Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

Talking 'bout My Generation

Start paying attention to the next generation of Indian academic experts.

I returned a few days ago from Oslo, Norway, which was the location for—of all things—a conference on Indian grand strategy co-hosted by the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). The workshop focused upon the intellectual sources of strategic thought in India, and was impressive for its sheer variety. The topics of papers presented ranged from the more immediate (non-alignment, neo-liberalism, realism) to the foundational (Gandhi, liberalism, Hindu nationalism) and the somewhat more distant past (Hindu epics, Mughal civilization). A wide variety of case studies were also featured, including India’s relations with the United States, China, Afghanistan, Europe and Israel.

There was, of course, the treat of hearing from some of the luminaries in the field of Indian policy, including retired officials, diplomats and military leaders, as well as some leading names in Indian international relations scholarship. These would be approximate counterparts to those who have long studied Indian public and international policy in the West, many of whom are identified in a recent Indian Express article titled “The Indiawallahs.”  At the same time, it was both encouraging and refreshing to hear from the large number of younger academics, both Indian and non-Indian, who are now immersed in some impressive work on Indian strategic thought and culture. Although established experts in India and the West will continue to dominate headlines and influence public opinion for some time, the conference served as a timely reminder to follow, just as closely, the high-quality scholarly output of the next generation of academic rock stars. Their names may not yet be familiar to most, but that should not detract from the value of their research and analysis.

Comments Off

Exit is Not a Smarter Strategy

09.14.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

Professor Kanti Bajpai of JNU has written a thought-provoking essay in The Times of India that goes against the grain of conventional Indian thinking on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, I think his proposals are—on balance—unlikely to yield the positive results he expects. I’ll address his main arguments one by one:

1. Prof. Bajpai argues that the U.S. cannot lose against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but it cannot win outright. Therefore it must consider withdrawing. Elsewhere, Professor Bajpai is deterministic: “When the U.S. finally pulls out, as it must…”

The logic here is perplexing. The definition of victory is a fiercely debated point in counterinsurgency literature, but an outright “win” may not be the U.S.  objective. In the case of the Iraq war, the U.S. definition of victory changed from establishing a non-Ba’athist democracy in 2003-2005 to leaving Iraq with a reasonably stable government and ensuring a very basic Iraqi security and law enforcement capability. That “victory,” however tenuous, looked impossible in 2006-2007 and involved a radical restructuring of the organization, training and doctrine of the U.S. military at the operational level; this was accomplished in only 2-3 years.  The U.S. has defined victory in Afghanistan as the defeat of al Qaeda and the prevention of a return to a political situation in Afghanistan reminiscent of the 1990s, in which international extremism targeting U.S. interests could incubate. Achieving these goals will not be easy, but it is certainly within the abilities of the vast U.S. national security apparatus. And given the vivid memories of 9/11 and continuing terrorist threats, this is also a politically and morally defensible position. While there is some political resistance now in the U.S. and serious concerns about the role of the NATO coalition, neither Washington nor NATO high command is considering a sudden withdrawal of forces, as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post clearly indicated.

2. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan promotes rather than weakens extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

There is some indication that many Muslims are resentful of the American military presence in Muslim-majority countries. Afghanistan is not alone in this regard. Osama bin Laden, for example, was motivated in large part by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. Short of a complete U.S. military withdrawal from all Muslim countries, a disengagement from Afghanistan is unlikely to satisfy those who harbor such grievances. That, in turn, will almost certainly have dramatic consequences for the entire region, including India. There is another problem with this argument: the inability of the United States to establish governing structures in many parts of Afghanistan has to do with its relative absence, not its stifling presence. The U.S. force has been very small indeed, and has remained largely in major cities and PRTs. The idea that this military presence is a leading cause on its own of resentment is therefore not convincing. Certainly, violence was at a relatively low level in the first four years after the U.S. invasion  (2002-2005). Finally, elsewhere in his article, Professor Bajpai even acknowledges the possibility that “The US’s presence may be a bulwark against radicalisation.”

3. It is better for the United States to leave now, when moderates in Pakistan are stronger, than later when Pakistani moderates are likely to become sidelined.

