Updated: Nov 30, 2021
In July 1941, a few months before the United States had even entered the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had met for the first time in Newfoundland, Canada to discuss what would eventually translate into the Atlantic Charter. It defined the allied goals for a post war world, including self-determination for nations, economic and social cooperation between nations, freedom in the seas, and a plea for global disarmament; all intended to finally create a post war world free of ‘want and fear’.
The Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany just weeks before this summit, and there was widespread anticipation that they would also sign the charter. However, the prospect of a new world bereft of military alliances and strategic spheres of influences did not appeal to Joseph Stalin and he stayed out. Churchill himself was not thrilled with many parts of the charter, and wanted this to be applicable only to the countries under Nazi rule. He did not want them to be extended to the colonies. Nonetheless, Roosevelt’s persistence on the acceptance of these lofty objectives being a prerequisite for any US support to British war efforts did prevail.
Roosevelt died in office, just four months after his reelection that secured a record fourth term. The war ended in another few weeks. The charter itself was non-binding. It still gave the founding precepts that led to the formation of structures that still uphold the world order. Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman took forward the purposes and principles embodied in the Atlantic charter and paved the way for the United Nations. Even if we saw plenty of localized and territorial armed conflicts between nations across the world during the last seventy-five years, the United Nations deserves plenty of credit for ensuring that the most powerful of nations never went to war, and the dreaded nuclear conflict was avoided.
A wave of anti colonial movements strengthened and spread across the globe, including in Asia, South America and Africa. Countries including India got independence from their colonizers. Institutions including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, all had their seeds sown in the Atlantic charter, and were created during this period to assist the rebuilding of war torn Europe, and to aid the economic upliftment of the developing and the underdeveloped world, all under the watchful guidance of the United States.
Countries including South Korea, Japan, and even China would not have had their economic ascendancy without the support of these institutions. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, a unipolar world order led by an increasingly hegemonic United States, with western liberal democracy set to be the last standing form of governance, seemed like the inevitable finale. Francis Fukuyama termed this the end of history itself.
Three decades since, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Technology, the driver of our current age, has played the biggest role in this change in trajectory. The Internet in the late 80s was still in its rudimentary form, used by computers in select networks to send files and emails. The first website was launched only in 1991. The digital space has exploded since then, and now has almost 2 billion WebPages, and 5 billion Internet users. Digitization accelerated with the arrival of smartphones and mobile Internet. Social media platforms and aggregators have created possibilities of forming communities and markets on an unprecedented scale. The biggest companies across sectors are all from the digital realm. The Internet provided avenues of economic and social mobility for billions. Highlighting the absolute dominance of technology in these times, eight of the biggest ten corporations are now in the tech sector, with their balance sheets significantly bettering those of most nation states.
New age innovations have made it possible for us to envision a planet with unlimited resources - including food, water, energy and good health. They are also creating unprecedented improvements in productivity and economic output. However, some of the aftereffects of this rapid technology proliferation have been counterproductive. New jobs in this tech driven age are dwindling down, creating fresh fears of mass unemployment and rising inequalities. Rising public dissatisfaction arising from these qualms has drastically altered socio-economic policies and political discourses across the world. Cutting edge technology is being used as an effective tool by authoritarian regimes, and autocrats, across the globe to tighten their grip on power, and undermine electoral practices. The biggest of technological firms have also become influential enough to subvert national institutions, distort markets, and challenge state power, even in the most robust of democracies.
Our world still has several highly unstable borders, perpetually in danger of full-scale armed conflicts. Violent internal clashes plague many countries. Nonetheless, cyber attacks and biological weapons, waged by state and non-state actors that could cripple critical infrastructure and grids any given day, have now globally become the preeminent national security threats, far outweighing the dangers of outbreaks of conventional warfare.
