Our collective future
CHINMAYA R. GHAREKHAN
Chris Patten’s take on the big questions about the global condition and the bumpy road ahead
WHAT NEXT? — Surviving the Twenty-first Century: Chris Patten; Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Enclave, New Delhi-110017. Rs.795.
Anyone who has read Chris Patten’s Not Quite the Diplomat, a highly readable memoir, would look forward to reading his What Next? It is a more serious work in which the author analyses, in simple and witty language, major issues confronting humankind in the 21st century and outlines answers to deal with them. When everything that can be said about the challenges of the day has already been stated in numerous books, it is not surprising that What Next does not contain too many original thoughts. What is distinguishing about this book is the ease and facility with which the author explains complex issues in simple yet serious tone.
What Next covers practically the entire gamut of issues, from proliferation to illicit trade in small arms, drugs to diseases and epidemics, water shortage to energy crunch, terrorism to climate change. One thing comes through repeatedly and clearly. Patten is a committed liberal internationalist. He has enormous sympathy and empathy for developing countries. If ever there would be a world government, the author would be a frontrunner for the job of Minister-in-charge of development. He is merciless in his criticism of the “hopeless and dangerous unilateralism of the first years of the Bush Administration,” which he admits, was a major provocation for his decision to write the book. He is very critical of the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq which, he says, “has made the world less safe and the effort to contain terrorism more onerous.”
The most serious challenge, he argues at length and with conviction, is global warming and climate change, an issue that cuts to the heart of how we manage our lives, our households, our societies. “The damage we are doing to our environment is perhaps the only one which is truly new in nature and in scale, the only remotely existential challenge that we face.” He is ‘moderately optimistic’ about solving the climate problem, despite the American government’s obstinate unwillingness to come to terms with the crisis. He is somewhat less demanding in his prescription than many others. He seems to believe that a call to go back to the 1990 level is not realistic. He says it is too late now to avoid a temperature rise of 2º C over the pre-industrial levels. “If we are lucky, we may be able to put the ceiling there; if we are unlucky, we will find ourselves in the danger zone beyond 3º C. So the task is to ensure that greenhouse emissions peak within 15 years and fall to half their present levels by the middle of the century.” In other words, he believes that it is not too late to start acting now. In the context of the climate change problem, the author quotes what Mahatma Gandhi said as far back as in 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” He calls upon the E.U. to demonstrate global leadership on climate change and adds that at the heart of any effective global agreement will be a settlement between the U.S. and China.
In an excellent chapter on terrorism entitled “Skies of Flame”, the author makes a distinction between “the war on terror” and “the war against terrorists”. He believes that the war on terror is essentially unwinnable. “Anytime you declare victory, you can find that your crowing is the precursor to this or that extremist strapping bombs to his or her body.” He cautions the readers against misinterpreting his view on unwinnability of the war on terror against leading to the conclusion that the battle against terrorists too is unwinnable. His intellectual integrity leads the author to admit that the world has made some progress in the battle against terrorists on President Bush’s watch despite his strategy but because of some of his tactics. A settlement of the Palestinian problem, he is convinced, “would do more to hack through the roots of terrorism in the Middle East than anything else.” He emphasises the generally recognised but unheeded need to reject the confrontational view of Islam.
Quoting Amartya Sen, the author believes that the only way to “win” the war on terror is to remember our humanism, the foundation of any global civil society. Democracies, he says, should live by their principles in fighting terrorism. However, he comes to what for him is obviously an unpleasant conclusion, namely, that “terrorism is something that is very unlikely to be expunged from our lives.”
Patten is a strong supporter of the U.N. despite its inadequacies and imperfections. He is highly sceptical of the proposed Alliance of Democracies. The importance he gives to China in the 21st century order of things comes through repeatedly but he is not ready to accord the status of a superpower to China. “If the Chinese are to become a superpower, they are going to have to square a lot of circles, solve a lot of problems, in the coming century.” He has a balanced approach towards non-proliferation issues. As for Iran, he has this to say: “If there was ever a measure of the degree to which America’s problems in the world are self-inflicted, Iran is it.”
The one problem with the book is its size, its verbosity. What has been expressed in 450 pages could easily have been compressed in about 350, without sacrificing any of its substance. All in all, however, What Next? is a one volume reference book, which libraries as well as individual scholars would find extremely useful for the study of the major challenges facing humankind today and in the years ahead.
(The reviewer, Chinmaya R.Gharekhan, is the author of “The Horseshoe Table: An Inside View of the UN Security Council”.)
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