American primacy and South Asia


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AMERICAN primacy, never in doubt after the Cold War, has been further established by the events post 9/11. Before 9/11 happened the US had exercised considerable restraint even though its assets were attacked several times outside the homeland. With the exception of the failed cruise missile attack on Osama bin Laden’s suspected hideout during the Clinton era, the reliance was on sanctions, diplomacy, political pressures and financial clout. These efforts did not work in part because the nature of the threat was not fully estimated. Perhaps there was an intelligence lapse or a disconnect between intelligence and response that led to a failure to fully comprehend the magnitude of the emerging problem and its actual source.

All intelligence agencies are notoriously reluctant to develop a mosaic from the mass of available information to clearly predict a possible event. They prefer to pass on the information for policy-makers to draw conclusions. This is due to an obsessive fear of being proven wrong in their predictions and it is only after the event that they begin to highlight the bits and pieces that they had picked up and reported. From this point of view there was a massive intelligence failure and a lesson of strategic dimensions should be learnt from this entire episode. The world would have been different had the 9/11 plot been detected and the attack prevented.

Now with a low-key destabilisation struggle shaping up in Afghanistan and the body bag count steadily mounting in Iraq, there is a tendency to gloss over many facets of US primacy. The US has always had the capability of changing the external environment in pursuit of its national interests – perhaps the only country to have this capability. It is now using all the elements of its national power to do just this. It is doing so because its reluctance to use military power was seen as a weakness and a vulnerability that was exploited through asymmetric warfare. By responding massively the US has also unleashed asymmetric war, albeit of a different type, leaving no one in doubt about its ability and proclivity for taking unilateral action regardless of the UN and other countries.

The US has been able to project its power almost simultaneously in several geographic locations in the world. To do this it raised defence spending by almost $ 50 billion and is set to spend much more. It is the world’s dominant air power today. It has unquestioned military and technological superiority and a decisive communications and information edge. We are witnessing a situation in which the US dominates in all the elements of national power with no other country capable of matching it in any sphere. No balancing coalition exists or is in the offing as used to be the norm in the past whenever single power domination became a threat. No alliance can pose a challenge to the US because of intertwined economic interests and the benefits that they derive from the US. There is, in fact, a scramble among countries to be in the good books of the US and to establish stable bilateral relations with it.



Russia has its own views on missile defence, NATO expansion, its own sphere of influence and the war on Iraq, but it cannot effectively oppose the US. Its economic condition and internal situation demands that it follow policies that lead to recovery and stability. It has a leader who understands that this will be a long process, and that it needs US support. China too has its differences with the US over Taiwan and missile defence. It also comes under US pressure on democracy and rights issues but its leaders are focused on the economy and have learnt from the fall of the USSR that control and economic growth must precede a move towards democratic institutions. China needs the US and downplays ideas of any future adversarial confrontation. The US for its part is unlikely to rock the boat and will prevent Taiwan from declaring independence.

Japan has a security relationship with the US. Despite an economic downturn it is still an economic giant with enormous potential. There may be rumblings of changing its defence policy and developing military muscle but Japan remains a US ally because of the benefits that it draws from its bilateral relationship. South East Asia has always been an area of US influence because of the strong US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia and the Philippines have been targets of terrorist attacks and have responded with some success to the terrorist threat in line with US policy. In the North East there is the problem of North Korea but with both China and Russia supportive of US policy and South Korea firmly allied to the US, this is a problem that will be resolved in due course.



In the Middle East the US relies on Israel and its own alliances with supportive regimes in the area to counter the threats posed to Israel’s security and to US interests. Now with its physical presence in Iraq and pressures on countries that have been opposed to the US, the situation has changed. Iran, Syria and Libya will remain under pressure to conform to US policy. US backed regimes are undoubtedly feeling the destabilising backlash from Iraq, but they, without exception, are cooperating in the war against terror within their own countries in their own interest.

Saudi Arabia is confronting anti-regime and anti-US militants within the kingdom. Because of Afghanistan the US now interacts and dominates Central Asia and in South Asia it has a new ally in India while its older ally, Pakistan, has become a fully cooperative partner in the war against terror. The bilateral strategic relationships with India and Pakistan give the US control and influence in the region. India is, perhaps, being seen as a future regional power centre even as Pakistan enjoys continuing strategic significance because of its South Asian identity and linkages to China, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East and Central Asia. Both India and Pakistan are also nuclear powers and have been so for more than a decade.



