Working with India

The Washington Post

President Bush's visit has brought relations between India and the United States to an unprecedented level of cooperation and interdependence, which promises to make a seminal contribution to international peace and prosperity.

Until recently India straddled Cold War crises in the name of a nonalignment that proclaimed the moral equivalence of the two sides; on most concrete issues it either tilted toward the Soviet side or remained aloof. America's attitude toward India was similarly beset by ambivalence between respect for the moral quality of Indian leaders and irritation with Indian day-to-day tactics. The democratic institutions that the two countries shared did not determine political choices.

The reason was partly cultural, partly historical. Americans think of their country as "the shining city on the hill" its political institutions are perceived to be both unique and relevant to the rest of the world as guarantees of universal peace. Crusades on behalf of democracy have been implicit in American political thinking and explicit in American policy periodically since Woodrow Wilson – and especially pronounced in the current administration.

That is not the way Indians view their international role. Hindu society does indeed also consider itself unique but, in a manner, dramatically at variance from America's. Democracy is not conceived as an expression of Indian culture but as a practical adaptation, the most effective means to reconcile the polyglot components of the state emerging from the colonial past.

The defining aspect of Indian culture has been the awesome feat of maintaining Indian identity through centuries of foreign rule without, until very recently, the benefit of a unified, specifically Indian, state. Huns, Mongols, Greeks, Persians, Afghans, Portuguese and, in the end, Britons, conquered Indian territories, established empires, and then vanished, leaving behind multitudes clinging to the impermeable Hindu culture.

India, striving to spread neither its culture nor its institutions, is thus not a comfortable partner for global ideological missions. What it analyzes with great precision is its national security requirements. And these owe more to traditional notions of equilibrium and national interest – partly a legacy of British rule – than to contemporary ideological debates. India seeks a margin of security within which its culture can thrive and its polyglot nationalities work together for practical goals. This has produced various levels of Indian involvement in international affairs.

  • With respect to its immediate neighbors and smaller states such as Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh, Indian policy has been comparable to America's application of the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere: an attempt to maintain Indian hegemony, if necessary, by the use of force. American policy has rarely been engaged in these efforts – except over Bangladesh 30 years ago, due to a particular constellation of Cold War elements.
  • In the north, India faces the Chinese giant across the intractable barrier of the Himalayas and the Tibetan massif. Here India has pursued the traditional remedy of a great power confronted by a comparable rival – a security belt against military pressure. Neither China nor India has so far engaged in a diplomatic or security contest over preeminence in the heartland of Asia. For the foreseeable future, both countries, while protecting their interests, have too much to lose from a general confrontation.

Too often America's India policy is justified – occasionally with a wink – as a way to contain China. But the reality has been that so far both India and America have found it in their interest to maintain a constructive relationship with China. To be sure, America's global strategy benefits from Indian participation in building a new world order. But India will not serve as America's foil with China and will resent any attempts to use it in that role.

  • In the region between Calcutta and Singapore, India seeks a role commensurate with its economic, political, and strategic significance, its magnitude influenced to a certain extent by proximity to India's frontier (thus a greater concern over Myanmar and Bangladesh than, say, Vietnam or Malaysia). India is well aware that the future of Southeast Asia will be determined by economic and political relationships in which China, America and Japan will, together with India, be the principal actors. Attempts at hegemony are likely to lead to countervailing pressures. Here American and Indian interests are – or could be made to be – quite congruent.
  • In the region between Bombay and Yemen, Indian and American interests in defeating radical Islam are nearly parallel. Until Sept. 11, 2001, governance in the Islamic world was largely in the hands of autocrats. Indian leaders used nonalignment to placate their Muslim minority by cooperating with the autocratic Muslim states. Gamal Abdel Nasser, at the height of his confrontation with the West, always enjoyed a close relationship with Nehru and his successors.

That condition no longer prevails. Indian leaders have seen fundamentalist Islam supported from Middle East states that finance religious schools reaching into the subcontinent. They know that fundamentalist jihad seeks to radicalize Muslim minorities by undermining secular societies through conspicuous acts of terrorism. Contemporary Indian leaders have understood that if this demonstration of global restlessness spreads – even more, if it succeeds – India will sooner or later suffer comparable attacks. In that sense, even if India had preferred other battlefields, the outcome of the American struggle against terrorism involves Indian long-term security fundamentally. America is fighting some of India's battles, and the two countries have parallel objectives even where their tactics differ.

A geopolitical confluence of interests has emerged as well. India was able to adopt the role of balancer during the Cold War – much as America did in the early days of the Republic with respect to European conflicts – because the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened India only indirectly. Either the United States would deal with the challenge or it would fail; India's contribution would have been marginal. And any attempt to line up with America would have risked the hostility of the other nuclear superpower, only a few hundred miles distant, which might have backed Pakistan, the country that was – and to a considerable extent still is – India's security obsession. India also relied on the Soviet Union for military supplies.

But now, Russia is no longer a superpower nor an adversary of the United States. China has emerged as a major and growing geopolitical player with considerable ties to America – especially in the economic field. With the emergence of a more assertive Japan as a U.S. ally, India's Cold War attitude of aloofness – and historical Congress Party attitudes – toward the United States ran the risk of leading to Indian isolation.

Globalization has reinforced the incentives for cooperation. For much of the 1990s, a combination of Indian bureaucracy and protectionism limited private investment in India. In the past decade, reform-minded administrators from both major Indian political groupings have increasingly linked the country to the world economy. Thus the basic dilemma of globalization will increasingly have to be addressed by Indian and American leaders: Globalization frequently imposes unsymmetrical sacrifices in the sense that benefits and costs affect different elements of society differently. The losers in that process will seek redress through their political system, which is national. The success of globalization breeds a temptation for protectionism and the need to combine technical achievement with human concern. India and America have an opportunity to overcome these temptations by joint efforts.

While democracy is not what has brought the two countries together, it will surely facilitate their ability to elaborate the relationship. One summit can only define the task; its implementation requires dealing with the vast agenda outlined above.

Relations with Pakistan are a special case. At independence British India was partitioned between Pakistan and India. But since partition could not separate the Muslim and Hindu populations entirely, 150 million Muslims live in India today, and the reaction of India to Pakistan, and vice versa, will always differ from that of other countries. For Indian nationalists the state of Pakistan appears not only to be carved out of what they consider their historic patrimony; it is also poses a standing challenge to the Indian state by implying that Muslims cannot maintain their identity under Hindu rule and therefore must seek a separate political entity. Balancing the role of Pakistan in the war against terrorism with the emerging partnership with India will require extraordinary sensitivity and an ability to keep in mind that each country's national obsession is the other and that they will interpret American actions not by America's pronouncements but by their own preconceptions.

Nuclear cooperation with India should be considered in the light of these principles. In 1998 I opposed the sanctions against India's nuclear tests, suggesting that India should be treated as a nuclear country whose progress in the nuclear field had become irreversible. In such a context, nuclear cooperation with India is appropriate. But it needs to make explicit an Indian commitment not to spread nuclear materials to other countries, such as the United States itself has undertaken. The scope of the nuclear cooperation should avoid the rhetoric and the reality of a nuclear arms race in which China could be tempted to support nuclear programs in Iran and Pakistan as a counterweight. The goal should be an Asia that navigates between an unacceptable hegemony by any power and an arms race that replicates in Asia the tragedies of Europe, only with fiercer weapons and even vaster consequences.

In a period preoccupied with concerns over terrorism and the potential clash of civilizations, the emerging cooperation between the two great democracies, India and the United States, introduces a positive and hopeful perspective.