This year marks the 75th death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest Asian and the most ardent advocate of universalism and global unity. Unfortunately, the world stands divided on economic and cultural lines; the nationalist stridency is becoming more and more pronounced. Contrary to Tagore&’s world-view of assimilation, the walls of economic and cultural pettiness are being built across the world. All this has not happened overnight; the economic downturn following the sub-prime crisis, the European debt imbroglio of 2008-09, the sluggish recovery, and the economic crisis in Greece, was perhaps not enough. In parallel, the world witnessed the virtual collapse of the Middle East, marked by civil strife in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Egypt and the corresponding rise of the Islamic State that has exponentially enhanced the global footprint of terror that has now affected Europe. To that can be added the migration crises from the Middle East to the already battered European countries contending with an economic downturn.
The concept of financial globalism is distraught. This is the result of the misuse of debt and debt-based instruments either by financial institutions or by the countries themselves. Greece is said to have fudged its national accounts. We are now witnessing its adverse political impact, notably Brexit. Britain&’s exit from EU is a stark example of de-globalization, in effect bolstering the confidence of Euro skeptics to the extreme Right. They are against the regional European entity. A populist and isolationist brand of politics is manifest in the West, exemplified by the nomination of Donald Trump as the Presidential candidate of the Republican Party. The global downturn has been aggravated by the stagnant economies of Europe and Japan and the struggling commodity-based economies, especially oil, of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America which are bearing the brunt of this slowdown. The distressing signals from Venezuela and the blame-game in Brazil are grim examples of the economic slide.
It is not just the dip in oil prices that has troubled the Middle East; the region contends with deep structural faultlines, the Shia- Sunni rift within Islam and the Iran- Saudi friction, the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict, and the plight of the Palestinians. To that can be added the trigger-happy Western Neocon intervention and the toppling of dictators in Iraq and Libya, the general failure of the Arab Spring, and the conflict within Syria. The net result is statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa, facilitating the surge of ISIS. Its tentacles are spreading rapidly, aided by the reach of communication technology. Recent reports suggest that ISIS has managed to persuade moderate Muslim children in Kerala to join its ranks. This is shocking. For long, South Asia has been direly affected by terrorism and fundamentalism ever since Taliban and Al Qaida surfaced. Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been the hotbed of terror, Bangladesh has just suffered a catastrophe and India is regularly bled by state-sponsored terror from across its western border.
Indeed, the world is now facing a bewildering mishmash of economic distress,migration and terrorism and the existing multilateral institutions are not structured to match the ferocity of these complex problems which are interlinked. These agencies are at best geared to handle crisis management and appear to have run out of ideas. The regional configurations are withering as they have failed to formulate a structured response to these issues.
Every crisis provides a window of opportunity for collective action and leadership, the restoration of the basic existence of the Middle East and North African countries is the key to tackling these multiple problems and this requires not only imaginative leadership and resources but a collective resolve of the stakeholders. The foremost requirement is to have a new multilateral rapid action force to combat terrorism and internal ethnic conflict in these trouble spots and that should include stakeholders including the West, China, Russia, India and Japan working under a multilateral special purpose vehicle with a well- defined mandate.
The West needs to quickly devise a Marshal Plan for the rehabilitation of the Middle East and North Africa, roping in China and Russia. Their immediate laboratory should be Tunisia where there is scope for relatively peaceful reconstruction of the economy. China and Russia can provide an impetus to economic reconstruction with the focus on such basic sectors as steel, cement and oil. This can also open the doors for manufacturing economies to step in and gain from the reconstruction.
The real challenge is posed by Iraq, Syria and Libya. In each of the crises-ridden states in the Middle East, the world collectively needs to bring about the unity of ethnic groups to create the basic political consensus and end inter-ethnic hostilities. One has to take note of the recent Shia rally in Baghdad which was focused on the skewed distribution of economic resources rather than merely religion. To nip such problems in the bud, a strong multilateral force is imperative. It should be in a position to ‘persuade’ the warring and disenchanted groups to come together through some sort of a majlis-ae-shoora a congregation of elders to draw up a common minimum programme of reconstruction and rehabilitation. If the world as a whole is able to showcase even one such case of national resuscitation, it will have a positive impact on the regional economy in North Africa and/ or the Middle East as well as on the migration from these areas.
There is need to revisit the profound philosophy of Tagore&’s universalism and to redefine the ‘global commons’ to include not only climate-change but also to end terrorism and ensure the revival of nation-states of the Middle East and North Africa. This will counter the adverse effects of de-globalization, migration, and make the world realize that the problems are inter-connected. The international crisis calls for concerted action towards a solution. It would be appropriate to dedicate the annual session of the UN to the ideas of Tagore. Concrete steps need to be worked out to deal with these problems from a long-term perspective.
The writer is a senior civil servant and the views expressed are personal.