heraclitus of Ephesus that the world is in constant flux, and one never steps into the same river twice is an incontrovertible axiom. Hence the idea that any existing global order, or a political system on the international matrix with a certain hierarchical power arrangement can sustain perennially, would be an erroneous one. When I was a student of Cold War and Global strategy in the mid-seventies the concept of 'paradigm shift' propounded by the American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his tome "The structure of Scientific Revolutions" enormously interested me. Simply put, Kuhn argued that the shift occurs when any dominant paradigm under which science operates (his main concern was physics though this also applies to the social sciences) confronts new phenomena that renders it incompatible. To me the thesis remains relevant. A case in point is the place of the United States of America in the global scheme of things. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s , the existing bipolarity in the world order of US-Soviet dominance ended. The US emerged as the only 'hyperpower 'an expression used by the French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in 1999,'and held absolute unchallenged sway in a unipolar world.
What happens in Europe cannot be expected to remain in Europe, particularly in this interconnected world. As war clouds gather in that continent with Russo-Western relations deteriorating by the day over Ukraine, ripples, indeed waves, are expected in consequence on the waters of faraway Asia. There, despite the onslaught of the Covid pandemic, nations appeared till recently to be devoting themselves to economy-boosting efforts, regionally expanding trade (ASEAN), or domestically sharing prosperity (China). Now suddenly, as Russia and the West try to tap the reservoir of till-now vocal support from their respective camp-followers in that region, these countries feel trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. Slowly but surely, given the imperatives of geo-politics, they may be constrained to take sides, albeit in the case of some, most reluctantly.
It has been said that when Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war. The summit of the leaders of world’s two strongest powers, the United States and China, came face to face at long last. Albeit virtually. Still, this was undoubtedly the “mother of summits” this year. There were two telephone conversations earlier, but according to US officials this nearly four hours of summitry was far more “candid intense, and deeper interaction”. If there was one single take-away from this meeting, it was the establishment beyond all reasonable doubt of the incontrovertible fact that the US and China were indeed the two most influential global state actors. The decisions between the two, represented by their leaders, would profoundly impact the rest of humanity far into the future.
Some years ago, on a piece on the Afghan crisis I had written that Mullah Omar’s face bore no resemblance to that of the impossibly beautiful, albeit mythical, Helen of Troy. Yet it too had caused the launch of a thousand ships (airships to be more precise), just as Helen’s had done in Homer’s epic tale, the Iliad. Like Troy in that ancient narrative, Afghanistan of the present times was swarmed with invaders who could also be seen as the counterparts of those Greeks- the Americans and their NATO allies. This war lasted for double the time of the Trojan episode, twenty years instead of ten. At its end it led to a reverse situation, victory of the Trojans, in this case, of the Taliban. Though the Greeks destroyed Troy by the ruse of a gift of the Wooden Horse, eventually a Trojan warrior, Aeneid, sailed to southern Mediterranean and laid the foundation of the Rome and its empire. The Greek epoch ultimately yielded to the Roman age, and the annals of geopolitics of that time took a completely new turn. Will the impact of the Afghan war be the same? Shall we see a power transformation in a new paradigm from what we have at the present time? Will American predominance make way for a risen China, now or in the future?
It had been four long months since the meeting in Alaska between Chinese and American officials, their first interaction since President Joe Biden assumed office in January this year. That was when the Chinese Foreign policy top mandarins Yang Jiechi (Director, Central Foreign Affairs Commission) and Wang Yi (State Councillor and Foreign Minister) bitterly locked horns with the American top diplomats, Antony Blinken (Secretary of State) and Jake Sullivan (National Security Advisor) in Anchorage in intensely chilly circumstances. Bilateral relations remained pretty much frozen since. Both sides might have come around to the belief that a resumption of some level of contact was overdue. Not so much to bring about a thaw; rather, simply to test the water.
The China-US meeting in Alaska last week was an unmitigated disaster. It did not bridge any differences. On the contrary, it may have widened them. If the purpose of diplomacy is to keep the lines of dialogue and communications open through the understanding the protocols, traditions, and culture of the other side, this discussion provided little evidence of even a desire for success. The art of negotiation in the international arena provides a substantial lexicon of nuanced language to advance rewarding discourse. In Alaska, this lesson was ignored. Style and substance were in tatters. Repairs now seem an impossibility anytime soon.
