India and the new world order


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EVEN as the world confronts a new American approach to world affairs post the advent of the Bush Administration in January 2002, the Indian response to the tumultuous developments since then has been along unexpected lines. While the liberal opinion in the United States and overwhelming public opinion in Europe, the Middle East and Asia remains extremely critical of the Bush Administration’s policies, India’s reaction has either been muted or supportive of the new line of Washington on key global issues. Even as the staunchest of the traditional American allies challenged the Bush Administration’s policies, India, which on the basis of its past record could have been expected to lead the charge against the United States in various international forums, has often ended up on the side of Washington.

Although the popular reaction in India to the US policies has been no different from that of the rest of the world, the official Indian line has seen an important evolution away from the past positions. The following is an examination of some of the elements of the new global debate – the triumphant demonstration of American dominance in world affairs, the restructuring of great power relations, the declining prospect for multilateral institutions, the changing nature of warfare, and the unfolding battle for the transformation of the Middle East – and the Indian response to them.

An affirmation of the American political will to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the face of extraordinary popular and governmental opposition to it which was unconvinced about the American justifications for the war and the apparently daunting military obstacles, is the single biggest outcome of the Iraq war. Many powers of the world, including India, seriously underestimated the political resolve of the Bush Administration in having its way on Iraq. At the root of this failure is an inability to see the transformation of American politics since September 11.

What the attackers of the World Trade Center did on September 11 was to transform the security condition of the United States. Separated from the rest of the world by two large oceans and blessed with such neighbours as Mexico and Canada, the American mainland has remained invulnerable to external aggression. Few great powers in the history of the international system have had that beneficial geographic circumstance. They had to live cheek by jowl with other aggressive neighbours with great power ambitions of their own.

The US indeed came under a direct attack in Pearl Harbour in 1942. But Hawaii is a thousand miles away from the US mainland. The last occasion when American heartland had to defend itself was in 1812 when Great Britain sacked Washington, DC. The luxury of a secure homeland has ended for the United States. The US has risen to the challenge of protecting its own territory from attacks – in far off lands.

The new condition of domestic vulnerability has had profound effects on the United States. On the external front, the debate on a choice between isolationism and internationalism – a long standing feature of American policy – is now a relic of the past. The US no longer has an option of seeing itself as a shining city on the hill that is immune to the dynamics of international politics. Thanks to September 11, the US will stay engaged in the world in a manner that will put its past involvement in world affairs since the Second World War into a shade. In the last century the US intervened to preserve the balance of power in Europe and Asia and to defeat what it saw as threats from fascism and communism in the rest of the world. Now the American interventions will be about defending America’s own national security.



The past threats to the US were derived; now they are seen as direct. Last century, the US intervened to defend freedoms elsewhere in the world. The present challenge to the US is about preserving the security of its own citizens. The Iraq war has finally buried the Vietnam syndrome and the tendency to rely only on air power in its use of force. Since the Vietnam war, the American military had become extremely cautious about use of force and defined a tough set of conditions for its involvement. But today, an all-volunteer and well-paid army cannot refuse to fight because of the inherited Vietnam syndrome.

When nearly 3000 American citizens perished in a flash at the World Trade Center, the idea of military casualties preventing a use of force to meet American national political objectives was no longer sustainable in the US political discourse. The US military will remain careful about avoiding deaths of its soldiers and continue to emphasize technology in its strategy. Nevertheless, those who are prone to clichés on ‘body bags’ preventing the use of force may be repeatedly surprised by America in the coming years. Those who believed that the US would be daunted in Iraq by the prospect of large casualties or were expecting if not hoping that it would be bogged down were to be hugely surprised. The US used ground forces on day one of the Iraq war and signalled its willingness to risk large number of military deaths.



In moving into Iraq with the explicit intention of not only removing Saddam Hussein but also to occupy it for an extended period of time and reorganize the state and society in the Gulf nation represented a strategic audacity not seen since the end of the Second World War. Accustomed to a world in which decolonization has been complete and notions of state sovereignty have taken such a strong root, the American action in Iraq has produced political shock waves across the world. The demonstration of the political will to use military force so decisively and against presumed uncertainties will have an effect that is unlikely to subside in the near term. Underlying this is the dominant worldview within Pentagon and the White House widely called ‘neo-conservative’ that has been at odds with the traditional international understanding of American worldview and foreign policy tradition. The neo-conservatives have combined the traditional right-wing readiness to use force with a liberal ideology that seeks to actively transform the world.

