India and America in the Strategic Times to Come
Remarks to the Delhi Policy Group and the MIT Center for International Studies Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)
January 11, 2011 | New Delhi
Decrease Text SizeIncrease Text SizeAs the second decade of the 21st Century begins, no great regional power is as sought after as India. Over the past few months, the prime ministers and presidents of China, France, Russia, and the United States have all come here to Delhi to make the case for enhanced relationships with India. Earlier, Britain’s new leader also came a-courting. Why all the sudden attention to this previously underappreciated corner of the globe?
It is not just the stunning beauty of India’s women, though that is a compelling enticement revealed to all the world by Bollywood. Nor is it the dynamic growth of the Indian economy, though India is clearly on its way to becoming once again a big factor in the global marketplace. It is not the vibrancy of India’s democracy, though India’s politicians — like those back home in America — regularly astonish citizens with their legislative stratagems, scalawaggery, shell games, and shenanigans. All these things are part of India’s contemporary image. But what most attracts foreign leaders to India is its strategic empowerment by the changing constellation of global power.
I want to speak briefly with you today about shifting patterns in the world and regional political and economic orders and how they may affect India, its neighbors, the United States, and the world. I will begin with a bow to strategic geography and history.
Isolated behind adjoining deserts, mountains, and seas, the Indian subcontinent was long the target, not the instigator, of strategic change. The fabled riches of South Asia were in the main the creation of its own intellectual, human, and natural capital, supplemented by gains from trade with West Asia, North Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, and China. Indians inhabit a distinct geopolitical zone, separated in normal times from all these others. This region is easy to defend but it has proven vulnerable to occasional transforming invasions from Central and West Asia, and, at last, the sea.
Until their British rulers joined them to a global empire, Indians seldom ventured abroad except as traders or missionaries. The Islam of Southeast Asia, like its Hinduism and Buddhism, is a legacy of this politically isolationist tradition of outreach primarily through commerce and the force of spiritual example. The wide attractive power of Indian culture (and the broad reach of the Chola Empire) notwithstanding, historically, India has been — in the main — content to keep its armies and navies at home. Its political and economic ties to its east have long been especially tenuous.
Given the growing weight of India in world affairs, it will increasingly be called upon to form and lead coalitions to address both regional and global problems. In many but not all such efforts, the United States can and — I am confident — will play a significant supporting role. But, this pattern of entente rather than alliance challenges longstanding strategic predispositions in both countries. The United States needs to understand that cooperation with India on various matters will not be translated into and cannot be equated with alliance. India needs to recognize that cooperation with America in pursuit of common interests, far from compromising its non-alignment, is in fact an affirmation of its independent sovereignty. And, if America must learn to accept the leadership of others, including India, on an expanding range of matters, India must accustom itself to sometimes taking the lead with regard to issues beyond its immediate environs.
I first lived and worked in India forty-five years ago. It is impossible not to be encouraged by what India has accomplished in the interim and by the spirit with which it now faces the future. There is a sense of dynamism here, as in other reemerging great powers, that inspires optimism that the new international order now taking shape will be able in time effectively to address issues that are currently neglected or deferred. Most Americans take pleasure in India’s return to wealth and power. The world at large is ready — I believe — for India to play a leading role in regional and world affairs. But only Indians can determine whether India itself is ready for such responsibilities. I for one, hope that it is.
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