Again, the logic of this argument is unsatisfactory. Professor Bajpai bases this assessment on the assumption that Pakistan is on a steady trajectory of radicalization, and also that a U.S. withdrawal leaves open the possibility of establishing the position of moderates in the Pakistani political system. If recent history is anything to go by, there is absolutely no guarantee of either. Despite the return of civilian governance to Pakistan in the late 1980s, radicalism and shadow military rule did not dissipate. A Pakistani ‘success’ in establishing Afghanistan as a realm of influence—as it will certainly be portrayed—will also undoubtedly encourage rather than discourage Pakistani military adventurism and legitimize the army’s regular interventions in Pakistan’s domestic politics.

4. The Taliban of the 2010s is more risk averse than the Taliban of the 1990s, and unlikely to support extremism and terrorism. Extremism could well decline, just as communism declined after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

I would certainly hope this were true, but recent experience suggests otherwise. The Taliban protected Osama bin Laden after the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in the 1990s, and once again following the 9/11 attacks. It has more recently been involved in supporting militancy outside of Afghanistan, in Pakistan. Further, the comparison with Vietnam does not hold. In Vietnam, the United States mistook a primarily nationalistic movement for a primarily ideologically-motivated one; in Afghanistan there is a real danger of miscasting the struggle the other way around.

5. Washington can perform a counterterrorism role using drones and air power, which is more affordable and efficient.

This argument has achieved currency in realist circles in the United States, but the seductive image of no-cost unmanned warfare is illusory. Drone strikes require on-the-ground intelligence for accurate targeting, which in turn requires an intelligence support system and consequently some kind of friendly military presence. Furthermore, drone strikes work well for the purpose of leadership decapitation, but not for the purposes of defeating an insurgency. They also result in occasional civilian casualties, and have been used as a justification for international terrorist activities, including the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad. While they have been successful in the FATA, drone strikes are an option arising out of necessity, as the United States cannot have an on-the-ground presence on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. There is no way that drone or air strikes alone can provide law and order to an area of any significant size, let alone all of southern Afghanistan.

6. Nationalism could prevent the rise of extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani military will have even less luck in Afghanistan than others who have tried to subjugate it.

Pakistan has never attempted to permanently control territory across the Durand Line, so the argument that Pakistani rule will fail just like other external interventions is irrelevant. Even if that was Rawalpindi’s objective, it would be untrue, since the much overused ‘Graveyard of Empires’ thesis is grounded in only two historical circumstances, both unusual: the massacre of the British during the First Afghan War in 1841-42 (after which Britain returned to establish a buffer zone) and the Soviet invasion in the 1980s (when the mujahideen received significant external support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan). Nationalistic sentiments are indeed something for both states to worry about, but they did not adversely affect Pakistan’s support of the Taliban in the 1990s, and the hypothetical return of the Quetta Shura, as part of some sort of power-sharing agreement in Kabul in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, will only reinforce the Pakistani military’s position in Afghanistan as a key supporter and power-broker.

7. The Afghanistan war is distracting from other important problems, including the rise of China, the defense of the global commons, and other important issues of a global nature.

This is Professor Bajpai’s most convincing argument, particularly the distraction from the momentous geopolitical changes underway in the Asia-Pacific region. But it is all the more reason why the United States needs to redouble efforts now, rather than let the Afghanistan problem fester. On other matters of global import, the U.S. has in fact stepped up its leadership, from climate change (where it was instrumental in striking a deal with the BASIC states), maritime security (where it has agreed to intercede in East Asia), and international financial regulation (where it helped establish the G20), to name but a few examples. The United States’ fiscal woes are indeed a serious problem, but the Afghanistan war will cost it only 0.7% of its GDP this year (and this figure also represents a big increase over previous years as a result of the ongoing surge).

8. India dealt successfully with Pakistan before between 1989 and 2001. The two might even be able to cooperate on Afghanistan.