After the Iraq war, there can be no doubt that Washington is prepared to mobilize all the resources at the command of the world’s richest economy and advanced society and exercise the political will to pursue objectives that until recently would have been considered outlandish. This has raised the spectre of ‘neo-imperialism’ in the world even as for many in the US ‘imperial’ is no longer a word with negative connotations. It is seen as representing a potential American role in the world that is at once assertive, benign and progressive. Although questions have been raised, in the wake of American difficulties in handling the post-war situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, about the ‘competence and credibility of American imperialism’, there is no doubt about the new power of the United States and its ability to exercise it in the pursuit of its political objectives.

The Indian establishment was in a better position to deal with the affirmation of American power despite the fact that it seemed to smack of neo-imperialism. Since the end of the Cold War, the improvement of relations with the United States has been at the centre of India’s efforts to restructure its foreign policy. Unlike the Europeans who were responding to the imperatives of asserting a more independent role after the collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s corrections had necessarily to be in the other direction. More fundamentally, India’s enthusiastic support to the American war on terrorism was based on a direct convergence of interests.



For nearly a decade and a half since the mid 1980s, combating terrorism sponsored by Pakistan had become India’s principal national security preoccupation. In dealing with this challenge, it became acutely aware of the severe constraints in using traditional military power against Pakistan which had become a nuclear weapon power. As India began to see the importance of bringing to bear the larger forces in the world to limit Pakistani use of terrorism against it, the American war against terrorism since September 11 appeared a rare opportunity that India could ill afford to miss.

India had little difficulty in understanding the American diagnosis of the problem of terrorism; its problems arose from the perceived inconsistency and ‘double standards’ in dealing with it when it came to Pakistan. Nevertheless, mobilizing the American power to discipline Pakistan, in facilitating a reasonable solution to the Kashmir dispute, and transforming the relationship with Islamabad became central to the Indian national security strategy since September 11.



A second big change in international politics has been the reordering of the great power relations since September 11, in particular the trans-Atlantic rupture. Throughout the 20th century Europe has been the principal external preoccupation of the United States. And in the second half of the last century, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the alliance with Western Europe were the main instruments of America’s international policy. In the post September 11 world, Europe has become more of an irritation rather than an enthusiastic associate in America’s new war.

Europe has always whined about America’s unilateralism when Washington acted with force, and complained about American isolationism when it turned its back. But the carping about American unilateralism has become intense since September 11. In the run up to the Iraq war, European carping turned into active political opposition. In Iraq, the instinct of the neo-conservatives in the Pentagon and the White House was to go into the war with or without the support of the European allies. But the American liberals and the State Department forced the UN route on President George W. Bush.

The active resistance put up by the French and Germans in New York shocked the Americans but did not prevent it from going outside the framework of the United Nations to force a regime change in Iraq. Besides managing to keep Britain on its side, the US effectively played on the differences between ‘old Europe’ and ‘new Europe’. The East Europeans, despite many pressures from the EU, were willing to back the United States in its war against Iraq.

Since the end of the war, there has been a major effort to patch up the differences between Europe and the United States. These efforts might succeed to an extent, but they do not hide the fact of a decline in the relative weight of Europe in the international arena. While Europe remains a powerful economic force, any hope that it can emerge as a political challenger to the dominance of the United States has taken a severe beating in the Iraq war. The Europeans will indeed have a role in the management of international security. It will essentially be of a secondary nature in terms of peacekeeping and organizing aid rather than shaping the politics of war and peace.



Amidst a declining weight of the Europeans in the new war against terrorism, Russia appeared to have missed a huge opportunity in Iraq to consolidate its growing partnership with the United States. Seizing the moment on September 11, President Vladimir Putin of Russia moved decisively to take the initiative to transform Russia’s relations with the United States. As a result of his initiative – which involved solid support to American war, winking at American bases in Central Asia, and a willingness to negotiate rather than confront the US on missile defences and NATO expansion – the door was opened for a new and enduring partnership between Washington and Moscow.

