‘Natural allies’ at odds
  Pratab Bhanu Mehta

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AS India tries to carve its place in the New Global Order, its relationship with the United States has undergone major shifts. For fifty years the two countries regarded each other with extraordinary wariness. However, the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the opening of India’s economy, globalization, the revolution in information technologies, increasing economic interdependence, India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the war on terror seem to set a new world stage upon which to reappraise the relationship.

Early in 2004 former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared the two countries to be ‘natural allies’. This was a remarkable description of a relationship that for almost five decades had been judged to be, in Dennis Kux’s resonant phrase, ‘estranged’. On the American side, President Bush defined the relationship as one of ‘strategic allies’.1 The announcement of the NSSP or ‘Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership’ in January 2004 was a watershed moment in India-US relations. The NSSP opened the way for the sharing of so-called ‘dual-use’ technologies in a variety of strategic areas including missile defence, civil nuclear, and space cooperation and was remarkable for the fact that it came within six years of India’s nuclear tests at Pokharan.

Anti-Americanism as an ideology seems to be at its lowest ebb in India, even though the Bush administration has its share of critics. But, this essay argues that it is premature to conclude that there is a long term convergence of strategic interests between India and the United States. While India should continue to intensify its trade relations, it should under no circumstances compromise on its strategic independence.

The most important reasons for improving relations between the two countries lie in the dynamics of migration and the changing nature of the two economies. While during the first fifty years strategic and geopolitical imperatives provided the main frames of reference for the often strained relations between India and the United States, the relationship is now being driven by increasing economic interdependence and the growing bonds of migration and cultural interchange. Indeed, India and the United States are involved in a relationship perhaps unique among nations. The accelerating growth of the Indian diaspora population in the United States, together with its relative wealth, high level of education and unique role in information technology undoubtedly helped change perceptions on both sides.



India and the United States historically had and continue to have very different conceptions of the global order, determined in part by their position in the international system. During the Cold War, the disjuncture between the hope and reality of Indo-US relations was often widened by the pressure of strategic imperatives. The United States wanted to enlist as many states as possible in its war against communism, often in a formal strategic relationship. The initiation of American military support to Pakistan in 1954 cast an irrevocable shadow on the relationship. India viewed the logic of American alliances as directly contravening its own interests.

The United States for its part saw India’s policy of nonalignment as little more than a sanctimonious cloak for interests which contradicted those of the United States. India’s neutrality was far from neutral, as belied by the country’s silence over the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1968. As Harold Gould perceptively wrote, the gap between the stated claims of both countries on the one hand, and their actual interests on the other ‘made it impossible for the United States to live up to its moral billing in Indian eyes and conversely, for India to live up to its moral billing in American eyes… both sides had come to the relationship expecting too much of each other.’2



The end of the Cold War eased the pressure on the relationship. First and foremost, the United States became the single dominant power. One of the irritants of Indo-US relations, India’s perceived closeness to the Soviet Union, simply ceased to be a factor. Arguably, US dominance created a win-win situation in relation to almost all countries in the world as most nations competed to better their relationship with the United States through formal alliances or partnerships. This was the only game in town. This fact must be borne in mind, however, that since the United States was ‘the only game in town’, as it were, many countries including many of India’s strategic rivals could simultaneously feel that their relationship with the global superpower was a privileged one. India was not the only country currying favour with the US. But sometimes Indian policy-makers act as if this was the case and are constantly surprised that US relations with all countries, including India’s strategic rivals have improved.

The second-most important change brought on by the end of the Cold War was an ideological and a geo-economic shift that opened up new possibilities for economic interaction between India and the United States. India slowly began to dismantle the wall of protection it had built around its command economy. With that, India began a slow but sure integration into the world economic order. This, in turn, led India to jettison the instinctive anti-Americanism that had accompanied its autarkic economic policies.

During the last decades of the 20th century, India’s conception of national interest underwent a profound change. It became premised on greater economic engagement with the world, giving greater centrality to trade and investment, thus allowing for new avenues of cooperation. This shift prepared the way for cooperation across an astonishing range of activities, including defence and law enforcement.

Finally, the relationship moved beyond a preoccupation with two issues. For the United States, India became much more than simply a nuclear non-proliferation problem. For India, the relationship with the United States was no longer viewed primarily through the lens of the India-Pakistan relationship. Partnership with the United States became a means to achieve a certain status in the world order. For a while the broadening canvas of the relationship seemed to liberate it from the litmus test that had always hamstrung this relationship: US support for Pakistan. But the United States’ offer in December to sell Pakistan high technology weaponry, and India’s reaction to that offer was a reminder that the shadow of that litmus test still hovers over the relationship.