Such reasoning does not account for Pakistani calculations and policies over the past 20 years. Many Indians remember that a young Benazir Bhutto promised a “thousand year war” over Kashmir. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the apex of the Kashmir insurgency, which had Pakistani support. The period also saw the Kargil War, perpetuated by Pakistan despite an ongoing peace process, and the hijacking in 1999 of Indian Airlines Flight 814 to Kandahar. Further, the publicly-articulated reason that Pakistan has not cooperated with the United States more on Afghanistan is the fear of Indian  influence, which consists of a handful of developmental projects, a small embassy and four consulates staffed by a few dozen people. If Pakistani intransigence is the result of such benign actions on the part of India, the likelihood that Pakistan would agree to greater cooperation with India in Afghanistan over the long term is next to nil.

Time Out

A clock and a column capture much of what’s wrong with U.S. foreign policy priorities today.

I was bowled over by columnist Roger Cohen’s latest offering (h/t P.S.):

I was in the White House a few weeks back for a pleasant chat with Denis McDonough, the National Security Council chief of staff, and was struck by the red digital clock on his wall showing times in critical spots around the globe.

Back in the 20th century, not really that long ago, you would have had the times in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, and possibly in the capital of some regional cornerstone power, say Cairo or New Delhi.

McDonough’s list begins with Washington and Potus (the President of the United States), followed by Stillwater (the town he’s from in Minnesota), Kabul, Baghdad, the Yemeni capital of Sana, Jerusalem and Tehran.

…The serious bit is what this list says about America’s strategic priorities a decade into the 21st century. They have been transformed. [The New York Times]

This is disturbing for at least two reasons. The first is that it reveals the United States’ one-dimensional (some might say obsessive) focus on the so-called ‘Greater Middle East,’ at the expense of other very important regions. Secondly, and somewhat more trivially, it is rather strange that anyone, particularly one of the U.S. president’s top foreign policy advisers, should require wall clocks to tell him the times in Sana, Baghdad and Jerusalem, which are all the same (Sana and Baghdad are even in the same timezone). So are the times in Tehran and Kabul.

There’s yet another element, concerning Cohen’s article, that’s an even more damning indictment of mainstream U.S. foreign policy discourse. The international affairs columnist for the U.S. paper of record uses this interesting tidbit of information to chide the American government for failing to pay attention…to Europe. There’s absolutely no mention in Cohen’s column of the neglect of other regions that are arguably far more critical for U.S. national security and foreign policy. Asia is perhaps the most important by virtue of its economic dynamism and growth trajectory, overall population, and short- and long-term security challenges.  There are, of course, other important powers and potential flashpoints  as well, from Russia and Brazil to Sudan and Mexico. But Cohen doesn’t seem to mind that the likes of Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Moscow or Brasilia are absent, only Paris, London and Berlin.

Going by this trifling revelation alone, it looks like the United States is putting all its eggs in one blender basket, while the real action is going on elsewhere.  The media watchdogs, for their part, are looking in still another direction altogether. While reflecting little insights into the priorities of both the U.S. government and the mainstream American media, Cohen’s column also instills very little confidence in either institution.

Secret Weapons

Smaller nuclear weapons arsenals necessitate greater secrecy. Is that sustainable in an era of minimum deterrence and maximum information?

As I’ve noted previously on this blog, India has never publicly revealed the number of nuclear weapons in its stockpile, leading to much speculation and a wide range of estimates over the past 10-15 years. Pakistan has been similarly opaque, as have China and North Korea. Israel is so murky about such matters that it refuses even to confirm its possession of nuclear weapons.

This means that, among states with nuclear weapons, only the United States, Russia, France and Britain have made anything resembling public pronouncements about the size of their arsenals. Such transparency is newfound. Only two years ago French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a cut to “less than 300 nuclear weapons,” in a rare public articulation of numerical strength of his country’s stockpile. Just this March, the United States disclosed that its arsenal consists of 5,113 weapons. Two months later, foreign secretary William Hague declared that Britain’s arsenal would not exceed 225 nukes. While Russia, to my knowledge, has not joined the United States in declaring its exact numbers, it has made commitments to specific caps as part of various arms control treaties. The treaty signed in April with the United States, for example, commits Russia to a cap of 1,550 by 2017, although this figure does not include tactical weapons.

