• February 23, 2024

Be careful, what you wish for

(First published on November 09, 2019)

How do you pick a friend or an ally? Who decides you cannot be friends with someone? Is it human nature to have both friends and foes? And do nation-states behave like human beings in matters pertaining to friendship and animosity?

The answers to these questions are not as simple as they seem. The dynamics and products of human intelligence are very complex. You may consider your friendship with someone is a rational choice, but it often is not. Chance, change and challenges conspire to bring you to your existing choices. You are forced to spend more time with someone perchance and you discover a good friend in them. Your best friend is leaving town for good and your dependence on the friendship necessitates that you look for someone to fill the vacuum. And sometimes the challenges you face are just beyond your capacity to manage singlehandedly and you are compelled to combine forces with other people only to find you have become good friends with them. Does that mean you have to be similar or share a common set of values to be good friends? Not necessarily. You will be surprised by the complexity of the choices you make and even the amount of irrationality involved if you were to take a dispassionate look at your relationships.

Matters of hostility ought to be easy, right? You are bound to have one or more genuine reason(s) to dislike or hate somebody. Perhaps someone betrayed your trust or badmouthed or even backstabbed you. But what about your instinctive dislike for someone? Instincts are not rational you know. Similarly, what about your jealousies? And do not forget the role played by a third party, say a closer friend, in such matters. An abiding sense of loyalty to your friends and their choices often force you to make decisions that you were originally very fond of. Various disciplines within the social sciences may seek to demystify these choices but given the vast number of variables at play in human interactions in contrast to the natural objects natural sciences seek to study, there is no rule of thumb and no formulae to classify them into patterns.

And do nation-states behave in the same fashion as individuals? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. This is the area where you will come across many parroted lines. For instance, there are no friends or foes in foreign policy, only states and their national interests. If that was so, why do you think Pakistan does not recognise Israel? Ask any international relations expert and you will be told that the country has nothing to lose and a lot to gain from such a relationship. But you and I both know it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Why? Because in the messed-up ideological calculus of Pakistan, a country which was born in a reaction to Hindu extremism in India, maintaining a relationship with Hindutva India is acceptable but not establishing relations with Israel, a nation with whom we have no direct conflict. And then there is a fear of pushback. If you listen to Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s speeches at the sit-in, you know what challenges you face. Interestingly, the ideological counterpart of his party in India, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, has recently and quite openly endorsed Modi’s recent misadventures in Kashmir. Wrap your head around that.

The first-ever television interview I conducted over two decades ago was with the late Dr Stephen P Cohen. He chuckled in admiration when I asked him how relevant morality in the international system was. Not too irrelevant he replied. He gave two examples. China and Pakistan’s friendship. And the US and Israel alliance. You can see what he did there. China and Pakistan are not too similar. Nor the US and Israel. But somehow they work. And it is not as if their national interests always converge. But these countries can instinctively count on each other. Time, opportunities and increased exposure often build trust.

And then there is the issue of old friendships gone bad. The US and Iran once were good allies. Before the Iranian Revolution, of course. But their hostility today is not unknown. Saddam Hussein was once a close ally of the US. Osama bin Laden was once a part of the US-sanctioned Afghan Holy War against the godless USSR. But then things fell apart as they often do. Remember before the start of the Cold War, the US and the USSR felt close enough to agree on veto power for both in the UNSC. But then along came the Long Telegram by George Kennan and the world changed beyond recognition.

In today’s world, it is considered a given that a new Cold War between China and the US will emerge. The reason? Probably the clash between the US faith in individualism and China’s belief in equality often at the cost of individual freedoms. So far so good. Except China keeps changing and this difference did not stop the two sides from cooperating in the past. Also, consider the fact that in its 5,000 years of recorded history China has never sought to export its culture abroad. The US does and we have gotten used to it. There is zero evidence that China seeks to upend the US leadership in the world unless provoked. Nada. Zilch. So what is the source of the conflict? Optics? The fact that China calls itself a People’s Republic and is known as a socialist polity? Then explain to me how a man calling himself a democratic socialist is running for the highest public office in the US for the second time and came ever so close to winning in 2016. See, not so simple.

Here is another mystery. The dogmatic belief in India being an ineffable ally. Of course, India calls itself a secular democracy. It actively lobbies in Washington to maintain that image. And we know Huntington laid the foundation stone of this myth just before the onslaught of terrorism which fused Indian and US policy and intelligence circles. But India is not America. There is no assurance that the US will not make mistakes in foreign policy. But its institutions and faith in fundamental human rights eventually help it correct its course. In India, mistakes are not only made but cherished. The Indian Constitution may say otherwise but Indian culture does not see human beings as being fundamentally equal or sharing the same fundamental rights. Its caste system ensures that. And as a reactionary strain of obscurantism grows in India the usual safeguards to preserve equality and freedoms like the constitution, institutions, and democracy fade away. And meanwhile, India grows stronger and pushes its agenda abroad. The pundits want the West to blindly endorse India as a counterweight to China. Blind faith only prejudices you against endless possibilities. As Oscar Wilde once said, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Be careful what you wish for.

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