Sunday, November 14, 2010
OBAMA VISIT II: The art and science of being an apprentice great power
After 60 years of being the object of American off-shore balancing, India is now being rewarded by a US policy reversal—it has, following the Obama visit, become an apprentice big power. Some of what that means was spelt out by Mr Obama during the visit, some will always be unsaid. Power comes with responsibility was one homily from Prof Obama, the other was a rebuke on India’s squeamishness in promoting the values of democracy and human rights. Left unsaid is the steep learning curve India has ahead in ruthless exercise of raw power and the bare-faced double standards that great powers are called on to employ.
There is nothing unusual in the American reversal related to India. China was actually seen as an enemy state by the US for twenty years before suddenly becoming a friend and an ally. In India’s case, at least, the US has mainly been a formal friend and well-wisher and a contributor of a significant amount of aid and assistance, in the 1950s and 1960s.
Circumstances change, and great powers like the US, change the objects of their affection. There is no sentiment here, it’s all a matter of self-interest. India has been lucky on this for two reasons. First, besides the sharply accelerated rise of China in the 2000s, there was the economic crisis of 2008 which acted as a brake on the US and actually increased the pace of China’s emergence as a world power. Second, the US entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan has left it weaker and more inclined to reach out to newer allies. The result is the increased urgency of the US approach to India.
So, in addition to the termination of the US-led nuclear embargo on India, which conducted a nuclear test in defiance of the US-led non-proliferation system, there is now the promise of support for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
The acknowledgment of India’s new status is also being heralded by a decision to remove Indian entities from the export control list, as well as its admission into a number of US-led international cartels. In the latter category are the Wassenaar agreement that controls the export of conventional weaponry, the Australia Group whose list of chemical and biological precursors is more extensive than that which operates under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Nuclear Suppliers Group of all nations with the significant nuclear materials export capability.
India has to understand that even though it has the US imprimatur to be a great power, there is some distance it will have to walk alone. To switch metaphors, the US can drag us to the water, but we need to be able to drink it ourselves. Size, economic and military power, or culture can only take you so far. Beyond that are the more intangible issues such as the skill of building a diplomatic consensus on an issue using the carrot and the stick, the capacity to undertake coercive action, in self-interest, or on behalf of other, possibly weaker actors, the felicity in changing sides when self-interest demands and, above all, the ability to carry your own country, or, at least, most of it, behind you on certain key issues.
One part of the Indian exercise of becoming a big power has been the evolution of its competence in public diplomacy through the Ministry of External Affairs. This is a commendable effort that has sought to educate and influence global opinion on the emerging India. A measure of its importance has been its conception and the high quality of officers deputed to run the division.
But an apprentice big power also requires a covert action division. And this is where we are severely lacking. While the external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing is reasonably competent in tactics like “election support” — the covert funding of foreign politicians— or gathering technical intelligence, it has since 1990, largely stayed away from covert action on the instructions of the government. Covert operations—smearing enemies, blackmailing and neutralising them by promoting rivals, arranging their assassination and organising insurgencies—are not things that Indians, even in the government agencies, are too comfortable with. But they are an important, if sinister, ingredient of power.
This attitude is less motivated by moral qualms, than the fact that such operations are expensive and require considerable skill and mental focus. Indian politicians can be as ruthless as any, but they do tend to be a bit weak-kneed.
Another vital ingredient, one that separates, say, a Japan and Germany and a China, is military capacity. India has a large army, a fairly big air force and navy. But it still lacks both the capacity and the will to “export” power. This is a consequence of the lack of integration of our military capabilities with the other instruments of national power such as diplomacy, finance and commerce, and even our vibrant domestic industry.
Deep reform is needed in our governmental system to achieve this integration. But this can have a meaning only when it is done under political leadership. At present, it is convenient for the political class to allow these instrumentalities to operate on their own with little reference to an integrated national effort.
So, the bigger agenda of the apprentice big power is to create the institutions that will integrate the elements of its soft and hard power and a political class that understands and practises the use of this power. Minus this, we will be condemned to follow the American lead on issues, instead of, on occasion, providing the lead.
By any measure, the reform of the UN in which India can occupy a permanent seat, the symbol of its big power status, is some years, and perhaps even a decade away. But there is a full shorter term agenda through which India must prove itself. This is largely a regional agenda, one where India must exercise the panoply of its existing powers with a degree of skill and efficacy. Already, there has been a sea change in the region. There was a time when India was seen with suspicion by almost all our neighbours. Today, the situation has changed in countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Even in Nepal, there is an understanding that minus India the endemic political crisis there cannot be terminated.
And then, of course, there are Pakistan and China. This is where our new mentor, the US comes in. The hand of friendship that it has extended— no doubt for reasons of its own— can be of considerable assistance to India by facilitating our negotiation with our two difficult neighbours.
Islamabad continues to see India in the most negative fashion. New Delhi has been correct in trying to deal with Pakistan with a mixture of diplomacy, coercion and negotiation. Hopefully at least one message ought to have gotten across to the generals in Rawalpindi—that no amount of terrorist attacks is going to shake India from its steady march to great power status. Once this realisation sinks in, the rest will be a matter of detail.
And then, of course, there is China. At some point, China must calculate— does it want to retain its adversary status in India by using the Pakistani proxy? Or is it a better idea to work out a modus vivendi with New Delhi? As it is, the last six months have revealed that Beijing has fewer friends than it thought in its own neighbourhood.