Navigating an Altered Landscape: Finding India’s Place in a Changing World

Shyam Saran

Mr. Chairman, members of the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust, members of late Shri Bhatia’s family, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman. I wish to thank the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust for inviting me to deliver the 18th Annual Memorial Lecture. I consider this an honour and a privilege.

Shri Prem Bhatia was one of the towering figures in the history of Indian journalism. He personified the highest professional and ethical standards throughout his distinguished career. The norms that he set and the excellence which he achieved, set a benchmark for the media profession. He was associated with and nurtured several of India’s leading dailies, including the Statesman, the Times of India, the Indian Express and, of course the Tribune, and fully earned his enviable reputation as one of India’s finest journalists and editors. Of course to us in the diplomatic profession, his remarkable contribution as India’s envoy to Kenya and to Singapore, was greatly admired. This was one of a piece with his pioneering contribution to reporting and analysis on issues of foreign policy and national security, a relatively uncharted domain in newly independent India. His success in the relatively brief foray he made into the field of diplomacy earned him the respect of India’s foreign service which is famously sceptical of the ability of those outside the tribe to handle arcane nuances of the diplomatic trade.

I met Shri Prem Bhatia on just a couple of occasions, so I cannot claim to have a personal insight into his personality and character. Nevertheless, in his writings, covering an unusually broad spectrum of subjects, one can discern a personality, possessed of a spirit of fierce objectivity and courage, and, above all, a liberal humanism which he zealously guarded throughout his life. I consider it an honour to deliver this lecture to honour his memory.

We live in a world which is changing in front of our eyes and changing at an increasingly rapid pace. One may call our era the Age of Acceleration, an age where the only constant seems to be the certainty of even more change. As a child, I used to play the game “joining the dots”. When the dots were joined, one experienced the Eureka moment of having made sense of something that had been hidden, or only hinted at, but now emerging with both definition and clarity. Today, we live in a world where the dots keep shifting even as we try and join them and the challenge before us is to make sense of a slippery dynamic that defies definition.

What explains this constant flux that now rules our lives? It is mainly the acceleration we witness in technological advancement. The computing power of a micro-chip in our mobile phones, is equivalent to several acres of main–frame computers that would have been required a generation ago. The volume of data and the speed with which it can move across vast spaces, is difficult to comprehend. And yet, scientists tells us, we are still far from reaching the limits of this technology. There are other domains where potentially disruptive technologies are in the making. This included nano-technology, advanced materials, bio-sciences and artificial intelligence. These developments are pushing the frontiers of knowledge into largely uncharted territory. We do not know how they will interact with social, political and psychological systems that change only slowly. Human beings are seduced by novelty, but they are reassured by familiarity. Technological change has altered our global landscape. The recent global financial and economic crisis was, in a real sense, caused by the mismatch between the scale of technological change and the adaptability of institutions of both domestic and global governance. What is worth noting is that recovery can never be a return to the pre-crisis terrain. And yet that what we seem to be seeking. Unless we find new instruments of governance, we are doomed to suffer similar crises in the future, perhaps even worse than the last. An altered landscape, which is still in the throes of further change, is no longer amenable to being managed by the tools that were fashioned to deal with an altogether different environment. Yet our predisposition to familiarity and precedent makes us reluctant to down these tools and look for new ones.

Let me point to some of the characteristics of the emerging landscape. It is, in my view, dominated by three critical domains, a terrestrial domain that is increasingly defined by the maritime space, an extra-terrestrial domain which is space-related and lastly, extending both along the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial, cyber space.

As a globalized economy has become more entrenched, as the interconnectedness and integration of economies across the world continues apace, the maritime sphere becomes a critical factor, impacting directly on the overall security of nations. In a recent article in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf has pointed to the fact exports of goods and services as a proportion of World GDP, went up from 20% in 1990 to 31% in 2012; the FDI stock, as part of world output, rose even faster, from 9% in 1990 to 33% in 2012. Ocean going trade now constitutes well over 90% of total trade. The dependence on maritime trade is even more compelling, if we consider the movement of energy resources, particularly oil, and other strategic commodities, such iron ore, coal and, more recently, rare earths. Resource security is now integrally linked to maritime security.

