In his second visit to India, US President Barack Obama has another opportunity to take the measure of his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Over the past six months, US officials like former Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel have tried to emphasise the ways in which Obama and Modi are similar, noting, for instance, that both are outsider candidates from humble backgrounds. In reality, however, Modi looks more like India’s Ronald Reagan than its Obama, especially when it comes to his dealings with Pakistan. There, Modi appears to be pursuing a strategy of “peace through strength”. Despite Obama’s obvious partisan and ideological differences with Reagan, he should aim to support Modi’s agenda, with one major modification.
Last May, Modi began his term with a bold and friendly diplomatic gesture. He invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony. Since then, however, Modi has limited diplomatic engagement and shifted to a harder line with Pakistan, rattling nerves in Islamabad and raising eyebrows in Washington.
Of course, it is probably too soon to characterise Modi’s dealings with Pakistan as more than a series of tactical manoeuvres informed by a nationalistic ideology and framed by a history of India-Pakistan animosity and distrust. That said, Modi is by all accounts a startlingly ambitious character. He brings new energy and urgency to New Delhi and is also believed to be playing a long game, consolidating his political position so that
he can serve at least two five-year terms. In this context, his harder line towards Pakistan has the potential to grow into a comprehensive strategy, one aimed at finally resolving the India-Pakistan dispute through a firm display of India’s strength.
Reagan’s late Cold War strategy for renewed competition with the Soviet Union was famously founded on a similar principle. As he explained in 1986: “Our adversaries, the Soviets — we know from painful experience — respect only nations that negotiate from a position of strength.” To project that strength, the early Reagan administration funded a rapid military expansion and aggressively sought new diplomatic and military means to roll back Soviet influence around the world. Reagan’s early rhetoric, including the “evil empire” speech of 1983, left no doubt that Washington’s pursuit of détente with Moscow was over and that a tense new chapter of Cold War competition was underway.
The parallels between Modi and Reagan are striking. Like Reagan, Modi’s wildly successful election campaign was filled with broad promises to shake off the lethargy that afflicts his nation’s economy and governing institutions. Also like Reagan, Modi believes that his predecessor was too weak in dealing with the nation’s principal foreign adversaries. Modi’s decision to abruptly cancel bilateral foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan in August, and his government’s October threat of “unaffordable costs” in response to cross-border violence, evince a hawkishness that Manmohan Singh eschewed.
One of Reagan’s noteworthy policy shifts was to intensify US covert operations as a way to undermine Soviet-backed governments in Latin America, Africa and Afghanistan. It is hardly farfetched to imagine that India would do something similar in the Pakistani context. Modi’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, has argued in favour of precisely this approach. Doval wrote in 2011 that in the face of “Pakistan’s unabated covert offensive”, India has for too long “failed to retaliate in a proactive manner that could raise costs for Pakistan and compel it to roll back its anti-India terrorist infrastructure”. He concluded that “Pakistan has its own vulnerabilities many times higher than India and in its strategic calculus it cannot ignore the threat that India can pose”.
Modi also appears poised to outrace Pakistan on the nuclear front by investing in capabilities, such as submarine-launched missiles and missile defence systems, which would prove extraordinarily costly for Pakistan to match or overcome. Some of these projects are already underway, but Modi seems keen to accelerate progress so that India can break free from long cycles of research and development and field major new weapons systems during his tenure.
The PM clearly appreciates that India’s conventional force acquisitions are in need of a similar jolt. Major acquisitions such as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft deal cannot be allowed to languish in limbo for another half-decade. Supply relationships with firms in Russia and Israel will be maintained and strengthened, but Modi may also be ready to engineer a real technological leap forward by landing breakthrough deals with US defence manufacturers.
In short, although India already enjoys tremendous advantages over Pakistan, these steps could turn the existing imbalance into a rout. The crucial question then is whether India’s newfound strength would actually bring peace with Pakistan.
Reasoning by historical analogy, we should not forget how risky and aggressive Reagan’s early moves looked to the world. Indeed, without Mikhail Gorbachev, who navigated a largely peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire rather than fighting to the last, Reagan’s renewed Cold War could easily have turned hot. Pakistan, lacking an obvious Gorbachev-like figure, could respond to India’s escalations in a tit-for-tat manner, refusing to accept Delhi’s dictates no matter the cost. For a country like Pakistan, already so perilously close to the edge, the stress could lead to war or a violent implosion. Either would be worse for India (and everyone else) than the troubling status quo.
This does not mean that Obama should counsel Modi to take a fundamentally different approach. Urging India’s forbearance and restraint often makes good sense in a crisis, but it is inconsistent with Washington’s longer-term agenda of cultivating a partnership with India as a strong global power and US partner. Nor would Modi take kindly to American lectures about how India, as the bigger and more responsible party, should treat Pakistan with magnanimity to win peace.
That said, the risks of heightened military competition with Pakistan recall the historical lesson that while Reagan intensified his competition with Moscow, he simultaneously placed an enormous emphasis on diplomatic outreach and summit diplomacy. Reagan’s goal was never to fight and win a war, but to force negotiations to a point where Moscow would willingly make concessions.
Modi’s goal should be the same. At present, however, he has taken India out of serious bilateral negotiations with Pakistan. This missing piece of India’s strategy is profoundly dangerous, even counterproductive. During his trip, Obama should press this point; not as a critic, but as a friend who recognises the potential of peace through strength, Indian-style.
The writer, senior research professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of ‘No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad’
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