Pax Indica: Your own private foreign policy

In foreign affairs, unlike the government, civil society can speak the language of values

In today’s Pax Indica column, I call upon individuals, NGOs and media to take a greater interest in foreign affairs:

Over the last few days, before S M Krishna called his counterpart offering help, many of my friends complained that India — that is, the Indian government — had not offered any humanitarian assistance to flood-ravaged Pakistan. ‘Politics’, some said, should be set aside in the face of the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Pakistani people. Others argued that giving aid will change the ‘politics’ itself. For when ordinary Pakistanis see India as among those who helped them during their time of need, hearts and minds will change, undermining the anti-India position of their government.

On the other side were those, like Atanu Dey, who offered the compelling logic that since money is fungible, giving money to the Pakistani government for flood relief is equivalent to giving money to that government to fund cross-border terrorism or build nuclear weapons. Moreover, another argument goes, since the wishes of the Pakistani people are weakly expressed in their government’s policies, changing hearts and minds won’t make the military establishment stop terrorism directed against India.

Wherever you stand on this issue, what you will notice is that people implicitly assume that when it comes to foreign affairs “India” means only the Indian government.

A few years ago, after France passed laws restricting the wearing of turbans, people lobbied the Indian government to intervene on behalf of French Sikhs. The Indian prime minister sent a special envoy to Paris, to “impress upon President Chirac the significance of the turban to the Sikh faith”. The irony of one famously secular state taking up a religious cause with another famously secular state apart, this was an unwarranted interference into the domestic affairs of another democratic republic. And again, when Malaysia’s Tamil minority was out on the streets protesting against discrimination, Dr Singh’s government gave in to public pressure, gratuitously expressed concern over that country’s domestic politics, and received a rebuff.

Now, the Indian government is obliged to protect the lives and interests of its citizens anywhere their blue passports takes them. It has little business taking up cudgels of behalf of people who might be of Indian origin, but are nevertheless citizens of another country. You could say that everyone has a responsibility to protect human rights in authoritarian regimes, but if the other country happens to be a democratic republic with rule of law, what grounds does the government of India have to interfere?

Does this mean Indians should stop caring about what happens around the world? Not quite. It only means that Indians should stop seeing the government has having a monopoly on foreign affairs. There is nothing to stop individuals, NGOs and media from taking an active interest in the world outside India’s borders. There is nothing to stop us from standing up for whatever cause we like. There is nothing to stop us from drawing attention to the plight of the world’s oppressed people, collect funds, mobilise volunteers, build institutions, lobby foreign governments and deliver social services beyond India’s shores.

Sure, we could also persuade the Indian government as part of our activism, but what stops us from getting on with it in spite of the Indian government? A large number of NGOs at home do valuable work despite the government. Why should it be any different abroad?

In fact, it is in India’s national interest for civil society to become a foreign policy player in its own right. Governments are constrained by realpolitik. They follow the grammar of power. Civil society does not have the same constraints. It is free to speak the language of values. The Tibetan struggle, for instance, is one area where India’s overall policy has benefited from citizen activism. Similarly, after the 2005 earthquake, Infosys announced that it would provide Rs 10 million in aid to Pakistan. Many of us donated money for Haiti’s earthquake victim through the Red Cross and through religious institutions. These are, however, isolated and sporadic instances.

We should ask ourselves why India’s civil society is not a significant international player? The primary reason, I would say, might be the mindset that sees the government as the Grand Solver of Problems. As long as this mindset is dominant, lesser hurdles like lack of financial resources, organisational capabilities and channels of action will appear insurmountable. Another reason is our tendency to contemplate our collective navels, for there are innumerable, seemingly intractable problems at home that deserve our attention. “[So] far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned” the historian K M Panikkar noted, “we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance…This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent.”

This, though, is changing, as economic growth increases disposable incomes and as we come to be better informed by the world’s media. That begs the question: why is it that we are only informed by the world’s media? Isn’t it a grand lack of imagination that hundreds of our TV news channels fight for ratings by covering essentially the same domestic stories, only differentiating themselves using ever higher decibel levels? Isn’t it ironic that it is the likes of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and China’s CCTV-4 that challenge the Western media’s hold on the grand narrative? As Indian civil society takes a greater interest in the world, one or more Indian international TV news channels will be invaluable.

So forget about New Delhi’s offer and Islamabad’s response. Think about the enormous human tragedy that is unfolding across our north-western borders. Then think of the political consequences, not least the real risk that the disaster will end up strengthening the bad guys. Think also of the hapless people in Balochistan, where the Pakistani government has banned international relief agencies from operating. You might find some factors more important than others, depending on your personal values, beliefs and hopes. Then do what you think is appropriate.

