On the front foot

When will India step out?

Captain Bharat Verma’s latest opinion piece in the Indian Defence Review (available online on Rediff) covers a lot of ground. He advocates a muscular approach to internal security and purposeful geopolitical power projection, through a mix of ‘carrot and stick’.

One point he makes is that India can only be a great power “if instead of being an inward looking nation, New Delhi’s footprints extend outwards”. That’s an important one. Unlike European states or China, India has historically never been an expansionist power. The territorial ambitions of Indian emperors have generally been limited to the Indian subcontinent. It is easier for states with an expansionist historical tradition to appreciate the value of power projection.

In its reluctance to get on the front foot, India, in some ways is like the United States. During a recent conversation, C Raja Mohan noted that the British government had to mount a public information campaign (including employing MI6) to get the United States to enter the Second World War. It took America almost four decades—from around 1900 when it acquired the capacity of a great power to the 1940s when it entered the war—to ‘shoulder its share of global responsibility’. President Woodrow Wilson might have been instrumental in establishing the League of Nations after the First World War, but the US Congress refused to let the deal go through. The US too, until that time, had an inward looking culture. It took Pearl Harbour for that to change.

Perhaps it is to be expected that like the US, India will take time to get onto the front foot. Let’s hope it won’t need a Pearl Harbour.

Ready to play a part in nuclear disarmament

India is in

At IDSA’s tenth Asian Security Conference, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said

On the demand side, the best way to address the dilemmas in the nuclear domain is to focus our efforts on the goal of global nuclear disarmament…The vision of Shri Rajiv Gandhi continues to guide India’s approach to nuclear disarmament. Personalities such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry who were at the center of crafting nuclear policy and who thought that nuclear weapons were essential to the security of their state are having a rethink today. We welcome this development and hope it leads, as envisaged in the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan, to a commitment by all states to a nuclear weapon free world. As a responsible nuclear weapon power, India is ready to play its part in the process leading to global, non-discriminatory and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. [MEA]

That’s exactly what my piece in this month’s Pragati argues.

Aside: Mr Mukherjee’s keynote speech covers a wide range of international security issues, but the name of one country is conspicuously absent. Such are the diktats of diplomacy.

Parag Khanna welcomes you to the tripolar world

The beginning of history?

Parag Khanna’s attempt to envision the big geopolitical picture for this century is noteworthy. Ahead of his book, he argues his case in a long essay in the New York Times Magazine (linkthanks Pragmatic):

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world. [NYT]

The main question befuddling students of geopolitics is how are post-Cold War multi-polar cards going to fall? Mr Khanna’s answer is that the United States, the European Union and China will be the three superpowers, and the rest of the big powers will constitute the “second world”.

What we can say about Mr Khanna’s thesis is that he underestimates the United States, overestimates the stability and diplomatic style of China and gives too much credit to Europe. And, in the essay at least, is selective in his analysis of demographic trends. But he makes one important point—that 20th century multi-lateral institutions will be increasingly unable to address the world’s challenges as they become increasingly less reflective of the global balance of power.

Regardless of current events—in Iraq, Afghanistan or in global financial markets—it is too early to write off, or even discount the United States as the pre-eminent global power. In fact, among the Big Three, only the United States is founded on “sound business model”: from democracy and capitalism, to immigration and creativity, it is hard to see how the EU or China could change sufficiently to acquire the necessary genes. Until China demonstrates that it can ride out a domestic economic downturn it is premature to place it in the same league as the United States. And let’s not forget that it too has increasingly acute demographic problems of its own. As for the EU, well, it remains to be seen how much geopolitical power it will have—as an entity—if it is no longer under the security offered by NATO.

Perhaps the book will provide stronger arguments, but there is too little in the article to conclude that the geopolitical configuration of this century will be a Big Three and the second world. US primacy in the coming decades is by no means guaranteed, but it is still harder to prove that any other country can match or overtake the US. Moreover the US will be the only power that is unchallenged in its own geographical sphere. Neither Brazil and certainly not Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela fit the bill of a serious geopolitical challenger. Not so, for the EU and China. The EU faces Russia, and possibly the Arab world, in its own geography. China faces Japan, India and Russia in Asia. In this reading, it is the US that could play a “swing” role in influencing the outcomes of these regional competitions.

Mr Khanna’s goal is to compel the United States to transform its foreign policy institutions and behaviour, which may explain why he has deliberately cast his thesis in this manner. It would be nice if it rankles strategists and policymakers in India as well.

Related Posts: By Daniel Nexon at the Duck of Minerva, by Hari at Thirty letters in my name, and by Ethan Zuckerman in My heart’s in Accra. [30 Jan] And Dan Drezner weighs in too.

On territorial compromises with China

It’s not at all trivial

It’s a seductive argument. That the longstanding border dispute between India and China is trivial. Aksai Chin, which China controls and India claims is not even habitable. Portions of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims are both populated and economically useful. Surely, then, it makes sense for India to agree to a border settlement that swaps Aksai Chin for Arunachal Pradesh. It is the political difficulty of selling the compromise to the emotional Indian people, Arvind Kala writes, that is preventing India from settling the dispute. [Related Post: McMahon’s line and Aksai Chin]

One problem: it is China that is unwilling move ahead towards settling the border dispute. The reasons why it chose to do so underlies why Mr Kala’s arguments are flawed: first, the border dispute is not ‘trivial’, but as even Jawaharlal Nehru recognised, the manifestation of a geopolitical power struggle between India and China. Second, Aksai Chin is not ‘useless’ to India, not least because it is vital to China. And finally, China is not a ‘friend’, no country is. Indeed, Mr Kala fundamentally misreads the nature of international relations when he declares ‘nations are like human beings’, ‘shaped by emotion’. It is possible that it is this anthropomorphism that leads Mr Kala to misleading conclusions. But if at all an analogy can be made, it is more appropriate to say that nations are like wild animals, existing under the law of the jungle. The zoomorphism apart, nations do what is in their interests. And at this time, resolving the dispute is not in China’s interests.