China is on the roll. Already the second largest economy in the world, it is poised to become the first sooner than expected, possibly within this decade. Small wonder that the focus of the globe should be on the lianghui currently being held in Beijing. This is the ‘two sessions,’ China’s annual Parliamentary meeting. They entail back- to- back sessions of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the highest advisory body, and the National People’s Congress (NPC), the principal legislative forum. There might lack the scintillating repartees of a debate in the House of Commons, and the thrill of the Question hour in Commonwealth Parliaments. But nonetheless would have an enormous impact on the lives of global citizens, including the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus. That is because the sessions provide an insight into the plans and aspirations of the world’s most rising power.
Bangladeshis at the present time share a modicum of justifiable pride in the fact that the world merits this country worth watching in terms of its economic potentials. To my mind , we have reached this stage for the following reasons: First, effective utilization of early foreign assistance; second a steady ,albeit sustained, move away from a near -socialistic to an open and liberal economy; third , a shift from agriculture to manufacturing as land-space shrank to accommodate urbanization; fourth , an unleashing of remarkable entrepreneurial spirit among private sector captains of industry, as evidenced in the Ready Made Garments industry: fifth, the prevalence of a vibrant civil society intellectually aiding the social transformation with its focus on health, education, and gender issues: and finally ,a long period of political stability notwithstanding the traditional predilections of Bengali socio-political activism.
President Joseph Biden of the United states and President Vladimir Putin of Russia vide a telephone talk have agreed to extend the New Start treaty beyond the expiry date of 5th February of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New-START by another five years. By ageing to do so, President Biden was reversing the decision of his predecessor, President Donald Trump. It is actually the only remaining agreement that curtails US and Russian nuclear forces.
So, who or what was Oscar Fingal Flahertie Wills Wilde? Was he a poet, a prose-smith, a playwright, a classicist, a raconteur, a poseur, an aphorist, or simply a sensation for his, or may be for all, times? He was all of those, and much else besides. He was a lord of language, known for his bitingly witty dialogue and epigrammatic banter, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation. To London’s Victorian society he was both a bright boy in a man’s body, albeit with an intellect of stupendous heights, as well as a thoughtful prophet wrapping profundity in dazzling verbal giftwrap. To discuss his writings, the Dhaka -based “The Reading Circle” held a Webinar ably moderated by Professor Niaz Zaman. The participants -Syed Badrul Ahsan, Tazeen Murshid, Nusrat Haque, Ameenah Ahmed, Tanveerul Haque, Zakia Rahman, Zobaida Latif, and myself -all of us drawn from such different corners of the globe as London, Brussels, Singapore and Dhaka, made presentations. This article is based on my remarks made on that occasion.
The US residential polls are akin to a drama that is staged every four years in which the American are actors on stage and the rest of the world is the audience. With one major difference, however. While in a usual theatrical performance the viewers are there mostly for amusement, though some may be enlightened and enriched by the experience, in the case of the US elections, unlike in others, their fates are inextricably linked to the outcome of the play. This is not predetermined by any playwright, though it can often be predicted. It is not implausible therefore for some on-lookers to want to intervene in what’s happening onstage. It must be done discreetly, and with great circumspection. Take for instance, the Russians in the American elections in 2016. The Russians and President Donald Trump hotly dispute allegations of any such interference.
The Maldives is a picturesque country of merely 515,000 people located just beyond the southern tip of the South Asian land mass, in an idyllic Indian ocean setting. The nation is spread across 26 pretty atolls, comprising about 1192 islets, not all still inhabited. These are lapped by crystal blue waters containing flora and fauna of remarkable magnificence. Its scenic bounties attract droves of tourists who frolic in the sands, sun and the sea in salubrious languor. It has a thriving fishing, garment and tourism industry which have recently helped it graduate out of the United Nations list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs).It is so tiny that used to be said that the catch of a single large fish any day could cause a remarkable jump in its Gross National Product (GDP) numbers. It is not without reason that the archipelago has often been compared to a paradise.
There is not much good news for President Donald Trump of the United States these days. If electoral polls have any credibility, he is staring at the face of almost certain defeat in the elections come November. So, when the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was sealed in a telephone call between him and the leaders of Israel and the UAE, signalling a sliver of silver lining in the otherwise hovering dark clouds over him, Trump was ecstatic. A Trump twitter called it a “HUGE breakthrough among “three GREAT friends!”.
Sri Lanka is a country endowed with abundant natural beauty. The serenity of its geographical bounties matched the peaceful nature of its polity in the aftermath of the passage of power to local political leaders with the withdrawal of the British from the island in 1948. Its Constitution was crafted by some of the brightest legal minds of the British Commonwealth. The nation seemed well on the path to prosperity and progress. So much so, that once Lee Kuan Yew looked upon that country as a model for Singapore, with its commonly shared experience, to emulate.