In the Long Term
Posted on 1-January-2008
Time past and time
Much as I try, I, like most of my fellow human beings, cannot escape the enslavement of my mind to the conventions of dividing time into minutes, hours, days, months and years any more than I, who was born a Hindu, can escape the convention of considering the beginning of a new year in the supposedly Christian calendar as the universal beginning of a new year. Since I never underwent the spells of Christmas and new year myths, I have not been a slave to the revelries of the season. I sit quietly at home this night and think boring, worn out thoughts about the past and the future, about the different perspectives of time from which we look at the world. Two such perspectives from which we look at politics, economics and society are the short and the long term. One of my assumptions has been that while we have often no option but to find quick, not fully considered, even messy solutions to many contingent problems of life, it is prudent not to turn our gaze away from the long term consequences of what we do now--an assumption which means that a wise man will not hesitate to give up a short term advantage for a long term gain. Years of observing public affairs have taught me that such wisdom, so obvious to any bridge or chess player and even to the elusive 'common man', is not so common among politicians and statesmen to whom people delegate or who arrogate to themselves the authority to shape public policy.
An Arab I knew--a kind of man a journalist would readily cite to illustrate opinion in an Arab street--distraught at the rout of the Arab armed forces in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, said to me in the days following that war that in the end the Arabs would be victorious both because their cause in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was just and because the world would eventually see the advantage of backing the much larger Arab 'nation' against the unfair occupation of Arab lands by Israel. He also thought that the Americans were being extremely short-sighted in their unconditional support of Israel. I not only thought that there was much force in that Arab's argument but also thought that there were many in the West and in the United States of America who held similar opinions. In all the years that have passed since then the support of the USA for whatever Israel does in the occupied territories has remained undiluted; there are no signs of complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories; Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have continued growing and peace in the former mandated territory of Palestine seems more distant after the conference of Annapolis than it was in the months and years following the adoption of the famous Resolution 242 by the United Nations Security Council. The violence between Arabs and Israelis continues to grow and what is seen as an injustice caused to the Palestinian people is probably the justification most often cited by those Arabs and Muslims who indulge in and organise acts of violence and terrorism against the West. In all these forty years neither Israel nor the United States of America has shown much concern for anything beyond the immediate and the secular nationalists among the Palestinians have steadily been losing ground to Islamic militants.
Ever since the end of the Japanese occupation of Indochina, the French and then the Americans tried one expedient after another to shore up different regimes in Saigon, Vientiane and Phnom Penh with the sole purpose of preventing the Vietminh, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao who had fought the anti-colonial battles of the region, from taking power. When one pro-French or pro-American government failed it was replaced by another pro-American government or when Sihanouk would not co-operate on American ground operations in eastern Cambodia he was replaced by Lon Nol. Even the now condemned Pol Pot regime was not so untouchable in the beginning because he was supposed to be keeping the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. The process of installing and propping up different friends of 'the free world' in Indochina continued till the military victory of what the Vietnamese used to call 'the patriotic forces'.
At the height of the civil war in Angola, the government of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) had facilitated Western logistic support and supply of arms to the guerillas of Jonas Savimbi in their fight against the Marxist government of Augustinho Neto, then in power in Luanda. In 1977 and then again in 1978, some Zairean rebels, supported by the Angolan regime of Neto nearly took over the Zairean province of Shaba and almost toppled the Mobutu regime. Mobutu who by then had firmly established his reputation as a kleptocratic dictator was shored up by the French and the Americans acting in tandem. I had the opportunity to witness in the first half of the 1980's the extent to which the American and French governments mollycoddled Mobutu even though sections of public opinion and some diplomats of both the countries considered him so unsavoury a character that they thought it wise for their governments to distance themselves from him. It was a mark of Mobutu's unpopularity in Zaire that even in 1982 or 1983 many Zaireans would talk with respect of Patrice Lumumba more than two decades after his liquidation (one Zairean once pointed one of Mobutu's ministers to me saying he had personally dissolved Lumumba's body in an acid bath). Western support for Mobutu weakened only after the major changes of the second half of the 1980's in the political map of southern Africa. By the time Mobutu left the scene, the Zairean state had become so dysfunctional that the disorder that ensued his departure continues even now.
In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, whom the Americans and the British had been prompting to join hands with Parvez Musharraf after parliamentary elections in January this year so as to give his quasi-military regime a modicum of democratic respectability, was assassinated five days ago in circumstances which it will take a long time to clarify. There are people in the USA who describe this killing as having shot a big hole through American diplomatic efforts in Pakistan. Others are asking for a radical departure from the present policy of supporting one man, Musharraf towards that of supporting Pakistani democratic forces qua democratic forces. Yet the chances are that in the days to come the British and the Americans will work for an arrangement in which the victors of the forthcoming parliamentary elections will join hands with their main ally in the 'war on terror', Parvez Musharraf whose own democratic credentials are rather dubious. How long such a dispensation will last will have to be seen. In fact the rather deep American involvement in Pakistan has been designed to serve different American policy interests of the moment: Ayub khan and his generals were indispensible allies in the policy of containment; Zia-ul-Haq and his mujahedin were frontline allies against Soviet troops in Afghanistan and even the democratically elected Benazir Bhutto found herself on the same side as the Americans in trying to accommodate the now execrable Taleban because that policy promised at least immediate economic advantages.