Pax Indica: The Palestinian Card

The First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

In this fortnight’s Pax Indica column, I record Turkey’s breakout moment.

(It) was only when Turkey floated the flotilla to Gaza that people took notice. The successor to the Ottoman empire had announced its arrival.

The re-emergence of Turkey as a major power offers India the opportunity to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. This calls for India to reorient its relationship with Turkey, identify common interests—managing China’s influence in Central Asia, for instance—and convert them into cooperative initiatives. That will also require Turkey to look beyond its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, this is the issue that will answer the big question: is Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism merely pan-Islamism or is it about Turkey’s national interests? If it is the former, then Turkey will allow its relationship with India to be constrained by its ties with Pakistan. Not so, if it is the latter. [Yahoo! India]

Understanding Israel’s response to the flotilla

Making Israel look bad doesn’t help the Palestinians

The organisers of the “Freedom Flotilla”—a convoy of ships that intended to bust the Israeli blockade of Gaza—presented the Israeli government with a stark choice: stop the convoy and lose the global PR battle, or permit it and lose that and a whole lot more. In the event, it is not surprising that Israel chose the first option—and just lose the PR battle.

Was Israel’s reaction—its forces killed 10 activists and injured several more—disproportionate? That’s a difficult judgement to make. After all, what is a proportionate response to deter non-state actors from violating its authority without any fear of consequences? If, instead of a ‘flotilla’, some state’s navy had attempted to violate the blockade, it would well have been interpreted as an act of war. Why should non-state actors be treated differently? The Israeli government was justified in preventing non-state actors from challenging its authority.

But could Israel’s reaction have been less forceful? Could the Israelis have turned the ships back without using lethal force? Perhaps yes. If you go by the official Israeli version of events, that is exactly what they say they first attempted. They used lethal force only when the activists on the ship put up a fight. The flotilla’s floaters might deny this and argue that they didn’t expect violence. This is disingenuous. It is also unbelievable. They should have foreseen such a scenario before putting civilian activists in harm’s way. It is unclear if there were unambiguous rules of engagement, communicated to the activists and to the Israeli authorities. In the event, the organisers cannot escape their part of the responsibility for the unfortunate casualties.

For their part, the organisers of the convoy won the global PR battle. To what end, though? It’s not as if the Palestinian case needs to be made to the world’s governments (even if it has to be made for another generation of television audiences). The solution to the age-old Israel-Palestinian conflict involves compromises that both sides have to make, which the rest of the world can then support. Actions by outsiders that encourage both sides to compromise are helpful. Actions that attempt to paint one side of the conflict as the villain are not. Infuriating the Israeli government might allow the flotilla’s organisers to score political points and make the Israeli government look bad in front of the world’s television audiences. But it is unlikely to make it any easier for the Israeli government to make the difficult compromises necessary to move towards a solution.

As Yaakov Katz, a commentator in the Jerusalem Post concludes:

Let’s not fool ourselves. Even if Israel allowed these ships and all such ships to dock in Gaza City’s harbor, it would still be accused of laying siege to the Palestinians in the Strip since, albeit along with Egypt, it controls the land crossings.

In the end, after all, the flotilla is just another chapter in an international campaign to chip away at Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself. [Jerusalem Post]

Update:

[1] See Galrahn’s post at Information Dissemination for a discussion on the legality of Israel’s actions.

[2] Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard university, explains why Israel’s actions were lawful but unwise.

Pax Indica: Why India must swing

Strategy in a triangular predicament

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue “that despite an alignment of interests, (India) must not always side with the United States. It must swing.”

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other. It serves “our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other.” Isn’t this—by design or by default—what we’re already doing? Not really. That’s because until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing. Coincidentally, this piece has the answer to the question that Dan Drezner poses on his blog today, though the question itself is posed from a quintessentially American frame of reference.

Introducing Pax Indica

Of Vijay Chauhan, Voldemort and the Realist perspective

Over at Yahoo! India columns I introduce Pax Indica, my fortnightly column.
Excerpts:

The underlying point is that countries operate in an anarchy, an environment where there is no overarching authority that can constrain their actions. Here, as the charismatic Vijay Dinanath Chauhan vividly explains to Commissioner Gaitonde in Agneepath, the law of the jungle operates. The strong survive by killing the weak. Similarly, when Lord Voldemort tries to entice the young Harry Potter to join him, he declares that “there is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to seek it.”

