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A world to run

India and China have become - by objective standards - America’s most important allies in the 21st century.

Written by Thomas P.M. Barnett | April 11, 2009 10:53:41 pm

India and China have become — by objective standards — America’s most important allies in the 21st century.  With their global economic footprints rapidly expanding,rising defence budgets signal growing awareness of the need to defend those interests as globalisation’s many frontiers are settled.  Considering both must likewise better integrate their rural poor in their national development,each state is highly incentivised to master and accelerate globalisation’s advance around the planet. 

By contrast,America’s traditional Western allies have largely “aged out” of any substantial role in playing globalisation’s bodyguard,as past colonial experiences leave them inherently wary of approximating such efforts.  Despite much fear mongering on the part of experts,radical Islam presents no existential threat to their lasting wealth,as a globalisation somehow fractured by violent extremism would leave their wealth diminished but still impressive. 

As today’s global recession amply demonstrates,neither India nor China possesses such a historical cushion,needing,between them,to meet the middle-class aspirations of nearly 40 per cent of the planet’s population.   

While the rich seek protection from the poor and the poor seek protection from their very circumstances,what the middle class seeks from government is protection from the future.  Having achieved modest wealth,they aim to keep it.   

Thus,whether Indians realise this or not,their nation moves swiftly toward the role heretofore dominated by the demographically vibrant but decidedly over-leveraged United States:  shaping and securitising global futures.  As such,India’s tendency to locate its global identity in the realm of past victimhood is dangerously self-limiting.  

America,by virtue of its highly synthetic construction constituting a globalisation-in-miniature,fears a loss of identity and power in any future globalisation that does not reflect is middle-class values.  As such,Washington persistently views violent,extremist anti-globalisation forces as an existential threat to the global body politic.  

This is a reasonable fear.  As this global middle class emerges,it must foster self-rule from the middle,lest radical answers from the Left or authoritarianism from the Right predominate.  Remember how poorly Europe handled its rising middle class in the early decades of the 20th century,birthing Bolshevism and fascism.   

As the tumultuously democratic half of globalisation’s dynamic duo,India’s example could not be more powerful or more crucially important.  But it is one thing to promote a national brand and another thing to defend it. 

There remains a sad tendency in Asia to assume globalisation equals Westernisation equals Americanisation.  Having correctly identified the United States as modern globalisation’s source code,rising Asia clings myopically to the notion that militarily defending that globe-reformatting historical process is somehow America’s job and America’s alone.  More sadly,America’s lengthy and self-limiting bout of aggressive unilateralism under Bush-Cheney has greatly strengthened this strategic illusion. 

But here’s the dangerous truth now hurtling toward rising Asia:  it will be your societies,and not those of the United States nor Europe,that provide the bulk of the super-empowered individuals who will both extend and settle globalisation’s many economic frontiers in coming years.  As such,globalisation’s advance will feature an Asian face,meaning these nations will increasingly be held responsible for its social injustices and environmental damage. 

Neither India nor China appears anywhere close to being ready for this inevitable shift.  Like an America circa 1880,they realise that their economic and network connectivity with the world vastly outpaces their diplomatic and military capacity to protect it,making their states unduly reliant on the efforts of established great powers. 

What did America do back then?  It developed a vision of its great power role,and built up the hard power and soft power capacity to implement it.   

More importantly,America developed and sustained a willingness to use such capacity around the world,at first experimenting primarily in the Caribbean and Pacific and choosing relatively weak opponents — e.g.,the faltering Spanish empire.  By the time of its successful intervention in World War I,America had entirely rebranded its military as a global force for stability. 

To be brutally honest,neither India nor China has the luxury of a four-decade rebranding campaign.  Worse,both states display a strategic myopia regarding the development of their respective militaries,with India’s forces still built overwhelming around the Pakistan scenario and China’s PLA shaped almost exclusively for the Taiwan scenario.   

Instinctively,both militaries increasingly reach out with their naval assets to participate in collective security affairs,like India’s impressive response to the 2004 Asian tsunamis disaster or both navies’ recent appearance off the coast of Somalia to combat pirates.   

While these initial steps are most welcome,India’s national security community must dramatically accelerate its own discussion of the nation’s emerging role as a guarantor of globalisation’s stability.  To that end,a New Delhi that cannot imagine for itself a security role in Afghanistan,instead preferring to monitor the nearer Line of Control,misses a serious opportunity to redefine its brand globally.   

Is there strategic risk in such a path?  If there were none,it would hardly be worth taking.  But after the Mumbai attacks,it strikes me as inconceivable that India would remain a strategic bystander to Washington’s growing efforts to regionalise an appropriate solution to the deeply unsettled Afghanistan-Pakistan border situation. 

In short,India can no longer outsource its strategic interests to the United States because America can no longer cover all such bets. 

Dr Barnett has written the just-released ‘Great Powers:  America and the World After Bush’

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