The maritime domain is also in flux. The melting of Arctic ice due to global warming, for example, is opening up new and much shorter sea-routes between Europe and Asia reducing shipping distance by over 40%. From just over 4 cargo vessels in 2010, the number using the North-East passage along the Russian Arctic coast has already reached over 200 last summer. New ports and infrastructure are planned along the Russian and Norwegian Arctic coasts. If the current trends continue, it is estimated that over 25% of world shipping may be traversing this route, instead of traditional passage through the Suez Canal by 2030.The Arctic may also hold over40% of the world’s known energy and mineral resources, which the melting of ice is making accessible. The economic profile of the Arctic littoral countries, in particular, the US, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, would increase and so will their strategic importance. Whether this will retard or even reverse the current ongoing shift in the centre of gravity of global power to the Asia and Pacific region, remains to be seen, but cannot be ruled out.

The critical role of the maritime domain also implies that countries which can deploy significant maritime capabilities and which can project power over vast ocean spaces, will be the more influential nations of the future, not those who continues to allocate resources to large and increasingly less effective land forces and weaponry.

Let me now turn to the domain of space. Much of the world’s communication systems, its information and media infrastructure, navigation and surveillance systems and resource survey platforms are based in space. The number of operational satellites orbiting in space has grown from just a handful 50 years ago to about 5000 now. These space-based assets are indispensable to modern economies, but they are also vulnerable. This was brought home to the world by China’s unannounced ASAT test in 2007. The space domain is now completely woven into the fabric of our lives on earth, through few of us fully comprehend this reality. In the none too distant future, space travel may become as ubiquitous as air travel today. The colonization of other planets, the exploitation of rich and rare minerals that lie buried in their soil and their use as remote platforms for future explorations of outer space, are no longer in the realm of fantasy. It stands to reasons that countries that have mastery in space sciences and ambitions programmes for future growth, will be significant players in any future world order.

Let me now turn to cyber space, which is a complex hybrid of both terrestrial as well as extra-terrestrial domains. It is terrestrial in the sense that it is dependent upon a vast and dense network of fibre-optic cables that gird our planet, embedded both in land as well as under sea. It is extra-territorial because it is also connected to all the space based systems referred to earlier. The virtual reality which cyber space creates and maintains, depends upon both land (including maritime) based and space based platforms which are interconnected and enmeshed in a complex and continually expanding system. Again, it is difficult to comprehend how much our day to day living and functioning currently is dependent upon this interconnected cyber space. And yet it is only a little over 50 years since the satellite age was born and only 30 years since personal computers and portable phones came into existence. The worldwide internet which created a global cyber-space is only a little over a generation old. Many of us in this room have lived through an era where there were no televisions, let alone computers, mobile phones or the internet. And yet today, we cannot conceive of a modern economy and a modern society in which cyber space is not an indispensable and pervasive reality.

This also implies that countries with advanced cyber-capabilities will possess a most powerful instrument both for economic advancement and enhancing national security. It is a resource which is unique because it is not material or tangible. It is nevertheless, a virtual network that no nation or society can opt out of and survive as a viable entity. Interconnectedness is no longer a choice. It is a fundamental condition of modern living and interconnectedness is most visibly manifest in cyber space.

Cyber space is also different in another aspect from the maritime and space domains. It is both a platform but also a resource in itself. Unlike the other two domains, is also generates knowledge. It is a force multiplier. The ability to collate large amounts of data generates information. Using advanced software capabilities one is able to analyse this information. This provides knowledge and knowledge leads to insights, which then trigger the next cycle of even more complex and value-added processes. It is difficult for us to understand how powerful an instrument modern man has at his disposal, an instrument that could propel civilization to unprecedented advancement. It could lead to enhanced freedom for individuals and societies that defies imagination. But it could also lead to mass enslavement and misery that may have no parallel in history. I will come back to this theme briefly before I conclude my remarks. For the moment, I would like to place before you how these different phenomenon intersect to bring about the change in our global landscape and the challenges we confront in managing this change.

