India’s position on Crimea

Don’t rush to take sides.

This was my response to a journalist’s question on what I thought of India’s position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

India neither has important interests nor the capability to be a useful player over Ukraine and Crimea. It is therefore sensible for New Delhi to let those with interests & capabilities play it out and deal with the outcomes. In any case, the Crimean case conclusively shows that the UN Security Council cannot be relied upon to uphold and enforce the UN Charter.

If Russia’s annexation of Crimea leads to a wider armed conflict then New Delhi will have to review its position.

The Acorn's Power Principle Matrix
Power & Principle Matrix
For context, see this post on the Power & Principle Matrix. Taking gratuitous moral positions is not a good way to conduct foreign policy. Let’s not forget that the principle of territorial integrity that the United States and European Union are invoking over Crimea was overlooked with respect to Kosovo a few years ago. A different principle—mass atrocities against the population—was invoked then. Clearly, interests determine which principle is evoked in international relations.

When Italy behaved like a rogue state

Turning a legal issue into a geopolitical one has raised the stakes and hurt bilateral relations.

The Italian government reneged on its commitment to the Indian Supreme Court and unilaterally refused to return two of its marines, under trial in India for murdering two fishermen in India’s waters, after they were allowed to visit home first for Christmas (Christmas!) and second, to vote (vote!). (See an earlier post on the legal issues relating to this case)

The Supreme Court order, issued by a bench headed by the Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, allowed the accused’s petition on the basis of an affidavit filed by the Italian ambassador and based on the surety of his (and thereby the Italian government’s sovereign-) guarantee. Unlike the earlier instance when the Kerala High Court permitted them to visit Italy for Christmas, the Supreme Court did not ask for any bond to be posted. The Court can perhaps not be faulted for presuming that the written promise made by a member-state of the European Union can be trusted, but left itself exposed to a risk of default. Because the Italian ambassador enjoys diplomatic immunity, he cannot be charged in a criminal or civil suit—a norm which the Italian government abused in this case. The Court has limited options now.

The action has shifted to the geopolitical domain. As of this writing, reports indicated that New Delhi has decided to expel Ambassador Daniele Mancini. [See these storified tweets on the subject.]

Samanth Subramanian and Suryatapa Bhattacharya report this matter in The National where they quote me. My detailed responses were:

What sort of diplomatic fall out can we expect, if any?

The UPA government will be under pressure to react to what is clearly a breach of law, faith and norms of engagement between civilised states by the Italian government. The Indian Supreme Court went to the remarkable extent of letting the undertrial marines off for Christmas and voting based on the presumption of good faith. So New Delhi will have to act — although at this point it’s not clear to what extent the UPA government will go.

Do you think expelling the Italian diplomatic mission and recalling the Indian mission from Rome will send across the point that India’s judiciary and government is serious about prosecuting the two Italian marines accused of killing the fishermen?

It’s highly unlikely that the two marines will be sent back to India for trial. So what actions New Delhi takes — including expelling the ambassador and the military attache and downgrading bilateral relations — will essentially have signaling, punitive and deterrent value. New Delhi will have to signal that it will not let illegal actions by foreign governments go unpunished. It will then decide on how much it can and it should punish the Italian government. Finally, to the extent that setting an example dissuades others from treating the Indian judicial system with contempt, New Delhi’s response can act as a deterrent.

Mostly though, New Delhi’s actions will have a signaling value, with some degree of punitiveness.

Who should be held accountable for this breach of trust?

This is hard to answer. Clearly the Italian government is responsible for acting like a rogue state, not a civilised member of the international community. That said, it was unwise for the Indian government and Supreme Court to accept Rome’s bona fides because its leaders and officials have consistently demonstrated their contempt for the Indian judicial system right from the start. The Supreme Court allowed the marines to leave based on the word of the Italian ambassador, but surely the Union government’s counsel could have argued its case more strongly.

On NDTV’s The Social Network show last evening, I argued that this issue will affect bilateral ties and potentially even India-EU relations.

India’s role in Europe’s financial stability

Should India offer to bail Europe out?

