Grouse of silence

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CALENDARS are invidious things. They divide continuous time into finite years, beginning each with a New Year abundant with optimism and ending with an Auld Lang Syne cringing with regrets. This year is no different. In a few days, 2016 shall be set in amber; 2017 is as yet an unformed crystal.

It would be a foolhardy crystal-gazer who would dare predict what the next year will bring. More surprises, like the Trump victory? More disappointments, like the Brexit referendum? More senseless conflicts, more destruction, more Aleppos?

Or, closer to home, more brimstone spewed by a choleric Mr Modi? More obsessive tilting at PML-N windmills by a quixotic Imran Khan? More callous disregard by the government towards the norms of responsible governance? Or just more of last year’s stale helpings?

Over the next four (and eight years, if Trump is re-elected) the world can expect to endure traumas on a scale last witnessed during the First and the Second World Wars. It took one man — first Kaiser Wilhelm II, and after him Adolf Hitler — to precipitate a change that decimated European monarchies and, 25 years later, to pulverise Europe itself.

Will it be more of last year’s stale helpings?

The generation that survived the 1914-18 war is now as much a part of history as the 38 million casualties of that brutal, mechanised manslaughter. At its outset, the British author H.G. Wells sensing its proportions assumed that it would be ‘the war that will end war’. The cannier politician David Lloyd George, who served as British prime minister during that war and then brokered the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, had good reason to be more cynical. He said: “This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.” Unwittingly, he supplied every muscular warmonger with an epauletted shoulder to fire from.

The Second World War is regarded by history books as having ended in 1945 with the defeat of Germany and of Japan. It could be argued that the Second World War never ended. Its scythe-like pendulum has never stopped oscillating between Cold War and Provocative Peace. That motion has been kept alive by the United States and what was once the Soviet Union, now Putin’s 21st century tsardom.

There was a time when the US and the USSR sought to checkmate each other with regional security blocs — Nato and Cento/Seato vs Warsaw Pact countries. Today, neither superpower needs such plaited fig leaves to hide their motives. Neither the United States nor Russia (nor now China) seeks absolute victory. Yet neither is prepared to concede total defeat.

Their newest weaponry is to induce economic leukaemia in the other, to debilitate the opponent to a point where it weakens into enervation and can no longer pose a threat. That might explain why, when president-elect Trump baits Russia with the threat that the US will increase its nuclear arsenal, Putin responds with the poisoned olive branch: “We will never spend resources on an arms race that we can’t afford.” His plan is to let the US compete with itself, and ultimately collapse fighting itself.

Will 2017 see Great Britain turn its back on Europe and revert to its 1,000-year-old history of geographical isolation? Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated that in the spring of 2017 she will sign Article 50, which would trigger two years of divorce proceedings from the European Union. All other elements of her strategy she has kept clasped securely in her handbag, a secret from the public, her colleagues and even her Queen, one of whose courtiers let slip recently that the Queen had been ‘frustrated’ by her prime minister’s pointed reticence. It was almost as if Theresa May regarded Elizabeth Windsor as a security risk, a sort of crowned WikiLeaks.

Whatever may be the twist and turns in any Brexit negotiations, one thing is clear: approval of the final terms and conditions is not a unilateral matter, in the hands of only the British. Britain may be on one side of the negotiating table but, across the channel, there are 27 European countries whose approval also needs to be obtained. Brexit may well become a slow death, death by a thousand ‘buts’.

Can Pakistanis expect any improvement in their lot in 2017? It is unlikely. Changes at GHQ and in the Supreme Court are essentially cosmetic. They do not change the public stance of either body. Any shift in government policy? Even less likely. The government continues to enjoy the advantage of having no discernible policy on anything except road construction: nothing on population growth, education, health, job creation, industrial expansion, fiscal sobriety, or water management. National problems like fish and chips are best wrapped in yesterday’s newspapers.

The Queen and Imran Khan share one grouse. Each has to deal with a prime minister unwilling to be forthcoming, or going.