Beyond Pokharan The US has its soft spots

M.L. Sondhi

Times, July 5, 1998

A three-week long academic visit to North America last month brought me in touch with a discourse which strikes at the very foundations of both the "isolationism” of the establishment apologists and the established positions of the anti-nuclear opposition.  I have come to believe that both sides of our domestic debate are indulging in masochism and are reluctant to provide an intellectual basis for an active Indian role, to combine nuclear power and responsibility for “fine-tuning” an internationalist nuclear diplomacy.  While isolationism is both foolish and na´ve, the anti-nuclearists have a predilection for serving particularistic interests and ignoring national purposes.  Both the opposing sides describe the international security system in mechanistic terms and are against India’s constructive global engagement.

I found myself in the midst of a major demand for understanding the central issues confronting the Indian national security establishment and the efforts of the BJP Government to adjust to new international realities.  India’s transition to a nuclear weapons power status is generally accepted and so is the basic hypocrisy of the Non-proliferators whose basic framework has now been rendered inoperative on account of fragmentation into conflicting parts.  I spoke at several places: The Woodrow Wilson Centre, the Stimson Institute, Citizen-Scientist Frank von Hippel' Group at Princeton, the Centre for the Advanced Study of India (at Pennsylvania) and at the Council for Foreign Relations.  It was more than clear that India can now set the standard for discourse at the international level as the next millennium draws near.  What was equally clear was that what the politicians have been talking about in India ever since Pokharan II in the domestic debate is full of selective misrepresentations which only invite ridicule from serious minded persons.  Only a bold nuclear diplomacy can clarify the nature and identity of India’s potential as a stabilising element in a multipolar Asia and carry conviction to those who seek dialogue with us in North America.  I say this confidently after interaction with a fair cross-section of opinion: with two Senators at Capitol Hill, a noted Non-proliferation expert, a European diplomat posted in Washington with expertise in such issues, a former Secretary of Defence, an influential conservative member of the electronic media, a senior conservative consultant who has served in Washington, and with two former US ambassadors to India. 

The well-known Indo-Canadian expert on nuclear strategy Professor Ashok Kapur of the University of Waterloo (Canada) has argued that “Arms control without security is a fraud”.  This should be the point of departure in challenging the tyranny of Non-proliferation theology and building on the genuine gains of the Indian nuclear tests.  Many of the questions which are asked can be effectively answered by placing three issues in perspective.  First, that it is better to have nuclear weapons capabilities and strategic issues out in the open and not hidden in a closet.  Recent developments have made the policy of nuclear opacity obsolete.  Second, Western theories and policies about Non-proliferation are deeply flawed.  After the test India can play a quiet and effective role in placing the question of international control of atomic energy on a sound intellectual-cum-political basis.  The greatest challenge that our global society faces can be answered with Indian cooperation in arranging a new bargain between the older nuclear powers and new nuclear powers.  Third, the participation in nuclear trade and nuclear technological advancement should take place without dislocation of both regional security and genuine international nuclear disarmament.

Indian nuclear diplomacy has to combine the concerns of major actors like the Americans, Chinese, Russians and Japanese into a constellation keeping in view the imperatives of global integration.  We therefore need to recognise that often our rhetoric based on isolationism sounds incoherent.  In facing domestic situations when our social fabric is under stress certain formulations are legitimate, but these cannot be mechanically extended to formulations which have a bearing on the international power structure.  We cannot formulate a security agenda by saying that we need a H-Bomb to promote disarmament, or because we have the world’s second largest population or because we are an ancient civilisation. But it makes sense when we say that we are puzzled by the Clinton Administraton’s neglect of Indian sensitivities about missile and nuclear proliferation by China in Pakistan and also when we complain about the pattern of “selective proliferation” by USA.  We should state our concerns clearly instead of hiding them and highlight the basic contradiction that “non-proliferators have turned out to be dangerous and reckless proliferators”.

Our nuclearisation is now unstoppable, but we must ask the basic question, what kind of international security analysis are we going to depend upon?  Instead of ideology or prejudice or a sense of victimisation shaping our understanding of the strategic landscape, a sophisticated and innovative perspective which works to take advantage of the following trends should be developed:

  • We should emphasise that India is a status quo and non-expansionist state which has legitimate security interests but is a factor for tranquility on its borders and the strengthening of the rule of law and human rights in global affairs.

  • India favours a stable but non-interventionary Pakistan and does not consider Pakistan a permanent adversary.

  • India does not accept the US policy of an Indo-Pakistan balance but favours cross-sectoral dynamics with Pakistan which can be expressed through institutions like a SAARC regional Parliament on the model of European Parliament.

  • India welcomes a strategic dialogue with USA which deals with causes rather than with symptoms.  India seeks substantive political relations with the US rather than an obsession with technical verification measures.  India should become literate in the idiom of American political folklore, and engage in aggressive diplomacy which should take into account the coming split in the American body politic on China and observe the willingness of US conservatives to reach out to India.

  • Most important, American academics like Mearsheimer, Arnold Kramish, James Webb and even Henry Kissinger have recognised the important focus of India within the new framework of security analysis.  This is a truly positive phenomenon in shaping Indian-United States dialogue.

  • Finally, in place of earlier regidities, politico-military issues should be projected as an integral part of “cooperative coexistence” by an Indian leadership which unequivocally accepts its role in global change.

As the Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh dialogue gets under way, we can accept the former’s comment that the US is not playing its China card against India and that it is not a zero-sum game.  Yet it is ironic that the two countries who assisted with South Asian proliferation are acting as “non-proliferators”.

It is also unfortunate that Talbot has sought to impose “conditions” on the Clinton visit to India.  This approach is not compatible with the basic merit of open dialogue between two democracies.  Placing conditions even though Talbot phrases them in terms of “forward looking” and “backward looking” perspectives is essentially reflective of a dictatorial attitude which must be eschewed.  The Indian side could easily provide many examples of the US and Chinese “hegemonistic” attitudes and behaviour.  The Indo-US summit will be productive if it is approached without conditions and attempts to identify geo-political building blocks and enhances cross-sectoral congruence.

A paradigmative corrective to Talbot’s framing of the argument in terms of a delayed transition from a strategic dialogue with a small “s” and a small “d” to a strategic dialogue with a capital “S” and a capital “D” is provided by Paul Wolfowitz, who served in the Reagan administration.  He points out that China’s gravitational pull will over the next few decades draw South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and even Taiwan into its orbit, unless India and United States build a strong working military relationship.  He advocates a US-India convergence as the best guarantee for the freedom and security of both the democracies and of averting conventional or nuclear war.
<< Back