The logic of arms control is largely behind this show of transparency by the major nuclear powers. “We think it is in our national security interests to be as transparent as we can be about the nuclear program of the United States…we think that builds confidence,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time of the U.S. disclosure. But given the high figures involved, the advanced delivery systems of these four powers, and the extension of an American nuclear umbrella over Europe, there is little to be lost by making such revelations. For countries with less advanced delivery systems and less-than-assured second-strike capabilities—particularly China and India—such transparency could be detrimental as uncertainty over numbers only increases their ability to deter possible adversaries.

The United States, in the early years of the nuclear era, thought very similarly. In a January 31, 1949 speech—recently dusted off and emerging from the archives—U.S. Senator Brien McMahon, a leading sponsor of the Atomic Energy Act, criticised the need for such immense secrecy over the size of the U.S. weapons stockpile. In his view, it went against the essence of democracy and good governance.

Do we possess five bombs, or fifty bombs, or five hundred bombs? Are we strong or weak in the field of atomic weapons? Only the Atomic Eergy Commissioners, high-ranking military men, and a few others know the correct answer to these vital questions. Though I have been a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy since its inception, and though I have just been elected its chairman, I do not myself know how many bombs we possess or how rapidly we are making new ones.

Tho American people, who elect and ultimately control Congress, have entered the atomic energy business. They have invested more than three thousand million dollars on atomic weapons. What returns are the American people receiving from this huge defense investment? What have the gigantic plants at Hanford and Oak Ridge accomplished? The American people do not know, and the Congress does not know.

Here is an extraordinary state of affairs.

Of course, I hardly need say that the split atom is itself extraordinary — so extraordinary as perhaps to justify the iron veil of secrecy which covers production figures. But let me mention several more of the paradoxes which this secrecy creates in our democratic society.

The 1949 defense budget calls for the expenditure of fifteen billion, six hundred million dollars on the armed forces. It may be that even this staggering sum is too small. I favor spending whatever anount is necessary to bring reasonable security.

But regardless of the sum decided upon, can we accept it on blind faith? How can Congress and the American people judge American defense needs unless they know the size of our atomic stockpile? Perhaps, if that stockpile is large, we do not need to spend as nuch as we had supposed. On the other hand, if that stockpile is small, we may need to spend more than we had supposed.

Today we are like a general who must train his troops without knowing how many rounds of ammunition they will be issued. [Federation of American Scientists, via Pragmatic Euphony]

Needless to say, McMahon’s eloquent argument for greater transparency fell on deaf years. But the same concerns that compelled the U.S. national security establishment to envelope the size of its nuclear stockpile in secrecy, despite the prevalence of democracy, public accountability and a free media, could as easily apply to India today.

The one problem, though, is whether this will remain viable in the years to come. It is now over sixty years since McMahon shared these observations and we are living in an era of much greater information availability. As we all know (and as WikiLeaks dutifully reminds us), information wants to be free. If India is to remain on course for a credible minimum deterrent, as it currently appears, and if the established nuclear powers are to join it in possessing lower-triple-digit stockpiles, will ambiguity about the size and location of nuclear weapons retain its ability to substitute for an assured second strike?

Talking Points

To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war. But what if talks themselves become the goal, rather than the means to an end?

Take a look at three news stories unfolding in different parts of the world. In Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reengaged Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in the first direct talks between the two sides in 20 months. Meanwhile, South Korean nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-Lac and Beijing’s representative for the Korean peninsula Wu Dawei have landed in DC for separate discussions with the State Department in a bid to get the Six Party Talks on North Korea back on track. And, as we all know, India and Pakistan have for some months had their own bilateral negotiations underway in an attempt to resuscitate the comatose peace process.

The three sets of negotiations share some similar characteristics. All three are closely linked with weak or insecure states that have used asymmetric means—including terrorism—to gain an advantage over their opponents. All three processes have also been influenced by the possession of nuclear weapons by one or both sides. North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear weapons capability has complicated attempts to unify the Korean peninsula, and restrained the United States’ ability to effect regime change. India has been dissuaded—most effectively in 2001-2002 and again in 2008—from any form of military retaliation against targets in Pakistan, with the risk of escalation always present. And with Iran seeking a nuclear weapons capability, it is possible that Israel may soon become—like India—the victim of terrorism by proxies under a nuclear umbrella. Over the past two decades it seems clear that horizontal nuclear proliferation, terrorism and state weakness are more closely linked to one another than ever before.

