Journalist | Writer | Analyst
16 May 2006
Less than allies, more than partners
An establishmentarian account of the India-U.S. nuclear deal that overstates the extent to which the two countries share strategic interests
IMPOSSIBLE ALLIES — Nuclear India, United States and the Global Order
C. Raja Mohan
[India Research Press, B-4/22, Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi-110029. $ 35.95]
If there is any common ground between the critics and supporters of the India-U.S. nuclear agreement of 2005, it is that the document signed in Washington by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush last July was “historic” in every sense of the term. The Bush administration turned its back on decades of non-proliferation policy and did so in order to cement a strategic relationship with India that could do for U.S. power in Asia what its alliance with Japan or Germany did after World War II. By any yardstick, this is precisely the stuff world orders are made of.
Beyond recognition of this objective reality, however, lie a whole host of normative considerations. Simply put, not every development that is “historic” is necessarily “good.” Nor should it automatically be assumed that the American proposal to help India become a world power and join hands with it in rewriting the rules of global order is an offer that cannot be refused.
Before asking whether the emerging strategic partnership with the U.S. really serves India’s enlightened national interest, one needs to examine the extent to which American and Indian strategic interests in Asia and the wider world overlap. In this timely and elegantly argued book, C. Raja Mohan insists that there is a high degree of strategic congruence between India and the U.S. And yet, his argument is marred by a failure to rigorously delineate precisely what the strategic interests of the two countries are.
On Iran, for example, it is not enough to say, as the author does that “India does not want another nuclear weapon state in its neighbourhood.” The debate in the world is not on this question but on whether the U.S. approach is the best way of ensuring that Iran doesn’t go nuclear. On Iraq, he claims that the “Bush invasion… had less to do with presumed weapons of mass destruction … than the ideological motivation to promote democracy in the Middle East.” There is no room in this make-believe world for considerations of political economy or for the compulsions of preserving hegemony in a continent that is undergoing profound strategic changes. And I’m not even speaking here of facts — such as the Bush administration’s refusal to accept the democratic verdict of the recent Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas to power. Or asking how India’s strategic interests have been furthered by the anarchy, chaos, terrorism and strategic instability the U.S. has engendered in Iraq.
The key theoretical proposition Raja Mohan makes is that there is a good fit between the `unilateralism’ of the U.S. and the `revisionism’ of India as far as world order is concerned. One is the pre-eminent world power, the other a fast-rising but hitherto excluded power. Both, however, have a common interest in rewriting the rules of international relations. But recognising that both wish to rewrite the rules does not mean the script that Washington is preparing is necessarily going to be good for India.
In a discussion on Impossible Allies at the India International Centre in March, Naresh Chandra, a former Indian ambassador to the U.S., made the observation that both countries may wish to move away from the existing world order but their “vectors” are different: India is trying to break in, the U.S. is trying to break out.
American unilateralism, then, of which Raja Mohan has been a supporter, may not fit so well with Indian revisionism after all. In May 2003, he argued in an article in this newspaper that if India “evades [the] opportunity” to send troops to Iraq, it “will put out the word that it is not yet prepared to break out of the narrow South Asian political box.” Well, India, mercifully, did evade that “opportunity” but its international clout was not diminished as a result. It only goaded the U.S. to come back with bigger and better goodies. Conversely, backing U.S. unilateralism does not necessarily ensure one a place at the high table. India and Germany both succumbed to U.S. pressure last September and voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it is only Germany — and not India — which gets to sit in on the P-5’s crucial strategy meetings on Iran.
In fairness to Raja Mohan, the word “impossible” in the title of the book comes from his own acceptance of the limits to which the U.S. and India may work together. But there are limits only if one assumes Washington is still interested in alliances of the old type. In American strategic thinking, the new buzzword is “partners” and not “allies.”
A partnership connotes a highly flexible and contingent political and military relationship that allows the U.S. to deal with threats and challenges that are more diverse than the binary rivalry of a Cold War adversary. And given its size, location, military capabilities and diasporic links with the U.S., India is the partner of choice for ensuring the preservation of American hegemony in a region that is undergoing rapid economic and strategic changes and from which the U.S. fears being excluded.
One of the major limitations of Impossible Allies is its inadequate analysis of where and how India fits into the larger strategic debates within the U.S. administration and establishment. For example, he exhorts India to go beyond its earlier `Cold War’ mentality without appreciating the extent to which American strategic and military planning continues to be animated by the same mindset.
The Pentagon’s latest quadrennial defence review (QDR) still adheres to Cold War logic as far as force planning and weapons acquisition is concerned. Within the Beltway, the `China threat’ lobby has the upper hand and this is what is helping to propel U.S. policy towards India. At Foggy Bottom, the `containers’ of China have the upper hand over the `engagers’. And in the Pentagon, the `Big War’ proponents with their huge spending plans on DDX destroyers, missile, defence and space weapons have the upper hand over those who say the `war on terror’ requires a more modest but focussed arms build-up. Behind these doctrinal differences lie hard corporate interests. Developing India as a military partner and consumer, then, makes good political and financial sense all round.
Like other “realists”, Raja Mohan takes the view that India and the U.S. have a common interest in balancing the rise of China. He is right to reject “containment” as the goal of either country but fails to recognise that the problem with the `balance of power’ is that it does not remain a `balance’ but is the lever for the reconfiguration of power. The U.S. aim, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted, as saying in the book, “is to create a balance of power in the world that favours freedom.”
The richest part of Impossible Allies is its compelling and authentic account of the negotiations on high-technology trade (i.e. the `Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ process) as well as of the roller-coaster ride the two sides have been on since the July 28, 2005 nuclear agreement was signed. But the book was unnecessarily written to an artificial deadline — the visit to Delhi in early March of President Bush — when the fast-breeder controversy was still on and there was a question mark over whether an agreement would be reached on India’s plan to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities.
In the book, Raja Mohan is convinced that the Indian insistence on keeping the fast breeder out of safeguards would be a deal-breaker. Subsequent events have proved him wrong. Earlier, he was convinced an Indian abstention on the Iran issue at the IAEA would have derailed the nuclear deal. It would not have. As a result of that ill-advised vote, New Delhi has more or less destroyed what would have been a promising energy relationship with Teheran. One only wishes the advocates of closer ties between India and the U.S. had a better appreciation of India’s strength and a clearer understanding of the reasons Washington is so keen to recruit Delhi on to its side.