But despite these predictable expressions of consternation at US support for Pakistan, it seemed like India had finally made its peace with America. Certainly the climate for this was propitious. Swapan Dasgupta, for instance, in an article in The Telegraph ‘On Another Plane’ (3 Dec. 2004) argues that ‘India will be better served by carving out our own definite space within Pax Americana.’ This position seemed to be representative of the mainstream opinion in India.

But this increasingly prominent position in Indian policy circles is politically naive, strategically inept and based on an astonishing historical amnesia that does grave injustice to India’s strategic independence. Swapan Dasgupta is right to point out that a knee-jerk anti-Americanism would be a serious mistake and a symptom of a kind of political adolescence. Anti-Americanism in India is currently the lowest it has ever been, despite consternations about the Bush administration. This opens up the political space to treat each American proposal – whether it is the selling of arms or the NSSP – on its own terms. But a careful consideration of these proposals would suggest that America seeks to bind us more than we seem to be willing to acknowledge.



If the American’s are courting us today it is not because we lined up to be part of Pax Americana. On the contrary, it is precisely because we have displayed the capacity for independent action in a range of areas. Unfortunately, there is a dictum in international politics that suggests that bad behaviour is rewarded. As Machiavelli suggested long time ago, if you behave badly and contravene norms, you can use that as a bargaining chip to gain concessions from others. The other side has to give you concessions to get you to behave ‘normally’. On the other hand, if you are already rushing to conform to the norms laid down by the other party, why should they give you any concessions?

It is often said that India needs the United States more than the United States needs India. Given the asymmetries of power and technology this is, in a certain sense, true. On the other hand, this asymmetry is also a result of the fact that by and large India can be counted on to be a good citizen of the international community. There need be no special concessions given to it, to get it to stop exporting nuclear technology for instance. On the other hand, a state like Pakistan that for years actively subverted two of the United States’ biggest foreign policy objectives – non proliferation and terrorism – continued to be rewarded. One can argue that this was because of Pakistan’s peculiar position as a frontline state in the Cold War, and then its indispensability in the war on terror.



But this only underscores the point that even powerful states, despite asymmetries of power, can come to be dependent on weaker states. I am not suggesting that India behave like Pakistan, but it should recognize that its capacity for independent action is what will get US attention, not its unthinking attempts to ingratiate itself with Pax Americana. Whatever one may think of the morality and wisdom of India’s nuclear tests, they were examples of independent action that forced the US to come around. And our emerging economic power, like China’s, will give us clout that we would be foolish to fritter away for a little political attention and a few arms sops.

It has become fashionable to deride Indian anti-Americanism in foreign policy as a product of a combination of hypocritical idealism, socialist piety, misplaced moralism and a hangover from the Cold War. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our stance towards America was always rooted in our strategic interests. Our anti-Americanism in foreign policy came from the following sources. First, for much of the last fifty years we sincerely believed that America was closer to our strategic rivals. Second, that Pax Americana would allow no room for independent action. Every nation (with the exception of Israel) from Japan to Europe that has struck a formal alliance with the United States has given up its capacity for independent military action.

Third, the application of American power overseas, outside the context of Europe and Japan, has generally been an unmitigated disaster, bringing numerous countries to humanitarian and political ruin. Fourth, it is too easy to forget that there was a period in American foreign policy when any hint of ideological deviance would invite covert operations from the CIA. American intervention in the political economy from the Middle East to Chile, from the war on drugs to military presence in South East Asia, has had immeasurably deleterious social consequences. One does not need to be a supporter of Indira Gandhi to acknowledge that the ghosts of Allende loomed genuinely large in the seventies. Finally, American alliance patterns were not based on principle but opportunism on a global scale. If in international politics there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests, why over-commit to a power that itself seems to believe this dictum?



The suspicion of America could sometimes take a pathological form and slip over into a distrust of commercial and trade relations. And sometimes our relationship with the Soviet Union was blind to the effects of the application of its power overseas. But the independence from an alliance with America allowed to us to maintain the nuclear option, to undertake one of the more successful cases of armed intervention in East Pakistan, and did the salutary service of keeping American troops out of Indian soil. Our historical amnesia has propagated this bizarre myth that Indian foreign policy was subservient till the BJP gave its manhood during the mid-nineties. What the BJP did was made possible by the careful nurturing of independent options to which all our governments have been committed. Anyone who knows anything about 1971 will be hard pressed to make that argument that we have more capacity for independent action now than we did two decades ago.

But then independence is not a sentiment that the pro-American lobby seems to understand. There is much euphoria in India about the NSSP being a framework for a special relationship between India and the US. The United States has itself propagated the idea that it is doing India a special favour by entering into a strategic partnership of this kind, which has few precedents. Certainly the NSSP represents a watershed compared to the status of Indo-US relations over the last two decades. But this is golden chain that is more likely to bind India than give it a strategic advantage.



Progress in NSSP will depend upon India acceding to US conditions on technology exports from India and may even pave the way for a monitoring of our nuclear programme that is more draconian than anything the IAEA would muster. We might have independently good reasons to curb our nuclear activity, but we should do it for our own reasons rather than America’s. Second, the so-called concessions that India is getting in dual-use technologies do not put it even at par with Chinese access to these technologies. If China can get access to many of these technologies without an NSSP framework, what is so significant about the NSSP? It appears to be more a framework that allows the US to represent India’s ordinary entitlements as special concession.

Third, it remains to be seen whether Washington will in fact accept India as a full-fledged nuclear power. Given the fact that non-proliferation is used by the US as a stick with which to beat regimes it does not like, it is unlikely that it will admit India easily. For that would be to undermine US credibility with other regimes and in contravention of US domestic law.



What is this ‘space’ within Pax Americana that the likes of Dasgupta are talking about? Pax Americana has the peculiar feature that it is a global empire. Every part of the world must be, through formal alliance or informal understanding, adapted to American interests. It is not a vision that will acknowledge that emerging powers should be given a space within their regions for autonomous action. America is a power that will intercede to abridge the natural economic, geographic and cultural relations that characterize different regions. Will India be allowed room for autonomous action vis-à-vis West Asia? Will the US keep out of the Indian Ocean as a way of giving ‘space’ to India? The space that we yearn for does not exist, except as a sign of subordination. It is no accident that the United States has a difficult time accommodating China and India, the only two major powers that demand their ‘space’ – the rest of the world is more or less locked into some kind of formal alliance structure with the US.

Current geopolitics also belies the pro-US euphoria. The US is in the enviable position that it can improve relations with all countries simultaneously. In that sense, everyone is carving out a place in Pax Americana. But precisely for this reason we are deluding ourselves if we think that we can acquire a special place. Any place we do get in Pax Americana will be like our place in a reformed UN. We will be invited to the table after all the cache associated with the invitation has disappeared. It’s a place without much meaning and certainly no special privileges.

All this is not to suggest that we should not buy arms from the US or bring the relationship closer. There is every case for strengthening our economic relationship. But as the US-China relationship shows, economic interdependence is quite compatible with at least some strategic independence and tension. The United States may even have a legitimate role in mediating conflict in South Asia. But all of these should not be taken to entail that there is an over-determined convergence of strategic interests. Many of us owe a good deal of our intellectual and moral capital to American ideals. We are not anti-American in that sense. But wariness of American state power is not a sign of anti-Americanism or moralism. It has, and should be a counsel of prudence.



America’s placating both India and Pakistan with offers of weapons sales is the 21st century version of imperial divide and rule. It is not a way of calming conflict in the region; it is a way of ensuring that India and Pakistan always remain edgy vis-à-vis each other. This edginess will make us both scramble to America. Pakistan’s biggest tragedy is that dependence on America distorted its civil society, strengthened its military and irremediably warped its state structure. Both India and Pakistan would be better off if the Americans genuinely kept out of the region. Pakistan would certainly be forced to confront its infirmities as a state more honestly.

Rather than inviting America in we should work to give our region the ability to repossess its own history. Has Indian nationalism sunk so low that it would readily abdicate its independence for a place in Pax Americana? We are in the position of maintaining our strategic and political independence, and it is naively subservient to think otherwise.



1. On this term see, Francine Frankel and Harry Harding, The India China Relationship: What the United States Needs to Know, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004, p. 9.

2. Harold Gould, ‘US-India Relations: The Early Phase,’ in Sumit Ganguly and Harold Gould (eds.), The Hope and the Reality. Westview Press, Boulder, 1992, p. 19.