The Four Horsemen of Change: Politics, Economics, Technology and Security

(This commentary was first published on the IPCS website on 10 October 2013. The commentary is a response to a speech delivered by former Foreign Secretary and current chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, Mr. Shyam Saran, on 11 August 2013 at the 18th Annual Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture.) 


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

In his discourse at the Prem Bhatia Memorial lecture on 11 August 2013, Mr Shyam Saran a former Foreign Secretary and current chairman of the National Security Advisory Board noted with some precision that the transformed landscape that we live in has been driven by change. Powered by technological advancements, an ever accelerating chain reaction fuels the impulse to alter and remodel. But when he ventures to suggest that the recent global economic and financial crisis was on account of the “mismatch between the scale of technological change and the adaptability of institutions both domestic and global governance” he is on thin ice. While it is discernible that economic globalization has far outpaced political thought; but to affirm that it is at the root of the recent global down turn flies in the face of the boom of the nineties and the current recovery despite mismatch.

Change and uncertainty are the abiding features of the world we live in. Great transformations are hardly ones that occur as “we slept”; on the contrary it is a gradual process that begins with an idea, translates to societal consensus and establishes itself as an enhancing economic and political lever. So to view change through its immediate symptoms alone will leave the observer with an imperfect picture of the whole and perplexity at the unforeseen. Seemingly tectonic changes of the present stimulated by globalisation and the information revolution are familiar in history. Addressing the issue of change and the sweeping formation of nation states, Arnold Toynbee in his A Study of History asserts that “the Industrial Revolution, like the Athenian economic revolution in Hellenic history, had the effect of replacing a parochial economic autarky by an ecumenical economic interdependency … (and then with biting irony he adds) At the time of writing, midway through the twentieth century, this political challenge had not been successfully met”.

At the heart of our own inability to come to grips with change is the inconsistency between reality and our understanding of it. Reality is that globalization and the spread of technology promotes material values over other values, particularly those related to the very condition of life; politically it demands selective surrender of sovereignty and acceptance that economic growth may well be discriminatory as opposed to an illusory belief in synchronous growth. This not only results in persistent friction within the internals of the nation, but also instability in the security externals of the nation. The upshot of relentless sponsorship of material values is that economic globalization has far outpaced its political soul. What the world today is confronted with is the chaotic, uncoordinated nature of global governance whose array of institutions and agreements are loaded in their ability to adjudicate and weak on equity. This places a premium on power as the tool to stabilize.

The emerging landscape, Saran astutely notes, is dominated by three domains: the terrestrial as defined by maritime space, extra terrestrial which is space related and cyber space that extends along both terrestrial and extra terrestrial. Resource security he argues is linked with maritime security. The opening of the North and North Eastern Passages will indeed redefine the way we look at the oceans and how we structure maritime forces. What he let pass is Antarctica and how technologies will make resource access viable with the attendant potential for friction (after all did Britain wage war in the Falklands for sheep?!). In all this the critical union of maritime activities with terrestrial security would appear to have fallen between the cracks. As far as space is concerned, its weaponising is well underway and any attempt at turning back the clock can only be futile. A more pragmatic resolution is to bring about doctrinal balance in this domain. Cyber space presents a more complex sphere; it cuts across and deeply influences all the attributes of power. Given its all pervasive nature there can be no debate over the urgent need for regulatory regimes and exacting governance. The USA today overshadows all three domains; the rise of a new hegemon invariably will be accompanied by turbulence.

In the cauldron of change there is another insidious crisis that hinders developing societies drawing alongside the developed world; this relates to financial capacity to invest in education, fundamental research, technology and the social sciences. While considerable efforts are applied in countries such as China and India for appropriation of monies into these sectors, it remains a continuous predicament to make compromises between the demands of the future at the cost of the present.

When China articulates its objective of harmonious growth, on the face of it, there is a suggestion to reconcile global governance with international aspirations and structure an impartial world order shorn of hegemons. The dilemma is that the idea of the nation state stands in bitter conflict with international collectivism led by one state. And if reconciliation is through revision, and awkwardly, world order to China’s measure and its perspectives on competitive resource access and a contemporaneous access denial military strategy, then there is deliberate faith in power to restore balance. This encapsulates one of the cardinal features of the current state of international order. In this strategic context to transform competitive principles to collaborative values can only remain a vision that we hold firm to.

The Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture 2013 delivered by Mr. Shyam Saran may be accessed here. 


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