The first challenge we face is that our institutions of governance, both domestic and global, are based on sector-specific knowledge and management systems. These systems are unable to collaborate in delivering multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral responses which an interconnected and globalised economy requires. We think of the recent global financial and economic crisis as essentially related to failures in the financial and banking sector. We deploy the instruments specific to those sectors to deal with the crisis, including both fiscal and monetary responses. What we fail to understand is that the financial overleveraging which triggered the crisis was only a symptom of a much deeper crisis, a crisis that resulted from resource over-stretch as much as financial over-stretch. It also fails to take into account that the instant transmission of information as well as misinformation, made possible through the cyber domain, perpetually creates a bundle of shared perceptions across borders, which are not subject to domestic or international control. In the face of such phenomena domestic governance structures have become increasingly ineffective International governance structures either do not exist or are lacking in the capacities needed for coping with new challenges.

Resource over-stretch has also exposed the inter-relationships among different resource areas. Thus, it is now impossible to deal with food security without, at the same time, considering the impact of water security. Both food and water, in turn, are impacted by energy security. All, in turn, will be impacted by climate change. Each is no longer an independent variable. Each impacts and is impacted by what happens in other inter-linked areas. Furthermore, in dealing with these challenges, domestic responses are no longer sufficient. Because our world is so closely interconnected, and resources are so unevenly distributed, national or regional boundaries are becoming increasingly nominal. Our national interventions are impacted by what happens in the rest of the world. The world itself is affected by what may happen even in a remote corner of the world. Therefore, unless we are able to fashion instruments of domestic and global governance that respond to this new compelling reality, the world will continue to be subject to periodic and perhaps escalating crises.

The second challenge lies in changing the enduring notion of competition among nation states as a means of enhancing national security, – national security which we now understand in a much more comprehensive sense rather than in narrow military terms. A unique feature of the emerging global landscape is the increasing salience of cross-cutting issues, which are not amenable to national or even regional solutions for reasons already referred to. Global health pandemics such as avian flu may arise in any part of our world, but spread across vast regions in a very short time. During trafficking or international terrorism, maritime piracy or environmental pollution are other cross-border challenges that require a collaborative response. And, most urgent of all, the world faces a Climate Change emergency, which is being exacerbated by national and regional actions, particularly in the perpetuation of energy-intensive patterns of production and consumption. In creating global regimes to manage such cross-cutting issues, the negotiating process remains competitive where each country tries to maximize its own benefits and minimize perceived costs. Yet if every country follows the same principle, this would inevitably result in a least common denominator result rather than on a scale appropriate to the challenge we confront as humanity. Moving away from the age old tradition of negotiating in a competitive frame to fashioning collaborative responses that are equal to the global dimension of the issues we confront is a mindset change that is least evident in our world today.

This brings me to the dangers we face in continuing to apply the competitive framework in managing the maritime, space and cyber domains which define our world today and will do so even more in the future. In the maritime domain, will we continue to seek maritime security through a competitive build up of our respective naval forces or create an architecture of mutual reassurance? In the space domain, will we recognize that space based assets are now critical to our functioning as modern societies, any disruption of which may have disastrous consequences for the economic and social welfare of people across the world? Do we acknowledge this and build a space regime which ensures the safety of space-based assets, prohibit the deployment of space-based weapons and enables cooperation in dealing with issues such as space debris? The alternative would be a competitive build up of ever-more sophisticated offensive capabilities such as ASAT weapons which would exacerbate mutual distrust and suspicion. And lastly, in cyber space, do we agree to draw up and follow norms and guidelines which enable the healthy and mutually beneficial growth of cyber space or do we perpetuate and intensify the anarchic and even dangerous dimensions of this powerful capability?

