M.L. Sondhi

Sunday Pioneer, March 19, 2000

President Bill Clinton’s visit to India could mark not only a possible watershed in the evolution of bilateral relations between the two countries but also herald a qualitative change in the foundations on which international linkages in the global system are established and maintained.

There are signs of a growing US awareness not only of India’s importance as a potential international power, but also of its value as a democratic partner.  Significantly, several of Clinton’s recent remarks on Indo-US relations seem to underscore this emerging cognisance.

Thus, last month the ‘International herald Tribune’ quoted the US President as saying that: “I am going (to India) because it is the biggest democracy in the world…I think we haven’t been working with them enough”.

This is an encouraging trend, but such sentiments need to be “fleshed out” with a cogent political rationale.  In this regard, a concept of crucial consequence is that which has become known as “democratic peace”.  The importance of this concept was highlighted by Gerald Segal, the late Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), in an article, “War and Democracies” which appeared in ‘The Hindu’ on June 12, 1999.

Segal observes in it: “…one of the greatest examples of progress in political affairs in the 20th century is the apparent emergence of “democratic peace” – the notion that mature democracies do not go to war with one another.  “In fact, among students of international relations, the consensus that democratically governed states rarely (if ever) go to war with each other is so strong that among many eminent scholars it has acquired almost the status of law of international politics.

It is thus at once both surprising and regrettable that this notion has not been accorded greater prominence in the formation of foreign policies of most nations, including that of the US, which in many cases seems to persist in an ill-founded even-handedness in its attitudes to libertarian and authoritarian regimes.  It is difficult to comprehend the wisdom of such an approach, whether in terms of moral merit or political pragmatism.

Indeed, it is particularly puzzling why the US, which portrays itself as the promoter and the protector of liberal democratic values, should adopt this position of misplaced impartiality toward despotism and democracy.

Even more puzzling is why the bastion of political philosophy should be the US State Department, which recently voiced its desire for the striking of a “balanced policy in the region” – ‘balance’ of course indicating even-handedness in US dealings with democratic India and decidedly less democratic Pakistan.

For more than any other organ of the US government, the people at Foggy Bottom should be well-versed in the principles of international relations. As such they should be well aware that policies of appeasing non-democratic regimes will in the long run not only undermine America’s moral posture, but also its long-term strategic interests around the globe in general, and in Asia in particular.

The architects of Indian foreign policy would do well to seize on the notion of “democratic peace” and make it a centre-piece in the promotion of the country’s diplomatic strategy, especially in forging a new era of Indo-US relations.

Conversely, the architects of US foreign policy would do well to be receptive and sympathetic to such an initiative.  For the historical record unequivocally suggests that nothing promotes international stability and tranquillity more than the propagation of liberal democracy.  Accordingly, it would seem that nothing could be more consistent, indeed conducive to US interests than the bolstering of like-minded libertarian regimes in conflict with authoritarian rivals.

Thus for India, the strength of its democratic traditions should be made a formidable asset in the conduct of foreign policy.  It is an asset that the US should embrace, endorse and encourage.  Indeed, the strength of Indian democracy is underscored by the highly inhospitable conditions in which it developed, that might well have been expected to be highly conducive to the growth of dictatorial rule.

For over the last five decades, the country has had to contend with severe threats to national security, military conflict, periods of economic hardship, political assassinations and ethno-religious rivalries.  The fact that authoritarianism has not taken root in the country bears eloquent testimony to the deep-rooted commitment to the principles of liberty, pluralism and the right of dissent.  This resilience of Indian democracy was stressed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his 1998 visit to the US.  He pointed out that “despite changes in Government, the political system itself has remained remarkably stable”, cogently observing that this “testifies to the inherent strength and stability of democratic traditions” in India.

It is precisely this resilient commitment to libertarian democratic values, particularly in the face of the harrowing challenges it has withstood, that should assuage much of US chagrin and misgiving over New Delhi’s independent stand on the nuclear issue.

For the extension of research on the “democratic peace” concept provides convincing evidence to suggest that libertarian governments would be highly unlikely to use such military prowess for aggressive initiatives but would rather tend to employ it as a deterrent to preserve stability and the prevailing status quo.

It is thus no coincidence that virtually all the “rogue” states who are considered potential risks to global or regional stability, and liable to use missile technology and non-conventional capabilities in hostile initiatives are governed by despotic regimes of one ilk or another.

Indeed the US should not dismiss the possibility that nuclear capabilities in the hands of a stable and responsible democracy constitute a force for peace and stability, bolstering global security rather than jeopardising it.

In the coming years, the US will have to seriously address the question of who will dominate the Indian Ocean, south and central Asia and indeed the eastern approaches to Europe:  powers committed to the preservation of libertarian values of moderation and restraint or powers committed to fundamentalism and fanaticism, who would impose on their surroundings values that are the very antithesis of those which the US purports to cherish.

An alliance based on special relationship between the world’s most powerful and the world’s most populous democracies would create a potent stabilising force in the region, which together with likeminded regimes could contribute significantly towards off-setting sources of upheaval and tumult liable to be injurious to American interests.
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