Just as significantly, all three cases involve one party with reasons to undermine the success of talks; for their interlocutors, the very act of negotiation becomes a goal, rather than a means to an end. Pyongyang, for example, has used the Six Party Talks framework, combined with the odd act of defiance—nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and the sinking of the Cheonan—to disrupt talks with South Korea, Japan and the United States and draw attention to themselves before negotiating their way back to the negotiating table. Islamabad has resorted in recent months to diplomatically undermining the legitimacy of talks with India, both at  foreign secretary and, subsequently,  foreign minister-level negotiations. The Middle East peace process is somewhat different in this regard, complicated by the presence on one side of a party that is willing but unable to negotiate effectively (the Palestinian Authority) and another that is able but unwilling (Hamas).

The question of how to deal with an insecure, hostile, but militarily-potent actor that retains an incentive to scuttle negotiations while continuing to use talks as a bargaining chip, presents one of the most significant security challenges today. It might therefore behoove India, Israel, South Korea, Japan and the United States to share notes.

Comments Off


08.28.2010 · Posted in Great Powers, India

Does India (along with Brazil, China and South Africa) deserve a seat at the world’s high tables?

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features an essay (subscription only) by former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda in which he argues that the major emerging powers—particularly China and South Africa, but also India and Brazil—do not share the West’s commitment to human rights or democracy. He says that the haste with which some want to include these rising powers into existing international governing structures (including membership of the UNSC and the G8, and an enhanced role at the World Bank and IMF) is unwarranted, as their inclusion would weaken institutions that have been cultivated carefully over time as arbiters and supporters of responsible global governance and universal values.

David Bosco raises a few objections to this thesis: the existing international order was built arguably by the few whose interests it currently serves; Castañeda’s argument might be seen as a reflection of Mexican envy at the success of other emerging states (particularly regional competitor Brazil); and a greater danger in expanding international institutions is that any sense of ‘ownership’ will be lost. Fair points all, except perhaps the second, as Castañeda himself rules out Mexico from consideration early on in his essay: Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan and South Africa are, according to him, the most conspicuous absentees at the UNSC and/or the G8.

Other than some of the usual concerns—such as New Delhi’s historically fractious relationship with the international nuclear order— Castañeda’s rap sheet against India includes two regional policies, towards Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka.  India’s support for the Sri Lankan government during its final onslaught against the LTTE—an international and widely-condemned terrorist organization—was a signal, it seems, of India’s unwillingness to defend human rights. And warming relations with the Burmese junta after years of steadfast, albeit anemic, support for Aung San Suu Kyi is a sign of India’s unwillingness to promote democracy. In all fairness, Castañeda presents India’s rationale for both these positions, but he comes down in the end against them.

I have deeper problems with Castañeda’s piece in general and, in passing,  his specific criticisms against India. First, it is widely acknowledged that developing economies often lack the comforts to seriously consider such non-material luxuries as liberalism and human rights, as well as the resources necessary to actively export these values. That is not simply a poor excuse, but a widely-documented trend, making even developing countries that enjoy the benefits of liberalism and democracy at home—such as India—a rarity.

Second, short-term vital national interests will always override any long-term concerns with values. The BRICs are no different from the established powers in this regard. The United States, for example, is muted in its criticism of human rights abuses and autocracy in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf Arab states or even Pakistan,  all places where it has important interests at stake.  The Europeans, for their part, conveniently overlooked certain international conventions during their intervention in the Balkans, which was an immediate and proximate political and security concern. Moreover, they have often placed commercial interests over values in their dealings with states such as Russia and China.  Burma and Sri Lanka are arguably no less vital to India than Saudi Arabia is to the United States or Russia is to Europe. Castañeda also overlooks the activities being conducted by countries like India in support of global stability and norms, including humanitarian relief and development, international peacekeeping, and the maintenance of open sea-lanes.

