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Unipolar dilemmas

Published : Jun 18, 2010 00:00 IST

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Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before signing an agreement to ship most of Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal, in Teheran on May 17. This ought to have been a quadripartite deal with India forming the fourth leg had Indian policymakers done some creative thinking.-VAHID SALEMI/AP

Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before signing an agreement to ship most of Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal, in Teheran on May 17. This ought to have been a quadripartite deal with India forming the fourth leg had Indian policymakers done some creative thinking.-VAHID SALEMI/AP

Three defining events impacting on regional and international politics straddled the week in which the United Progressive Alliance-II government completed its first year in office: the Iran-Turkey-Brazil swap deal over the handling of Teheran's stockpile of nuclear fuel, the new strategy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and the United States-China strategic dialogue. These may appear disconnected events, but they once again underscore the transformational nature of the contemporary world situation. The efficacy or success of the foreign policy trajectory and diplomacy of a major country such as India needs to be measured ideally in terms of its ability to influence and mould the world order and, at the very least, by its capacity to adapt to the new demands of the transforming external environment.

The Iran-Turkey-Brazil swap deal not only challenges the United States' diplomatic campaign to rally support for a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions against the Persian Gulf country, but also strengthens the demand for a democratised world order in which unbridled political power of a clutch of states can no longer be used to ride roughshod over national sovereignty and international law. Ideally speaking, this ought to have been a quadripartite deal, with India forming the fourth leg. Yet it is not, and that raises profound questions about the creative thinking that has gone into Indian foreign policymaking in the post-Cold War era on a range of ideological issues the continued relevance of non-alignment, the solidarity of developing countries, the democratisation of the U.N. system, international law and national sovereignty, and so on.

The abysmal truth is that very little conceptual thinking has been taking place within the Indian foreign policy establishment in the recent years although the wherewithal is not lacking and the country indeed owns a full-fledged National Security Council Secretariat and National Security Advisory Board and several think tanks to boot. Even smaller countries such as Iran and Turkey attribute great importance to policy planning. Turkey's or Iran's Foreign Secretary traditionally refuses to hold direct charge of any portfolio in his Ministry, which enables him to focus primarily on policy planning with a mind uncluttered by the hurly-burly of fire-fighting that forms the stuff of day-to-day diplomacy in the world chancelleries.

Quite obviously, the recent bonding of Turkey and Brazil with Iran signified a strategic defiance of Washington's policy to isolate Teheran. Yet Turkey's and Brazil's relations with the U.S. are no less crucial for their foreign policy than U.S-India ties are for New Delhi. Besides, Turkey's chances of getting into the European Union are in the crosshairs. Brazil, like India, is bidding for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. Nonetheless, their legs did not go wobbly or spirit weaken while taking a lead role to thwart the U.S. effort to isolate Iran, simply because high principles affecting the emerging world order are involved. Turkey and Brazil consciously raised their profile as regional powers.

While showing the spunk to undermine a U.S.-inspired resolution against Iran at the risk of annoying Washington, they in fact acted in their self-interest, too. This is non-confrontational diplomacy at its best advancing the search for a new configuration in the world order that challenges big power hegemony. New Delhi is still on a learning curve about the enormous positive potential of the kind of post-Cold War non-aligned diplomacy that Turkey and Brazil are offering as regional powers. Turkey and Brazil have assaulted the archaic practice of the P-5 working as a cabal without bringing the non-permanent members into discussions. No doubt, these are issues affecting India's medium- and long-term interests, and the country ought to have clarity of thinking. India chose to ignore the stunning reality that the U.S.' (and the P-5's) approach toward Iran is less about nuclear weapons than about power politics. By doing so, India conveniently abdicated its responsibilities as a serious regional power and a stakeholder in the security and stability of its extended neighbourhood.

New strategy for NATO

Why is it that India, an ace player on the diplomatic arena historically, finds itself lost in thoughts, lurking in the shadows? This brings us to the doorsteps of a second major landmark development in recent times, namely, the unfurling of the new strategy for NATO. In the months leading to NATO's summit meeting in November in Lisbon, the new draft strategy will be debated in the world capitals as it would have a huge bearing on regional and international security well into the 21st century, and all countries big and small will be affected by it. NATO is poised to transform as a global security organisation, and besides being a military behemoth, it will have a political agenda couched in idioms of a democratic community with shared ideals and purposes.

The alliance's new framework could vitally affect Indian interests NATO as a guarantor of energy transportation routes, the continued pivotal importance attached to trans-Atlanticism in the U.S.' global strategies, NATO's relations with Russia and China and its focus on missile defence extending to include medium-range missiles, NATO's operations and missions as the world's policeman, and so on. Least of all, fresh impetus arises to modernise the Indian armed forces and weapons even as NATO takes habitation in the South Asian commons and is slouching towards West Asia and Central Asia.

