Nuclear deal marks birth of the 'knowledge economy'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 October, 2008, 12:00am

If the freedom to legitimately and safely transfer goods, knowledge and ultimately one's self are the aims of globalisation, then the Indo-US agreement on nuclear commerce - due to be inked by US President George W. Bush tomorrow - is an encouraging message to people in Asia and Africa who lack all three. Ironically, it also signals the end of a process initiated by a president whose foreign policy is largely reviled and pushed through by a prime minister criticised for being spineless.

Yet, together, these two men have deconstructed one of the great myths of our times that pitted tradition against modernity and east versus west. At its core is the belief that the west - masters of science, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the modern lifestyles which flowed from these discoveries - is uniquely imbued to develop and manage the technology that defines modern living. In contrast, non-westerners, trapped by tradition and poverty, are culturally incapable of innovative science and are rendered nothing more than passive consumers of western science and technology.

The agreement forged by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush eschews these categories. At the nucleus of the nuclear agreement is the notion that innovation is not culturally or geographically specific but contingent on the free flow of knowledge. Hence, Dr Singh and Mr Bush crafted an agreement conceived at inception to erase barriers preventing the free flow of knowledge and designed to open the floodgates of hi-tech commerce.

With ratification, India automatically gets access to a host of technologies that the US placed on its notorious Entity List. This essentially 'safeguards' certain knowledge by restricting access to 'dual-use' technology that may be used for peaceful and military purposes. Congressional and Senate approval translates into America recognising that India poses no risk to proliferation. In short, India is now off the Entity List.

The Indo-US treaty is the second of the three great freedoms that modernity promises. The first was realised with China's re-entry into the global economy and the end of the western dogma of mercantilism in general and bullionism in particular.

This was a watershed not because China industrialised to become the world's workshop, but because the developed west was able to break free from a centuries-old mentality and accept, to a degree, that trade is more productive than hoarding wealth and industry. It was only because the west chose to buy Chinese goods that China was able to sell its products and pay for further industrialisation.

Even before the full effects of China's industrialisation are felt, approval for the nuclear agreement will repeat those momentous changes in the arena of knowledge by permitting communication between a whole class of technocrats, technologists and businesspeople. Essentially, the obstacles to the transmission of ideas and knowledge about a range of technologies, the ability to reprocess them and apply them in new and innovative ways have been demolished. In the era of what historians will one day term the birth of the Knowledge Economy, the consequences of easily accessible know-how cannot be overemphasised.

The results will be felt far more rapidly than China's industrialisation because, while manufacturing demands building up a base, research and development requires labs and scientists - both abundant in India.

The final freedom underpinning global aspirations for a modern future is the ability to move without let or hindrance. If an Asian imports knowledge and transfers money freely, then why should his body be subject to the oppressive immigration controls that are the vogue in the west? Mr Bush and Dr Singh have brought the world to the cusp of an economic, social and intellectual transformation. Future generations have their work cut out for them.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs.