The new international disorder and Bangladesh
Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley
The new Millennium was heralded by a virtual thunderstorm. The Americans call it 9/11. The world followed suit. The disastrous and tragic happenings in mainland USA on the 11th of September 2001 transformed the world of our times. On that fateful day international terrorists of the Muslim fundamentalist organization Al-Qaeda mounted a devastating attack on New York and the Pentagon. Hijacked US commercial passenger planes piloted by suicidal attackers crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Fairfax, Virginia near Washington. A fourth aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania. The unprecedented onslaught took a toll of three thousand. The catastrophe caused more than the loss of valuable human lives. It also signified the loss of the world that existed until the first autumn of the new Millennium.
Nine/eleven marked the 'great divide' of our turbulent times. The world changed for the worse. The global scenario underwent a dramatic trans-formation and a new emerging international disorder engulfed the present age.
The new international disorder has distinctive features. It is overwhelmingly dominated by a single power. The sole super power of our times is the United States of America. Some regard it as a Hyper Power. As Lord Sidlensky observed, a hyper power is a nation, which cannot be opposed by any other nation or a combination of nations. The USA seems to be securely enthroned in that position at present and in the foreseeable future. Global politics and national security interests of the USA, therefore, appear to act as the most important factors impacting on the existing and evolving international order or, more appropriately, disorder. The developing and less developed nations of the erstwhile 'Third World' find themselves in an unenviable situation in the context of this unfolding chaos. Their internal weakness comprising inadequate political and administrative leadership and widespread economic poverty render them highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of the expanding disorder.
Bangladesh is no exception. How do such nations cope with the formidable challenges of an unprecedented transformation that seem to hold out dim prospects for their future? These challenges did not emerge all of a sudden. Their birth was heralded by tectonic changes of the world system in the 1990s. Even before 9/11 the USA came to dominate the international states system.
Developments in the late 1980s and 1990s redefined the world order. Before the beginning of 1990s, the world was mainly bipolar featured by two superpowers, the USA and the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR). It was loosely knit and characterized by a 'balance of terror' created and maintained by the power of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This emanated from the perceived sense of nuclear parity between the two polar powers.
Collapse of a pole
In the beginning of the 90s the Socialist polities and economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union encountered a dramatic collapse. Socio-economic and political implosions in the form of massive popular upsurge rang out the old system. Multiparty polities started replacing the Unitarian, one party states. Market economies have replaced and are still replacing command economies of socialist days. The demise of the Soviet Union and the consequent emergence of an avowedly democratic Russian Federation signified a redraw-ing of the maps of the Eurasian regions under the sway of the extinct Soviet Union. The demise of the Soviet Union bereft the USA of its super-power adversary. Consequently, it virtually strode the world as a colossus.
The new international disorder came to sharp focus with the devastating terrorist attack on the USA in the beginning of the new Millennium. At that juncture the global order seemed to have acquired a fresh disturbing component: international terrorism issuing from what is described as Muslim fundamentalism spearheaded by the leader-ship of the Saudi dissident Osama-bin-Laden. Apparently this has been a shocking and sudden development. In reality, however, its context has been in the making for quite sometime. As early as 1974 Syom Brown wrote in his 'New Forces in World polities, “nonmilitary, especially economic issues came to forefront, so that “conflicts of interest” increased between the United States and her closest Cold War allies, the cold war coalitions which were the dominant ordering structures of international relations in the quarter century following World War II, gradually weak-ened and by the beginning of 1970s, became much less significant than before. As a result of all this, i.e., “the align-ments and antagonisms of the recent times… shifting ground and structures premised on their stability…crumbled, . . . The politically complex and fluid world of the seventies has also been described as a Multipolar or polycentric one, with the possibility of becoming an “evolving polyarchy,” “a place without a dominant structure of cooperation and conflict in which nation-states, sub national groups, and trans-national special interests and communities would all be vying for the support and loyalty of individuals, and conflicts would have to be resolved primarily on the basis of ad hoc bargaining in a shifting context of power relationships”.
Syom Brown's words appear to be charged with prophetic significance in the immediate pre and post 9/11 period. During these times “nation-states, sub national groups and transnational special interests and communities” are all evidently engaged in a fierce competition for the support and loyalty of individual human beings. It is debatable whether groups like Al-Qaeda with presence in various continents and count-ries can be called 'transnational special interests', particularly because of its somewhat shadowy profile and terrorist content. There is little doubt, however, that such groups, organizations if you like, are cross-national. These span many countries. In the post cold war world and the 'run up' to 9/11 such gro-ups emerged with ferocious strength to challenge nation-states including the mightiest among them. Al-Qaeda and other organizations modeled on it have launched a veritable “guerilla warfare” against various nation-states, parti-cularly those of the West, including the USA. Thus, they have thrown a challenge of unprecedented nature to the existing world power structures. Their combative activities have contributed to the worsening of the fast expanding international disorder.
