In the forthcoming Strategic Dialogue, India and the U.S. should focus on their long-term interests to take the bilateral relationship forward
The impression is now widespread that India-America relations are on a plateau, if not in the doldrums. This would not matter had they matured into a mutual understanding that allows two countries to be satisfied with nothing striking happening between them as welcome normalcy. Since the days when we hardly knew, and gravely suspected or even mistrusted each other, so much has developed between our two countries, and especially peoples, that we should not be at all bothered by the present situation, but for one reason: how well have we really learned to know each other, or shed earlier misgivings? Policymaking and specific measures of cooperation are still subject to deep doubts about just how good they are for either country. Convincing each other in these respects will continue to require periodic boosts by leaders for some years to come. This is what makes the coming Strategic Dialogue important.
Need for objectivity
We in India need to approach international relations with hard-headed, dispassionate objectivity, concentrating on national interest. Emotional attitudes and downright prejudices affect public opinion and state policies everywhere, but they affect us excessively. The view that we are too inclined towards abstract considerations, unrealistic world views and outdated thinking is not unjustified. Particularly damaging has been our illusion about friendship in international relations.
States are often enemies but cannot be friends. Their peoples may have friendly feelings, but states can only develop greater or lesser closeness of views and cooperation. This is so obvious as to be almost banal, but we have ignored it to our cost — often going overboard supporting others to show our friendship, beyond their expectations or our benefit. With America it has been the opposite: leave alone friendship, for decades, to speak favourably about America was considered virtually unpatriotic and, curiously, the legacy prevails. Respected pollsters may find that Indians as a whole have the best feelings toward America. There may hardly be a politician, bureaucrat or professional without a sibling or offspring settled there (or an innate longing to follow suit) but berating America remains more than an intellectual fashion, it spills over into a lack of cooperation.
Not that America has not done wrong: mistakes, deliberate misdeeds, behaviour and purposes that offend — all are there to make a formidable case for criticism and distancing. But that can be done against every state, definitely including some we call friends. Nobody has criticised America more sharply than Americans, and nowhere are there more forces at work for self-correction. In any case, international interactions have to be determined regardless of the virtues and vices of individual countries: if you find a state innately harmful to you, you must of course treat it as such, but howsoever horrible a regime, it is what it can do for or against you, not its nature, that must determine your handling of it.
India faces no such cruel choices today, nor any overnight external threat. There are only two foreseeable challenges to our territorial integrity, and two states to which a strong India is unwelcome, although one might take it in its stride. If either difference ever erupted in violent conflict, nobody would help us: we would be alone.
But our strength is surely the best hope of preventing any eruptions, and some states see their interests served by a strong India, and are willing to help us become so. Nobody does such things for ‘friendship,’ much less because we are so great or good that they ought to help — as, unfortunately, too many of us fondly imagine. Mutual benefit, so entrenched in our Panchsheel, means mutual trade-offs. There are no lack of advocates for seeking closeness with other countries, including those with whom we could have conflict, but oddly enough such an approach towards America remains suspect.
We also have vital interests beyond our immediate neighbourhood; the security of the Gulf, stability of Central Asia (especially after America’s cut-down in Afghanistan), the power balance to our East, tranquillity in the Indian Ocean. Our capabilities being limited, we surely need partners for all this. We must consider which powers have congruence with our objectives (assuming, perhaps too hopefully, that we know what our objectives are).
Commonality of objectives never precludes disagreements, even bitter ones, on ways of getting there: Gulf security, for instance, would involve obvious differences on how to deal with Iran, like the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan apropos Central Asia; and looming over everything is the universal ambivalence about dealing with China. There are many other issues on which our interest and views will differ basically from America’s; but there are enough issues with manifest commonalities calling for an intensified dialogue.
Another important commonality is hardly noticed. Everyone talks about the need for a world order with little idea as to its meaning or content. Ideas for making sovereign states abandon the brute dominance of power which persist in the intrinsic anarchy of international relations, and accept common rules of behaviour, have long been proposed, to little effect. Two World Wars initiated idealistic efforts to make states settle differences and develop cooperation through multilateral institutions and international law, based on equity and the sovereign equality of nations. Nothing of the sort actually happened; the great powers continued trying to impose their will, using the new “systems,” accordingly. India was perhaps the leading sincere believer in the ideal, though we objected to all the unfair old dominating machinations which were so vitiating it, and we continue to fight hard against them. Other states, also opposed to western control of what currently passes for “order,” want another one, but really seek to replace the West, recasting the order with themselves in control. India remains the one genuine believer in making the existing system conform to the ideals that it professed to embody, with a truly fair deal for the underprivileged states, truly based on equity. America might seem the last country from which to expect cooperation to that end, as the leading unilateralist in the multilateral institutions (the Indian representatives who have had to endure its arm-twisting in the U.N., etc., are perhaps its strongest critics)) but it is also there that the ideas for betterment are most actively discussed. Power politics is not going to give way to the ideal world order soon, if ever; but the search for it finds more supporters in either country than in some one could name. It is a thought to bear in mind for the future.
Interest in partnership
While we should adopt a more purposeful approach, the other side should have a real interest in partnership. Much Indian dubiousness about better ties flows from resentment about being pressurised, and America’s so-called “transactional” attitudes: buy our planes, reform your investment rules, safeguard intellectual property our way, enact our climate change urgings; whereas much of what we want is perpetually blocked in Washington. Both sides could exchange complaints forever.
The Strategic Dialogue will doubtless avoid that, but the problem remains: the working machinery on which delivery depends is obstructed by such faultfinding, fuelling doubts and hesitations on both sides. Top-down guidance has helped, but how much of that is to be expected today? Both countries are so heavily preoccupied with domestic and other concerns, developing this relationship is not exactly a priority for either leadership. Delhi is heading for national elections, and Washington’s focus is elsewhere. Many decisions badly needed by New Delhi in their own right are long overdue, but won’t be risked for appearing as bowing while scepticism — “what has India ever done for us-or ever will” — never left the beltway.
All this points to marking time — a perfectly normal situation in most relationships but potentially retrogressive in this instance because of the persistent negativisms. There are major long-term interests to be served; they will be one day, if both sides focus on them, and manage interim differences instead of throwing them at each other.
(K. Shankar Bajpai is former Ambassador to Pakistan, China & the U.S., and Secretary, External Affairs)