Finally, while Castañeda acknowledges differences, he does not adequately distinguish between Brazil and India on the one hand, and the single party state that is China on the other, effectively lumping them all together as powers that fail to conform to Western-established traditions of liberalism and human rights. But when faced with the increasing irrelevance of global institutions, the traditional powers may not have that luxury. When faced with the choice of which of the increasingly-powerful developing states to let into the club—not whether they should be let in—it would be in the interests of the West to pick those who most closely adhere to their own notions of norms and values.

Sialkot, U.S.A.

08.25.2010 · Posted in History, Pakistan, U.S. Society, Uncategorized

The Sialkot murders necessitate introspection, but also a recognition of the dynamism of the human condition.

The fatal beatings in Sialkot of two teenage boys by a mob—captured in gruesome detail on video—has elicited a stream of self-criticism and introspection from Pakistani commentators on the state of their country and society, which borders at times on hopeless self-loathing. Coming after years of rising violence and the demonstrated apathy of the international community following devastating floods in the country, the killings, which took place during the holy month of Ramadan, appear to have deeply scarred the collective psyche of the Pakistani chattering classes. See Shahnawaz Khan writing in The Daily Times or Rafia Zakaria in Dawn. Here are Fasi Zaka’s observations:

The murderous crowd was truly representative of the richness of Pakistan. Some wear jeans, others shalwar kameez, some were bearded, others clean shaven. The Pakistanis had gotten together to have some fun.

Do not be shocked. This wasn’t isolated, it’s just that the crowd wanted to make sure their orgasmic moment could be captured for later viewing, at one’s pleasure. We blame our ill-educated brethren for the barbarity we witness, but that’s a self-serving lie.

The middle and upper classes are immune to education it seems. They hold opinions of everyday violence even if they have never raised their hand at anyone. If you believe Jews are the scum of the earth, all Ahmadis deserve to die or that Hindus are inferior, well why not two teenage boys?

I want Pakistanis to feel shame, in fact a substantial loss of self-esteem would be great. This is the only way for us to begin to doubt ourselves and the incessant excuses we make. Yes, the world is right to add restrictions on our visas, to see us as dangerous. [The Express Tribune]

For better or worse, I cannot bring myself to watch the videos of the killings (described and accessible here; viewer discretion advised). But from reading several Pakistani accounts, I also cannot help but think how—not that long ago—this would have appeared a familiar sight in the United States.

Without Sanctuary, a horrifying collection of photographs and postcards of violence perpetrated against African-Americans, documents a phenomenon not dissimilar to what occurred ten days ago in Sialkot: brutal mob violence against vulnerable victims in the presence of law enforcement agencies. Below are links to several sample images (again, discretion advised, as the images are very disturbing). All the photographs linked to below feature onlookers—including occasionally women, children and evident perpetrators of the murders—posing with victims. Most document events in the cultural North of the country in the 1920s and 1930s; that is, within living memory.

Recent U.S. history is no justification for the continued perpetration of such violence anywhere: the brutality on display at Sialkot deserves to plunge the country into a state of deep introspection. But an appreciation of the dynamism of the human condition is also necessary if Pakistan—indeed, if any society—is to have a chance of redeeming itself.

The Sign of Four

Is it time to resuscitate the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral partnership?

Three years ago, in September 2007, the United States, India, Japan and Australia conducted a large-scale naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, furthering a partnership that had taken off with coordinated humanitarian relief efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. At the time, the United States was led by George W. Bush, Japan by Shinzo Abe, and Australia by John Howard. Days afterward, Abe resigned. Three months later, Howard was voted out of power. And a little over a year passed before Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency.

The appetite and enthusiasm for “the Quad” appeared to die out with these changes in government. The new leaders in three of the four countries—Kevin Rudd, Yasuo Fukuda and Obama—sought less confrontational stances in the Asia-Pacific, believing that such military exercises would aggravate, rather than deter, region-wide security competition. Fukuda and Rudd are no longer in charge, and while it is currently unclear who will emerge as victor in Australia’s federal elections or, for that matter, what direction the ruling Democratic Party of Japan will take in its foreign policy over the medium-term, the evolving security balance in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans has revitalised concerns about the long-term viability of the liberal-democratic order.