More fundamentally, a nagging question arises: Is this the world of tomorrow that the UPA-I led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh anticipated? Unfortunately, neither UPA-I nor UPA-II cared to share with the public the seminal report prepared by the Task Force appointed by Manmohan Singh in late 2005 to conceptualise a global vision for chartering India's passage into the 21st century. He has consistently argued for transparency in governance, but this personal philosophy has not translated into practice in the domain of foreign policymaking. Transparency would have contributed to informed discourses on vital issues of foreign policy (including the highly controversial civil nuclear agreement between India and the U.S. which almost brought UPA-I down to its knees and altered the course of the country's coalition politics).

The heart of the matter is that for an emerging power like India in a transitional phase of its development, a good foreign policy should be an extension of its national policies, and informed debates and consensus-building among the plethora of interest groups that have appeared during the past decade or two in the country become a prerequisite of the situation. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the European Union (E.U.) directly impacts the lives of tens of millions of Indians, and yet the government shows scant regard for public accountability while negotiating international agreements. Parliament still lacks a mechanism to hold public hearings and it has no real role except as talking shop in overseeing international agreements. Most vibrant democracies possess such mechanisms be it Iran, the U.S. or Russia.

Thus, the assumptions behind the nuclear deal with the U.S. and the stated objectives of the deal still remain debatable. UPA-II is still to give a convincing account to Parliament why Manmohan Singh could not fulfil his solemn assurances regarding India's expectations out of the nuclear deal. And the government is instead pressing ahead with the nuclear liability Bill. Paradoxically, we see Pakistan on a parallel diplomatic track, notwithstanding its deplorable track record on nuclear proliferation, cruising comfortably towards almost the same destination of a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group without the U.S. insisting on conditionalities such as a Hyde Act or downstream national legislation.

UPA-I's foreign policy matrix was riddled with contradictions and UPA-II is still to address them squarely. The naive assumption that the U.S. viewed India as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean region or as an Asian balancer; the arrogant disposition that India could do away with diversified or multi-vector foreign policy so long as it single-mindedly built up the strategic partnership with the U.S; the patronising attitude towards the non-aligned bloc these have been proven wrong. Admittedly, there have lately been signs of reviving the strategic ties with Russia and repairing the damage caused to the friendly ties with Iran, and a new thinking may be appearing with regard to Afghanistan. Yet UPA-II continues to show symptoms of a unipolar predicament every now and then. Which is why the Iran issue becomes a litmus test, and the fact that Manmohan Singh remains the only Indian Prime Minister in recent decades not to have visited Teheran although he has been in and out of the Persian Gulf more than once sticks out.

In this wasteland, India needs to plough new furrows. And the U.S.-China strategic dialogue in Beijing on May 25-26 provides a few useful signposts. One, U.S.-China ties have reached a high level of interdependence and there is no more scope for either side to confront the other. In short, the U.S. does not envisage an Asian balancer to China. Two, the U.S. is soliciting China to play an effective global role. In other words, Washington is actually encouraging Beijing to be assertive (to use Manmohan Singh's words) and to work shoulder to shoulder with it on the basis of shared concerns and common interests. Three, the U.S., which has succeeded in getting embedded in our region, is now shifting gear and seeking institutionalised cooperation with China on issues affecting the security and stability of South Asia. In sum, the U.S. never quite viewed the Indian Ocean or the South Asian region as India's strategic backyard. Four, China expects the U.S. to show one hundred per cent respect to its sensitivities on the issues of Taiwan and Tibet if a full-fledged global partnership is to ensue. That is to say, there is no more any Tibet card or Taiwan card left to play.

No doubt, these templates are of great import to the geopolitics of the region and to Indian policies. They underline the imperative need for India to adjust to a new regional paradigm even as U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda riveted on the use of smart power and engagement gathers momentum. To be sure, the U.S. remains a high priority in India's foreign policy. But the U.S.-India engagement is fast transforming, and it is happening at Washington's instance rather than at New Delhi's thoughtful initiative. The probability is that the U.S-India partnership is set to deepen and broaden. But India needs to factor in that military cooperation is only one vector of the partnership and may not necessarily be the most important one for the pursuit of India's national policies of development.

UPA-II on its part has done little to clear the opposition's sense of political betrayal generated by the covert manner in which Manmohan Singh's previous government rammed the nuclear deal down the throat of the nation and its recourse to crude methods to manipulate a parliamentary majority. Never before in independent India's history has a major foreign policy move been advanced with such futile triumphalism.

Meanwhile, the quintessentially uppity UPA mindset refuses to dissipate that it knows best, that it will tenaciously press ahead with its pet agenda no matter the dissent. Thus, the catastrophic breakdown of high-level India-Iran understanding continues. Again, UPA-II sprang a surprise on the public opinion at Sharm-el-Sheikh and an important initiative faltered. On the whole, the government succeeded in keeping tensions with Pakistan under check. But the lack of a coherent neighbourhood policy, the continued inability to make Pakistan a stakeholder in cooperation and the slow pace of normalisation with China weaken India's options at a formative period in regional politics when the U.S-China grid is appearing on the horizons and NATO seeks a nesting place in the region.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 18, 2010.)

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