The Roots of Disorder
The roots of the present predicament of the world order, in many ways, were nurtured and strengthened by the post cold war restructuring of the international system. That change was marked by the apparent beginnings of a unipolar world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 'Pax Americana' seem to have begun its initial face in 1990 with the reduction by the USA of Saddam Hussein's Iraq following its short-lived mis-adventure of the invasion and occupation of neighbouring Kuwait.
A reputed Indian scholar apprehended at that time that the emerging international order would be featured by an arrangement of one super power versus 'regional influential' wherein the USA as the paramount power “provides generous military support to some and economic assistance to others among its obedient clients to the detriment of those who will stand up and resist”. He further observed, “in this scenario, the USA with its avowed claim to the guardianship of democracy and human rights becomes the bearer of self-assumed responsibilities of a new version of the 'white man's burden'. Such a situation offers nothing but 'a long and frightening agenda of intervention' and thus the post-cold war world order 'does not offer hopes and better prospects for the vast majority of the Third World countries. In the strategic and security field, “the Third World countries may have to confront a formidable challenge of living with conflicts and tensions externally and to grapple with turmoil and instability inter-nally”. Economically, there would be more challenges than opportunities and no 'peace dividends' for these weak and vulnerable many among the Third World nations.
That new emerging order could also appear as merely old wine in a new bottle. In power and economic terms it might have seemed to the poor and the deprived as a device for the perpetuation of the status quo. In an economically bipolar world age-old inequities continued to persist and socioeconomic and ethnic problems of the developing and less developed countries continued to haunt them.
Travails of Transition
In the immediate post cold war transitional world uncertainty became the only certitude for the developing and less developed nations. The old order had died. The new order was yet to be ushered in. The familiar command and control structures of the extinct bipolar world had been dismantled. In the vacuum created by the withdrawal of a dead polar power, many of the less developed countries were marked by a grave weakening of the state as a governing entity. In many areas, states are in the throes of debilitating internal and external conflicts. Among these, in Europe are the erstwhile satellites of the Soviet Union in the eastern part of the continent. The worse case scenarios were in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1990-95) and the Serbian region of Kosovo (1998).
Again many of the erstwhile Central Asian Soviet Republics now reemerged as sovereign entities find themselves in the grip of sanguinary ethnoreligious conflicts. Uncertain democracies and half-baked open market economies that mark their transition are not of much help in stemming the tide of state-degeneration. Ethnic, religious, cultural conflicts in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa have thrown millions into nightmares of blood and fire. Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Congo, Sierra Leone, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Cambodia, parts of the South Asian sub continent and Angola and Mozambique, are burning illustrations of these distressing phenomena.
In the world of our times, strong state and adequate governance seem to be the possession of a fortunate few in North America, West Europe and East Asia. In many countries, especially post colonial and post-cold war states, governance has been facing onerous challenges since the inception of the 1990s. Order has been in short supply. In some cases such as those of Somalia and Rwanda, Burundi and Afghanistan government virtually disappeared at one juncture or another. Societies in such lands encountered virtual disintegration.
For many of the less developed nations the 'peace dividends' issuing from the end of the cold war thus took the form of negative developments, veritable sociopolitical and economic degeneration. The post bipolar world featured by an emerging unipolar North is thus also characterized by an increasingly polyarchic South. The soft and weak 'spots' in the South offered a fertile breeding ground to the violence and terror that now stalk the world in the form of Al-Qaeda and the organizations of the same ilk. Such locations favouring the growth and rise of transnational terrorism are found in unstable and poorly governed Middle Eastern entities, particularly Palestine under Israeli occupation, other fragile Arab polities and Afghanistan and Somalia. It is in these theatres that violence and terror under avowed Muslim labels emerged as a disturbing threat to the might and peace of the West.
In the final analysis this challenge triggered the spectacular beginning of the second phase of 'Pax Americana' following 9/11. By autumn 2001 the USA and its allies in the West found to their horror that Afghanistan under obscurantist Taliban rule had become the host of Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama-bin-Laden. The very forces that the USA and its allies had spawned and patronized to reduce and destroy their Superpower adversary, the erstwhile Soviet Union, had come home to roost. A heavy price is now being paid by the West. The US led coalition against global terrorism attacked and destroyed Taliban Afghanistan in 2001. Again in 2003, the US led alliance launched a victorious onslaught on Saddam Hussein's Iraq where it is still engaged in a combat that has not only killed nearly 2500 US troops but is also costing the US some five and a half billion dollars every month.
The Economic Dimension
The emerging international disorder is not only politico and social. It is also economic. In international commercial and economic dealings change has been talked to death but there has been little change. Globalization and liberalization are yet to positively impact on the economic life of numerous nations of the poor South.
Thinly disguised protec-tionism and inadequately veiled trade-wars still deprive the indigent South of its rightful share in world trade. In economic terms the apocalyptic divide is still between the rich and the poor nations of the North and the South. In this dimension it continues to be a binocular world. Poverty both causes and compounds inadequate governance and maladministration in many countries of the South. Myopic and corrupt elites ride rough-shod over helpless millions who are deprived and poor. No wonder then that from among the deprived and the dispossessed emerge the suicidal guerrillas bent on not only destroying the politico-economic fabric of their own societies but also dismantling the extant world system ruled by the West.
