Renowned Urdu writer, playwright, and broadcaster Ashfaq Ahmed used to give long talks on PTV. A collection of these talks called Zavia was later compiled and presented in a multi-volume book series. In one of these talks, he shared a Chinese story. I couldn’t independently verify if it comes from a Chinese source. But it is a story with a good moral. So, here it goes.
Once upon a time, a poor old man lived in a village in China. He had a son and a beautiful horse. Everyone including the king wanted to buy this horse but despite his crushing poverty the old man refused to sell the horse claiming that it was a family member. One day it ran away. People came calling him unlucky and criticising him for not selling the horse in time. The man said it was only a phase of life, not a great tragedy. Three weeks later the horse returned accompanied by twelve similar horses. People came again congratulating the old man. He said the same thing. Only a phase of life. Then his son tried to train these horses, fell, and broke his leg. People called the old man unlucky and he repeated the same words. Then one day war broke out between the kingdom and its neighbours, all young men were drafted to fight but not his son because of his broken leg. People came again envying him for escaping the ordeal of sending his son to war that they were going through. And the old man exploded. This, he said, was only one part of the ebb and flow of life. Passing judgment on one such phase was stupid and just proof of their inherent myopia. The crux of the story? Most people cannot see the forest for the trees.
As journalists, we are conditioned to pay attention to small details. So are our career-adjacent pundits. This goes on until in your haste to cover each ball you lose sight of the broader context of the match and the entire series. Here the addiction to the adrenaline rush leads to the addiction of dopamine release. See, I am in the know, you say to the world. And your audience just laps it up. But when each step is a victory who cares where you are leading the crowd.
Two recent examples come to mind. The appointment of the DG ISI and the so-called new cold war between the US and China.
The former DG ISI had to be rotated out after completing his stint in office. Let us not kid ourselves that the position is insignificant. But it is a job after all and until this country is spared of the tribalisation of the state institutions one day every official has to be replaced with another. But as it happens on the day of the appointment, we saw many of our colleagues tripping over each other to sing hail to the new chief. Did they know the new intel chief personally? Well, I am aware of a very few media colleagues who might be well placed enough to have known him as a friend during his career. They are unlikely to brag and despite that, you can tell them apart. The rest, like me, are the dwellers of the ground floor. So, what is the point in making a joke of yourselves?
The second big example. The certainty of the international relations punditry here and abroad that the die has been cast. Alea iacta est. That the new cold war entails that any minute now China will invade Taiwan, that India and China will fight a war, and India, in its regrettable hubris, will open another front to fight Pakistan. Alright. But are you aware of who you are listening to? This is the lot that cannot agree on the fundamental definitions of this discipline. There are so many theories in the study of international relations that your mind wilts and dies while taking stock. Predictably, none of them could foresee the end of the last cold war. And they are going to tell you when the new cold war will start, between whom and how it will unfold? Sure.
I have nothing against the discipline of international affairs. In fact, I love it. But after such embarrassing lapses, its experts can do with some humility. In the dying days of the cold war, Paul Kennedy taught us how a multidimensional study of history can help us make sense of contemporary developments and make broader assumptions about the future.
Seeing through that lens you realise that nothing is set in stone. That the world order you insist is fixed is not even born yet. That the Covid crisis and the challenges of climate change remind us that there are too many variables to decide just now. That with the disappearing microchips, rising fuel prices, and global food inflation apart from the rapidly colliding future it is plain that we are in uncharted waters where polarisation and wars look unsustainable.
So, what is the deal with the QUAD security dialogue, AUKUS, and the revived pivot to Asia? Certainly not more wars, hot or cold. For the past two decades America has done everything to keep China at the table and interested. Sometimes it takes a cruder shape like the policies of Trump, at other moments you see Obama using his charm and wit to gate-crash a meeting where the US is not invited to avoid commitments on climate change. The QUAD proved a stepping stone for Australia to sign the AUKUS deal. AUKUS, apart from providing mental comfort and business benefits to two critically important allies, puts pressure on China to come back to the negotiations. In this age, trade negotiations matter more than hard power. While pundits here were sounding alarm about China-Taiwan tensions, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, went and met with China’s Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi in Zurich. Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book Peril makes it abundantly clear that China and America have rigorous protocols to avoid conflicts and both countries have a joint constituency of peace among their top leaders.
Last week I promised that I will share in detail an explanation about President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on tech billionaires. Sadly, we have run out of space again. But these few pointers should do. The tech billionaires, with their rising fortunes and in some cases growing political influence, are giving headaches to the point nation-states around the world. The joke goes, in light of the 2016 Cambridge Analytica fiasco, if Facebook’s Zuckerberg so decides he can probably win the election for the highest office in any country of the world. History tells us that every nation devises its own method to deal with such a challenge. China and Russia have their own distinct styles. America, Europe, and other democracies will probably use a more procedural antitrust route to correct the course. But it looks like the time of a correction is nigh.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2021.
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