Shedding the residual baggage of the Cold War, the Bush Administration saw the gains of a new cooperative relationship with Putin. Washington backed an increased influence for Russia in NATO, made some compromises on the nuclear issue, promised support for its entry into the World Trade Organization, and underlined the prospect of Russia playing a stabilizing role in international oil markets. After considerable calculation, President Putin in the end chose to tilt towards the Franco-German alliance before the war. As between Europe and America after the Iraq war, Washington and Moscow are also trying to find the threads of cooperation. It is also evident that unlike France, Russia did not actively launch itself into a campaign mode against the US and as a consequence the damage to bilateral relations might not have been irreparable.



If there is one power that has many reasons to be apprehensive about the post Iraq world it is China. The dramatic rise in American assertiveness around the world has coincided with a new phase of uncertainty in Sino-US relations. China which reacted vehemently against the use of American military power in the Balkans in the late 1990s now has to contend with American military presence in Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Gulf and South Asia. Besides a potential transformation of US relations with Russia and the development of missile defences, there is enhanced American support to the defence of Taiwan. If a containment ring against China ever seemed a possibility, from Beijing it appears that it is much closer to reality today than ever before.

While China is deeply disturbed by the turn of developments in its neighbourhood since September 11, it has managed to avoid the worst in Sino-American relations. The urgency of the war against terrorism has moved Washington away from a new focus on a presumed Chinese threat. During the Iraq war, China went along with the Europeans and Russians in opposing the US, but took care not to stay in the frontlines of this argument. The American political resolve in Iraq and the demonstration of its military capabilities stirs profound anxieties in Beijing. China is also being forced to take a more responsible position vis a vis North Korea as the American gaze begins to rivet on Pyongyang as a potential future target of regime change. By pressuring North Korea and pleasing the United States, China hopes to postpone a potential direct confrontation with Washington in North East Asia.



Amidst these changes, an alignment and cooperation with the United States seemed to open for India the prospect of not only dealing with its national security challenges more effectively but also creating the opportunity to recast its standing in the hierarchy of great powers in the international system. Avoiding a confrontation and traditional knee-jerk opposition to the United States had already been a prudent option for India in the post Cold War world. But the developments under the Bush Administration seemed to create the conditions in which one of India’s long-standing objectives of gaining a position in the world commensurate with its national potential could be realised. That this was denied to India in the Yalta settlement after the end of the Second World War has always been a major grouse within the Indian strategic community.

The American request for sending a large contingent of troops to stabilize the situation in Iraq seemed a perfect opportunity to transform Indian ties to Washington, legitimize its future role in the Persian Gulf and improve its standing among the great powers. That India came very close to saying ‘yes’ to the United States request in mid 2003 reflects how far New Delhi has travelled in recent years. But in the end considerations of domestic politics and the fear of getting caught up in a shooting match with the Iraqis prevented India from backing the American strategy in Iraq and ending up more with the Russians and French in insisting on substantive ‘United Nations cover’ for its military support to the Anglo-American powers in Iraq.



The future of the UN system after the war is the third big question that is animating the post Iraq debate. In successfully eliminating the regime of Saddam Hussein without an explicit authorization of the United Nations Security Council, the US has dealt a severe blow to the belief that the UN was beginning to gain a central role in the management of international security after the Cold War.

Although only two wars had been specifically authorized by the UN since its inception – the Korean war in the early 1950s and the First Gulf War against Iraq – the UNSC appeared to take an increasingly pro-active role on peace and security issues during the 1990s thanks to the support of the Clinton Administration for multilateralism. But the Bush Administration and its neo-conservative ideologues have always been deeply distrustful of the UN role and refused to see it as a substitute to political action by the dominant power in the international system. Nor do they see the UN as a credible and effective system of managing international security.

The Iraq war has sharpened the debate between those in the United States who emphasize the untrammelled use of American power and others across the Atlantic and beyond who point to the perils of American unilateralism and the urgency of restoring the principles of multilateralism. In the end the outcome is likely to lie somewhere in between but closer to the recognition of the reality of American preponderance in the great power relations that underlies the UN system. Equally, the UN, with its critical function of coordinating a variety of inter-governmental issues, is unlikely to wither away.



