Journal Articles

Engagement sans entanglement



January 22, 2010

THE end of 2009 is a good time to ask where Indian foreign policy is headed. More specifically, it is an appropriate time to enquire where it is moving in redefining its ties with the pre-eminent global super power, the United States of America.

The PM’s visit to Washington DC at the year’s end found America’s political and military leadership in a sombre mood. Despite announcing a surge of forces in Afghanistan, the Western powers are in the early stages of setting a timetable for drawing down their presence. Conditions in Iraq, though more stable, are also fragile. Colossus it may be, but both wars have exposed America’s limitations.

But it is the larger picture of Indo-American relations that matter more. In 2008, the alliance of parties that kept Manmohan Singh’s first coalition government in office broke up as the Left parties opposed the Indo-US nuclear accord. For the first time, a foreign policy issue became an acid test of a government’s survival on the floor of Parliament. The United Progressive Alliance survived and it won another term in May 2009.

India’s relationship with the United States has clearly undergone a major shift. In 1968, India was a major target of the regime under the then new Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty or NPT. Ever since the Pokhran explosions of 1974 and 1998, the US led the way in a regime of sanctions against this country. The Indo-US agreement drove a gaping hole through that treaty even though India has not been given the rank of a nuclear weapon power.

Critics still see the nuclear accord and the larger relationship as foreclosure of Indian autonomy. Such criticisms surfaced again albeit in different form on the eve of the Copenhagen summit in December 2009. Running through such debates is a common thread. How far India ought to go to secure accord hinges on how its vital interests are defined.

Here lies the nub of the issue. India and the USA will indeed have closer ties in the new century. But what will the role model for India be? The old Cold War divisions are gone, though its lingering, even damaging, impact remains. China is a rising power but it is yet to challenge American dominance across the globe. Russia is rebuilding itself under Putin and now Medvedev, but is a shadow of the former Soviet Union. Unified Europe is still to assert itself.

US engagement with Asia has a long history. Two decades ago, the Cold War drew to a close in Afghanistan as Soviet troops exited after a decade. Within two years, the US was engaged for the first time since Vietnam in a land war in Asia – in Kuwait. 9/11 led to American direct engagement in Afghanistan. It transformed Pakistan again into a frontline state, this time in the so-called ‘war on terror’.

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