Just like in the case the dispute over Kashmir, it is not uncommon to hear well-meaning people suggest that a territorial compromise is the ticket to peace. But it is naïve and dangerous to believe that giving away territory will automatically cause the other side to go away and leave India in peace. That’s because, by its very nature, a compromise that leaves both sides satisfied will not change the underlying balance of power.

A corollary to this is that a mutually satisfactory solution to the border dispute is only possible when the balance of power is stable and both countries are well reconciled to it. That is hardly the case at this point in time—when India and China are both jockeying for power in Asia and beyond. At this time, it is to be expected that both will be sensitive to relative gains and losses, and for that reason, unwilling to settle the dispute.

Afterword: From one of Nehru’s letters to chief ministers:

“It is a little naïve to think that the trouble with China was essentially due to a dispute over some territory. It had deeper reasons. Two of the largest countries in Asia confronted each other over a vast border. They differed in many ways. And the test was as to whether anyone of them would have a more dominating position than the other on the border and in Asia itself. We do not desire to dominate any country and we are content to live peacefully with other countries provided they do not interfere with us or commit aggression. China, on the other hand, clearly did not like the idea of such a peaceful existence and wants to have a dominating position in Asia.” [As quoted by Kuldip Nayar in Dawn]

Engaging the South-Central Asian Raja-Mandala

Applying ancient Realism in the modern age

“American military assistance to Pakistan in the last 15 years will, I believe, be listed by historians as among our most costly blunders”, wrote an American diplomat who had served as ambassador to India. No, this is not Robert Blackwill writing in 2007. It was Chester Bowles writing in the New York Times in 1970.

That’s what Vanni Cappelli points out in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he argues that the United States must contain Pakistan.

In my essay “Containing Pakistan: Engaging the Raja-Mandala in South-Central Asia” (published in the winter 2007 issue of Orbis), I argued that the United States should change course and commit itself to an American-Indian-Afghan alliance aimed at containing Pakistan and the Islamic ideological and terrorist threat that it poses under military rule. Only by joining with secular democratic and other anti-extremist forces in the region can the United States combat the violence perpetrated in the name of an “Islam in danger.”

Cutting off military and economic aid to Pakistan, formally designating it a state sponsor of terror and working with its neighbors to contain it will allow the United States to effect the same internal collapse of a dictatorial order that occurred when the Soviet Union’s weak economy proved unable to sustain its military superstructure. Rawalpindi’s possession of nuclear weapons need not deter such a policy any more than Moscow’s did the successful Cold War containment strategy.

A new alliance would cripple Pakistan’s capacity to support militants and give the country’s secular democratic forces their first real chance to transform their troubled land into one that is no longer a threat to international security. [SFGate via The Conjecturer]

Nuclear disarmament? Great idea…

But talk is cheap, but let’s see some credibility first

Some of America’s foremost strategic experts have proposed that nuclear weapons are a threat for the entire world, and it is time for everyone to get rid of them. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn have gone beyond the vision thing and actually outlined policy directions to achieve nuclear disarmament. [More on this from Lawrence Wittner over at HNN]

As K Subrahmanyam reminds us, disarmament, non-use of nuclear weapons for warfighting and no-first use have been the longstanding hallmarks of India’s nuclear policy. Moreover last time universal disarmament was proposed seriously at the highest international level was by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. Mr Subrahmanyam argues that it is in India’s interests to participate in discussions that might arise from this new American initiative.

And why not? Maintaining a dynamic minimum credible deterrent is not inconsistent with India being an active participant in international discussions aimed at universal disarmament.

Realists like Dr Kissinger would recognise, though, that the idea of getting states to proceed towards universal nuclear disarmament is contingent upon three things. First, not only the destination but the process of getting there should reflect geopolitical realities. It would be futile to expect nuclear disarmament when say, the UN Security Council and other international organisations remain reflective of geopolitics of the last century [Related post: The tragedy of climate change geopolitics]. Second, international fuel supply and energy markets must be made more competitive. Cartelisation of uranium or crude oil supplies and locking up of supplies at source has implications for the nuclear industry. Reforming the international civilian nuclear trade is therefore crucial.

Finally—and crucially—the call for the extraordinary goal of universal disarmament requires an extraordinary amount of credibility. India, for instance, won’t be misplaced in calling for the US, Russia, China and others to reduce their warhead and feedstock inventories to the same levels as India’s before taking any such steps of its own. For instance, India can commit that it will sign treaties banning nuclear tests or cutting off fissile materials after all states have reduced their arsenal to an equivalent level.

And let’s not forget that even the new Kissinger-Shultz-Perry-Nunn plan for universal disarmament applies only to states. Without overstating the risk of nuclear weapons and materials falling into the hands of non-state/quasi-state actors, it would be incorrect to assume that this is sufficient to protect the world from the risk of nuclear attack.

From the archives: Why the NPT is bunk, why it cannot prevent proliferation and what might.