Sunday, August 14, 2005

Unsentimental choices

Times of India, Aug 14, 2005

History has its winners and its losers, and in the 20th century there was no bigger loser than the Soviet Union. Born in 1917, it died in 1991. India, its ally in the Cold War, also ended on the losing side. I am not sure if it could have been otherwise, but let us not pretend that our diplomacy achieved anything but defeat. True, we led the non-aligned movement, but what is the point of being the leader of a failed movement? Call me naïve, but I think unworthy Pakistan did better. Not only did it end up on the winning side of the Cold War, but it also got the world to equate itself with India.

Those strident voices, particularly on the Left but also in the BJP, who have been critical of recent breakthroughs in our relationship with the United States, ought to ponder this before giving any further lessons in patriotism to Manmohan Singh. They have accused him variously of ‘selling-off India’, ‘tilting to America’, and ‘making us America’s junior partner’. The Left is of course immune to knowledge. It still sees the world through antique anti-imperial, anti-colonial lenses. But others should know better. They should be asking instead how do we avoid repeating our earlier mistakes and end up on history’s winning side the next time.

Seeing India emerge as the globe’s potential back office and a rising economic power, the world has now started to equate us with China rather than Pakistan. Thus, we are feeling better and more self-assured. But we shouldn’t allow this to go to our heads. The fact is we cannot go it alone in the world, and the smug, new autarchic rhetoric in parliament should be nipped. Everyone needs friends and allies. The world distrusts a nation that is everyone’s friend. Such a friend is unreliable.

I owe this lesson to Henry Kissinger, who taught the introductory course in international politics when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. This was during the spring of 1962, before he became famous. He taught the basic lesson of the Arthashastra, which is that there are no good or bad nations; there are only powerful and powerless ones. The leader’s duty is to relentlessly pursue his nation’s self interest. His own hero was Metternich, who sketched the map of 19th Europe at the Congress of Vienna and brought a “century of peace” to Europe. He said that when nations pursued their self-interest, it led to a balance of power, predictability and peace.

Because I couldn’t follow Kissinger’s heavy German accent, I used to sit in the front row of his class. To my dismay, he would look at me and hold up Nehru as an example of how not to conduct foreign policy. This distressed me for I passionately shared Nehru’s idealism. Kissinger felt it was dangerous to have dreamers in power, because they injected morality into foreign relations. Because of his own likes and dislikes, he thought Nehru might have compromised India’s national interest with regard to China. Although I dislike Kissinger, I think he may have been right.

To avoid repeating our failures of history we need to make choices. And we need an unsentimental awareness of our national self-interest in the 21st century. This is a talent scarce among argumentative and sentimental Indians. When the chips are down and there is a war, we may do worse than have America as an ally. If that is true, then we should not allow our personal dislike of Bush’s Iraq policy to compromise India’s growing friendship with the United States.