M D NalapatFriday, December 05, 2014 - Although many regard the 21st century as being the Asian century, such a forecast is far from becoming a certainty. The countries collectively known as the “West” did not reach their exalted status over the past three centuries by accident. Within their societies, the rights of each citizen were more secure than in any country in Asia.
It is no accident that it was those countries where the rights of the individual vis-a-vis the state were protected (as for example France or Great Britain, as the UK was known then) which outstripped others in prosperity as well as in conquest. A country such as Russia (which had nearly half the land area of the European continent) made only slow progress, because it remained an autocracy under the Czars while in France, the monarchy was abolished and in the UK, for hundreds of years, kings and queens had to surrender much of their powers to Parliament and the people. At the root of the UK’s success in crafting an empire that spanned the globe was the individualistic nature of that country’s people, who each of them had the confidence to experiment and excel. In contrast, the leaden hand of the state crushed initiative in Russia, even though the population of that country is suffused with powerful minds. A liberal culture is core to achievement.
Some may say that China has shown that such a proposition is not necessarily true, in that it is an authoritarian state which has clocked up hugely impressive rates of growth, matched in the past only by Rome under Julius Ceasar. However, while it is a fact that elections do not take place in China, yet in several other aspects the citizens of that country enjoy a range of freedoms in their personal and professional life that were absent during past dispensations. Women in particular have personal liberty at a level seen elsewhere only in the highly developed economies of North America and Europe. Within China, the territory of Hong Kong has emerged as the location where the carrying out of business is the easiest, in contrast to Mumbai, where - despite India being a democracy - setting up and running a business (honestly) is a nightmare. Should authorities in China seek to limit other personal freedoms of their citizens in addition to their rejection of a system of elective office, such a move would impact growth.
Already, the knowledge economy in China is under performing relative to its potential because so many websites are out of bounds, and so many “search” words turn up blanks. Blocking websites and seeking to restrict content may bring a few short-term advantages, but in the longer haul, such moves will not only be rendered ineffective by advanced anti-blocking technology but knowledge development within the country would suffer. When Frederick the Great of Prussia said that his people “were given the freedom to say what they liked” (including abuse about their ruler), he was being wise, as he was aware that such venting of emotions had very little effect on governance. Indeed, Frederick’s maxim was that his subjects were free to say what they liked, but he reserved the freedom to do what he liked! Countries where there is greater freedom of thinking and of expression are harder to take to war than those where citizens are suppressed. Both the US as well as the UK parliaments voted against moves to get directly involved in the conflict in Syria in 2013, a choice that indicated that lawmakers had a better understanding of reality than those in government. Had the UK and the US destroyed Bashar Assad’s forces (as was being demanded by Turkey and Qatar), by now ISIS would have been ensconced in Baghdad and Damascus.
While the Assad government would not meet the Good Housekeeping test of wholesomeness, it needs to be remembered that Hafiz Assad and his successor ensured peace on the Golan for four decades, a peace that was lost only when the latter was weakened, including by actions of Israel, who has been in lockstep with Turkey on matters concerning Syria. Indeed, several of the policies being adopted by Binyamin Netanyahu are in effect toxic to the interests of his country, exactly as were some of the actions of his hero Ariel Sharon, especially in Lebanon in 1982 as also in his emasculation of Yasser Arafat, the PLO supremo who in 1993 publicly approved Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s decision to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel.
The reality is that for Israel, Yasser Arafat may have been less than perfect, but weakening him opened the way for Hamas, which is a far more potent threat than the PLO in its present condition. Those who abandon the bearable in a search for the perfect usually encounter trouble in the future, just as Netanyahu is now doing with Abu Mazen, the head of the Palestinian Authority, who too is way more accommodating than others delighted at the baiting of him by Israeli politicians. Asia needs peace between its states, but in this context, both Turkey and Israel, although located within the world’s largest content, are in fact outposts of Europe. It would do much good were Europe to admit a country which has a Muslim majority and another with a Jewish majority into its fold, but such a future may have to await a time decades later when there will be almost as many Muslims than Christians in France, and where Muslims will account for a third of the population of Germany.
In case of Israel, there has always been a sometimes overt, usually covert resentment against Jewish community in Europe, perhaps because of superior per capita brainpower of this small community. These days, that prejudice is becoming more obvious, although it is being directed more against the State of Israel than the Jewish people as such. For example, there is much international criticism of Israel calling itself a Jewish state, but fact is that several of its neighbours style themselves as religious states. Even if such, it is important that conflicts be avoided. Generating a liberal outlook within societies, so that others not be harshly judged because of differences in lifestyle, is core towards a century of peace in Asia. In place of intolerance and hatred, the people of Asia must veer towards the avoidance of violence in matters concerning other states in Asia. 100 years of peace is possible in Asia, provided statespersons of that continent accept and operationalise what their people already know, that war will hurt both “winner” and “loser”, while peace is good for all.