Thursday, July 05, 2007

American Pie

Many questions and some answers on the Indo-American engagement. This article appeared in Mint, July 5, 2007

The Fourth of July is a good day to meditate on the role of the US in the world, especially its relationship with India. In recent days and weeks, there has been a lot of chatter on this issue, first with Condoleezza Rice’s call for India to abandon non-alignment, and then with the visit of the USS Nimitz to Chennai. The protest in Chennai over the arrival of a nuclear-powered, and possibly nuclear-armed, ship is bizarre. India, too, has nuclear weapons, has operated a nuclear-powered submarine, and hopes to operate several more, DRDO (Defence Research & Development Organisation) and DAE (department of atomic energy) willing, in the next few decades.
As a matter of policy, India does not reveal the location of its nuclear weapons. But for all you know, one of the locations could be in Chennai, maybe near Poes Garden. Considering that the huge Kalpakkam nuclear complex is within Chernobyl-distance of Chennai, the anti-nuclear aspect of the protest is ludicrous. On the other hand, if the protest is merely anti-American, well that’s not a problem. We are a democracy, after all.
In a recent review-essay in Washington Post, professor Joseph Nye ( thanks to 3quarksdaily) has pointed out about the US that “the centrality of values in our national myths has long led to oscillation between realism and idealism in our foreign policies”. More than shared ethnicity or common descent, the US is a nation that has been created by ideology and its identity is shaped by a set of values that it seeks to universalize. We are all familiar with America’s desire to reform and indeed remake the world in its own image in the Wilsonian tradition. We also know that in practice, America has undermined democracy, cosseted dictators, tortured prisoners and so on.
Yet, while we rightly criticize the US for Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or secret renditions, we would be wise to take a modest approach. Our own prisons contain hundreds and thousands of people who are yet to be tried. Where the inmates of Abu Ghraib were humiliated and psychologically tortured, hundreds of “anti-national elements” have faced brutal physical torture in our detention centres. There has been no accounting for thousands who have “disappeared”—many illegally executed by our security forces. Indeed, custodial torture is the norm, rather than exception in the Indian police system.
This is no excuse for American behaviour in their war on terrorism. But howsoever many the warts that have showed up on America’s face, the US has played a sterling role in putting human rights observance on the global agenda and pressured many brutal regimes to clean up their act. To paraphrase Nye, America’s self-image may have been based on a generous measure of self-deception, but its insistence that they are based on immutable values of liberty, equality, justice, tolerance have also pushed the world down the road to moral progress.

India, too, is a nation that is based on values rather than a common ethnicity, religion or culture. The original preamble that constituted India as a sovereign democratic republic spelled out these—justice, liberty, equality of status and opportunity and fraternity. Later, under the somewhat sordid circumstances of the Emergency, “secularism” and “socialism” were added. While the former was a prescient insertion, considering the direction that national polity was to take in the ensuing decades, the latter was a spurious genuflection to the poor electorate.

What kind of relations can these two, somewhat similar countries have? For most of the past 60 years, the US followed a policy of what Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph termed “off-shore balancing” of India by supporting Pakistan, and on one occasion China, to prevent India from assuming the regional role to which its size, population and capabilities entitled it.
Beginning with the second Clinton administration and coinciding with India’s economic rise, the US has sought to change course. The US offer to resume civil nuclear cooperation with India is only one manifestation of its desire to enlist India as an ally in the Asian region. In 2006, US officials openly spoke of the need to assist India to become a great power. Yet, the American blandishments come with a caveat. It’s clear from the perspectives emerging from the American strategic community that the US wants India to “bandwagon” with it, rather than become an autonomous strategic actor. The American perspective on non-alignment is one indicator of this. Another is its opposition to India’s dealings with Iran. Looked at anyway, India should be on friendly terms with the world’s second largest oil exporter and the holder of the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas. But what the US is saying is that India must tailor its policies to Washington’s global agenda and perspective, whatever be its own national interests. As for non-alignment, Condi’s comment was not inaccurate. Non-alignment will matter less and less in our current global trajectory. But till we get to that hightable—as an economic giant and permanent member of the UN Security Council—it’s not a bad idea to hang on to a property in which we have invested a lot. The somewhat incoherent 120-member body is both a lever and a hedge in our period of transition.
Because we live in an imperfect world, India and the US will continue to pursue policies shaped by their values, as well as narrow national interest. But, if, to use an old-fashioned imagery, history is a linear unfolding of the march to progress, then we can possibly think of a future where the two concepts will converge.

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