By Partha Chakraborty-
(Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA, is an economist, a statistician, and a financial analyst by training. Currently, he is an entrepreneur in water technologies, blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. Dr. Chakraborty lives in Southern California with his wife and teenage son. All opinions are of the author alone)
Some of my time in New York was spent in Tudor City, a neighborhood across the street from the 39-story hulking UN Tower. Some of my haunts in the neighborhood were favorites of the diplomatic community, and, like all New Yorkers, I have stories of inconveniences around UN shindigs happening every-so-often, of parking wars where smirk of those with diplomatic immunity stays etched forever in memory.
By the same token, I came to know some of the most genuine, and well-meaning, people who spent much of their waking hours inside the gilded cage of the building, or in their own refuge close by.
Even they would be hard pressed at times – scratch that, most often is more like it – to tell you why they exist. Not their fault. The fundamental ideas, and implementation mechanisms, that created the institution they serve in, have come under serious flak for a long time.
I reckon that those high ideals will be visible only in their absence going forward.
The UN Charter talks about living “in peace with one another as good neighbors,” about maintaining “international peace and security,” about creating institutions and methods that allow for no use of armed forces “save in the common interest,” and about “promotion of economic and social advancement of all peoples.”
Look around you, you will see only failures of UN Secretariat and the UN system; the Secretariat itself employs 36,000 people globally, and UN System employs several hundred thousand, not counting loaned contingents of peacekeepers.
Seven million dead due to COVID are a good example of how the UN failed. Ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine is another. Ditto for North Korean intransigence. The Uyghur people, the metropolis of Hong Kong, the nation of Taiwan, victims of disasters in Haiti, strife in Sudan or Yemen… all of them could fare better if the glorious words of the UN Charter actually showed up in action.
Universality of good intentions for all nations was the axiomatic prerequisite for the UN to exist, at least over time, and UN existed to provide a supporting structure, and define a few parameters around that.
After World War II, it seemed like a logical corollary of last few years’ mayhem. Evils of Nazism were vanquished, the world reckoned with the horrors of the Holocaust, imperialist Japanese expeditionary ideas dealt with decisively. It was a time for peace, of renewal, of humanity. So was born a league of nations that would eventually grow to 193 members.
In a world brimming with idealism and hope, a supreme Security Council was created with checks and balances – a.k.a. veto by a permanent member, all five of them (US, Russia, China, UK and France). Needless to belabor, it created equal-opportunity offenders. Except that, some were more equal than the others, over time.
As it stands now, two of the five permanent members of the Security Council – with veto privileges – are autocratic, both run by coteries with no regard for human rights, freedom of expression, or right to life. One of them is currently engaged in a war with a much smaller neighbor in a naked aggression that defies reason. The second engages in pogroms inside its own borders against ethnic minorities and other freedom-minded peoples, maintains distant police outposts within sovereign nations, blatantly uses bribery and handouts to buy puppet regimes, not to mention conducts frequent incursions into counties with dreams of making it on their own. If there is a murderers’ ball for countries, each will be a guest of honor.
Two others in the club of five are hardly effective, just because they are. Both are imperialist hegemons of the past – a baggage not easy to get rid of. One of them is part of a landmass I previously called the “flyover continent” for a good reason. The second, technically part of the same continent but wishes it were not, is no better. In that country this week, a doddering septuagenarian will toddle atop a throne to mumble incoherently, giddy in his stolen regalia that the mama’s boy is at last the token ruler of a people in decline for decades. Combined, these two have GDP that is about half of one of the other two we talked about before.
Four other members of the Security Council, combined, just about matches the GDP of the fifth member – the US. The US spends more on defense than the four others combined. If the US is supposed to be the economic engine – and the peacemaker – for the world, the United Nations surely fails to give her a full-throated recognition. In a multi-polar world that the UN Charter creates, US can be forgiven if it is frustrated in its zeal to bring justice to the perpetrators of 9/11, or to bring peace in the Middle East. Any nation with ambition, and economic might to boot, can likewise be frustrated that the system also works the other way around.
The future I see is not even of multilateralism, forget universality of good intentions. I see multi-axial world where the UN exists as a perfunctory busybody, if at all.
One of the axes is the “Free World” – a coalition of the willing who profess and practice free and fair elections, freedom of speech, respect and coexistence with ethnic minorities, rule of law, ease of intra and cross-border commerce.
I do not expect any one of them to be perfect at any point – democracy demands of peaceful battle for power amongst competing interests and ideas, but I do expect them to be vibrant in their experiment and search for a better plane of existence. Naturally, the “Free People” – denizens of the Free World – will find solidarity with other members of the tribe. They are, after all, the chosen people because of their own volition, and hard work.
Who will lead this coalition? The US – as leader of the Free World of today – is the most natural contender. US shall be the center, but there will be other bright spots in its orbit.
If you are asked to name the most vibrant democracies in the world, three names come at the top – the US, India, and Israel. Make no mistake, none is perfect, and each has its own unique flavor.
Geographically, they straddle the world, almost as three legs of a table. Israel and India boast lineage that goes back thousands of years. Both struggle internally to maintain a multi-ethnic/religious/cultural milieu in the face of incursions from across the border and destructive interests within from all sides. The role of the judiciary as a check-and-balance in a parliamentary system is a big concern for both lately. Pursuit of a more perfect union is an ideal in the US that is often more celebrated in its denunciation than the actual pursuit. US still grapples with its original sin, unfortunately.
Still, there is a thread of common interests and ideals that binds these three. Each is a collage of peoples who came from outside. Armed forces in each – every single day in their independent existence – have observed the supremacy of civilian leadership.
Above all, each is a vibrant democracy. As an Indian, I talk about the Emergency and its aftermath to any who question India’s allegiance to these high ideals. As an American, I point to January 6, 2021 and how the (wannabe) emperor’s servants caught him with no clothes. I expect an Israelite to name the minority voting block that plays kingmaker in times of most need. None is perfect, but each still stands up to be counted.
As importantly, each brings to the table garnishments that make the soup more delectable. India has historically maintained close relationships with countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and South / Southeast Asia – ties that bound over India’s erstwhile leadership of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and, its cultural pollination, Bollywood.
As the most populous nation on the planet, India now boasts diaspora relationships in every single country. Israel is the startup nation, a nation bubbling with ideas and technologies at the next frontier of economic progress. It is also a nation of unabashed support of its defense interests, and capacity acquired over time to flex its muscle. The US, of course, is a supersized example of all of the above – Hollywood, not Bollywood – less deep in some cases.
Taken together, the three countries create a formidable triumvirate that is willing and able to counter any concentration of power in any other emerging axis. Taken together, they form the biggest – and the most distributed – center of economic heft and the promise of its peoples. Taken together, they can bring a fight to the doorstep to any demon and make Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) a multi-dimensional chase, and hence more potent. Taken together, they are the emerging guardians of the world, bigger than any Thanos, more persuasive than any Dr. No, more creative than your worst imagination.
They may be able, even willing. Are they ready?
By Partha Chakraborty-