In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, Richard Betts, a Columbia University professor, penned a retrospective piece on three influential books written by Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer. The three books viewed the world from three widely differing perspectives. Where is the world headed? A march towards democratic peace? (Fukuyama); clashing worldviews? (Huntington); or the sway of realism? (Mearsheimer).
It could well be that what Betts wrote, Barack Obama may have been wondering, staring out of a window in the White House on a bleak Washington day. It is not surprising that he should feel that way. The certitude of the first seven years of the 21st century, one that led to the Afghan and Iraqi adventures, has collapsed. The emergence of China to the rank of first-rate powers has been broadly coeval with uncertainty about America’s position in a changing world. In this fluctuating order, all three tendencies can be discerned.
It is in this confused time that Obama makes his maiden presidential visit to India. His ambivalence towards India and the muted expectations from his visit should be seen in the light of wild changes in what the Marxist scholar Perry Anderson termed the girders of force and consent. This balance between the use of force and cooperation had marked continuity in American foreign policy since the time of Harry Truman. For much of this time, spanning roughly from 1946-47 when Containment of Communism was put in place to 1991, when statues of Lenin began crumbling east of the Elbe, US primacy in the world remained unchallenged. The occasional Soviet pinprick could be brushed aside.
In maintaining its leadership, the US employed a careful balance of consent and coercion, for no Great Power can rely on the latter alone. Consent is the operative part of greatness in international relations. With immense coercive power lurking in the background, it was eminently suited for this task. A continental span of territory, cleared of all pre-capitalist encumbrances to a market order and the security of two oceans were the substance of American exceptionalism.
By the early 90s, the basis for this equilibrium had ceased to exist, and the lever of coercion gained salience, though it took another decade for it to be shifted to the top gear. By 2007 that drive ran out of octane. Though by abusing hindsight one can discern the lack of economic steam, which ultimately halted the march of coercion, to as early as the mid-80s, just about the time the Soviet behemoth was taking its terminal steps.
If the trajectory of American economic decline is obvious, its international political contours are not. This is an interesting conjuncture in the world. While America has lost its general ability to coordinate the multifarious problems posed in maintaining order (such as coordinating flows of capital, ensuring free markets and ensuring ideological leadership), it still remains the only particular power capable of executing these tasks. China, the new challenger, is none of that.
Even if China’s state-led developmental model has some acceptability in places as diverse as Addis Ababa to Tehran, if not elsewhere, it does not have the potent mix that the US had, which lifted it much above its peers in the West. There may be bakers, brewers and butchers ready to truck and barter in Beijing, but the Chinese state is omnipresent. But it is hardly powerful to swing the lever of consent in its favour. Ruling elites from Tokyo to Seoul and from Hanoi to New Delhi are mortified at the prospect of Beijing calling the shots.
In his efforts to re-establish a semblence of order, Obama has lost sight of a basic fact: In international relations, turning the clock back is a difficult, if not impossible, task. His inability to view the dangers from China’s rise clearly stems out of this failure.
It is in this confusing world that India must make difficult choices. As always, its long-term interests lie with the West. The problem, however, is that of short-term coordination between what it wants and what Washington is unwilling to give. Obama, if he had room for manoeuvre, would like to tie-up with Beijing. But China, sensing more room for itself, is not willing. Domestically, the Republican bulwark, too, is in no mood to cooperate. The first two years of his presidency were spent in chasing frivolous ideas such as the “G-2”: In a visit to Beijing, the 44th occupant of the White House allowed his hosts to say that they had a “role to play in South Asia”. This was grating to Indian sensibilities.
These symbolic acts apart, he is now trying to force India to do more for what is essentially an American economic problem: create local jobs or face protectionist measures. Here he is living up to Keynes’ dictum that practical men are often the slaves of defunct economists. In this case, the venerable Paul Samuelson, who after decades of extolling free trade, came out of superannuation to erase what he had argued so persuasively for long. So much for ideological leadership.
The net result is that Obama is hardly the man to lead the world out of this chaos. And he certainly does not think much of India, emollient words notwithstanding. He is unable to weigh the three visions that Fukuyama, Huntington and Mearsheimer unveiled even if evidence now suggests that Mearsheimer, the realist, may have been right after all. India must hedge its bets and bide its time. This is not the time for big-ticket investments of political capital.
Siddharth Singh is Deputy Editor (Views) at Mint.
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