Sunday July 03, 2022

Climate and nationalism

July 12, 2020

Anatol Lieven, the renowned author of several books, including ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’, has recently published another important book, 'Climate Change and the Nation State'. He makes the case for nationalism – despite its decidedly divisive record – as the way to resist and overcome the lethal consequences of climate disaster. Lieven is sympathetic towards Pakistan. Accordingly, his comments on Pakistan in the context of climate change are interesting.

In support of nationalism, Lieven quotes Milan Kundera: “A man knows that he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life.” Accordingly, nationalism “which seeks to prolong the life of the nation” provides the context in which people can be persuaded to make the necessary sacrifices to meet challenges to the survival of their nation, including climate change.

Lieven notes that in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the absence of a strong state nationalism cripples its ability to pursue successful development – and in the worst case can destroy a state altogether. There are no prosperous societies in weak or failed states.” His sense of the importance of strong states backed by strong nationalism stems from his experience of Pakistan “which has proved much stronger than most observers predicted when it comes to surviving.” The problem, however, is that “the Pakistan state does not seem capable of doing much more than surviving.”

Lieven goes on to say that in Pakistan “for more than 30 years one vital reform promised after another founders on the reefs of predatory and uneducated political elites; an ignorant and indifferent population; a demoralized, corrupt and amateur bureaucracy; a fundamental lack of state legitimacy; and ethnic, social, regional and sectarian divisions that feed political paralysis and make any collective effort difficult.” As the effects of climate change really kick in and desperate people become uncontrollable by civil law-enforcement agencies, “militaries will be drawn inexorably into domestic crowd control and repression.”

Lieven observes that in Pakistan what is dreaded is the prospect of using troops for this purpose in the regions from which the soldiers are themselves drawn. If militaries are to avoid this situation of having to act as armed police, they need to do everything they can “to prevent climate change and other developments that will make such a role inevitable.”

Across most of the world, Lieven argues, “the military is the single most important institution when it comes to mobilizing the forces of nationalism behind climate change action”. However, it is not clear what role the Pakistan Army has played with regard to climate change, and whether or not it is even desirable for it to play any such role, other than reducing its own carbon footprint. Nevertheless, Lieven believes that “modern military establishments are by their nature modern in a way that political establishments do not have to be.” As a result, the “modernity of military thinking can play a helpful role.”

Given Pakistan’s experience with both open and furtive military rule and its debilitating political legacy, such a statement is surprising. A military-led “modern” nationalism, especially in the case of Pakistan which today is only half the country it was due to such divisive nationalism, is not the way to bring about the required national transformation and national unity to combat the effects of climate change.

Lieven refers to two reports on the dangers of climate change by scientists of MIT, which indicate the probability of extreme and prolonged heatwaves in South Asian and Gulf countries by the last quarter of this century which will “make it impossible for human beings to work in the open for much of the year.” Agriculture will be severely damaged. A 2018 HSBC report put South Asian countries, including Pakistan, as among the most vulnerable to climate change, and Pakistan behind both India and Bangladesh when it comes to the capacity to respond to climate risks.

Moreover, “in both India and Pakistan, water shortages are causing friction between upriver and downriver provinces. Should the water crisis become truly disastrous these tensions have the capacity to spur both separatist movements wanting to secure water supplies, and violent state reactions against them.” Lieven does not explain how a military-led nationalist and elitist stifling of democratic political development can help resolve such challenges. While military relief operations have been outstanding successes, military political interventions have not. Whatever the state of civil society and democratic governance in Pakistan today, their transformational improvement – not military and elite dominated governance – remains the only hope for Pakistan.

What is required is nation-building through good governance, not an elite-constructed nationalism which distorts national priorities and institutionalizes misallocation of scarce national resources. Without prioritizing human resource development, providing basic services, and human rights protections, no nationalism can even begin to address existential challenges.

As Lieven himself points out, “in Pakistan the elites simply laugh at the tax collectors.” Unfortunately, this is all elites and there is no exception in this. Any nationalism that rests on the structural status quo can never generate political, economic and social transformation. It cannot mobilize the nation to confront existential menaces such as climate change. Nationalism in multi-national societies also runs the risk of generating alienated sub-nationalisms.

Accordingly, Lieven’s thesis that the challenge of climate change can be addressed within the corporate capitalist economic model and the “democratic” political paradigm via the reforming potential of modern nationalism is dubious. He wishes to save the world from death by climate change which stems from the excesses of the economic and political orders he wishes to reform and preserve. His support for a transformative Green New Deal is correct. But it is hardly compatible with a military-led elitist nationalism.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.