The question every political thinker and retired politician seems to be wrestling with: Is the world order crumbling? The catalyst for this question is the dismantling spree that Donald Trump is on. His own motivation is to bring the concept of the “Greatness of America” within the perceptible range of his followers, but the tool he is using is the wrecking-ball which is the only way his real estate experience teaches him how to replace an old structure with anew one. It is, of course, one way of ushering in the new, in place of the old and many political and cultural revolutions in the past have done it. Invaders burnt down libraries: Alexandria library was destroyed multiple times; lesser known is the Nalanda University library, burnt down by Muslim general Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193 AD. Nine million precious manuscripts were lost! Communist revolutions had the prerequisite of destruction of bourgeoisie foundations. Therefore our president is not doing anything new.
This brings me to the Atlantic Charter: the fundamental document that shaped the post-WWII world was not a signed document at all. It was an agreement between British Prime Minister Churchill and the US President Roosevelt to define how the world after the war would be different from the one resulting from WWI. Both agreed to the charter on 14 August 1941, which eventually formed the basis of the UN charter in 1942.
Clause 4 of the Atlantic Charter promised to reduce trade barriers after the war. Economic cooperation, social welfare, self-determination, freedom of seas and disarmament were other significant gains of the Charter.
Trump has probably not heard of the Charter nor may he have the necessary attention-span to absorb the information in the last two paragraphs of this essay. His actions are now destroying the basis of this agreement which has served the world well so far. It has kept us out of cataclysmic wars since 1945 and has uplifted billions from poverty, sickness and political oppression.
However, to conclude that Trump is the cause of the demise of the Atlantic Charter is rather superficial. Agreements and alliances don’t die because of individuals. They die because they have served their purpose and something better is needed. The requirement of something better also means that the limited or achievable objectives of the previous arrangement have been accomplished. Or, there are new players or forces which have been unleashed by the very success of the previous arrangement and they are influencing the change of trajectory of the future development. Every agreement inherently contains the cause for its death and it could be in its success. Its success can be the end of its utility, thus requiring a new system. In other words, it changes the dynamics which need a different set of rules to play. Charting a course of your destiny is a never-ending process. So, no more tears for the Charter. But the question we need to address is: What next, and whither to? And this is where we have a problem.
When the previous world order collapsed, it did so with two big wars that brought unimaginable sufferings to humankind. When the victors of WW I dealt with Germany’s late attempt to carve a piece of world as its own colonies, they destroyed Germany but failed to replace it with the new order. They failed to build a new system which could remedy the foundational cause: the colonized world. A new system was built only after WWII and the Atlantic Charter was the instrument.
What we are observing today in Trump-the-wrecking-ball, is the first phase of this transition to a newer system. China is analogous to the pre-war Germany. China may not be getting into a WW I type conflict, but there is no doubt of the direction it’s heading into. It has pushed America to look not so great. Trump doesn’t know how to Make America Great Again, but he is ready to hurt the cause that made it lose that position. But what he does not remember is that Great Britain couldn’t get back to the place of glory even after winning WWII. Its biggest ally, America, usurped that position.
America needs allies to fix the course of the future and work on a new charter, an “Indo-Pacific Charter” may be? Indian policy makers need to recognize this sweet-spot in time and plan accordingly. They have to ride out the current discomfort in US-India relations without hurting the long term relationship with the larger American political and administrative community. In other words, keep your rhetoric under control.
We necessarily need another person in the White House to accomplish this second phase of rebuilding. A new building in place of an old one can not be built by the wrecking-ball. It’s built by a builder after the wrecker is through. American voters must keep this in mind when they vote next time for the White House.
Indian-Americans also have a role to play. It’s true that Democrats haven’t shown any imagination in reshaping US foreign policy since FDR. It’s the Republican presidents who have broken the cliched and entrenched narrative about India. Democrats are domestically focused and completely inept when it comes to developing a close relationship with the largest democracy in the world. Indian-Americans need to train Democrats or choose a Republican candidate with credibility, when they vote next. By the way, Trump is no Republican!