American Grand Strategy

This was an extended two-part series on the relationship of India and the United States, on the eve of the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to India in mid-March 2000, published in the erstwhile Satyam Online news service.

The rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was the central geopolitical anatagonism of the half-century that followed the conclusion of World War II, fifty years which also parallel the experience of India’s Independence. And with the collapse of the Soviet and state socialist regimes in the early nineties, India and the world have entered a new geopolitical era, an age whose contours are only becoming clear now.

The Policy of Containment

The guiding strategy of American foreign policy-makers and defence experts throughout the Cold War had been the policy of “containment”, premised on a turn-of-the-century geopolitical theory which had in fact been essayed not in America, but in England, by the strategist Halford Mackinder. Adapted to the Cold War, Mackinder’s famous theory of heartland and rimland states was the essential ingredient in American geopolitical thinking.

Briefly, it narrates the geopolitical centrality of the tension between the heartland states — basically Russia and the landlocked countries of the Eurasian continent, then the Soviet Empire — and rimland regions, which controlled access to the seas, like China, Japan and Southeast Asia in the Pacific; Scandinavia and Western Europe in the North Atlantic; the countries of the Mediterranean Middle East and the Gulf. Mackinder claimed that the key to global domination lied in the marriage of the resources, territory and manpower of the heartland state to the naval and trade outlets of the rimland states. To the British Mackinder and his American followers, this alliance of heartland and rimland had to be prevented at all costs.

Assembling the Frontline

This theory was crystallised into the policy of containment by the American diplomat George Kennan, in the fifties, as the U.S. assumed its role of global hegemon in rivalry with the Soviet Union. To this end, the U.S. exercised its influence over the rimland or what it called “frontline” states bordering the Soviet Union by negotiation and offers of trade and military protection, as in Western and Northern Europe through NATO; in the states on the southern flank of the Soviet Empire — Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Sheikhdoms, Iran and Pakistan. In coastal East Asia, Japan and Taiwan were recruited in defence against the joint Soviet-Chinese threat, which was neutralised by the U.S.’s biggest diplomatic coup of the postwar era, the opening of independent relations with mainland China in 1972.This string of rimland alliances was accompanied by the subversion of recalcitrant regimes, as in Indonesia and in Latin America; or outright aggression against hostile countries in strategic areas, like in Vietnam and Korea.

Surrounded by oceans and forming a subcontinent of its own, India was a rimland state, and moreover one friendly to the central heartland power, the U.S.S.R — a dangerous prospect for American strategists. However, India’s Himalayan isolation from the Russian-Central Asian heartland made it less susceptible than China or Western Europe to the dreaded heartland-rimland alliance. Pakistan was within marching distance of Soviet Central Asia, and commanded access to the Indian Ocean — where, after the invasion of Afghanistan, Russian soldiers would often romantically yearn to wash their boots in warm water. Hence Pakistan’s central role as a bulwark of U.S. influence in South Asia since its inception.

Defending Democracy?

This geopolitical strategy of containment was always rationalised to the public in the U.S. and abroad through the moral rhetoric of anti-Communism, or the defence of national sovereignty, democracy and liberal freedoms. With the implosion of the Soviet-socialist bloc, this rhetoric has now been globalised — the language remains the same, but the strategy, and the reality of the world it confronts, is now perceptibly different.

India never much figured in America’s strategic calculations for the fifty years following the war. Thus the recent espousal of a new beginning between the “world’s largest democracy and the “world’s most powerful democracy” shouldn’t mislead anyone. Democracy has never been the concern of strategists, who are only too happy to suppress and destroy popularly-elected governments when they step in the way of the balance of power and the maintenance of hegemony by the dominant state. Korea, Vietnam, and numerous regimes in Latin America and Africa bear witness to this.

It is grudgingly accepted in the corridors of power in Washington that, despite America’s designating itself as the “last superpower” in an unipolar world, the central reality of the new international order is multipolarity — that, much like in eighteenth-century continental Europe, responsibility for the management of security will fall on a concert of great powers.

Several years ago former U.S. National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had, in his book Diplomacy, identified these powers as China, Japan, the U.S., a Europe led by France and Germany, Russia, and perhaps India. Kissinger’s vacillation in identifying India as one of the new great powers was reflective of the ambiguity in the early nineties, something clearly reversed by the nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998. The nuclearisation of India and Pakistan vaulted the subcontinent into an unprecedented role in the global balance of power, demanding its engagement with the world on terms which are still being decided.

