Weekday Squib: Tastes like chicken and top secret

Depicting the undepictable

Trevor Paglen could tell you, but then he would have to destroy you. But he’s written a book you could read—presumably without any danger to your life—on the Pentagon’s secret budget. Well, not the secret budget itself, but how black projects are visually represented through patches on military uniforms. As the International Herald-Tribune reports, these include “Skulls. Black cats. A naked woman riding a killer whale. Grim reapers. Snakes. Swords. Occult symbols. A wizard with a staff that shoots lightning bolts. Moons. Stars. A dragon holding the earth in its claws.”

Paglen’s website says

The symbols and insignia shown in the Symbology series provide a glimpse into how contemporary military units answer questions that have historically been the purview of mystery cults, secret societies, religions, and mystics: How does one represent that which, by definition, must not be represented? [Trevor Paglen]

Pragati April 2008: Give them their freedom

Issue 13 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents


The unkindest cut Salil Tripathi
The loan waiver keeps poor farmers where they are

Waiver of mass debt Vijay Mahajan
How that money could have been used to really change lives

Concerning senior citizens Mukul G Asher &? Deepa Vasudevan
Budget 2008-09 and the implications for a greying population

Waiting for modernisation Sushant K Singh & Nitin Pai
The dismal state of long term defence procurement planning

On the arms race in outer space


Foreign aid to Afghanistan; Water and climate change


Dealing with China’s power projection Harsh V Pant
A rising China will not tolerate a rising India as a peer competitor


It matters what generals say K S Madhu Shankar
The army chief’s worrying remarks on the India-China border

Options in Sri Lanka T S Gopi Rethinaraj
And the risk of Sri Lanka falling sway to outside powers

New language formulas Sujay Rao Mandavilli
From an unsatisfactory compromise to a liberal decentralisation


Tagore in China Stephen S Hay
Edited excerpts from Asian Ideas of East and West

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Never trust a man who reads only one book

For he is the worst among men

Captain Alatriste - Purity of BloodÍñigo Balboa y Aguirre, the thirteen year old narrator of The Adventures of Captain Alatriste, is being held in the secret dungeons of Toledo by the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. As he goes through the daily routine of being interrogated (spared the rack because he is not yet fourteen) he reflects:

Later, with time, I learned that although all men are capable of good and evil, the worst among them are those who, when they commit evil, do so by shielding themselves in the authority of others, in their subordination, or in the excuse of following orders. And even worse are those who believe they are justified by their God. Because in the secret dungeons of Toledo, nearly at the cost of my life, I learned that there is nothing more despicable or more dangerous than the malevolent individual who goes to sleep every night with a clear conscience. That is true evil. Especially when paired with ignorance, superstition, stupidity, or power, all of which often travel together.

And worst of all is the person who acts as exegete of The Word—whether it be from the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, or any other book already written or yet to come. I am not fond of giving advice—no one can pound opinions into another’s head—but here is a piece that costs you nothing: Never trust a man who reads only one book. [Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Adventures of Captain Alatriste: Purity of Blood p 159 (NYT review)]

Wages of the hyphenation

Chindia, that loathsome term

From Mint:

Earlier this week, in a speech he gave in Senegal’s capital city Dakar, Soros had a few blunt things to say about Africa. He said China and India are the new colonists of the continent, as they hunt for minerals and oil. “They are in the process of repeating the mistakes that the colonial powers have made,” Soros told news agency Reuters. [Mint]

This is what you get when people reflexively mention “China and India” in one breath. As Harry Broadman’s book, “Africa’s Silk Road: China and India’s New Economic Frontier”, published by the World Bank (and reviewed here in Pragati) reveals, the two countries have very different approaches towards Africa.

The book contains useful discussion of the differences in the behaviour of firms from China and India. The Chinese engagement in Africa (as elsewhere) reflects the top-down, state-enterprise led approach (88 percent of Chinese firms engaged in FDI abroad are government owned); while the Indian engagement reflects private-enterprise led bottom-up approach of its economy. Thus, it is a private-sector rather than a state-owned company from India which has recently acquired eleven coal mines in Mozambique. The Chinese engagement is much more strategic, focusing on key sectors, including finance. As an example, China has just acquired a stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank which operates in 18 different African companies. China is also using aid (such as its intention to provide US$5 billion to Congo to fund infrastructure) to develop strategic alliances with key resource-rich countries.

The author suggests that Chinese businesses exhibit “…enclave types of corporate profiles, with more limited spillover effects” (Chinese firms bring workers from China even for construction and other tasks when African countries have severe unemployment problem). Chinese firms are also known to be reluctant to provide sub-contracting opportunities for African companies, and to transfer technological knowledge.

The Indian firms on the other hand have pursued “..strategies that result in greater integration into domestic markets”, and they overwhelmingly rely on labour sourced domestically, even for managerial positions. Indian firms are also more likely to sub-contract to African firms. [Mukul Asher/Pragati]

While some of the bracketing is unavoidable especially in the international media, this hyphenation should certainly not be encouraged. [It is rather unfortunate that a member of Dr Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers should write a book titledMaking sense of Chindia“.]

Parag Khanna welcomes you to the tripolar world

The beginning of history?

Parag Khanna’s attempt to envision the big geopolitical picture for this century is noteworthy. Ahead of his book, he argues his case in a long essay in the New York Times Magazine (linkthanks Pragmatic):

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world. [NYT]

The main question befuddling students of geopolitics is how are post-Cold War multi-polar cards going to fall? Mr Khanna’s answer is that the United States, the European Union and China will be the three superpowers, and the rest of the big powers will constitute the “second world”.

What we can say about Mr Khanna’s thesis is that he underestimates the United States, overestimates the stability and diplomatic style of China and gives too much credit to Europe. And, in the essay at least, is selective in his analysis of demographic trends. But he makes one important point—that 20th century multi-lateral institutions will be increasingly unable to address the world’s challenges as they become increasingly less reflective of the global balance of power.

Regardless of current events—in Iraq, Afghanistan or in global financial markets—it is too early to write off, or even discount the United States as the pre-eminent global power. In fact, among the Big Three, only the United States is founded on “sound business model”: from democracy and capitalism, to immigration and creativity, it is hard to see how the EU or China could change sufficiently to acquire the necessary genes. Until China demonstrates that it can ride out a domestic economic downturn it is premature to place it in the same league as the United States. And let’s not forget that it too has increasingly acute demographic problems of its own. As for the EU, well, it remains to be seen how much geopolitical power it will have—as an entity—if it is no longer under the security offered by NATO.

Perhaps the book will provide stronger arguments, but there is too little in the article to conclude that the geopolitical configuration of this century will be a Big Three and the second world. US primacy in the coming decades is by no means guaranteed, but it is still harder to prove that any other country can match or overtake the US. Moreover the US will be the only power that is unchallenged in its own geographical sphere. Neither Brazil and certainly not Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela fit the bill of a serious geopolitical challenger. Not so, for the EU and China. The EU faces Russia, and possibly the Arab world, in its own geography. China faces Japan, India and Russia in Asia. In this reading, it is the US that could play a “swing” role in influencing the outcomes of these regional competitions.

Mr Khanna’s goal is to compel the United States to transform its foreign policy institutions and behaviour, which may explain why he has deliberately cast his thesis in this manner. It would be nice if it rankles strategists and policymakers in India as well.

Related Posts: By Daniel Nexon at the Duck of Minerva, by Hari at Thirty letters in my name, and by Ethan Zuckerman in My heart’s in Accra. [30 Jan] And Dan Drezner weighs in too.