Cyber space, as I pointed out, is unique in that it is both a platform as well as a resource, though a resource which is intangible, not material. It has spawned a vast network of interconnected individuals across national borders. It has created an ever-expanding knowledge pool which has unleashed a surge of creativity and innovation across world. In this sense, it is liberating, it is democratic, it is life-enhancing. However, it is also a most powerful instrument for any predatory state to invade the privacy of its own citizens and citizens of other countries. It could become an unobserved, unregulated medium for shaping perceptions, feeding prejudices, preaching hatred for less than noble motivations. The capabilities available in cyber space enable a vast surveillance network to operate without visibility, but giving the state and its agents, the means to control the lives of ordinary citizens, threaten their freedoms and, worst of all, subjugate their minds. This capability, in the hands of a state which defines security in the contemporary world, as requiring its pervasive control over its citizen’s thoughts, relationships and political persuasion, may lead to a new, more debilitating version of authoritarianism than ever seen before. The state’s acquisition of such unprecedented power and authority is being pursued by sustaining the fear of terrorism. The danger of this new authoritarianism will soon eclipse any danger from terrorism. Democratic and liberal societies foster fraternity and fellowship among citizens. Instead, we see that fear is being spread as a means of making citizens complicit in the restriction of their freedoms. The reaction of the U.S. administration to the Snowden affair, for example, is a grim warning as to what may await citizens of democratic societies, which fall prey to the kind of fear psychosis which is being used to justify the use of powerful tools of control which were never available to the old authoritarian states. In order to prevent more Snowdens from emerging, for example, public employees in security agencies are being required to keep tabs on their fellow-workers.

So where does India belong in this transformed landscape? India is, and will remain, an influential actor in the emerging global order, precisely because it has demonstrated capabilities in all the three critical domains I referred to. It is already a maritime power with a strong regional though as yet modest global reach. These capabilities are expanding, though not as significantly as a long term strategy would dictate. It is one of the handful of space powers and, despite frugal resources, it has developed sophisticated capabilities which are comparable to the best in the world. And lastly, in cyber-space, India has a well-established and internationally acknowledged capability which marks it out as one of the handful of countries that can deploy both defensive and offensive capabilities. It is precisely these capabilities which provide India with the opportunity to lead the world into creating global governance structures that are based, not on the competitive principle, but on an understanding that only collaborative responses will be able to deal with the inter-linked challenges posed by these emerging domains. India has a stake in the norms and standards which such global regimes will eventually adopt. But, since India is and will remain a key player in each of these domains, the world, too, has a stake in India being a part and parcel of these regimes. India’s absence from these regimes will make them ineffective. This is a powerful leverage in our hands but we will need a careful well thought out long-term strategy to use it to be able to shape the emerging global order.

I would also hope that India remains true to its plural democratic order and the liberal and humanistic values enshrined in its constitution. These are the values that Shri Prem Bhatia endeavoured to cherish and uphold. India should deploy its capabilities to empower its citizens, expand their freedoms and promote the spirit of innovation and creativity among them. The temptation to follow the negative lead of the world’s technology leader, in this respect, must be resisted.

I recognize that the current state of our country does not match the potential that our capabilities in the three critical domains provide us with. Nor is it certain that we will continue to develop these capabilities as technologies advance to ever higher realms. I do believe, however, that it is more likely that India will advance, though perhaps in fits and starts, because it is a plural, diverse and extraordinarily interactive society. The mobile, the internet and other social media, are enabling Indians to converse and interact with one another and with citizens across borders, on a scale that is unprecedented. The innate creativity and innovative spirit of India’s peoples is being unleashed on an unprecedented scale. Harnessing this extraordinary energy will require leadership which understands the altered landscape in which we live and leads in putting in place institutions and processes that are appropriate to this changing landscape We have an advantage in that we are not already locked into a pattern of energy and resource intensive economic development model which characterises China and much of the world today. This is a model which belongs to the past. The future will be built upon its deconstruction. India has opportunity to fashion a model of development which draws upon its democratic impulses & its store of capabilities in the new domains, and helps shape a global order that promotes collaborative responses to cross-cutting issues, rather than the competitive outcomes that belong to a world that no longer exists. In becoming the thought leader in this respect, India will find its own place in the world, its own destiny.

I thank you for your attention.

Jaideep Hardikar
Receiving Award Ms Shalini Singh
Receiving Award Speaker
Mr. Shyam Saran Trustees
With Award Winner