Log In   

April 29, 2022

International Relations

The March of Folly

By Nitin Desai


The March of Folly

India should work for an alliance of like- minded neutral states to restrain the adversaries in the new Cold War

Nitin Desai

Barbara Tuchman, the American historian, wrote the book, March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, which if updated would certainly include the Russian and US failures in Afghanistan, the interventions by both powers in West Asia and the present Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The US follies were more affordable for the protagonist and less disruptive for the domestic economy than what the Russian invasion of Ukraine means for the aggressor country. The only basis for Russia as a superpower is not its economy or conventional military capacity but its vast nuclear arsenal, which hopefully it will not use in Ukraine, though it will inhibit direct engagement by NATO forces in the conflict.

Substantial conventional military capacity cannot subdue fierce domestic resistance in the invaded territory as the Russians should have learnt from their experience in Afghanistan and as they are now experiencing in Ukraine. Ukraine is using a clever underdog strategy against a Russia that is proceeding on a predictable campaig based on its military power that is overwhelmingly larger than Ukraine’s.

Russia may win some battles and occupy scorched Ukrainian territory. But it cannot win this war even if it ends up occupying all of Ukraine. It can declare a military victory, but it will remain subject to local resistance, strong sanctions and remain a pariah state in the eyes of the West. It will lose the economic links with Europe, which are central to its economic viability. It will be forced into a subordinate position in an alliance with China.

What then are the implications of this scenario for global geopolitics over the next few years?

The first optimistic but low probability outcome is a rapprochement between Russia and Europe, which rests on the possibility of Vladimir Putin being ousted because of the impact of economic sanctions and unexpected military setbacks. Another factor that could drive such a rapprochement is Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas and Russia’s dependence on access to European markets. The fact that Europe is continuing to import energy from Russia and has carefully exempted the banks it uses for making payments for this from the sanctions suggests that this rapprochement is not entirely unlikely. However, the probability of such an outcome in the medium term is low with the strident demonisation of not just Mr Putin but also Russia

The second and most likely outcome is a new Cold War dominated by China and the US-NATO, with Russia playing a junior partner role to China. How long this will last and how disruptive it will be for global geopolitics and the world economy will depend on two factors. First, Russia may find its subordination to China unacceptable because of their competing interests in the Stans of Central Asia, and Russia’s memory of its earlier superpower status. Second, new Cold War tensions will depend on what China considers more important — its geopolitical claims and ambitions in the South China Sea and Taiwan or its economic, technological and investment linkages with the West.

At present, it appears that China will remain cautious in the projection of power in Taiwan and the South China Seas because of the potential impact of Western sanctions on its economy. Moreover, its heavy dependence on access to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, markets and investments from the developed world will lead it to be a mild propagandist in the new Cold War rather than a fierce adversary to Western powers. The mildness will be reinforced by the heavy dependence not just of the West but also Asian countries on trade and financial relations with China.

The third very pessimistic and, unfortunately, not improbable outcome is that Russia, thwarted further by Ukraine resistance and Western support for Ukraine, escalates the war by using tactical nuclear weapons or chemical attacks. Western engagement in the war would deepen and could lead to an all-European war if the conflict extends to border NATO states like the Baltic republics, which also have Russian speaking citizens. This could well become a global war with the inevitable US engagement and a possible Chinese involvement.

There is one subsidiary outcome that has significant long- term implications and that is the emergence of Germany and Japan as military powers moving away from restraint to higher military spending and a change in the willingness to project power abroad, at least by supporting allies. Given their economic and technological capacity, this will have a significant impact on the power balance in Europe and East Asia.

India is caught in the middle of this geopolitical tension between the US-NATO and China-Russia. Its defence dependence has been a greater constraint on geopolitical choice than trade dependence; but it has walked the tightrope well. However, it needs a medium to long-term strategy to cope with the new Cold War and the threat of escalation. The most important component of this strategy should be to reduce its defence dependence on the super-powers. This will take time and will require interim arrangements to better balance the dependence on Russia and the West, which has been happening in recent years, and at the same time building up domestic capacity more rapidly.

Beyond this country-level strategy, India has to consider the possibility of a global alliance that could act as a coalition of restraint on the two adversaries in the emerging geopolitical conflict. The voting on the UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council provides a starting point. The 58 countries which abstained resisted pressures from both adversary camps and did not take sides. They include, besides India, virtually all South and South-East Asian, most West Asian and significant African countries and also some key Latin American countries like Brazil and Mexico. The abstainers account for about 25 per cent of global gross domestic product in purchasing power parity prices and 50 per cent of the global population, which is a measure of the weight of their influence that exceeds that of the old non-aligned movement.

If and when the geopolitical conflict gets entrenched, India can take the lead to form a Third Force with the others who chose to abstain in the UNGA vote. This Third Force would stay away from the military, diplomatic and economic conflict and act as a restraining force on the global spread of conflict, preventing the European conflict from becoming an implicit or explicit Third World War.

The next few years, perhaps even the decade ahead, looks grim not just from a geopolitical perspective, but also by what is happening in the economies of major countries and what will happen if the current conflict escalates. We will see more examples of a march of folly. Our policy should be to stay away from these marches and be prudent in forming strategic links.

Comment on this article
Already Registered? Login in to your account