Journalist | Writer | Analyst
For the first time in ages, my old newspaper, the Times of India, has a thoughtful piece on foreign policy with Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph analysing the wider forces behind the landmark India-U.S. nuclear agreement.
The TOI piece is actually a shorter restatement — and dare I say force-fit — of the same argument made in greater detail by the Rudolphs (“The Making of US Foreign Policy for South Asia: Offshore Balancing in Historical Perspective”) in the Economic and Political Weekly in February, just before the visit to India and Pakistan of President Bush.
In their TOI piece, the Rudolphs ask the right question — why Bush blinked at the last minute on India’s conditions for the nuclear deal to go through — but I am not sure they have come up with the right answers.
Indeed, their conclusion on the “pipelines of power” replacing the “wells of power” (of Sir Olaf Caroe fame) in the geopolitics of South Asia — and on this shift bringing an end to the U.S. role as an “off-shore balancer” — stems from a fundamenal misreading of key events both before and after the July 18, 2005 India-U.S. agreement on the resumption of civilian nuclear cooperation.
A glaring example of just how fundamentally the Rudolphs have misread developments is provided by their claim that during President Bush’s one-day stopover in Pakistan, he “made it known that the U.S. no longer objected to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project”.
The President, they say, “blinked again” and “decided to subordinate his perception of Iran as a strategic threat to Pakistan’s and India’s effort to achieve energy security”.
This is simply not true.
What Bush actually said in Islamabad was:
“Our beef with Iran is not the pipeline. Our beef with Iran is the fact that they want to develop nuclear weapons. I believe a nuclear weapon in the
hands of the Iranians would be very dangerous for all of us. It would
endanger world peace.”
Though virtually everyone in the Indian media wilfully or foolishly misinterpreted this clever remark to mean the U.S. no longer had a problem with the pipeline, senior U.S. officials responsible for the day-to-day conduct of policy are clear that the Iran-Pakistan-India project is still verboten.
In the past few days alone, Richard Boucher, head of the State Department’s South and Central Asia desk has emphasised this. As has Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman during his visit to Pakistan immediately after the Bush visit.
Finally, Condoleezza Rice, in a Washington Post op-ed on March 13, argued that “civilian nuclear energy will make it less reliant on unstable sources of oil and gas”. Who’s she talking about? Er… Iran perhaps?
Now, I believe the Rudolphs are right in suggesting that “sometimes India seems inclined to bandwagon with the US, sometimes to balance against it and sometimes to act on its own in a multipolar world”. Even though bandwagoning seems, to me at least, to be the strategy that our policymakers are most attracted by, there are other, contradictory, impulses too. The Rudolphs cite India’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as one example. Less relevant is India’s willingness to participate in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline. This is the original Clinton-era Unocal pipeline. The Americans today would love for India to be a part of it, especially if it is seen as a substitute to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.
In any case, the reason Bush blinked on India’s separation plan is not — as the Rudolphs argue — because “to return to the U.S. wthout a nuclear deal with India would accelerate the downward trend of his poll numbers”.
Rather, it was because he and his advisers believe the nuclear deal will help curb India’s impulses to do anything other than bandwagon. Of course, their belief might well prove wrong.
Coming back to the Rudolphs’s fundamental thesis, I don’t think the U.S. is interested in effecting a shift in geopolitics from “wells of power” to “pipelines of power” if it cannot determine the direction and route-map of these pipelines. Like Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s good terrorists and bad terrorists, Washington believes there are good pipelines and bad.
The TAP and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines are “good”, but in the main, the U.S. continues to remain opposed to pipelines in Asia, especially those which run west to east or from or through Iran. In the long-run, pipelines, especially if they are embedded in wider Asian energy, economic and strategic architectures, will undermine U.S. hegemonic power in Asia. And this is a major part of the backstory to both the July 18, 2005 agreement and the last-minute agreement on the separation plan clinched on March 2.
The Rudolphs are perhaps correct in suggesting the U.S. will no longer play the role of an off-shore balancer between India and Pakistan.
But surely this is because the aim now is to “balance” India and China.