In post war Iraq itself, the US is now willing to accept a role for the United Nations, if only as a an adjunct to the operations of the American military coalition. But Washington is clear that the UN will not be allowed to undermine its own primacy in managing the situation in Iraq. The UN will have to deal with the reality of American primacy on global security issues and it might be consistently torn between defiance and complicity. As the war in Iraq proved, its defiance does not make a difference and its complicity with US policy does not boost genuine multilateralism.

The fact, however, is that the collective security system envisaged under the UN charter has collapsed. The politics of the UN Security Council during the Iraq crisis is a testimony to this. Collective security systems are based on shared security perspectives among the major powers and a political will to act together. The collective security framework of the UN, devised at the end of the Second World War, never worked during the Cold War thanks to East-West divisions. After the Cold War, the UN system certainly expanded its role in international security affairs, although there was no coherence to this increased activity.

The lessons drawn by the US after the tragic events of September 11 and the course it has set for itself in addressing the new challenges to international security are neither shared by its former Cold War partners, nor by its new friends in Russia. As a consequence, the marginalization of the UN in global security affairs has become inevitable.



Although the Indian government finally took shelter under the UN, as did many other nations, in avoiding a full-scale support to the American operations in Iraq, the ambiguities in New Delhi’s position on the United Nations came to the fore in debating the question of troop contributions to the Gulf. While India has traditionally emphasized the virtues of multilateralism in the management of international security, it had always been wary of a UN role on issues concerning its own national security. After making the big mistake of taking the Kashmir dispute to the UN in the late 1940s, India has been determined to the point of obsession in preventing any UN role in Kashmir and other regional security issues.

The absence of support in the UN did not deter India from taking unilateral military action in East Pakistan in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Nor did India take the permission of the UN to launch ‘bread-bombing’ of Sri Lanka in 1987. Irrespective of the outcome in Iraq, India has no reason to bemoan the collapse of the old international order, for it had such little say in its management. As the UN began to raise its profile in world affairs in the 1990s, India was firmly opposed to its interventionary role. India has devoted considerable diplomatic energies to fob off Annan’s attempts to muscle in on the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. It had firmly rejected the UNSC Resolution 1172 passed unanimously in June 1998 asking New Delhi to roll back its nuclear and missile programmes.

The UNSC debate on Iraq has masked a deeper crisis. It is about basic differences among the great powers on the nature of the new threats to international security. It is also about unbridgeable divergence on when and how to use force against these threats. The US and its former European allies no longer agree on these fundamental questions. They do not share an understanding of the threats posed by global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and the means that must be employed to defeat them. In this debate on new challenges to international security, the Indian position has been closer to that of America than Europe.



A fourth set of issues relate to changing nature of warfare. The events of September 11 have clinched many issues in the post Cold War American and international debate on new threats to global order and the new imperatives of military strategy. The idea that an asymmetric war is the biggest challenge to the world has been reinforced by the dramatic display of the capacities of modern terrorism on September 11. The difficulties of fighting an elusive enemy who does not abide by the traditional rules of war and can wreak destruction on urban America through acts of terrorism has become the dominant political fact driving American military strategy.

The Bush Administration has argued that the US cannot wait for the enemy to come home but will have to go after him. This is the rationale for the new ideas of ‘preemptive’ and ‘preventive war’ by the United States against the new adversary and the states that provide sanctuary and support to them. And as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, if this war requires active abetment of regime change in nations that support terrorism and occupation of foreign territory, so be it. The American war in Iraq is the first preemptive war in that sense. The American preemptive wars will inevitably run into traditional notions of state sovereignty and non-intervention.



The Iraq war has also intensified international concerns on the dangers from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in particular to terrorist groups like the al Qaeda as well as the so-called ‘rogue states’. The Iraq war was justified in the name of preventing the proliferation of WMD. Because no WMD have yet been found in Iraq after the war, the liberal multilateralists in America and Europe will insist on strengthening the nonproliferation regime to avoid unilateral use of force.

The US is likely to intensify the efforts to mobilize the rest of the world in further tightening controls over the transfer of technology to an identified group of states, irrespective of their formal support to the nonproliferation regime. Besides legal and political measures to prevent the spread of WMD, the US wants the military capability to deal with the threat. As a result there will be increasing stress on ‘counter-proliferation’ (the stress on military as opposed to the traditional legal focus on ‘nonproliferation’) and the development of missile defences. Since September 11, there has been a significant expansion of the domestic support in the United States for President Bush’s plans to accelerate the development of missile defences. The Iraq war only deepens it.