A few days ago in his Mint column, Narayan Ramachandran, Takshashila geoeconomics fellow, argued that India must directly offer to bail out Europe.

In an INI9 (9 Minute conversations) segment recorded yesterday, Narayan and I discuss this idea further.

The roots of Obama’s Af-Pak predicament

US power is bound to decline if it continues to rely on a trans-Atlantic alliance

Henry Kissinger injects a strong dose of strategic wisdom into the squabbly-wobble that is being passed off as an Afghanistan policy review on by the Obama adminstration.

Concurrently, a serious diplomatic effort is needed to address the major anomaly of the Afghan war. In all previous American ground-combat efforts, once the decision was taken, there was no alternative to America’s leading the effort; no other country had the combination of resources or national interest required. The special aspect of Afghanistan is that it has powerful neighbors or near neighbors—Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran. Each is threatened in one way or another and, in many respects, more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism…Each has substantial capacities for defending its interests. Each has chosen, so far, to stand more or less aloof.

The summit of neighboring (or near-neighboring) countries proposed by the secretary of state could, together with NATO allies, begin to deal with this anomaly. It should seek an international commitment to an enforced nonterrorist Afghanistan, much as countries were neutralized by international agreement when Europe dominated world affairs…If cooperation cannot be achieved, the United States may have no choice but to reconsider its options and to gear its role in Afghanistan to goals directly relevant to threats to American security. In that eventuality, it will do so not as an abdication but as a strategic judgment. But it is premature to reach such a conclusion on present evidence. [Newsweek, emphasis added]

Dr Kissinger highlights one manifestation of the broader issue: across the world, the United States is attempting to solve twenty-first century problems relying on a twentieth-century alliance of nineteenth-century powers.

The Atlantic alliance—between the United States and Western Europe—might have been useful (see tailpiece) to deal with the mainly Europe-centric conflicts (the two ‘world wars’ and the Cold War) of the last century, but it has proved to be rather useless in addressing the emerging security challenges of this century: the rise of China, the growth of international jihadi terrorism, nuclear proliferation and environmental/natural disasters.

Accusations of an arrogant Washington apart, it is also true that the European states were more interested in showing their flag in Afghanistan than to actually do the fighting. Unwilling to take casualties towards a cause they see as remote, Europe has been looking for a flight out of Afghanistan for a good part of the last eight years. Moreover European states have a vastly different strategic perspective as far as jihadi terrorism goes—they have the luxury of believing that by appeasing them at home, they can escape being targeted.

The Obama administration would do well to heed Dr Kissinger’s advice. One reason Washington’s Af-Pak strategy is in such a rut is because it has neglected exploring options that would leverage the interests of Afghanistan-Pakistan’s neighbours. As long as it tries what is effectively a unilateral route (the European & international component of the coalition being negligible) the United States will find its policy options restricted to withdrawal, attrition or escalation. A new partnership—that weaves regional powers into a co-operative framework—would change the rules of the game. If it is an extraordinary challenge, then in Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama has the extraordinary man to handle it.

Tailpiece: The much celebrated Anglo-American alliance that won the Second World War had as many as 2.5 million Indian troops fighting on its side.

Why do Europeans take a dim view of India’s international role?

Views of India remain positive, but have taken a “somewhat negative turn” in 2008

This year’s poll by finds that while international opinion of India is positive overall, average positive views have declined from 41% to 39%, while negative views have increased from 30% to 33%. Among the 21 countries polled, 12 (which includes India itself) had predominantly positive views, six had predominantly negative views, and in three, opinions were divided.

Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/
Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/

People in Western countries, Africa, Asia and South America generally had positive views, while those in Islamic countries didn’t. This is not unexpected—democracy, Anglophony and traditional “third world” ties would account for the popularity.

But the exceptions to these trends are interesting. The Philippines is the only non-Islamic Asian countries to share a predominantly negative view, and Indonesia is the only Islamic country to have a predominantly positive view. Among Western countries, four major continental European countries—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—see India’s role as predominantly negative.