The international order that is emerging out of the strife and instability that has gripped much of the non-Atlantic world since the collapse of the socialist bloc in the early nineties is still an uncertain one. Some strategists have suggested that global security will now be the responsibility of a concert of great powers, whose regional dominance ensures them a role in security maintenance in their respective neighbourhoods, where before Cold War rivalry would have ensured superpower interventions.

Regional Spheres and Great Powers

Regional spheres of influence are at the moment being informally demarcated by the ad-hoc reactions of regional powers like NATO, Australia and Russia, to events in Kosovo, East Timor, the Caucuses and elsewhere. Indeed the biggest points of friction are with regard to those regions that, with the end of the Cold War, are slipping out of the worldwide grasp of one of the former superpowers, and into their regional orbits. Examples are Taiwan and Japan, which remain under American protection in a continuing standoff with their increasingly powerful regional antagonist, China; large swathes of Eastern and Southern Europe which through the expansion of NATO and the wars in the Balkans and Kosovo are coming under joint European and American control; or Pakistan, falling into the regional orbit of India while desperately trying to salvage its former prestige as a frontline state — a desperation which dangerously inches towards the nuclear option.

The shift from a bipolar to a multipolar system, from superpower to regional spheres of influence, has inevitably challenged the role of the U.S. as well, questioning its relevance to far-flung areas where it had lodged itself in old fight against world Communism. It is probably in response to this that, in the early nineties, the Clinton Administration has undertaken several prestigious efforts at regional conflict resolution, such as in Palestine and Northern Ireland, and since Kargil in the stand-off between India and Pakistan. By entrenching itself in these regions through the brokering and mediation of their regional disputes, the U.S. can continue to claim for itself a larger-than-life role in an international order that increasingly can dispense with it.

Geo-politics and Geo-economics

In the previous article I did not touch on the role of economics in grand strategy. The American strategist Edward Luttwak has lately gained some renown for advocating a shift in strategic thinking away from traditional geopolitical concerns of military supremacy and facts of territory, to a new order revolving around “geo-economics”.

This shift in thinking is perhaps not so new. Markets in trade, finance and commerce have been one of the motive forces of international politics, especially from the time of the great Western colonial empires, though the postwar era has seen an increasingly direct connection between the flow of goods and capital and the maintenance of international security. Countries like Japan and South Korea, cohabiting under the American security umbrella, became increasingly bound to the global market which was nurtured by the U.S. during the Cold War. In India, the post-Independence policy of non-alignment was as much the result of Nehru’s reflections on international political economy as of the purely strategic concern of remaining autonomous of the superpower rivalry.

More recently, the political fallout of the East Asian financial crisis in 1997 — the collapse of Suharto’s rule in Indonesia and the political instability which gripped Malaysia and Thailand — brought home the intimacy of capital flows and global governance. In fact the the growing popularity of the term “governance” is a result of the discourse of global capital and its supporting bodies, the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organisation. These agencies’ decisions on lending and borrowing, tariff regimes and aid packages, policies of structural adjustment to the demands of transnational corporations and global capital, control more and more directly the everday fate of millions of people throughout the world.

Because of its previous insulation from these global currents, and its autarkic market, India largely remained unbowed by these geoeconomic forces until 1991, when the IMF and World Bank came to the rescue of the bankrupt exchequer in New Delhi.

Globalising India

With the onset of the “second generation” of reforms — the anticipated wave of privatisations of the massive national assets of the public sector, the further opening of markets to transnational companies, the freeing of controls on capital flows — India will become more vulnerable not just to the dictates of structural adjustment that have shackled Southeast Asia, but to the political and military options of those few powers who dominate the IMF-WB-WTO.

It is against this geoeconomic background that we must revise our more traditional focus on geopolitics, and this revision yields a less optimistic analysis of India’s place in the world. The fact of nuclearisation and the increased prestige it seems to carry with it, is largely negated by the new economic policies since 1991, and the happy surrender by the new Government of India’s markets to the forces of global capital.

The intervention of the U.S. in the resolution of the Kargil War in July 1998 sets a distressing precedent for India’s aspiration to regional and global hegemony. Kargil would have been much bloodier affair and less certain in its outcome had President Clinton not instructed Pakistan to withdraw its forces from Kashmir on the threat of cancellation of IMF-WB loans, which keep our neighbour’s economy afloat. What today is the plight of a discarded Cold War ally, hostage to the whims of the U.S., could in fact be the fate of a globalised India in the future.