As the US prepares for an early deployment of missile defences by the later part of this decade, the rules of the nuclear game are being rewritten. Until recently the nuclear calculus of the superpowers had little room for defensive weapons. But in future, deterrence is likely to be based on a combination of offensive nuclear weapons as well as defensive systems that can cope with small nuclear attacks.

India has little difficulty in understanding the new American concerns and finds itself in empathy with the new ideas in Washington about missile defences, counter proliferation and preemption. The totalization of India’s own experience in dealing with terrorism sponsored by a nuclear Pakistan inevitably leads to the conclusion that the combination of weapons of mass destruction with religious extremism and violence is a deadly threat which requires new security approaches.

The ideas of missile defence, counter-proliferation and preemption run headlong into the traditional ideas espoused by India in favour of total elimination of nuclear and space weapons, political means to resolve security threats, and rule of international law. But India’s own experiences since the mid 1980s have pushed it in a direction very different – to embrace missile defences to limit the threat of Pakistani and Chinese nuclear weapons, to consider preemption given the prospect of a nuclear-armed jihadi Pakistan, and emphasize the need for a coalition of democracies to deal with the challenge of terrorism.



Fifth, is the range of issues related to the future of the volatile politics in the Middle East after the Iraq war. In retrospect, the question of WMD was never really the only concern for the United States in seeking regime change in Iraq. Nor was oil. While the huge hydrocarbon reserves of Iraq are both important and valuable they are not really necessary for the United States to control the international oil market. Nor can the war be seen in terms of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Whatever might be the common ignorance and distrust of Islam in the US and the West, it is not the objective of the United States to confront Islam. The US has no desire to unite the Islamic world in the name of fighting the West. It has enduring interests and a history of intense political and economic engagement in the Islamic world.

The US believes that its own security cannot be ensured without defeating the forces of radicalism and extremism on the one hand and the old encrusted secular dictatorships in the region on the other. Handing a decisive defeat to these forces involves a fundamental restructuring of the polities in the Middle East. The pacification of the region sought by Washington involves ouster of radical regimes of the kind in Iraq, support for the forces for change in Iran that are fighting the clerical rule, and promotion of openness and reform in Saudi Arabia. More fundamentally, it implies a political modernization in the Middle East and bringing it in tune with the rest of the world and integrating its markets with the international economy.



When the first soundings of this policy were aired by the neo conservatives there was utter disbelief in the world. Neither the US record in the region nor the assessment of the regional dynamics gave any hope that the modernization of the Middle East is a realizable objective. As the US tries to put Iraq back together again, there can be no doubt about where it is headed in the region. But clearly the modernization of the Middle East cannot be accomplished overnight. It is a project for at least a couple of decades during which there can be many twists and turns to the tale as the US gets drawn deeper into the internal politics of the Middle East.

Although the question of modernizing the Middle East has not dominated the Indian debate on Iraq and the new international order, it is not far from the surface. India has a huge stake in the democratization of the Middle East. The lag in the political evolution of the Middle East and the emphasis on the centrality of religion in the conduct of the affairs of the state implies there are factors that profoundly shape the debate on secularism and modernity in the subcontinent itself. Promoting democratic stability in the region and defeating the forces who want to impose regressive ideas on the South Asian societies present themselves as natural ideas at the top of India’s larger agenda.



The unexpected and unprecedented Indian support to the many new ideas that have come from the United States, although not complete and often tentative, is not driven by mere tactical considerations of improving relations with the United States. They reflect the ongoing attempts in India to find a new set of organizing principles for national security and foreign policies in the light of its own recent experience. India’s new positions in the debate on global security underscore the reality that India has in essence been a revisionist power. India is not seeking a revision of its territorial boundaries but a significant change in its international standing.

As an aspiring power, India is far more sympathetic to the American effort to rework the rules of the global security system. Having been denied its rightful place in the old order, it has no reason to bemoan the passing away of the old order. The enduring challenge for India in the coming decade will be in shaping a new global order that is in tune with its own interests.