By Rajan Philips –
Trump in Hanoi, Samantha Power in Colombo, and Indo-Pakistan farce: The topsy-turvy world of today
To pick up where I left last week – on the rise millennial socialism in America, there are quite a few historical and contemporary quirks that might be of interest to the curious. ‘When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold’ was the stock phrase in the second half of the twentieth century when America was the dominant super power. The statement was a direct adaptation of what Prince Metternich had said of revolutionary France during the ‘age of revolution in Europe’, in the 19th century: “when France sneezes, Europe catches cold.” In the 21st century, there is no chance whatever of the world catching anything from the millennial socialist sneeze in America even if it turns out to be a strong one. It is also a sign of the waning US power and influence in today’s world that America finds its President travelling to Hanoi to stage a performance of diplomacy with his counterpart from North Korea that began as farce and ended as failure.
In a somewhat different sign of soft power and influence, Samantha Power, the US representative to the UN under President Obama, visited Colombo last week to felicitate Mangala Samaraweera for completing 30 years in politics. More than American influence, this was an instance of Sri Lankan politics seeking external validation, a yearning, if it could be so called, that did not pre-occupy Sri Lankan politicians who completed 30 years and more in politics in years past. One might blame, or praise, globalization for this. Globalization has given the political class everywhere the means for striking solidarity and validation across state boundaries even while losing political support in their own national societies. To paraphrase the old, or the New Testament call to redemption: what profits a politician if he gains support in the whole world but his party loses the election at home?
On a different matter, globalization has not been able to make any dent in the hostile relationship between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Last week, they exchanged air strikes for the first time in history, even though the two countries have fought three wars over Kashmir since 1947. The belligerent situation was triggered by the killing of 40 Indian paramilitary police personnel in Kashmir by suicide car bombing carried out by Pakistani militants. The escalation to air strikes could have been avoided but the Modi government was not about to give up the chance to whip up patriotism just over a month before national elections in India. Fortunately, there is strong public and stakeholder opinion in both countries against any further escalation and the Modi government seems to have realized that there is no path to winning the April-May elections in India by going to war with Pakistan.
Nothing is the same
The point of my discussion is how circumstances have changed since the time India and Pakistan fought their three wars over Kashmir (the fourth one was over Bangladesh) and the time now when even an actual war between them would seem not only farcical but also fake. Cross-border, non-state terrorism is a new phenomenon, while the old Cold War alliances have all been turned upside down. Pakistan then was the US outpost in what was then the SEATO alliance that included, besides the US and Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, France, UK, the Philippines and Thailand. India was the leader of the ‘non-aligned’ world but leaning heavily on the Soviet Union.
No one messed with Afghanistan, perhaps heeding Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s condescending advice to his successor Alec Douglas Home, “My dear boy, as long as you do not invade Afghanistan you will be absolutely fine.” Home did not invade Afghanistan but lost to Harold Wilson the first and the only election he called, in 1964, after one year as Prime Minister. It was Leonid Brezhnev who sleep-marched the Soviet army into Afghanistan fifteen years later. Nothing has been the same since, across the Khyber Pass.
Now America has inherited the Afghan curse from the long defunct Soviet Union. America is also closer to India than Pakistan and Israel is reportedly one of the sources of inspiration to the Indian government in the current sabre rattling. On a side note, the Attorney General in Israel is bringing charges of corruption against his own Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the AG’s action seems to be undermining Netanyahu’s chances of holding on to power in the April 9 election. He is quite capable of pulling off an electoral victory yet again from the jaws of defeat, as he has done so many times, by playing Israel’s eternal existential card. No one will be accused of triggering a regime change in Israel from the outside, as Mr. Netanyahu has his strongest ally in the current US President.