Both Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and Voldemort would have been astute geopolitical strategists, but went tragically wrong when they applied their logic of power to domestic affairs, where the law of the jungle does not apply. For sovereign states though, the message is clear: their very survival depends on having adequate power to ensure it. But how much power is adequate? That’s hard to say, so the prudent answer is “as much as possible”

Read the rest at Yahoo! India and subscribe to its RSS feed.

Khuda Hafiz Pakistan

Walls are better than bridges

Nirupama Subramanian, The Hindu’s outgoing Islamabad correspondent, files her last report from the country (well actually, city) she covered for the last four years. Indians and Pakistanis, she concludes:

“cannot be friends as long as we continue looking at each other through the narrow prism of our respective states. Pakistanis must locate the Indian within themselves, and Indians must discover their inner Pakistani. It would help understand each other better, and free us from state-manipulated attitudes. In our own interests, it is up to us, the people, to find ways to do this.” [The Hindu]

The sentiment is genuinely heartfelt. Unfortunately, it contradicts the findings she lists earlier in the same essay.

First, she makes the fundamental error that the power of “the people” works in similar ways and extents in the two countries. A popular idea cannot be politically ignored in democratic India. Now unless she feels that crowds of Indian-loving Pakistanis (note: not India-loving Pakistanis) will storm the GHQ and change long-standing state policy, the argument that the Pakistani “people” matter (if and when they change their minds about India) is naive.

(As an aside, It is unfortunate that Ms Subramanian too succumbs to the tendency to do India-Pakistan “equal-equal” in order to appear objective. When both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh went against popular opinion to reach out to Pakistan, how can she justify her charge that the Indian political class cannot be entrusted to find the middle ground?)

Next, despite personal goodwill and individual friendships, will Pakistanis as a “people” ever abandon their hostility towards India? Ms Subramanian writes:

I would have heated debates with Pakistanis who consider themselves modern, enlightened, liberal and secular but would suddenly go all Islamic and religious when it came to an issue such as Kashmir, seeming no different from their ultra-conservative compatriots who protest against the clamping down on Islamic militancy in Pakistan as harassment of “brother Muslims.” They could tout jihad in Kashmir as legitimate even while condemning the Taliban who threaten their own modern, liberal lifestyle, despite the knowledge that the distinction between the two kinds of jihad, or the two categories of militants, is at best an illusion. [The Hindu]

To believe that it is possible for either the Indian state or the Indian people (acting as individuals or civil society) to perform psychotherapy on a national scale requires either conceit or naïveté. There is nothing in Pakistan’s social, economic and demographic indicators to suggest that endogenous change on a sufficient scale and pace is even possible. Colin Powell got it right in 2005 when he complained, self-servingly, that Indians were more concerned about the jihadis who infiltrated last week rather than Pakistan in 2020 “a nation of 250 million with a per capita income much lower than yours, literacy rate half of yours, a drying river-water system, dead industry, fundamentalism and nuclear weapons.”

Why do sensible, intelligent and well-informed people—like Ms Subramanian—routinely end up offering wishfulness as policy? Part of the reason is that there is an underlying presumption that “peace” is intrinsically a good thing and necessary for India’s development. If that presumption is challenged—there is another way for Ms Subramanian to sign off: Pakistan’s problems are its own, if it is lucky it will somehow solve them. The task before India and the Indian people is to make sure those problems don’t spill over any more than they already do. The solution might be to focus on building strong walls and well-guarded fences—not little bridges. Yes, Khuda Hafiz Pakistan.

Update: Nirupama Subramanian simply rocks in this interview with an ignorant-but-opinionated Pakistani television host. (linkthanks Nerus)

Realism in Riyadh

Getting Saudi Arabia to take responsibility for Pakistan’s actions is in India’s interests

At a recent conference in Abu Dhabi on emerging powers and the Middle East, one of the arguments I made was that a stable Afghanistan requires a balance of two distinct sets of powers—India-Iran-Russia on the one hand, and China-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia on the other. Even so, I suggested, Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf Arab states) would be better off not wholly aligning themselves to China, because they would be better off by balancing the two Asian powers than hitching themselves to any one of them.

The Saudi Arabian government has unparalleled clout in Pakistan—not only does it have influence over almost all of Pakistan’s power centres, it is also popular with the masses. Riyadh has managed Pakistan masterfully. While there is a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear nexus (and a Saudi-China ballistic missile nexus) it is focused on Riyadh’s perception of the strategic threat from Iran. And while the Saudi Arabian regime continues to promote its version of Islam across the world—including India—it also recognises that global jihadi terrorism undermines its own interests.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like any other state, is deeply interested in its own survival and security—just as it uses Islam to promote its interests, it has not shied away from putting down any threats to its own survival. It allowed French special forces to storm the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979, it allowed US forces to operate from its soil against Iraq and it has not allowed the Palestinian struggle to come in the way of a modus vivendi with Israel.