The mystery of the unimpressed Filipinos might be due to the unpopularity of local ethnic Indians in the Philippines. That’s because they have been in the moneylending business, and the exorbitant rates of interest they charge for unsecured personal loans don’t endear them to the people. Their unpopularity might be rubbing off on India. (This explanation came from one of Pragati’s editorial advisors at a recent lunch. Emperical evidence is awaited)

Cultural links between India and Indonesia have been strong, causing the democratic country with the world’s largest Islamic population to have a net positive view of the democratic country with the second largest. So that’s explained.

But whatever happened to the Europeans? The negative swing has been 12% to 20% in the four major European countries. The poll was conducted in late-November/early-December 2008, after the global economic crisis had set in, and after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. So it might be that a combination of the anxiety over the ‘rise of China and India’, the impasse at the WTO’s Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations and economic worries caused Europeans to feel this way. John Pomfret attributes this to “an element of racism” in the context of China’s unpopularity (via The Peking Duck), a factor that might apply in India’s case as well. From the geopolitical angle, the US-India nuclear deal might have also contributed to the negative perception. Indians, however, continue to have a predominantly positive view of the EU.

As compared to the 2007 survey (see the Acorn’s March 2007 post), more Indians take a positive view of India’s role in the world. Around one in two persons, or 51% feel India’s role is positive, up from 47% two years ago. Only 7% have a negative view, down from 10% in the 2007 survey. That’s still lower than the Chinese, a whopping 92% of who are convinced that their country is playing a positive role. Whatever others might think of them, that is something.

Related Post: India is big in Afghanistan

Reductio ad borderum

Reducing everything to a matter of borders

The special award for gross oversimplification goes to Sajjad Karim, Member of the European Parliament for North West England. According to him:

The lack of secure defined borders whether it be the Durand Line bordering Afghanistan or the line of control in Kashmir is one problem. Until the international community faces the challenge of providing Pakistan with defined borders, a task left incomplete by the British in 1947, we can never hope for a stable, secure and democratically based society.

The best way in which to repay the people of Pakistan for the stance they have taken in putting their country on the front line is to give them this stability. Without this you simply apply sticking plaster where much more is required. More so, programmes aimed at supporting democratic processes or other civil society reforms, while valuable, will always prove to be ultimately temporary and ineffective. [Times Online]

Of course, the possibility that a stable, secure and democratically based society might be what is necessary to have secure defined borders did not cross Mr Karim’s mind. Nor did the fact that Pakistanis showed themselves capable of acquiring secure defined borders by ceding territory to China in 1963. In any case, hasn’t the EU tired of irredentism already?

Tailpiece: For you Latin fundamentalists: yes, borderum is incorrect. It should probably be ambitus, margino, but borderum has a better ring to it.

The trouble with Europe

…is that it only wants to do the easy stuff

In an op-ed in European Voice, Richard Gowan argues that “it may be better for the EU to base a partnership with the world’s largest democracy not on values, but on a joint effort to deal with the crisis in Afghanistan.”

Realists will scarcely raise an eyebrow when someone argues that common ‘values’ are not a basis for relations between states. But Dr Gowan’s criticism of India’s dislike for the international human rights agenda that the EU likes so much does not take into account that the UN’s record on human rights is farcical. Moreover, the EU’s commitment to ‘responsibility to protect’ is largely rhetorical—and it is fair to question whether European countries have the stomach to fight other peoples’ fights. India is the only country that actually intervened in its neighbourhood to prevent potential genocides—twice (East Pakistan 1971, Sri Lanka 1987). In contrast, Europe’s conduct in the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda was, well, shameful.

But what of the joint effort to deal with the crisis in Afghanistan then? As a concept that is a good basis for improving relations between the EU and India, for their interests coincide. Not, however, in the manner Dr Gowan proposes.

Rahul Chandran, an Afghanistan expert at the Center on International Cooperation in New York, suggests an alternative. India should make a security guarantee to Pakistan, promising not to launch any future war in return for more co-operation on Afghanistan.

