He stood alone in 417 BC, against the tide, urging Athens, great power of its world, to war. “Everyone ought to look to this, and not presume to run risks with a state so unsettled, and to grasp at another empire before we have secured the one we have,” Nicias said. “The Greeks in those parts would be most in awe of us if we did not go there at all; and next to that, if after making a demonstration of our power we retired.” “For we all know that what is farthest off is most admired,” continued the great general, “and gives the least room for having its fame tested.”
Educated at Harvard and Columbia, it is probable that United States President Barack Obama encountered Nicias’ oration as a student, and his conduct of foreign policy suggests he learned its lessons well. Hubris led Athens to a catastrophic defeat in Syracuse — and the general who warned against war to his death — setting of a chain of events that would lead to its eventual subjugation by Sparta.
Through the past decade, Obama has slowly disengaged his nation from a world riven by murderous conflicts, understanding that even almost unlimited power and wealth can sometimes achieve but little.
For India, this poses an enormous challenge. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to breathe life into the long-stalled strategic partnership with the US, there might not be one to be had. Ever since the end of the Cold War, India worked hard to win the support of the US — and largely succeeded. The bad news is that it’s not enough.
Historians warn us that contrafactual speculation is a useless activity: the world is simply too complex and unpredictable to make meaningful guesses about what might have happened if Nicias had won the debate against Athens’s party of war. Yet, it is hard not to see that the world looks a lot as it likely would have if the wars of 9/11 had never happened. In the great arc from Mali to Pakistan, the jihadist movement is in the ascendant as never before. Efforts to construct stable polities and state structures have failed, from Somalia to Afghanistan.
Perhaps worst of all, this age of disorder is descending at a time when it is also clear that the geostrategic hegemony the US enjoyed after the end of the Cold War was ephemeral. China’s challenge to the US’s century of primacy in the Pacific is growing and Russia has demonstrated both muscle and resolve in Europe.
Modi’s world, thus, is characterised by upturning and flux. The notion that India might be part of a concord of democracies standing together, so beloved of politicians in both Washington and New Delhi, is a tempting one. It’s worth considering, though, that while Indian and US interests converge, their stakes — and what they need to do to secure them — are quite different.
Freed of its need for gargantuan quantities of West Asian oil and gas by domestic finds — the US will be self-sufficient by the second quarter of this century — the world’s preeminent power has ever decreasing interest in sacrificing wealth and lives to ensure stability in the troubled region. Though Obama may be willing to despatch combat jets to bomb the Islamic State, or trainers to bolster the Iraqi state, the days of large-scale interventions to defend the great rivers of West Asian hydrocarbons are over. India needs to think what it will do if regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia are overrun, knowing that the US may not be at its side.
The states of the region understand this. Saudi Arabia, fearful that the US’s fledgling rapprochement with Iran might one day leave it with a hostile, nuclear-armed neighbour, is contemplating what the commentator Faisal al-Yafai has called “a farewell wave to America”. Earlier this year, Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif was chief guest at a Saudi military exercise where the kingdom, for the first time, displayed its Chinese-made CSS-2 missiles — purchased, it has long been rumoured, for doomsday use with Pakistani warheads.
East of India, much the same forces are playing out. Even as the US implements deep cuts to military spending, China’s naval power is growing — its blue water, submarine and littoral naval capabilities are expanding dramatically. Scholars Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff have noted that while the US still enjoys a preponderance of power, the People’s Liberation Army increasingly “has the resources, capabilities and confidence to attempt to assert China’s interests on its contested periphery.”
Fears are mounting across East Asia that the US’s promises of protection may prove illusory in the face of real military opposition — one reason for their energetic calls for military cooperation with nuclear-armed India.
There is, finally, the anarchy that threatens to overwhelm Afghanistan and, more important, nuclear-armed Pakistan — India’s most immediate concern. In 2001-02, flushed with the early successes of the 9/11 wars and actively engaged in the region, the US held India back from going to war — but also pushed Pakistan to begin a year-on-year de-escalation of cross-border violence. In the wake of 26/11, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also chose to avoid war, knowing that the US would be able to mount pressure on Pakistan to rein in jihadist groups.
Following the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year — and the almost inevitable diminution of aid to Pakistan — it is far from clear whether it will have the influence or equities to influence the behaviour of the failing state to India’s west.
Hoping to insulate itself, India has signed strategic partnership agreements with several opposing sides: not just the US, but Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, among others. The precise objective of these partnerships is opaque, leading at least some to suggest that the agreements entail neither strategy nor partnership. Eminent diplomat Kanwal Sibal, for example, has suggested they are merely declarations of commitment to “deepening ties and promoting convergence in external policies”.
India has, notably, shied away from developing the military power to assert its interest or to participate in actual alliances towards that end. This opacity could be sustained because of the implicit hope that the world would continue to revolve around US primacy. As the Athenian satellite states that bet their independence on its hegemony discovered, this kind of wager involves great risks.
Obama’s disengagement from the world’s battlefields is strategic: like Nicias, he understands that the US extended itself beyond its means, making it less capable than ever of dealing with the challenges of our dangerous world. So his retreat is also inexorable, unlikely to be reversed by any president in the foreseeable future.
There are many useful things that the US and India can, and must, engage on — among them, intelligence sharing, technology development and military capacity building. These will only be useful, though, if they are part of a larger programme of capacity development that will allow India to protect its interests on the borders and beyond.
Elegantly drafted agreements and finely worded speeches aren’t instruments of power. There’s little sign, so far, that India has carefully considered precisely which ones it wants to acquire — and even less that it’s thinking about just how to use them.
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