President Trump has his own troubles and travelled to Hanoi to divert attention from the mounting allegations in his own country, not so much against his politics as President as against his businesses before he became President. Trump is perhaps the only person in the world to actively solicit the Nobel Peace Prize, and the main reason for this craving is that Obama was given the peace prize soon after he became President in 2009. Trump’s grouse is that Obama was given the prize “for doing nothing”, and got the Prime Minister of Japan to send a petition to the Nobel Prize Committee on his behalf, and has been hoping to boost his claim by achieving denuclearisation of North Korea and peace in the Korean peninsula. Neither prospect was within his grasp in Hanoi to start with, so he made the best of a bad situation by staging a friendly walkout from the summit, and hoping that the walkout will grab favourable headlines back home in America. Back home, more than two-thirds of Americans are mocking Trump, but the near 30% support that Trump has been consistently having is a disturbing symptom for any society that wants to become more civil, more generous and a more equal society.
Trump is not going to be aware of this but his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, of all places, is another historical oddity. In 1975, when Saigon was recaptured by the Vietnamese during America’s war in Vietnam, and young Kim was not even born, Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung travelled to China to solicit the Red Army’s support to overrun South Korea concurrent with the fall of South Vietnam. China declined. Some might say a great opportunity for communism in Asia was lost, but many in China and Vietnam today would see it differently. Both China and Vietnam are market economies run by Communist Party governments – “ardently capitalist communists”, as The Economist gloated a while ago. Now it is the turn of America to project the new millennial socialism, but no one is catching cold. In the Marxist schema – the socialist revolution was supposed to first breakout in advanced capitalist societies. For strong historical and material reasons, revolutions broke out in less but unevenly developed societies. As Engels saw it, history was beginning to turn its skein from the wrong end. Without their knowing it, the American millennials might be at the right end of history.
As anniversaries go, it was not only Mangala Samarweera who celebrated his 30 years in politics but also John Amaratunga who celebrated his forty years, and perhaps further reminding Mangala that he is still “Khema’s boy.” While Samantha Power went from America to felicitate Mangala, no one went from the Vatican to felicitate John Amaratunga. Thank God for that. But the political troika of Rajapaksa, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe was in full attendance for John Amaratunga. I am not sure if Mahinda Rajapaksa was present in Mangala’s celebrations, but he was given special mention by Samantha Power in her speech – recalling where it all began for Rajapaksa and Samaraweera – when they founded the “Mothers’ Front” in the 1990s to fight for justice and for compensation for those who were deemed ‘disappeared’ owing to the actions of state and non-state actors.
Then the two men were opposing the juggernaut of a UNP government. Mangala Samaraweera in his speech recalled the inspirational leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga in ending the UNP rule after 17 long years. President Sirisena remarked that Mangala Samaraweera’s political beginnings in the opposition have prepared him well for politics in government. Mr. Samaraweera has also made a name for himself for bringing about ‘regime change’ by political realignments and electoral success. In 2005, he shifted loyalties from Chandrika Kumaratunga to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Then he fell foul of the Rajapaksas and has since been fighting the Rajapaksa juggernaut that had come to replace the earlier UNP juggernaut. He was one of the masterminds behind the defection of Sirisena in 2014 and the defeat of the Rajapaksas in 2015.
It is one thing to mastermind regime change, but quite another to deliver as a government. By that metric or yardstick, it can only be said that the present government in which Mangala Samaraweera has played so big a role has grossly over-promised and grossly under-delivered. Worse, the present government stands accused of the same corruption in government that it has failed to prosecute its predecessor for. This is not to take way from the encomiums that Samantha Power showered on him at the BMICH, but only to lament that things could have been and should have been done differently.
As Samantha Power said towards the end of her speech, “My country and your country are facing turbulent times … But critically, while our respective institutions have bent, they are not breaking in the US, and they are not breaking in Sri Lanka.” The only difference is that in the US, the ‘turbulence’ started after the 2016 presidential election, while in Sri Lanka a new government was elected in 2015 to put an end to the Rajapaksa turbulence that was beginning to churn and destroy Sri Lankan democracy. The felicitation of Mangala Samaraweera would have been a great deal more fulsome and authentic if he and Ranil Wickremesinghe had delivered even a quarter of what they handsomely promised in 2015. Were that the case, Samantha Power could have been spared the discomfort of travelling 8000 miles to felicitate Khema’s boy.