India and indispensable partnering
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just gave a speech on US foreign policy and the world at large at the Council for Foreign Relations. Her basic theme was straightforward enough. The US is still the biggest cop on the beat, but it needs help to keep the streets safe.
Washington was working to build a “global architecture that reflects and harnesses the realities of the 21st century.” Of these is the fact that the global architecture “is buckling under the weight of new threats.” One of these realities, and potentially a threat, is that “the major powers are at peace, but new actors, good and bad, are increasingly shaping international affairs.” In other words, US needs to persuade emerging economies to chip in and help with the running of the world. The US provides, free of charge, many international services like patrolling the world’s sea lanes, maintaining global navigational systems and, more controversially, restraining the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran. Much of India’s shipping, for example, runs through a channel running through the Indian Ocean, from South Africa upward to East Africa and then over to the Arabian Sea. This is Somali pirate territory and it is largely secured by the US navy.
But many of the potential new partners are not particularly nice. China, the biggest emerging economy, plays a tough game of essentially asking for equal status as the US. About India, Clinton spoke of “a very large convergence of fundamental values and a broad range of both national and regional interests.” The US was “laying the foundation for an indispensable partnership.” In other words, the US sees in India an emerging power which shares a lot in terms of democracy, security concerns and the like. But India is still a project under construction when it comes to being a global player. Clinton spoke of the US seeking to develop the capacities of potential partners – and I have no doubt India was among the countries that this line was about.
India has some obvious capacity problems. One, it has a remarkably small and less than efficient governmental system. If there is a common concern regarding India that I hear from foreign diplomats it is, “When will New Delhi develop some capacity?” India’s foreign service, at about 800 top rung diplomats, is about the size of Israel’s. A third of its officer corps positions, a third of its senior police posts, and so on are vacant. And it doesn’t have too many of these anyway. My home city of Calcutta, population 13 million or so, has 26,000 policemen.
Two, and far more difficult to define, is whether India has developed the political system that allows capacity to be converted into actual policy. In other words, it is not that easy for a country to build the accoutrements of power, like warships, GDP, and the like. But it is much harder to develop a leadership structure that allows a political system to convert goals into actual action on the ground.
Indian strategic thinking focuses a lot on capacity-building, and rightfully so. India still has plenty of work on that front. It doesn’t spend much time analyzing if the political system, especially as the era of Congress political domination has come to a close, can use that capacity. Or, for that matter, what circumstances lend themselves to praxis.
New Delhi is capable of doing things on the global level the less it is hamstrung by problems at home. Indian politicians are naturally cautious when they see the home front looking wobbly. For example, I would argue a key reason for the present United Progressive Alliance government’s lack of accomplishment is its growing concern at the inexorable rise of commodity prices, notably in food. This is sapping the political will to do anything remotely risky.
The US, and especially by most accounts Clinton herself, is trying to determine how to help India develop its capacities and see this spill over into the actual doing of things. Does the US expect India to mimic its policies? No more than it expects France or Israel to do so. But it believes even as India pursues its own national interests it will be more often on the same side as the US. “We must let India be India for the West to benefit,” a French strategic commentator once said.
But what is frustrating for people like Clinton is that India being India also means long bouts of navel-gazing and policy paralysis. So the US wonders how to make India more great powerish when the price of pulses is foremost on the minds of its establishment.
Unsurprisingly, her speech had almost nothing else about India other than to speak wistfully of helping potential partners become active players.