Next month, the United States and India will continue their consultations on East Asia in Washington, after initiating such discussions in March in New Delhi. This presents an opportunity to revisit the idea for quadrilateral cooperation, assuming that Australia and Japan renew their interests. Recent events would suggest that all four countries may be more receptive to this than they were even a year ago.

Comments Off

The Great (Non)Escape

Stability in one’s region is not necessarily a prerequisite for power projection.

One of the few points of consensus at a conference on India I helped organise in February was that India would find it difficult to escape its region unless it were able to establish peaceful relations with (and stability within) the countries in its immediate neighbourhood, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The feeling was that India would be tethered by disputes with these smaller states, and adversely affected by the instability spilling over from them. This would, in turn, compromise India’s great power ambitions. A similar logic underlies Pakistan’s longstanding policy of attempting to destabilise India through asymmetric and unconventional means.

This observation may seem obvious. The United States’ rapid rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was undoubtedly helped by the establishment of stable relations with its neighbours to the north (British Canada) and to the south (Mexico), after over a century of regular warfare. The Soviet Union only became a superpower after World War II resulted in both a power vacuum and bipolar stability to both its west and east.

But there are enough examples of the opposite being true—of great powers rising despite the complexities of their regions—to question the reliability of this dictum of political history.

Exhibit A. Europe. For much of modern history, the only powers capable of global reach were located in Europe: Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England, France, and subsequently Germany and Italy. The close proximity of these states to one another, and the presence of strong second-tier states in their immediate vicinities, meant that at no time were the fates of these countries secure at home. This did not stop any of them from seeking conquests and projecting power on multiple continents. The most dramatic example may be that of Portugal, whose zenith came to an abrupt end after it came under the rule of the King of Spain. Even England/Great Britain, as it expanded its massive empire in the 17th and 18th centuries, was busy subjugating Ireland, putting down periodic Jacobite uprisings, and fending off an insecure France.

Exhibit B. Japan. The rise of Japan in the late 19th century after the Meiji Restoration coincided with unstable politics at home and in the region. Nine years into the new era, the Japanese ruling oligarchy had to crush the Satsuma Rebellion in the south. Japan went on to fight wars against China and Russia, and annexed Korea and Formosa (Taiwan). In 1941, when it attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan was still waging a war in its immediate vicinity in China.  In the midst of almost continuous regional conflict, Japan was accorded all the trappings of a great power, including seats at the League of Nations and the Washington Naval Conference.

Exhibit C. China. The growth of China is a remarkable story, but once again it has come despite—not because of—its political relationships with its neighbours. Certainly, China has not had a significant conflict since 1979 and it has settled many of its land boundary disputes. However, it continues to have uneasy relations with almost all its neighbours, including a sizeable dispute with its largest regional competitor, India. It also has one of the most unstable states in the world—North Korea—immediately bordering it. And the military presence of the world’s preeminent power in its region severely limits its actions. None of this, however, has stopped China’s rapid rise.

India’s relations with states in its region, and the varying degrees of political instability in each, is not something to be swept under the table or become inured to. But at the same time, it is premature to suggest that India’s region alone will constrain its growth, and its ability to play a more active role on the world stage.

Cricket and Cognitive Biases

The compilation of an all-time XI of Indian cricket reveals some of the same cognitive biases that blur our assessments of recent history.

Cricinfo—that venerable authority on all things cricket—is compiling an all-time XI for India, having already performed similar exercises for seven other Test nations. Comparing athletes across eras is always tricky, but based upon the other lists of all-time greats, it seems that the criteria for selection is  based upon some combination of the following:

  • Players’ performance in Test matches.  Ajay Sharma, who played but one Test, probably does not deserve to be considered for his First Class batting average of 67.46, his off-field activities notwithstanding.
  • How players compared with their contemporaries the world over. For example, the 2000s was an era of bloated batting averages; the 1990s were lean years for batsmen. It’s more than just a strict statistical comparison.
  • How important players were to achieving important results for their sides. Did players save their team from defeat, or play crucial roles in famous wins?

