India is locked-down because of COVID-19. It has severely curtailed its physical contacts with the rest of the world. Many countries have undertaken similar measures to prevent this virulent virus from coming further into their territories. Like most compatriots I am also spending time at home wondering if COVID-19 has brought the world to a major inflection point. To gain from the past I have let my mind roam over some of the inflection points in international relations over the past fifty years. For much of that period I was a member of the Indian Foreign Service. Hence, the motivation for going into the past five decades of the global evolution.
The end of World War II in 1945 set in motion the process of the passing away of the European empires in Asia and Africa and elsewhere. The war’s end also witnessed the establishment of two antagonistic and ideologically opposed groups of countries led by the United States and the Soviet Union which became armed with thermo-nuclear weapons. The two blocs engaged in a cold and at times proxy wars even as they sought, inter alia, to enhance their influence in the newly independent countries. While many of these states joined one bloc or the other, some, including India, attempted to chart a non-aligned course however ineffectual it may have been in shaping global event which were decided by the interaction of the two super powers, the US and the Soviet Union.
Thus, the world order at the beginning of the 1970s continued to be dominated by two superpowers and partly impacted by their European allies. Developing countries, including the world’s two most populous states—India and China—grappled with issues of economic and social transformation and cementing their political systems. Certain developments occurred, as the decade proceeded, which, in retrospect, can be called inflexion points in global evolution. Other developments which seemed would decisively change the world did not do so. It is never easy to contemporaneously ascertain the long-term consequences of events howsoever large they may loom in the imagination of the times.
The consolidation of the Oil Producing and Exporting States (OPEC) under the stewardship of King Feisal of Saudi Arabia in 1973 greatly pushed oil prices upwards and set in motion the transformation of West Asia. That also fundamentally impacted the power structure of the Islamic Ummah which is only being partially challenged. The India-Pakistan war of 1971 changed the geography of South Asia and put India on the road, tortuous and long and difficult though it was, to regional pre-eminence. The Iranian revolution changed the regional balance but in global terms the entry of the Soviet Union in December 1979 was of far greater consequence; it contributed to demise of the Soviet Union. Also of great import was Deng Xiaoping’s coming to power in China in 1978 and the beginning of its economic de-ideologicalisation even while ensuring Communist party retaining full political and social control. That put China on the path of prosperity.
The US beat a humiliating retreat from Vietnam in 1975. It had then seemed that communism was on the march and that the bastion of liberal capitalism was a waning power. The question in most minds related not to US resources but its will for the Vietnam war was lost because it had become deeply unpopular at home. The Soviet Union seemed resolute, able to decisively marshal all the elements of state power. It seemed a certain inflexion point but a decade and a half later the Soviet Union was swept away into the dustbin of history and the US had won the cold war.
There are many causes for the end of the Soviet Union but primacy has to be given to the fact that the US became the engine of technological change which became evident by the 1980s. The Soviet Union was on the frontiers of military technologies including nuclear and space but the US was able to spread digital technologies across the economy, adding to its prosperity. Gorbachev realised this and sought to open up and restructure the Soviet governance and economic systems but could not control the forces so unleashed. In 1991 the Soviet Union was no more and a diminished Russia remained. The cold war was over and communist and socialistic models lost their appeal as country after country sought to adjust to the forces of globalisation beginning with the decades of the 1990s.
The past three decades have witnessed two developments which have fundamentally impacted the world. The first is the maturing of the digital age and the second is the astonishing rise of China. The applications of digital technologies are now the basis of modern life in all its dimensions. It is therefore difficult to pinpoint a precise inflexion point in this area but perhaps the setting up of the internet can be considered as one. China’s rise has been going on rapidly. It is now the world’s second largest economy and the world’s factory. It is also gaining ground in frontier technologies though the US is far and comprehensively ahead. The two countries have now locked horns.
Will COVID-19 be an inflexion point to take the world away from globalisation itself? That is difficult to visualise in view of the nature of digital technology but some changes in the location of manufacturing processes will take place. What is more likely is that it may be a major inflexion point in sharpening US-China rivalry which will have far reaching international consequences.