If we turned from politics to the question of the environment which has become the flavour of the moment especially since the award of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace to Mr. Albert Gore and to the United Nations Intergovernmental Group on the environment, we would not find much cause for cheer. It is now over 35 years since the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, 31 years since the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, 15 years since the Earth Summit, 11 years since the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements and 10 years since the meeting that finalised the Kyoto Protocol. Each of these conferences emphasised the damage caused to the environment by human action, the urgent need to take remedial action and set ambitious goals. We are far from achieving any of the targets and as the latest recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize have separately pointed out, the state of the earth's environment is more perilous and the need for remedial action more urgent than previously thought. Both Mr. Gore and the Intergovernmental Group, and with them the media, lay stress on the problems caused by the emission of greenhouse gases. There are other forms of spoliation of the earth that the different international conferences talked about that are less mentioned these days but which are equally worthy of attention nonetheless: the erosion of the topsoil, deforestation, biodegradation, depletion of aquifers, overexploitation of mineral resources. If the international community has not done better than it has on protecting the environment it is because of its failure to grant to the long term interests of mankind the importance it deserves.
Whether I think of politics--not only of the four different examples I have described above but of politics generally--or of the way we have treated the environment, I wonder about the myopia of politicians, governments and communities and search for an explanation. I wonder if it is in the very nature of Western capitalist societies--and of all other modern societies which to a smaller or greater degree seek to adopt the standards set by Western capitalist societies--to plan mainly or only for the short term. For a Western economic or financial planner anything more than one year is already medium term. What guides governmental action or the action of business corporations are concerns with this year's inflation and economic growth, interest rates six months later, the next year's profit, the latest banking crisis caused by sub-prime lending, the slump in automobile industry, consumer buying during Christmas. Likewise, politicians worry more about the next election or about the poor performance of their party in the latest local elections than about the latest glacier in the Himalayas that has melted or about the declining earnings of cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast even though the price of chocolates may be rising or about the root causes of Islamic terrorism. When I hear the ceaseless talk now in the USA of the war on terror, I am reminded of one conversation. In 1991, I was part a group with a senior Indian official in a meeting in the USA with a senior and influential Republican. At one stage the conversation turned to South Asia and the Persian Gulf region. We expressed our apprehensions about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as we had begun to be concerned about it. Our American interlocutor did not react. He may have thought this was our way of talking about Pakistan. But more probably in that year in an America excited with its victories in the cold war and the first Iraq war, no one worried about such questions, not knowing that barely ten years later the USA would be engaged in a 'war on terror' in different Muslim regions of the world.
I wonder if this near exclusive concern with the short term does not also have something to do with two other factors. Those who are reasonably well off or those who are wealthy without a worry about their basic needs and more, can live in the present, splurge and indulge, take pleasure in exhibiting their riches, confident that their tomorrow will be like today, paying no more than lip service to the long term. Those who have only a little often have nothing more than their hopes for a better if distant future to go by. Others among the poor toil and save, putting together bits and pieces to build a better future for themselves and their children. Then there are the really wretched who have only their hope for the life hereafter to live with! Secondly a powerful and wealthy state can concentrate on dealing with the present, find an immediate solution to the present crisis and have the confidence that it will deal with future problems as they come. The more powerful a country is the more indifferent it can be towards the unsolved problems it leaves for the future or towards the plight of other peoples.
What if the West in the four examples I have described above had shown a little greater concern for the long term than it has actually shown? An energetic effort in 1969 or 1970 towards persuading Israel to withdraw to the 6th June 1967 line and towards persuading the Arabs to not insist on the physical return of all the Palestinian refugees to their original homes in what had become the state of Israel would have saved so many Arab, Jewish and other lives, created a more peaceful Middle East and given would-be Muslim suicide bombers one less cause for anti-Western anger. If in 1945 the French, and in 1954 the Americans had recognised the Vietminh, and their allies in Indochina for what they were, that is, nationalist forces fighting against the colonial power to gain national independence and allowed them to peacefully take over in Vietnam and Laos, so many Indochinese and American lives would have been saved and America would have been a less militarised nation than it became. If the United States of America had been more wary of Belgian, French and British mining interests driving policy in the Congo and thought of investing in the welfare of a people ravaged by one hundred years of rapacious Belgian colonial rule, there would have been less pauperisation and armed conflict in central Africa. If in Pakistan the USA had been less enamoured of the generals and allowed a civil society and democracy to thrive it would not have to worry about the rise now of anti-Western Islamic militancy there and there would probably have been fewer or no armed clashes with India. But for all this to happen the West and in particular the United States of America, the leader of the capitalist world, would have had to rise above their calculations of immediate short term interests. Likewise, if after the Stockholm conference on human environment in 1972, the international community, with the developed industrialised countries, as the major consumers of the riches of the earth, in the lead, had set about rethinking and refashioning the goals of economic development, we would not today be looking at the possibility of major natural and human catastrophes in about fifty years from now. And, on the plane of individual action, if the affluent of the world had started to curb some of their more extravagant habits of consumption, they would have set in motion a change in the ethic of modern societies in which the two most important objectives are ever more consumption and ever greater growth of the GDP--a change that would make a difference for the long term future of our species on this planet.
But this is New Year's day, a day to rejoice in and celebrate. Why have these dark thoughts about the distant future or laments about what has been or what could have been? In the long term, as Keynes said in his too often quoted remark, we shall all be dead.