Given all this, it makes good sense for India to engage Saudi Arabia on managing the security threat emanating from Pakistan. Shashi Tharoor is right when he said “Saudi Arabia of course has a long and close relationship with Pakistan but that makes Saudi Arabia all the more valuable interlocutor for us” (via Smita Prakash/ANI). Introducing the special issue of Pragati in February 2009, we had argued that the dynamics of Pakistan’s relationship with United States, China and Saudi Arabia are changing and that “there is an opportunity for India to engage in bold, imaginative diplomacy to galvanise the international community to radically change Pakistan’s course.”

Recognising Saudi Arabia as an interlocutor on Pakistan brings Riyadh’s role above the table. India must compel the Kingdom to take responsibility for the actions of its wards in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Even if religious solidarity, personal relationships and the nuclear nexus are factors that shape Saudi policy, Riyadh is unlikely to be insensitive to its overall geopolitical interests. In January 2006, The Acorn wrote that “Saudi Arabia is taking baby steps towards a different relationship with India. Though that may be too gradual for India’s liking, it is nevertheless a welcome development.” So too are the milestones scheduled to be highlighted during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip this week. [Related Links: Jyoti Malhotra in Business Standard, article & editorial in Arab News]

Just as the Saudis are better off hedging India and China, it is in India’s interests to balance the powers on either side of the Persian Gulf.

Tailpiece: Back at the conference, I challenged the conventional wisdom that it is India-Pakistan tensions (oversimplified to “Kashmir”) that stand in the way of Afghanistan’s stability. Rather, I argued, it is the US-Iran relationship that forces the United States to rely on a state that has opposing interests (Pakistan) and repulse a state that shares them (Iran). Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests.

From hope to dope

More unrealism from Brzezinski

As we have noted earlier, a Brzezinskian world is a world where there is a tidy bipolar world, where the United States and China sit together and make The Big Decisions. It differs from the real world in that the real world is real, and the Brzezinskian world lies in the domain of wishful thinking.

In the Brzezinskian world the following prescription would be considered as both sensible and in US interests:

Additionally, the United States needs to develop a policy for gaining the support of Pakistan, not just in denying the Taliban a sanctuary in Pakistan but also in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to accommodate. Given that many Pakistanis may prefer a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to a secular Afghanistan that leans toward Pakistan’s archrival, India, the United States needs to assuage Pakistan’s security concerns in order to gain its full cooperation in the campaign against the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban. In this regard, the support of China could be helpful, particularly considering its geopolitical stake in regional stability and its traditionally close ties with Islamabad. [Foreign Affairs emphasis added]

Strange. One would think Mr Brzezinski was advising a president who wants to change the policies of his predecessor. What does he think the Bush administration did for nearly seven years?

That’s not all. In the same issue of the magazine, in an article on overcoming the obstacles to a nuclear-free world, Charles Ferguson writes:

Renewed US engagement in helping resolve the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir is one necessary step toward reducing nuclear tensions on the subcontinent. But this is not enough. Because Pakistan relies on nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional superiority, the United States needs to address this imbalance by recalibrating its policy of supplying armaments to both states, giving Islamabad enough assistance so that it feels sufficiently secure to free up more military forces to fight the terrorists who are threatening the Pakistani government and its nuclear arsenal. [Foreign Affairs]

Here is someone who is arguing—in the second decade of the twenty-first century—for the United States to settle the Kashmir dispute to Pakistan’s satisfaction and then provide enough military assistance to Pakistan for it to feel secure vis-a-vis India without nuclear weapons. And he evidently thinks that it is a smart thing to do.

Related link: Atanu Dey’s classic post on dollar auctions and deadly games

Why India should send troops to Afghanistan

It’s about strategy, not popularity

There is often a negative correlation between popularity and good policy: what is popular is often not good policy, and vice versa. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy. For instance, the Times of India thinks nothing of publishing an op-ed article titled “Call Pakistan’s bluff”, in other words, “Let’s attack them and see if they respond with nuclear weapons”. It seems unimportant to consider the question of “what if they press the red button first”.

Since no political leader will accept such a policy recommendation, perhaps writing and publishing it just serves the purpose of playing to the galleries. (Forget newspaper columns, even the FICCI task force report on national security & terrorism identifies surgical strikes, all-out war and ‘leveraging the water issue’ as among the hard options for the Indian government’s consideration.)

