President Bush has visited South Asia, and one would expect multilateralist hosannas to be showered on his head. In India, he worked to cement a burgeoning relationship with a dynamic country central to a region where–with China on the rise–geopolitics in the 21st century will be very “interesting,” in the unsettling sense of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”
Next on the itinerary was Pakistan, a longtime enemy of India and another newly minted U.S. ally. That the U.S. is friends with both India and Pakistan has a lot to do with circumstances (the end of the Cold War and the advent of the War on Terror), but it also speaks to a certain level of Bush-administration diplomatic finesse. The administration won’t get any credit for it since it runs counter to the media’s favored “unilateralist behemoth alienates the world” storyline.
India especially falls victim to the new liberal standard in international relations, which is that countries that genuinely like us are discounted as allies. It’s the diplomatic corollary of Groucho Marx’s refusal to belong to any club that would have him. India falls into the same category as Japan, Britain, Australia, the democratic countries of Eastern Europe and a few Gulf emirates. These nations lack the simmering resentment toward the U.S. of a France, so close and fruitful relationships with them don’t earn Bush any multilateralist points.
In fact, Democrats are perfectly content to alienate these natural friends. The United Arab Emirates is getting a swift kick to the teeth in the uproar over the port deal, and no Democratic members of Congress complained when the press revealed the existence of secret U.S. prisons in Poland and Romania, thus making it less likely that those countries would be helpful to the U.S. in the future.
India has always been a U.S. ally waiting to happen, but its tilt toward the Soviet Union in the Cold War kept the world’s two largest democracies apart. Now, the natural affinities are coming to the fore. India and the U.S. are both commercial democracies with large middle classes (India’s is more than 200 million strong) and heavily invested in international trade.
Former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill identifies five vital U.S. national interests–defeating Islamic radicalism, checking proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pursuing energy security, funneling the rise of Chinese power in a responsible direction and keeping the international economy healthy. India, with exceptions here and there, naturally lines up with us on all of them.
The Bush administration had a notion of this very early on. The American outreach began in the area of defense, with twice-yearly meetings between military officials of the two countries. In a crucial departure, the administration lifted sanctions that had been imposed on India after its nuclear testing in 1998. Ending the sanctions was a supreme act of realism, since they were never going to get India to forswear its nuclear-weapons program and were only an irritant in our relationship.
Now, the administration has cut a deal–finalized on Bush’s trip, and pending congressional approval–to aid India’s civil nuclear program in return for India opening up its civilian facilities to international inspections. This has prompted charges of hypocrisy: How can we bless India’s nuclear breakout while trying to stifle North Korea’s and Iran’s? But there should be privileges to being a democratic, responsible government presiding over an open society. Nonproliferation advocates worry about the signal sent to the rest of the world by the deal–that message should be, “Create a consistent record of decent governance, and we won’t be as alarmed if you pursue nukes.”
India will probably never be as close to the U.S. as Britain or Israel. It has a proud tradition of international independence that it’s not going to entirely relinquish. But it will be an important friend, partly due to the diplomatic work of the Bush administration. Multilateralists, take note.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate