Engagement sans entanglement


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THE end of 2009 is a good time to ask where Indian foreign policy is headed. More specifically, it is an appropriate time to enquire where it is moving in redefining its ties with the pre-eminent global super power, the United States of America.

The PM’s visit to Washington DC at the year’s end found America’s political and military leadership in a sombre mood. Despite announcing a surge of forces in Afghanistan, the Western powers are in the early stages of setting a timetable for drawing down their presence. Conditions in Iraq, though more stable, are also fragile. Colossus it may be, but both wars have exposed America’s limitations.

But it is the larger picture of Indo-American relations that matter more. In 2008, the alliance of parties that kept Manmohan Singh’s first coalition government in office broke up as the Left parties opposed the Indo-US nuclear accord. For the first time, a foreign policy issue became an acid test of a government’s survival on the floor of Parliament. The United Progressive Alliance survived and it won another term in May 2009.

India’s relationship with the United States has clearly undergone a major shift. In 1968, India was a major target of the regime under the then new Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty or NPT. Ever since the Pokhran explosions of 1974 and 1998, the US led the way in a regime of sanctions against this country. The Indo-US agreement drove a gaping hole through that treaty even though India has not been given the rank of a nuclear weapon power.

Critics still see the nuclear accord and the larger relationship as foreclosure of Indian autonomy. Such criticisms surfaced again albeit in different form on the eve of the Copenhagen summit in December 2009. Running through such debates is a common thread. How far India ought to go to secure accord hinges on how its vital interests are defined.

Here lies the nub of the issue. India and the USA will indeed have closer ties in the new century. But what will the role model for India be? The old Cold War divisions are gone, though its lingering, even damaging, impact remains.1 China is a rising power but it is yet to challenge American dominance across the globe.2 Russia is rebuilding itself under Putin and now Medvedev, but is a shadow of the former Soviet Union. Unified Europe is still to assert itself.

US engagement with Asia has a long history. Two decades ago, the Cold War drew to a close in Afghanistan as Soviet troops exited after a decade. Within two years, the US was engaged for the first time since Vietnam in a land war in Asia – in Kuwait. 9/11 led to American direct engagement in Afghanistan. It transformed Pakistan again into a frontline state, this time in the so-called ‘war on terror’.


By contrast, India’s emergence as valued partner of larger powers through this phase is testament to more than its economic power.3 It marks acknowledgement of its cohesive polity that has been able to manage multiple contradictions in a pluralist manner.

But in the post Cold War world, much of what the country accomplishes hinges on its ties with the US. Here, there are three role models of relationship that a country like India can examine carefully: Britain, France, and China. How a country relates to the changing balance of power rests on a host of factors, but few will disagree that it is a question of crucial importance.4 To be sure, the wider international context in which India will have to craft its relations with the US is different from those under which these countries managed their ties with America. Britain and France in particular were ‘declining’ colonial powers dealing with the new hegemon in the international system.

Nevertheless, a closer examination of these relationships indicates that there is much that a ‘rising’ India can learn from their experience of working with the US. For one, the British withdrawal from South Asia and the Middle East, and the French exit from North Africa did not imply that London and Paris were willing to accept an emasculated role on the international stage.5 On the contrary, both countries saw these moves as essential to continuing their roles as great powers – a task in which their ties with the US played a major part.


Britain’s ‘Special Relationship’: Since 1945, British policy towards the US has been based on the notion of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’. The term connotes the idea of an intimate bond between two countries sharing political principles – liberal democracy, rule of law, peaceful change – and a common language. Winston Churchill coined the term in his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946. Warning of a coming conflict with the Soviet Union, he insisted that peace could not be preserved without ‘a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.’

Churchill’s use of the term was clearly more prescriptive than descriptive. After all, he knew better than anyone that Britain had became a debtor of the US during the famous Battle of Britain in 1941. Even as its fighters defeated the German war planes, the country’s economic debt to the US transformed its condition within the western alliance. Victory in the skies was accompanied by a loss of effective economic independence.


The idea of a special relationship was a strategic formulation aimed at reasserting Britain’s international position. British policy-makers’ perception of their own role was best captured in an anonymous verse composed in 1945 when Britain was negotiating a loan with America:

In Washington Lord Halifax

Once whispered to Lord Keynes:

It’s true they have all the money bags

But we have all the brains.6

David Reynolds summarizes the principles underlying the alliance. ‘Avoid public confrontation; seek private influence. Propitiate openly; manipulate secretly.’ This policy had significant pay-offs for the British in the short-run: generous settlement of Britain’s wartime loans, and partnership in the Marshall Plan and in creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

But it gradually became clear that Britain’s freedom to operate within the framework of its ‘special relationship’ was limited. The Americans proved far more adept at working this relationship to their ends than imagined by the British. Following the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran, Britain regained its oil assets in the country, but only at the cost of replacing its virtual monopoly by Anglo-American parity. The Americans, exclaimed Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, ‘want to run the world’.

As prime minister, Eden faced a setback in the Suez Crisis of 1956. This was the lowest point in the post-war relationship. The Eisenhower administration staunchly opposed to the military operation against Egypt. The American President refused to support the beleaguered British pound until London ordered a withdrawal.

The Suez crisis underscored the limits to Britain’s independent role in international affairs. Paradoxically, it also served to reinforce the British establishment’s belief that working with America was the only way to retain great power position. This was the line followed by successive governments in Whitehall. But subsequent crises highlighted the weakness of the British position.


During the Falklands/Malvinas campaign of 1982, key figures in the Reagan administration were opposed to the British effort to retake the islands from Argentina. Margaret Thatcher’s relations with Ronald Reagan helped to an extent, but ultimately it was Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger who seriously assisted the British effort with equipment and intelligence.7 For his role, the Queen duly knighted Weinberger. Sir Caspar had helped keep an out-post of the Empire under the Union Jack. But even a committed ally like Margaret Thatcher could not delay, let alone reverse, the American invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth country, in 1983.

Tony Blair continued in this tradition by hopping aboard the ‘war on terror’ bandwagon after 9/11 in the hope of advancing Britain’s position in the new century. His actions earned him the sobriquet of ‘America’s poodle’. It also resulted in British participation in a disastrous war in Afghanistan – a foreign policy misadventure comparable to the Boer war fiasco at the turn of the previous century. On balance the British approach to the US has been far less successful than its architects had hoped.


France’s Quest for ‘Grandeur’: France did much better under Charles de Gaulle, who ruled from 1958 to 1969. The general was clear that his first concern was to insure the ‘grandeur’ of France. A pre-requisite to this was maintenance of France’s independence on the international stage.

Eisenhower once claimed that de Gaulle suffered from a ‘Messiah complex’: he was a ‘cross between Napolean and Joan of Arc’. But de Gaulle’s egocentricity only goes so far to explain his approach to relations with the US. The occupation of France by the Nazis during the war and the post-war dependence on the US had convinced de Gaulle of the imperative of restoring France’s sense of self-respect.

The notion of ‘grandeur’ entailed playing an ambitious role in world politics, consistent with France’s position. Independence being the essential condition of grandeur, de Gaulle sought not merely to assert it but to create the necessary conditions for sustaining it. Towards these ends, he followed a two-pronged approach.

First, he sought to reform the Atlantic Alliance. A league dominated by the US had to be transformed into a partnership in which the relationship between America and the important European powers would be less unequal. He resisted American pressures for renouncing an independent nuclear force: the French tested their bomb in 1960. Such a force was counterweight to American dominance of the NATO. He staunchly opposed the idea of a Multilateral Nuclear Force favoured by the Americans.


The second dimension of his approach was to craft a new European identity that would resist American pressures. Towards this end, he cemented France’s relationship with West Germany. He also played an important role in the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC). France’s freedom for manoeuvre was predicated on a certain degree of economic independence from the US. This led him to veto Britain’s belated bid for entry into the EEC.

‘The US,’ de Gaulle bluntly told the American ambassador in 1962, ‘should stay out of the affairs of Europe’.8 French naval and land forces were withdrawn from the NATO integrated command. French bases were closed to American nuclear bombers. Most important, NATO headquarters and military installations were removed from French territory. An indignant Lyndon Johnson directed his officials to ask de Gaulle: ‘Do you want us to remove American cemeteries out of France as well?’9

But de Gaulle was unmoved. In the coming years he was to strike a very different posture vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. An early critic of the US intervention in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, he warned the Israelis about the futility of force against Arab nationalism in the Occupied Territories.

France’s relations with the US went through some rough patches. But there was no open and irretrievable breach, for the Americans knew that France could not simply be sidelined. All in all, de Gaulle’s policies ensured that France was able to retain and even expand its autonomy in international affairs.


China and the US: For the first two decades of its existence, the People’s Republic of China regarded the US as its principal enemy. Its leaders worked to undermine the US dominated ‘imperialist’ world order. By 1970, the Chinese knew that they stood to gain considerably from working the relationship with the US. But they would not be a junior partner or poor supplicant.10

In their first meeting in July 1971, Premier Zhou Enlai made it clear to Henry Kissinger that unless the US made concessions on Taiwan, no progress could be made. Kissinger responded that the US acknowledged Taiwan as part of China and would not support Taiwan’s independence. American troops in Taiwan would be gradually withdrawn. When Mao learnt of Kissinger’s stance, he remarked that it would take some time for a monkey to evolve into a man, and that the Americans had at least reached the stage of an ape.11

The evolutionary process was fast indeed. By the time Kissinger returned to China in October 1971, Beijing was voted to take the place of Taipei in the UN with permanent membership of the Security Council. But Mao and Zhou continued to insist that China could not ‘depend upon a foreign power in maintaining its own independence.’ This assertion of autonomy in world politics came out in Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao in 1972. The Shanghai communiqué was an unusual document. At Beijing’s insistence, it not only emphasized the common ground but also highlighted differences.

Under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, China stopped its support to revolutionary movements and adopted a more open international persona. Shedding its policy of autarky and isolation, China worked towards integration and interdependence with the global economy. Deng sought to ensure that China would have a relatively peaceful external environment in which it could focus its efforts and resources on economic development.


In the next two decades, the US gradually enabled China to access the American market and international institutions. China, in turn, tended to defer to American policies. Its approach was well captured in Deng’s advice: ‘Hide our capacities and bide our time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.’12 However, this did not imply that China was ready to forsake its core interests.

In 1995, when the US reversed its sixteen-year policy and offered a visa to the Taiwan president, the Chinese responded forcefully. In July, after a public warning, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired missiles close to Taiwan. Large-scale military mobilization and exercises followed. The US reacted by sending two aircraft carrier groups near the Taiwan Strait. Nevertheless, China went ahead with huge military exercises. No clashes occurred, and the crisis drew to an end. Eventually, both sides reaffirmed their commitment to a strong relationship.

China was equally robust in its responses to two subsequent crises in relations with the US: the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war of 1999, and the collision between an American espionage aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet in 2001. After the Belgrade bombing, China not only lashed out at the US, but took a tough negotiating stance on its accession to the WTO and obtained important concessions. In the latter crisis, China insisted on a formal written apology from the US before dismantling the American plane and shipping it back.13


By 2003, however, China’s relationship with the US began to display signs of a larger change. Two factors contributed to this: the American invasion of Iraq, and an increasing global awareness of the rapid growth of China. China’s hosting of Olympics and the global economic crisis accentuated this change. Beijing now began openly to assert itself on wider issues on international politics: North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Burma among others. On the economic front, too, the Chinese have pointedly questioned American practices and deflected criticism of their own policies on issues such as exchange rates.

There is little doubt today that China’s rise is unmatched in the history of the 20th century. It is not an American ally like Britain or France. It is not quite a military adversary, and has very close economic ties with Washington. The real achievement of China has been in crafting a relationship with the US that has facilitated its peerless economic growth and yet managed to maintain an independent outlook and stance on international affairs.


Which way will India go? The temptation to tread the British path is understandably strong. Think of the fervent advocacy for sending Indian troops to Iraq in 2003. The developments following the invasion tempered this sentiment. Vajpayee’s government eventually stepped back from deployment in Iraq. Indeed, even those columnists and strategic experts who strongly favoured that course are today more cautious vis-à-vis Afghanistan. But the desire to bandwagon with America continues to be attractive.

In such a relationship, India will enjoy American support but at a large cost. It was this consideration that led Jawaharlal Nehru both to turn down suggestions of a military relationship with the US and to remain in the British Commonwealth as a means of diversifying the sources of external support. ‘I am anxious to avoid any dependence on the USA,’ he wrote to his sister, Vijaylakshmi Pandit: ‘they have a method of trying to get their pound’s flesh.’14

More importantly, American ties to Pakistan are too close for India to expect a ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Pakistan and its armed forces are central to America’s war on terror. Following an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan will become even more important to the US. A common wariness about China cannot enable such a relationship either. Whilst this will provide some leeway for India to pursue its interests, it would be unwise to expect too much. Economic ties with Beijing are critical for Washington. India, too, has much at stake with its largest neighbour and premier trading partner.

Conversely, India’s own domestic politics is a major constraint for such a relationship with the US. This is not only because of the size and salience of the Muslim minorities, but because of India’s close ties with many Asian economies and societies. This is true of both West and South East Asia. Despite media hype, India is not, cannot and need not be Israel. Moreover, after the abortive intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987-90, there is little public appetite for overseas troop deployments for extended periods, except under the UN umbrella.


The French model has its attractions too. But it bears emphasizing that France had been a major colonial power. Only its rout in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) made the emergence of Britain as the premier world power decisive and virtually unchallenged till the early years of the 20th century. Even in the aftermath of the Second World War, it had an industrial base and modern institutions that few Asian countries can as yet match. It also had a significant place in a Europe where German power was shattered.

In this regard, China’s case is unique. Emerging as an unified territorial entity in 1949, it hewed close to the Soviet Union till the mid-sixties. From the early seventies, it forged close ties with the USA. The economic reforms since 1978 have in the long run transformed the nature of that relationship, with China an associate power. It is the only country to be clubbed with the US as a G2 country.

To put it simply, critics of a close Indo-American relationship worry that India will be like the United Kingdom, a country with prestige but little autonomy. In the Indian case, given the role of this country as an ‘English barrack in the Oriental seas’ from the 1790s to the 1940s, any such role, even if dressed up in new clothes, is bound to evoke painful memories. After all mass nationalism in the 1920s centred on the distaste over the role of Indian soldiers in re-establishing western dominance over West Asia – in lands that include what now constitute Iraq, Israel and Palestine.15 The British model of ‘special relationship’ simply does not wash.

Most leaders aspire to a position like China’s. But, whether under Mao or Deng, China sought to rewrite the rules of the global order. The first did so through ideological challenge and the latter via economic performance. Few would dispute China’s ability to play the Great Game. There is little doubt there are many insights India can draw from, especially in how to unleash entrepreneurship while crafting a model that does not blindly draw on the West.


Yet, and in contrast to the proximity of Britain to the USA, the Indian equation with the West is closer than China’s. The existence of a vibrant democracy and an open press, of cultural and educational ties makes it more and not less acceptable as partner in the minds of the public in the US, and more generally in the West. In any case, India has yet to acquire China’s economic clout: even as its economy grows it has to often follow more cautious tactics.

Pragmatists may seek a position akin to that of France, close to the US but with sufficient autonomy to strike its own path where vital interests are involved. Again, the US historically played a key role in two World Wars, helping France retain and in the latter case regain its independence. The equation with India cannot but be infinitely more complex and nuanced. Needless to add, France is a highly industrialized and urbanized country, while India is still an emerging economic power.


The question the future will ask of us in this transitory period is a simple one. Did the choices made by our leaders take us in the direction we desire? Whether it is a step forward or many steps back depends on where one wants to go.

Can India realistically aspire to be like China or at least France? Or will it end up like Britain? Perhaps no one role model can or should fit India. Sunil Khilnani has suggested that India should aspire to be a ‘bridging power’: poised between the rich states and the poor, between the West and China. He might have added, between the many worlds of Islam and the rest. Kishore Mahbubani goes so far as to argue that India’s openness and inclusiveness makes it the logical candidate for such a role. ‘To see the world in many colours’ may yet be its single greatest advantage.16

But it is time the question was asked and debated candidly and clearly. Pluralism in foreign policy rests on our ability to situate Indo-US ties in the larger frame of other relationships: with India’s periphery and with other major Asian powers.

The guiding principle of such an approach could well be the avoidance of a direct military relationship with the US. Structural dependence on the hegemonic power seldom paves the way for major power status. This consideration goes beyond a full-blown military alliance and includes the nature of an ‘informal’ alliance. For instance, the question of which country India turns to for its single largest order for military aircraft is of vital importance. Worth recalling is how Nehru had aptly observed, ‘It is not a wise policy to put all our eggs in one basket.’


Further, Indo-US ties have for much of the last six decades been marked by their close, though never complete, relation to two issues: of peripheral sub-nationalisms and of India’s estranged relations with its neighbours, especially Pakistan. It is no surprise that both these dimensions were fused in the often ambivalent American response to the Kashmir issue since 1947. In this respect, America’s role after Kargil in nudging Pakistan to scale down violence was significant. Even more important have been the two free and fair polls in Jammu and Kashmir, which resulted in democratic changes of the government by ballot.

In the North East, the continuing talks with the Naga militants led by Thuingaleng Muivah without any external mediator – a role aspired to in the past by men like Michael Scott – is also a positive sign.17 Equally encouraging is Bangladesh’s willingness to cooperate with India in stemming armed insurgency in Assam.

Yet, India’s leadership needs to harness these favourable currents and find creative ways of accommodating sub-nationalisms that stop short of secession. This will not only make the Indian polity more cohesive, but will enhance India’s ‘soft power’, impart momentum to its engagement with West and South-East Asia, and considerably amplify its ability to deal with the great powers.


Finally, New Delhi needs to energize its relationships with Russia and China. Our bilateral ties with China need not be held hostage by the longstanding boundary dispute.18 As Deng Xiaoping once remarked, our grandchildren might be endowed with more wisdom than we are. Apart from focusing on strengthening ties in specific areas – defence with Russia, and trade with China – India should try to forge working relationships on important international issues. A coordinated approach to Afghanistan might be a logical starting point. Those that border the country have deeper stakes in its stability than those that are birds of passage.

The old idea of ‘non-alignment’ may be passé; but its kernel of engaging with all and doing so on the basis of enlightened self-interest is no less relevant. Engagement sans entanglement in larger military blocs makes as much sense for a rising economic power as it did for a newly independent nation state.

Choices made in the coming weeks, months and years may leave their mark on the future. Tempting as it might be, a secondary role for India will harm more than help. If the country is to be more influential it will require statesmanship within its borders. India’s extended neighbourhood also has to be set at ease with this country’s peaceful rise.

India has to be a lot clearer about how it hopes to reshape Asia and the world. There is no role model. This is a country that has to script a role that does justice to its potential.



1. Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

2. Bill Emmot, Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade, Penguin, Allen Lane, 2008, pp. 48-86.

3. For different views of why and when India’s economic expansion commenced see Arvind Panagariya, India: The Emerging Giant, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2008; and Arvind Subramanian, India’s Turn: Understanding the Economic Transformation, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2008.

4. Chandrasekhar Dasgupta, ‘India and the Changing Balance of Power’, in Atish Sinha and Madhup Mohta (eds.), Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, Foreign Service Institute, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 91-112.

5. This is brilliantly shown in Mohammed Heikal, Cutting the Lion’s Tail: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes, Andre Deustch, London, 1986.

6. Cited in David Reynolds, From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.

7. Lawrence Freedman, Official History of the Falklands Campaign: War and Diplomacy, Routledge, London, 2007.

8. Cited in Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement 1945-1963, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999.

9. Cited in John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, Penguin, London, 2005.

10. Margaret Macmillan, Nixon Meets Mao, The Week That Changed the World, Random House, New York, 2007.

11. Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2001.

12. Cited in Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, Allen Lane, London, 2009, p. 348.

13. Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Super-power, Oxford University Press, New York, 2007.

14. Nehru to Vijayalakshmi Pandit, 8 June 1948, Vijayalakshmi Pandit Papers, subject file 54, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

15. See V. Geetha (ed.), Gandhi’s Writings on Peace, Tara Publishing, Chennai, 2004, for his abortive attempt to play peace maker between Jews and Arabs in the Palestine Mandate, and Simone Panter-Brick, Gandhi and the Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests, IB Tauris, London, 2008.

16. Sunil Khilnani, ‘India as a Bridging Power’, in India as a New Global Leader, Foreign Policy Centre, London, 2005. Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, Public Affairs, New York, 2008, p. 173.

17. Markus Franke, War and Nationalism in South Asia: The Indian State and the Nagas, Routledge, London, 2009.

18. Srinath Raghavan, ‘The Boundary Dispute with China’, Seminar 584, April 2008.