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Global gloom

June 09, 2012

TODAY, Pakistanis have ample reason to feel a sense of gloom. It is small solace that they are not alone in their depression.

Almost every part of world is suffering economic stagnation, political disorder or both. Popular expectations for peace and prosperity are declining. Pessimism is pervasive, optimism at a premium.

In the largest economic bloc, the European Union, a (Greek) tragedy is being played out in slow motion. Greece’s exit, voluntary or otherwise, from the European common currency — the euro — appears almost certain. This could propel the Europeans towards greater fiscal (and political) union, under German leadership and supervision; but, more likely, it will split the eurozone between the broke southern periphery and the still buoyant northern ‘core’. Outside the euro, Britain is already in double-dip recession and new EU members, with the exception of Poland and the Czech Republic, also struggle to grow.

The US economy is less vulnerable externally; but it has yet to recover from the 2008 financial crisis despite repeated ‘bailouts’ and ‘quantitative easing’ (printing dollars). Growth has again slumped (to 1.9 per cent annually); unemployment estimates range between eight to 18 per cent; and budget deficits are at historical depths.

Japan’s economy, gravely wounded by last year’s earthquake and tsunami, and without its nuclear power plants, is unable to break out of its persistent stagnation.

The promise of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has also faded. The best performer, China, has slowed from last year’s growth rate of 10 to 7.5 per cent currently; India has declined from 9.5 to 5.5 per cent; and Brazil is down to three per cent. Even Russian growth has dipped due to the recent ‘moderation’ in oil and gas prices.

In world politics, disorder, disputes and conflicts are proliferating.

The US and Nato seek an honourable exit from Afghanistan. But they are yet unwilling to admit failure and flail out at afflicted Pakistan, largely to justify their military reversals and political frustrations in the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

Pakistan, internally destabilised and externally vulnerable, faces multiple challenges — political, economic, social and military — which could be life-threatening. The rest of poverty-stricken South Asia is only marginally better off.

The US has withdrawn from Iraq, but left behind a state divided between a dominant and often vengeful Shia majority, a resentful and often rebellious Sunni minority, and a virtually independent Kurdish ‘autonomous region’. Sectarian and terrorist violence is rising again; and Iraq may suffer external interference and itself become involved in regional sectarian strife.

The Sunni-Shia divide is beginning to define the civil war in Syria; sectarian tensions have revived in Lebanon. They percolate and frequently erupt in Bahrain, Yemen and Pakistan.

The Arab Spring was widely perceived as the final triumph of democracy against dictators. The popular revolts have been limited, with one exception, to the poorer Muslim countries, caused more by the absence of bread rather than the ballot.

Egypt’s elections have yielded an Islamic victory and crystallised the religious and social fault-lines among its people. In Libya, the violent victory against Qadhafi has created the chaos of multiple militias and racist violence.

America’s counterterrorist ‘warriors’ have celebrated the killing of Osama bin Laden and relentless elimination of Al Qaeda leaders in drone strikes. Al Qaeda ‘central’ on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been severely damaged. But Al Qaeda’s narrative — to fight those who impose injustice on Muslims — has not been addressed, much less defeated. Al Qaeda franchises have sprung up with surprising strength in Somalia, Yemen, the Maghreb, Nigeria, Mali and Indonesia. Religious extremism is rising, not declining.

The ‘cause célèbre’ in the Islamic world — Palestine — remains as far from a just solution as ever. Obama’s feeble attempts to halt Israeli settlements and revive peace negotiations were decisively put down by an aggressive and defiant Israeli premier.

The new Islamic Egypt may be more vocal in supporting the Palestinians (and Hamas); but it has no new power to materially assist the Palestinians. Their unequal struggle will continue.

The US and Israel have resorted to sabotage and cyberwar to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme and say a military strike ‘remains on the table’. Such an attack and Iran’s certain retaliation would create a massive global economic and political disaster.

Equally portentous is the deterioration in relations between the three major powers of our time: the US, China and Russia, driven largely by their domestic dynamics.

The failure of the US-Russian ‘reset’ is most visible over the Syrian situation and the planned deployment of US Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems in Europe. US encouragement of anti-Putin demonstrations has further fuelled tensions. Despite their considerable economic interdependence, the relationship between China and the US has also evolved negatively. The Pentagon’s Strategic Outlook has identified China, apart from Iran, as an adversary. The US ‘pivot’ from Europe to Asia involves the deployment to the Pacific of most its naval power and the construction of alliances around China’s periphery with Japan, Australia, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Afghanistan and India. A new Cold War — this time in Asia — may be in the offing.

As great power relations and the world economy deteriorate, global problems remain unresolved and escalate: poverty, inequality, refugees, mass migrations, racism, Islamophobia, terrorism. For advanced nations, war and killing — specially with drones — has become ‘safer’, increasing their proclivity to use force and coercion instead of negotiations as instruments for decision-making.

The danger of the use of nuclear weapons — by accident or miscalculation — is as great today as during the Cold War. There is no agreement, regional or global, among the nine known nuclear weapon states on ways and means to prevent the use of these weapons. Unlike past ‘tipping points’ in history, there is no dominant power or concert of powers to build effective responses to the present pervasive threats and challenges.

Gloom reigns.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.