The strategies of the West and the less developed nations in a disorderly world
At present the USA in particular and the West in general have one clear concern: to secure the ramparts of their hitherto stable and prosperous societies against the stateless onslaughts of international terrorists conducting their bloody campaign avowedly to establish a religious ideology to the exclusion of all others. Under President George W. Bush the US and its allies have one vital target: to protect their defence and security at any cost. The strategies they follow are both military and nonmilitary. Force is the prime component of their war against determined and suicidal but elusive enemies. Nevertheless, there are other components of the strategy. These are political, social, psychological and economic. The lines are clearly drawn and the terms are unambiguous: those who are not with us are against us. Economic and political assistance, patronage if you like, is to be extended only to those who unhesitatingly support and help the cause of the West and the USA. This cause, avowedly, is a noble one. It is a global striving to save pluralistic democracy, religious tolerance and universal human rights all over the world. It is no wonder that many predominantly Muslim states with democratic orientation and led by largely secular, Western educated ruling elites have become allies of the USA in the ensuing war against international terrorists.
The political component is only one dimension of the disorder brought forth by a globalized war the like of which the world has never seen before. The other dimensions are composed of economic uncertainties generated by political and social unrest worldwide. For illustration such instability has caused the price of oil to skyrocket to an unprecedented US dollar 70 a barrel (August 2005). Further, economic globalization and trade liberalization have not yet yielded positive benefits to many of the poorer nations.
Faced with all these challenges, internal and external, by the emerging world disorder what a country such as Bangladesh can do? Bangladesh is not alone in confronting such unprecedented challenges. Nevertheless, its unique character as a predominantly Muslim nation practicing democracy and moderation, make it an appropriate arena for initiating the peaceful containment of the negative impacts of the expanding international chaos. Apart from the predominantly Muslim character of its population Bangladesh has two other major blessings. Firstly, as a part of the South Asian region bordering on South East Asia it can act as a bridge between the peoples of South and South East as well as East Asia. In the second place, the experience of nearly two centuries of British colonial rule has made it a place where the Western civilization, the English language and the civilization and culture of South Asia blend in an enduring mix. All these contribute to the innate strength of the nation to play a positive role in helping the world start putting an end to the current international disorder.
Admittedly Bangladesh has its weakness and inadequacies. Its nationalism is yet to be adequately institutionalized. State institutions are confronted with various challenges. Governance is inadequate. Its problems are complicated by threats to law and order and politico-social stability from sporadic violence of avowedly 'Islamic' and extreme leftist underground armed groups. The situation, however, is not yet beyond control. The historic contents of Bangladesh's South Asian, Muslim and western identity supply a great strength. If adequately cultivated these characteristics can represent an immensely strong tide against which religious and political extremism can not hold their own.
Like the developing and less developed nations of the world today Bangladesh needs to put its own house in order. This will enable it to competently meet the many faceted threats from an uncertain and instable world. The immediate need is to define clearly the national interest and security of the country. That definition must be consensual. The vexing division of the major political forces of the country with regard to concept of nation-alism and the place of national heroes weaken the polity through a disunity that is unnecessary and irrelevant. Bangladesh needs to cease to be a prisoner of its past. The political leaders must break free of the dead-past and build national consensus on core political and economic issues and bipartisanship in foreign policy. Politics and elections must not be viewed anymore as a zero sum game where the winner takes all. In other words political leaders need to work together to protect national security and interest to “make democracy real”.
Strong and healthy politics, rescued from the mire of ill gotten money and mindless muscle, can make the nation strong at a time when the global setting is loaded against the weak and inept.
State building must accompany competent nation building. National consensus and unity at the political level will and should be effective in repairing the damage done by divisive and corrupt politics to state institutions. Bangladesh did not emerge out of the wilderness of institution-less existence. The territory had experience of quality governance during centuries preceding British colonial-imperial rule. The people of the area had a rich heritage of competent local governments at the grass roots such as the 'grams' (villages). These were built in the context of a society that encouraged and sustained toleration of diverse religious beliefs and customs. Again, from both the British colonial and post-colonial times it had inherited an elaborate, transparent and well organized system of justice, a fairly competent and well trained public administration, a coping law and order machinery and legislatures that worked.
Over the years it has evolved a strong and articulate civil society, a bold and skilled media and the most active NGO system in the world. In addition, it has a homogeneous population with a millennium old syncratic culture marked by community of language and heritage. It has also a remarkable record of religious and ethnic toleration unblemished through untold centuries.
It is time that the leaders of Bangladesh count their bless-ings. The positive qualities and positions of the Bangladeshi society must be put to good use without further loss of time.
Bangladesh has been described as a frontline state not only in human kinds war against its ancient enemies: poverty, hunger, malnourishment, illiteracy and superstition. It is, more than that. On account of the nature of its population in religious and cultural terms and its hitherto largely unbroken record of moderation and tolerance Bangladesh is splendidly equipped with the potential of acting as a harbinger of peace and understanding in our divided and war-torn world.
The author is a noted social scientist and litterateur of Bangladesh.