Now there is every reason for India to invest in capabilities to carry out a number of military missions across its borders, including for conventional warfare under the shadow of nuclear weapons. But any recommendation that India ought to carry out a direct military retaliation in response to a future terrorist attack is not only so irresponsible as to make it a non-serious option. It is also strategically unsound, because nothing serves the interests of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex more than an old-fashioned war with India.

Despite all its shortcomings, the “let’s strike Pakistan” option is popular, at least among some pundits, in college canteens and in most middle-class drawing rooms. But you have only to mention the idea of sending Indian troops to Afghanistan that suddenly you end up on the other end of the popularity-policy correlation. You begin to hear “What if the Pakistanis retaliate with more terror attacks?”, “What will the ‘Muslim world’ say?”, “It won’t be popular with Indian Muslims”, “Remember IPKF!” and “Why should we become footsoldiers of the Americans?”. [Some of which were reflected in the very interesting open discussion thread on this blog last week]

The proposal to deploy Indian troops in Afghanistan is based on the simple logic of force fungibility. That since it is not feasible for Indian troops to directly attack Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, India should ensure that US troops do so. Since it is in India’s interests that as many US soldiers are committed to operations ‘along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border’, it is sensible to relieve US troops of duties in areas where they are not actually fighting the taliban—especially in Western and Northern Afghanistan.

India has the capacity to equip, station and supply several divisions of its troops in Afghanistan. Many Afghan political leaders—from President Hamid Karzai to the Northern Alliance—are highly likely to welcome India’s decision. Neighbouring countries, including Iran and Tajikistan, will support an Indian military presence in Afghanistan provided their interests are taken into account. And not least, the United States will welcome it—for even if Indian troops do not eventually deploy, the very possibility of their deployment will change Washington’s bargaining terms with Kayani & Co.

What if the Pakistanis retaliate with more terror attacks? This is the most serious question. It is highly likely that the military-jihadi complex will escalate the proxy war against India. While the impact of this escalation is less significant compared to what the Pakistani army might do in response to a ‘surgical strike’ it is must be accepted as the cost of the option. The cost can be mitigated—but not eliminated totally—through better intelligence co-operation with the United States and intensification of the internal security mechanisms put in place after 26/11.

But let’s not forget that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex might escalate the proxy war against India even if India doesn’t send troops to Afghanistan. If you think otherwise, you haven’t been reading the news since the 1980s. (You should make up for it by reading Praveen Swami’s book).

In fact, ensuring that the United States stays committed to the objectives outlined by President Barack Obama is ultimately in India’s interests—for the US cannot succeed in that mission unless it transforms the Pakistani state. Now, it can be argued that the US will pack up and leave if the situation gets too hairy, but if India doesn’t do anything to keep the US focused, such arguments are gratuitous, sanctimonious and ultimately, self-fulfilling.

The real options are to do nothing, and allow the United States and Pakistan to work out a solution and hope that the outcome of that bargaining will secure India’s interests. Or to eschew both pusillanimity and grandstanding and indirectly crush the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. As for popularity, it’s a question of timing. If the Indian government had announced that “we will go to Afghanistan” on November 28th, 2008, few would have raised their hands in objection. For that reason, it is imperative that India’s military planners develop and have on the ready a comprehensive, well-thought out policy option involving the stationing of Indian troops in Afghanistan.

Obama’s quasi-ultimatum to Pakistan

Okay, it’s a strong prod

In his opening remarks at the first Takshashila Executive Programme on Strategic Affairs, hosted by the National Maritime Foundation yesterday (wire report) (pic), K Subrahmanyam noted that the India media has ignored reports of how the Obama administration has put the squeeze on Pakistan asking it to jettison its duplicitousness with respect to jihadi groups. He chided Indian strategic analysts for assuming—on the basis of a lack of public statements over what the Obama administration intended to do about Pakistan—that Washington didn’t actually have a well-considered plan.

Today’s report in the New York Times supports Mr Subrahmanyam’s argument.

The Obama administration is turning up the pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban inside its borders, warning that if it does not act more aggressively the United States will use considerably more force on the Pakistani side of the border to shut down Taliban attacks on American forces in Afghanistan, American and Pakistani officials said.

The blunt message was delivered in a tense encounter in Pakistan last month, before President Obama announced his new war strategy, when Gen. James L. Jones, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, and John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, met with the heads of Pakistan’s military and its intelligence service.

United States officials said the message did not amount to an ultimatum, but rather it was intended to prod a reluctant Pakistani military to go after Taliban insurgents in Pakistan who are directing attacks in Afghanistan. [NYT]

Well, it looks like the Obama administration’s answer to the question this blog has been asking for the past year is: drone strikes and ground-based covert operations deep inside Pakistani territory.