New Delhi: The US has had a presence in the Indian subcontinent since 1784 at least. But its recent history—America’s relationship with South Asia during the Cold War—is what shapes most of our understanding. In his new book, The Most Dangerous Place, author Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Mumbai, re-examines the US’s involvement in South Asia and how 25 years after the end of the Cold War, longer-term concerns such as the preservation of American hegemony and integrating the region with the global economy have been more important factors dictating American involvement in the region. Edited excerpts from an email and phone interview:
The title of the book is borrowed from former US President Bill Clinton’s description of South Asia, particularly India-Pakistan ties. Is this characterization justified in hindsight? India was irritated with this description and saw it as a possible attempt by the US to insert itself into the Kashmir dispute.
Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama referred to South Asia as “the most dangerous place”. Clinton was referring to the overt nuclearization of the India-Pakistan rivalry, while Obama was expressing concern about the situation in Pakistan-Afghanistan. I chose this as the title of the book partly to underline some longstanding cultural attitudes, especially a sense of hierarchy, that have framed the US’s approach to the region, and partly to point out that the longer history of American involvement in the region analysed in the book shows how incorrect and misleading is such a sweeping assumption. It is hardly surprising that countries in the region should have bristled against such characterization.
One of the aims of your book is to look at the US’s relationship with the subcontinent away from the tendency to see it as a subset of Cold War rivalry. But much of US’s involvement in South Asia has been due to Cold War calculations and that pattern seems to continue.
The US’s relationship with the region was, of course, heavily shaped by the Cold War. But we need to look both behind and beyond the Cold War, if we want to grasp how South Asia fits into the arc of American ascendancy to global supremacy—a story that is broader and more important than the contest with the erstwhile Soviet Union. In fact, the trajectory of US policy towards the region over the past 25 years suggests that longer-term concerns such as preservation of American hegemony and integrating the region with the global economy have actually been more important.
According to experts, a change in the way the US looks at India came in with its economic reforms. Do you think that was the trigger for change in US-India relations?
I argue in the book that the dramatic change in US-India relations in the new century was owing to the confluence of three factors. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union and India’s consequent acceptance of American unipolarity. Second, India’s economic reforms and embrace of US-led globalization. And third, the extraordinary shift in American cultural attitudes towards India from longstanding condescension and paternalism (as late as the 1970s a former US ambassador said the only thing India had to export was diseases) to accepting it as a poster-child of democracy and liberal capitalism. This last development owed much to the remarkable successes of the Indian immigrant community in the US. In short, the transformation of US-India relations was because of an unusual combination of geopolitical, economic and cultural factors.
Terrorism is a subject on which India and the US seem to agree to disagree. Would you agree with that characterization?
Not really. Both countries agree that terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a serious threat. The differences are over how to deal with Pakistan—a country with which the US has a longstanding and continuing security relationship. It is fair to say, however, that India has not allowed this to come in the way of the development of its own ties with the US.
Part of the problem, whether it is terrorism or the nuclear question, at least from the Indian perspective, is the US turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s activities on both fronts because the US needed Pakistan to help open a door to China previously or use its territory to transport essential supplies for troops in Afghanistan currently. Is this US dependence on Pakistan ever likely to come down?
An interesting point that emerges from the long history of US-Pakistan relationship is how periodically Pakistan becomes and ceases to remain important to the US. The 1954 US-Pakistan military agreement was concluded against the backdrop of the Korean War and American fears about a Soviet thrust into the Middle East. By the end of the decade, it became clear to the Americans that Pakistan could actually contribute little to contain the USSR. In 1970, Pakistan was yet again seen as important owing to US President Richard Nixon’s desire to reach out to China. After Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war and its subsequent pulling out of US-led alliances, the relationship dwindled in importance, only to be resurrected by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. After the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan ceased to be of much importance through the 1990s until the attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror. America’s long war in Afghanistan and its geopolitical rivalry with China imply that the dependence on Pakistan is set to continue, though the terms of engagement might change.
If you look at the pattern of US engagement with India and Pakistan and also Afghanistan, it seems the US has disappointed all three by failing to fulfil expectations. Why is that? Is this a pattern that will continue in the future? If so, will there be any consolidation/forward movement of the India-US strategic partnership?
No American administration has shown a consistently sure touch in dealing with South Asia. This is partly because of short-sighted policies and choices such as the military alliance with Pakistan in the 1950s or the support for Afghan jihad in the 1980s. But part of the challenge also arises from problems that are endemic to the region: deep-seated conflicts of identity and power balances, antagonistic political cultures and deeply flawed institutional structures, and the absence of any impulse towards economic integration of the region. The US managed to deal with these issues in Europe and East Asia, which explains why it has had a more stable hegemony in those regions as compared to South Asia.
US President Donald Trump is not the average Democrat/Republican politician that India has come to expect/deal with because he does not fit into any historical pattern. How do you see India-US relations progressing against the backdrop of tensions on trade, seeming divergence on terrorism, some convergence on Afghanistan and Pakistan, China and the Indo-Pacific? What are the issues on which India and the US see eye-to-eye today and how can these be used to take ties to the next level? What are the challenges that the two countries need to be wary of or work around?
It is true that Trump doesn’t fit into the presidential moulds that we have been used to, especially in his brash inconsistency and mercurial style. But he is hardly the first American president to want to scale down US’s global commitments, or clash with allies, or tear up international arrangements. The US faced similar challenges about reconfiguring its global role in the 1970s. A longer historical view suggests that it is easy to overstate the importance of individual leaders and underrate the salience of structural factors—geopolitical, economic, technological and cultural—that shape US policy. As far as India-US relations go, there is increasing convergence in the strategic and security arenas alongside a growing divide on the economic front. This pattern, in fact, predates Trump. Had the US gone ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as proposed by the Obama administration, India would have been hurt owing to the emergence of non-tariff barriers in some of the most important economies. Similarly, disputes over intellectual property rights and a bilateral investment treaty have been around for a while. That said, Trump’s emphasis on addressing bilateral trade balances and use of blunt instruments like tariffs as well as the wider damage to the global economy because of tit-for-tat actions pose serious challenges for the India.