Unfortunately, it looks as if sentimentality is set to obfuscate what should be a fairly objective activity. Take, for example, the short-list for openers, which consists of Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag, Vijay Merchant and Navjot Singh Sidhu. All four have the credentials, but I was disappointed that the jury failed to recognize current Indian opener Gautam Gambhir. Gambhir has a batting average of almost 53, higher than Gavaskar’s (51), Merchant’s (48) and Sidhu’s (42), and just below Sehwag’s (54). One argument against him would be that, as a relative newcomer, he has not played enough matches (32 so far). Yet Merchant played in only 10 Tests and Sidhu not many more (51). In fact, this further strengthens Gambhir’s case: despite fewer Tests, he has already scored as many centuries as Sidhu (9), not to mention many more than Merchant (3). The argument can also be made that Gambhir’s figures are exaggerated by batting-friendly conditions and weak opposition. Fair enough. Yet two of his centuries came in wins over quality opponents (Australia and Sri Lanka). Merchant, while no doubt a great player, never played for a winning Test side. Compared to his peers, Gambhir was voted the best Test player at the 2009 ICC awards. Had such awards been around during their careers, it is unlikely that Merchant or Sidhu would have ever been in the reckoning for them, based on their Test performances alone (Merchant did indeed have a stellar First Class record). I still think that India’s two best openers have been Gavaskar and Sehwag, which may make this debate irrelevant, but there appears to be no objective basis for Gambhir’s exclusion from the short-list.

I bring this up for what it tells us about our attitudes towards recent history and the various cognitive biases that come into play when considering important policy debates.

On the one hand, a set of logical processes bias us in favor of what we have experienced firsthand, a trait that has long been documented in psychological literature. Thus, many of us are more likely to appreciate contemporary achievements, such as those of Sachin Tendulkar, Tiger Woods or Roger Federer over Don Bradman, Jack Nicklaus or Rod Laver. Similarly, the big ideological breakthroughs of recent memory overshadow those of earlier times. We may have all had the experience of reading an older work of scholarship, only to be struck by how applicable it is to a current situation; it is often quite humbling to realise that complex ideas have already been so well thought through by thinkers of an earlier era, many of whom are now nearly forgotten. In the security realm, the disproportionate emphasis placed on Indian sacrifices during the Kargil War (India’s first televised conflict) when some 2-3 times the number were killed in 1947-48, 1971 and 1987-1990 in Sri Lanka would be one noteworthy example, one that is by no means meant to diminish the achievements of Indian forces in 1999.

By contrast, most of us fall victim to a number of cognitive biases that make us favour the more distant past over the present. Consequently, the achievements of Merchant, whom none of the Cricinfo jury saw play, take on a mythic aura and his failures get overlooked. By contrast, all of Gambhir’s failings, technical or otherwise, are both seen and recalled. While demonstrably talented and successful, he remains a mere mortal.

Such thinking is particularly applicable to evaluations of politics and policy. For example, there has recently been a rediscovery of sorts of Indian internationalism in the early years after independence, which—according to most such narratives—gradually gave way to a closing off of the country to the outside world, particularly during the Indira Gandhi years. Supporters of this view point to India’s mediation before and during the Korean War and the leading role that Nehru took in the early years of the Non-Aligned Movement, as among the examples of past Indian activism on the global stage.

But these ought to be offset by other considerations: the much smaller size of India’s foreign policy infrastructure (for example, India lacked an external intelligence bureau, and had only three IB officers posted abroad in its early years), the lack of resources at home to leverage to its advantage, and the immensity of security challenges nearer at hand. Neutral mediation and third world multilateralism are both the domains of countries with little or no stake in major issues (take present-day Finland, for example). Indian activities in the first two decades after independence, successful or not, take on that same rosy aura that Vijay Merchant’s batting does, placing current efforts in a comparatively unfavourable light. Such biases should not come in the way of  objective appraisals of achievements past and present.

Comments Off