India: The Shining City, Atop the Hill

India: That Shining City, Atop the Hill


There’s a nasty fact of life that the United States (and NATO) don’t seem to want to willingly grasp about Russia, China, and to some extent India: life historically has little value in this neck of the woods when compared to the needs of the state. It might seem callous to put it like this, but it should be recognised that treating life as a material input worked as an effective, though bloody shortcut to development for both China and Russia. 


Both were giant factories where human lives went in one end and a productivity benefit came out the other. It’s in this context of ethical flexibility that the West needs to view the Russia-China dynamic with the world. The world’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and we’re not in Kansas anymore. 


At least 20 million Russian workers died in labour camps during Stalin’s bloody reign. This was then copied by Mao who visited Stalin and picked up large financial support as well as a copy of the dictator’s handbook and a tip or two on how to develop an industrialised communist nation from scratch. Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the death of between 30 and 45 million peasants and farmers. Their grain was seized and exported to Russia to accelerate repayment of loans granted by Stalin and later his immediate successor, Kruschov. For a communist, I have to say Mao understood the dangers of being at the wrong end of the magic of compound interest extremely well. 


While in public the deaths were not accepted, Mao’s stated ideology behind closed doors was that some had to perish for the others to live well. It’s not exactly rocket science that if you have the free output of the bottom ten percent of people without needing to bear the cost of their productivity, and after they’ve produced then one doesn’t need to bear the cost of keeping them alive, you’ve bought yourself a massive one-time economic gain, though probably not one that’s going let you glide past the gates of heaven anytime soon. (Not believing in heaven is probably a good first step in dealing with that.)


The siren’s song of Unbridled Development. And at a cost that’s as expensive or as cheap as you choose, depending on the value you put on the lives of your populous. Given a free hand to unilaterally decide the number to put into that equation, both leaders chose zero, and deaths at that magnitude leave a cultural hangover that lingers long after the lights come on. That’s a tempting bender, especially if you can cover it up with a little hair of the dog after and you’re not the one picking up the tab. 


Russia and China are nations that have a cultural pain they bear for the millions sacrificed for their belief in the communist experiment and relentless desire for industrial development, a pain they can’t quite articulate but which bleeds through in their actions today. Dealing with nations with such a cultural cross to bear requires a level of tactical empathy that only India has the past, and present, to bring to the table without a whiff of hypocrisy. 


The West seems always surprised when Russia and China make statements that are blatantly untrue or unilaterally break agreements, but the fact is they’re openly not playing by the same rules.


It’s not that the Wolf Warrior and the Russian Bear are working hard to hide their modus-operdi. It’s very thinly veiled that they’re going to go back on their agreements, and often lie at the negotiating table, and if the West decides naïveté is the way to deal with this situation, then as far as they’re concerned it’s for the West to pay the price for that privilege. 


It would be more rational to heed the words of George W. , whose words seem to age like fine wine:  “ There's an old saying in Tennesse… I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennesse…. that says, 'Fool me once, shame on... shame on you. Fool me ….. ummm….you can't get fooled again.


This level of acceptable ethical flexibility is unthinkable in the enlightened western view, and it is unimaginable in the India of 2023. However, India is the only lower-income country in the G-20 going through a real time development transition during this time of stretched diplomatic relations. India has an understanding of the pain of having to choose the lesser of two evils and has the authenticity of experience to take a lead in building bridges of trust and partnership in an increasingly multipolar world. As a developing nation in transition, India can’t always build a Hospital and build a Satellite, we often have to make the choice to  build a Hospital or build a Satellite. And, unfortunately, the reality of life is that often the technological growth saves more lives in the long run, and increases the pain of loss on our citizens in the short run. 


This is a choice the leaders in India still have to make. In India any one individual life is not cheap, not even to the government, similar our Western counterparts. However, in India, lives as a whole are cheap when weighed against the practical needs of statecraft and development, similar to our Chinese and Russian counterparts. India is now the only nation with the size, ability, and credibility to use tactical empathy to make harsh messages land softer without leading to a world where our children know the sound of sonic boom of jets flying overhead. It’s not as unthinkable as one would imagine and we seem to be awakening just in time to assist in building common ground between our sparring partners. 


Given President Xi is essentially leader for life, and by the third party congress in 2037 he’ll be the tender age of 84 and almost old enough to run for President of the US, playing by new the rules of pure nationalism and self interest is something the world of diplomacy is going to have to start getting used to. 


Is it the Indian Elephant that can get the Wolf Warrior, the Russian Bear, and the American Eagle to coexist in this animal kingdom? At the end of the day we’re all inhabitants of the same jungle, probably best not let it burn to the ground. 


It is India’s place and responsibility to step up, and to take its place as the beacon of hope, as That Shining City, Atop the Hill. 


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