The US has set many precedents and sent many signals through a series of actions it has taken after 9/11. The process of coalition building now includes arm twisting and ultimatums if countries do not rapidly fall in line or tend to give higher priority to contingent domestic concerns rather than their own long term interests. Massive retaliation is a reality that has been demonstrated. Wars to preempt and prevent perceived events and wars waged for regime change as an objective have been accepted. We have the Guantanamo Bay type of arbitrarily decided justice.

Post-war occupation of a country, considered an anachronism after the Second World War, is back as a concept to rebuild ravaged societies. The role of the UN is being redefined though the US continues to be supportive of it. It is now clear that sovereignty of nations will be respected only as long as they conform to international norms and regimes and act to eliminate threats that could be projected outside their borders. The line between conflicts for freedom and terrorism has become very fine indeed and countries faced with such issues are doing their best to blur or eliminate this line altogether.

International financial dealings, international organisations, international movement, weapons smuggling, drugs trafficking, support for conflicts and even domestic developments are now being scrutinised by the US and others. The staunchest ally of the US, Prime Minister Blair, is facing a political crisis as the search for WMD in Iraq goes on. Much will, however, depend on the eventual outcome of the ongoing situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the struggles against militants in a growing number of countries. It is thus inevitable that regions should start looking inwards to derive collective strength and eliminate vulnerabilities.



How, then, should we in South Asia view the new environment? When we see that no country or group of countries will be in a position to balance American economic, military, and cultural power for the foreseeable future, are we then to understand that unilateralism will be the new order? And that the US will use its domination to act on its own to go to war, stop nuclear proliferation, destroy terrorism, regulate trade and prevent human rights abuses and genocide? This is unlikely. Unilateralism was required for the specific type of response that the US wanted and, when faced with resistance, the US had to ride roughshod over everyone to create the effect that it sought. Only time will tell if the US decision was a correct one because the effects of US actions will only emerge over a period of time in societies in many parts of the world, including the US itself.

There will be a redefined role for NATO because it has survived and expanded. The UN may regain its centrality and in the future we may see more caution and deliberation in unilateral actions and coalition building. Economic and other factors are likely to eventually turn US foreign policy towards promoting effective multi-lateralism. This will demand visionary US leadership because the reliance will shift to forging coalitions and regional groupings around the principal power centres of the world anchored to the US by choice or compulsion or constraints.

We should not confuse American primacy with hegemony, though it will be difficult to make this distinction if the US does not act to highlight the difference. The US should continue to foster the values of a market economy, democracy, open trade, discouragement of conflict and a reduction in the numbers of weapons of mass destruction. The US will have to lead by setting an example.

As South Asians we must now debate the relevance and importance of regionalism in a globalised world and the evolving world order. There is a tendency to see regionalism as an alternative to globalism. This may not be the right approach even though a worldwide consensus is much more difficult to forge than a regional consensus. Regional institutions are weak in many parts of the world except perhaps in the economic sphere. In the Asia-Pacific area there is ASEAN, in Latin America there is NAFTA. Europe has the EU. The enormous human suffering in Africa highlights the cost of not having effective and responsive regional arrangements. The SCO backed by Russia and China among five Central Asian States is perhaps the best example of a regional alliance that is trying to tackle terrorism and other issues including a WMD free zone by developing coordinating regional institutions.



In South Asia we have SAARC – an arrangement that has never really taken off for many reasons. The recent SARS outbreak has highlighted the need for a worldwide alert, reporting and response arrangement that should have regional networks. The US view of regionalism has never been clearly spelt out and it seems ambivalent, except that the US would promote open trade in line with WTO agreements through bilateral and regional agreements. From the regional point of view it is important that discussions should lead towards broad cooperation on a range of issues so that US policy for the region takes the regional point of view into consideration and is in fact conditioned by it. In South Asia, though we are far from achieving such a consensus, we could examine the areas in which cooperation is possible if the current euphoria for friendship is to translate into something concrete.



Currently India and Pakistan are at the stage where we have yet to move towards meaningful talks. There are voices in India cautioning against ‘another betrayal’ by Pakistan and it is being suggested that India is being ‘set up’ for such an event. In Pakistan too there are fears that the entire ‘show’ is being managed for the Indian state and general elections so that if India succeeds, the political leadership will emerge as statesmen, and if they fail then Pakistan can be blamed and the usual hard line approach resumed. It is also not surprising that the violence in Kashmir continues unabated and has even registered an upsurge because there is fear that the freedom struggle that has taken so many lives may be sidelined.

