The Brave New World: Glocalized, Contaiged and Splintered

Three portmanteau words were lying orphaned, neglected. The Ukraine war has given them new refuge in the pens of respectable writers. Contagement, a hybrid of containment and engagement was a policy, though not by this name, evolved during the years leading to WW II. Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland in March 1936, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In March 1938, he annexed Austria. In the summer of that year he demanded that Czechoslovakia hand over Sudetenland to Germany; in all three cases Hitler justified the demand saying that the majority in these areas was of German origin. The response of Britain was to have a series of meetings between the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler where Italy and France also joined. These “powers” decided that Czechoslovakia should succumb to Hitler’s demands and then peace would be restored. Within a few months, Hitler seized the whole of Czechoslovakia. Then, these Western nations promised protection to Poland but Hitler occupied it nonetheless and the war started. The engagement through appeasement turned to war even as containment failed. Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, annexation of Crimea in 2014 and invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led to promises for protection. World leaders made a beeline to Ukraine, physically or online, to give assurances that Ukraine is not alone. Yet, Ukraine is fighting it out alone while others are giving weapons, helmets, food and shelter to war refugees. Ukrainians have turned out to be tougher than the Poles and Czechs while the Russians have displayed lesser commitment than the Nazis and the West is drumming success. Can engagement continue even as vigorous sanctions are put in place for containment?

The US and Europe have been engaged with Russia for its oil and gas, the developed world for its cheaper weapons. After the initial panic, the former have found that there are alternatives to Russian hydrocarbons. Wars tend to bring enemies together for limited purpose and duration as Hitler’s war had made the US and Russia allies for the duration of the hostilities. Overtures are being made to Venezuela and Iran for political engagement and Iran is already increasing oil production in anticipation. The Saudis have infrastructure in place to increase production by 5 million barrels per day (MBD) but they need assurance that prices will not be allowed to go below pre-invasion levels. Biden has already committed to the release of one MBD for six months from the US reserves of 750 million barrels. One positive outcome of the crisis could be that countries may opt for larger buffer stocks and that could act as price stabiliser in the future. As for weapons, the developing countries know that Russia is more dependent on exports than they are on imports. Exercise of a fair degree of neutrality is not going to cause much turbulence in this mutual dependence. Russia was expelled from the Human Rights Council, India abstained once again and the US made muted murmurs showing that contagement is a better alternative to steps that could lead to a hardened division into opposing camps. China has continued its engagement with Ukraine to meet its food imports while voicing support for the Russian position against the eastward expansion of NATO. Unlike during WW II when disruption of international trade was considered a minor inconvenience against the greater good of destroying an evil dictator, international trade is a potent firefighter today.

Glocalization is the other hybrid that has been gaining currency in the face of an increasingly aggressive China. Local while remaining global looks contradictory but has been adopted by the likes of the US, India, Japan and South Korea by incentivizing the shifting of manufacturing from offshore to onshore and to smaller low-cost countries from China. China itself has decided to join the band wagon of glocalization with Xi Jinping’s policy of Dual Circulation that aims at reducing China’s dependence on foreign trade for sustaining its humongous manufacturing capacity. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) and Modi’s “Make in India”, even as India rapidly expands its engagement with the world through bilateral and multilateral arrangements, point to glocalization not being as oxymoronic as appears at the first blush. Yet, as China and Russia increasingly become losers in this new game, the axiomatic truth is reaffirmed that benefitting from the existing world order while aggressively threatening it will not play out in the long run.

The third hybrid “splinternet”, though christened in the West, has China as its birth place. The Great Firewall of China excluded the Chinese from the internet as we know it and created an alternative online universe for them. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are all banned in China as are millions of sites and webpages that use any of the words banned by China. During the episode of the tennis player Peng Shuai accusing the former Deputy Prime Minister of raping her, not only her name but even the word “tennis” was censored. Now Putin has followed suit with heavy censorship, banning Facebook and laying down rigorous punishments for violators. Calling Putin’s misadventure into Ukraine as a “war” or even an “invasion” results in a jail term of up to 15 years. Friends and neighbours are being rewarded for reporting the use of prohibited terms even in casual conversation reminding one of the social and domestic split caused by the hated and feared Stasi in communist East Germany. In both Russia and China, the splinternet has resulted in stultifying freethinking and innovation and the flight of free minds. On April 13, 2022, the New York Times in an article “Russian Tech Industry Faces ‘Brain Drain’ as Workers Flee” revealed that the climate of fear in Russia is resulting in planeloads of young Russian techies moving to other countries, with up to 70,000 having already left since the war began and 100,000 more likely to follow. Although hi-tech is not dominant in the Russian economy today, it would have become important as the world moved away from oil and gas. With the current exodus, that future prospect is gone. Wars hit in areas not foreseen by warmongering dictators as the world saw the boost given to science in the UK and US by the Jewish scientists fleeing the Nazis.

Emergence of words like Glocalization, contagement and splinternet shows that the word-based structured speech, which is a unique trait that distinguishes humans from other species, ensures that when a word fails, a new word is born to fill the need, at least in societies where words are free.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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