Even outer space has swiftly become a major theatre of great-power rivalry. Space is providing new-fangled areas of economic activity, including tourism, travel and mining. Space weapons provide considerable tactical advantage. The arrival of crypto currencies, digital currencies and decentralized finance (DeFi) promises to democratize finance, and create a redistributive system that could make the digital economy fairer. They could also overhaul the legacy banking and financial systems that since time immemorial have been under the purview of governments, central banks and gatekeeper intermediaries.
Sixty five per cent of the world’s GDP would be digitized by 2022. We are also at the cusp of a bigger, paradigm shifting tech wave, led by next generation technologies including 5G/6G, Artificial Intelligence, BlockChain and Quantum computing. This would fast forward digital transformation. Data would be the main raw material that drives these technologies. American and Chinese corporations with their superior capability to harvest data from domestic as well as global markets are gaining a decisive head start over their competition. The Chinese might even have edged ahead in many of these vital strategic technologies that would drive the digital economies of our future.
Sea routes still remain the backbone of global trade, with over 80% of the volume of international trade in goods carried via waterways. The Indo-Pacific region itself handles 60% of this aggregate. Global maritime trade volumes are projected to triple by 2050. Further expansion of the Indo-Pacific marine trading routes, especially in the South China Sea, and opening up of the Arctic waterways would make the long upheld, existing maritime security and trading frameworks obsolete.
Asia is fast emerging. The nineteenth century belonged to Europe, and the twentieth belonged to the United States. Asia is on track to make the twenty-first century its own. The region is expected to generate 50 % of the world’s GDP, and account for 40 % of global consumption by 2040. The global economy’s center of gravity that was in the mid-Atlantic in the 1980s, has now drifted to a location east of Bucharest, and is projected to be located between India and China by 2050. The region contradictorily also contains the epicenters of conflicts that could one day escalate and engulf the whole of earth. Asia is also home to 99 of the most climate threatened cities in the world. The continent would have to navigate these gravest of challenges, if it is to scale unmatched heights.
Our existing institutions meant to maintain collective peace and security, and encourage global economic development and growth are now deemed inept and antiquated amidst these sweeping transformations. The UN Security Council is an apt microcosm. Three of the main pillars of our world - India, Germany and Japan, alongside major nations from South America, Africa and West Asia are still waiting for their permanent membership. This influential club that commands decisive influence on world affairs is still limited to the winners of a war that ended three quarters of a century ago.
It has become a frequent phenomenon for leaders of the US and UK, often alongside their G7 co-members to pronounce expanded and updated ‘New Atlantic’ charters. Nonetheless, some of the principal drivers and influencers of current age find themselves in the periphery of these discourses and frameworks. The major stakeholders that attempt to direct these institutions are moving further and further away from global center of gravities. The levers that allowed them to direct world affairs, and thus sustain the global order have steadily deteriorated.
The developed world, and the developing and poorer countries that hosts 80 % of the world’s population, are still a long way away from even finding common ground on a just and equitable roadmap for handling pressing issues like global warming and climate crisis. The establishment of BRICS bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in recent times, would all lead to an increase in the degrees of separation in a multipolar, multilateral world, where the United States and China would be the biggest amongst many poles.
Time for the creation of a new charter based on current world realities, and future trajectories is fast approaching. Institutions and frameworks established and restructured for these rapidly evolving and uncertain times could bring an end to this period of mounting turmoil and instabilities. This could set us back on course for lasting peace and abundance.
India has experience spanning several centuries, even millennia, in the creation of multifaceted, multilateral structures and frameworks. These have been ever evolving. They have subtly held together, and have carried forward our population that is more pluralistic and diverse than what we might find anywhere across the globe. The world’s largest democracy has also steadily and responsibly risen since independence. We are on track to be among the three largest economies and militaries by the end of this decade, without ever displaying hegemonic traits throughout our ascent. This history, and our current trajectory should give India a key role in shaping the new world.
(Anil K. Antony ; the author is a tech entrepreneur, public policy commentator and works on Congress's digital initiatives).
An abridged version of this article was first published by the author in South Asia: Challenges of International Politics, Technology & Human Rights.