The positive aspect is that there seems to be political resolve on both sides and that the process of normalisation has so far not faltered. If there is to be any kind of regional agreement leading to regional institutions then the first step has to be an established peace process between Pakistan and India. Otherwise we will continue to see each other’s foreign policies as steps to isolate and destabilise the other rather than the pursuit of national interest by sovereign nations. Once this first step has been taken then South Asia as a region can be considered and there are spheres in which meaningful cooperation can become a reality. There has to be an institutionalised forum for bilateral and regional interaction on a broad range of issues.

Economic cooperation should be possible. There are reservations on both sides, more so on the Pakistan side, but through discussion and adjustments it should be possible to have a regional arrangement incorporating all the countries of South Asia. Competition for extra regional markets and advantages will, of course, continue but mutually beneficial arrangements and institutions within the region may be possible. There could be enormous advantage to both sides if the gas pipeline from Central Asia or Iran through Pakistan to India could be translated into a viable and acceptable project.



Counter terrorism is another possible area for regional cooperation. At some point India will have to make the determination that Pakistan has taken all the initial steps that it could to stop cross-LOC infiltration and that some reciprocal steps need to be taken by India to move towards an improvement in the environment. The suggestion by President Musharaff for a ceasefire along the LOC and inside Kashmir was rejected in far too much haste – it needed consideration because if Pakistan wanted to support cross LOC movement then a ‘hot’ LOC would have given it obvious advantages.

Perhaps there is a need for a very small team of ‘government sponsored’ track II type non-controversial persons with no personal ambitions or agendas from each side to periodically meet and act as ‘sounding boards’ for ideas and suggestions so that subsequent public interaction and statements evoke positive response. Too many initiatives have been derailed before they even took off. The cooperation on counter terrorism should, however, go much beyond Kashmir. There is the residual Al Qaida presence in the region and beyond that could exploit conflict situations all over the region.



There are conflicts and struggles in other parts of South Asia too. An arrangement to share intelligence and establish controls region-wide could help in effective responses to prevent events. This would also change the perception that each country is undermining the other. For example the improving Indian relationship with Iran raises concerns that perhaps sectarian incidents within Pakistan are being sponsored to drive a wedge between Iran and Pakistan.

Indian defence relations with Israel, and US approval of sales of sophisticated weaponry from Israel to India, again raise concerns that the arms balance or imbalance in the region is being further and drastically tilted against Pakistan. Indian influence in Afghanistan raises the spectre of sponsored misunderstandings with the Afghan government and an anti Pakistan bias within Afghanistan. Arms smuggling, illegal trans-border movement, human smuggling, WMD and drugs are some of the issues that beg regional cooperation for a joint response.

SAARC can be expanded and strengthened to make it an effective forum for interaction on economic and security issues. It can have committees for interaction and coordination on a range of issues of mutual concern. Regional consensus could emerge on issues like peace-keeping, response to counter terrorism, economic issues, sharing of intelligence and the many problems of human rights, humanitarian work, health problems and education. Considered responses could be evolved on a regional basis on issues like missile defence and WMD proliferation. These would be moves towards regional harmony as opposed to the hostility and confrontation that exists now.

The fear in western minds that India and Pakistan are the two countries most likely to start a nuclear war would recede as cooperation expands and restraint regimes and control measures are regionally coordinated. A fundamentally new relationship between India and Pakistan would give South Asia a new image and identity and policy options for South Asia by other countries would have to take this reality into account. The region would also benefit from the extra regional interactions and linkages of India and Pakistan. Such suggestions could not have been made earlier but 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, US primacy and a worldwide change in the political and security environment have all combined to make regional harmony and cooperation a goal worth striving for.



India as the biggest South Asian country needs to take the lead in initiating steps that start the process – dialogue and SAARC could be the starting point for the long road ahead. The US with its present emphasis on bilateral relationships and other preoccupations may not be proactive in the Indo-Pakistan peace initiatives and subsequent regional arrangements. We may have difficulty in sustaining bilateral talks between India and Pakistan considering the legacy of the past but the fact that all the existing confidence building measures (CBMs) and agreements have been negotiated bilaterally should give us the confidence to move forward.

The opportunity for forging a new relationship is there for now, but only if we can dig ourselves out of the morass of the past. The transient political and other problems that exist should not become the reason for letting this opportunity disappear.