The US and NATO could underwrite this guarantee, backing confidence-building measures and mediating disputes. European NATO members would play second fiddle to the U.S., but their continued presence in Afghanistan would back up India’s offer. [EV]

Because Mr Chandran ignores the fundamental reason for India to even consider launching ‘a future war’, the whole idea becomes absurd. The tension along the India-Pakistan border is linked to Pakistan’s extant policy of using cross-border terrorism to push its anti-India agenda. The threat of war, therefore, is the way in which India escalates Pakistan’s costs of using terrorism as a policy instrument. So unless the US and NATO can underwrite a Pakistani guarantee that it will stop cross-border terrorism, it is absurd for India to promise anything.

It is characteristic of the European free-riding mindset to want to ‘underwrite’ guarantees made by the Indian government, ‘backing confidence-building measures or mediating disputes’. Dr Gowan doesn’t explain just why India would want the Europeans playing this role. If the EU is really serious about building a closer relationship with India, it has to develop a better appreciation of India’s interests.

And Italy should mind its own business

Indian Christians are Indians.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry, the Indian Express reports, “will summon India’s ambassador to demand ‘incisive action’ to prevent further attacks against Christians that have left 11 people dead in India so far, the government said on Thursday.” They even want the European Union to take up the matter.

Italy has no right to demand anything. It may be within its rights to express selective, biased, communal concern over the killings of one particular religious community in India, but “demand”? Well, the Indian ambassador in Rome could perhaps task his lieutenants to look up the English-Diplomatese dictionary for the equivalent of “stuff it”. Preferably, pleasantly. He could, if he would like to permit himself a moment of indiscretion, point out that Italy itself is hardly a safe place for Christian monks.

Related posts: French Sikhs are French; Malaysian Hindus are Malaysians

Russia vs Georgia, outside the Olympics

And the dubious wisdom of provoking a stronger, aggressive adversary

A military misadventure under the cover of the Olympics did happen. But in South Ossetia (where?), a Russian majority region in Georgia.

Georgia, more than any other former Soviet republic has been the site of a geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West. In the military space, the Georgian armed forces have, on the one hand, have drawn into a close relationship with the United States. Russian troops, on the other hand, have used their presence in South Ossetia (where they are peacekeepers in the conflict between the South Ossetian rebel militia and the Georgian armed forces) to harass Georgia.

Now, Georgians would rightly have a lot to complain about this unhappy state of affairs. But considering he has at most 30,000 troops and political support from the West, what could have caused Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, to provoke a war with Russia? The Georgians might have calculated that they would take Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, cut off the tunnel and the sole road link that connects to Russia, under cover of the Olympics before the Russians had a chance to react. There being no airstrips in the region, the Russians would be hard pressed to deploy troops and equipment quickly, buying the Georgians time to secure a favourable diplomatic settlement.

At this time, it looks like the Georgians miscalculated. Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali and the Russians escalated sharply in response. President Saakashvili called for the US to intervene—but other than support at the UN, the United States isn’t going to enter into a military conflict against Russia. In any case, assuming that taking Tskhinvali and shutting off the road would end the matter was foolhardy—for Russia might well have decided (and could yet decide) to open a new front wherever it chose to.

However this conflict might end, two things are clear. First, Russia has made its Vladimir Putin’s “this far and no further” warning to NATO’s expansion more credible. If the United States and the European Union do not try to challenge this position, it is possible that Eurasian balance-of-power will move towards a new stability. This need not imply a new “cold war” as some suggest. Second, political risk attached to oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russian control will remain high or increase even further.

As for South Ossetia, the West can hardly raise any issues of principle should Russia go to the extent of annexing it entirely. Prime Minister Putin has only to cite the recent example of the US and EU position on Kosovo. For surely, if the Kosovars had a case to break away from Serbia, South Ossetians should hardly be blamed for breaking away from Georgia? Shoe, other foot, and all that.

Related Links: A number of good posts on this issue in the blogosphere. Starting from Nikolas Gvosdev who has several posts covering the issue. Robert Farley has two detailed ones (via the Duck of Minerva, where Daniel Nexon offers his take). Richard Gowan contemplates international options at Global Dashboard.