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Two nations with visions of manifest destiny
February 25, 2006
The visit of the French President, Jacques Chirac, to India was a relatively low-key affair, as the chatterati did not pay much attention to it. The forthcoming visit of US President George W Bush looms much larger in the pundits' imagination, partly because of the huge buildup of expectations about nuclear cooperation. Alas, in the quaint Indianism used by sportswriters, the Americans are merely 'flattering to deceive'.
American diplomats and non-proliferation Cold Warriors are running circles around their Indian counterparts -- seducing them with faint praise -- and so I am glad to note that a number of scientists and administrators have said that the July 18, 2005 accord amounts to a massive sell-out of Indian interests under pressure. Strategic analysts who opposed the deal from the beginning -- such as Brahma Chellaney -- should feel vindicated.
In this context, the French offer of nuclear fuel and reactors -- under IAEA safeguards -- amounts to a useful Plan B for India. France has an advanced nuclear power industry of its own, which supplies a good fraction of the country's needs, and they most probably have more up-to-date designs than the Americans. The latter have been handicapped by negative public opinion after Three Mile Island, and have not built new civilian reactors for decades.
In any case, having a second source is a major factor in limiting supplier power. It is the potential for American supplier monopoly and therefore veto-power over India's nuclear future that has worried Indian analysts. The prospect of France -- and possibly Japan, with its own advanced nuclear power industry -- bidding for India's business would greatly enhance India's own buyer power vis-à-vis American arm-twisting.
As usual, India is inept at exerting its leverage. For instance, in response to American pressure (Ambassador Mulford's dire threats) India should have announced that it was rethinking Air-India's big order of aircraft to Boeing, and re-opened negotiations with Airbus. This would have brought the US Trade Representative running to Delhi ('airdashed' in Indian journalese), and would have silenced the non-proliferation ayatollahs at Foggy Bottom.
It is worth noting that American commercial interests -- notably Westinghouse -- had been in the forefront of American approval of $5 billion worth of nuclear power plant sales to China, which has been a consistent proliferators and flouter of international norms. I read recently that Westinghouse had been sold to Toshiba of Japan, and I wonder what effect that has on things. What are Toshiba's (and Japan, Inc.'s) thoughts on selling nuclear material to China with which Japan's relations are, to put it mildly, tenuous? And more to the point, how keen is Toshiba on selling power plants to India?
Apart from the nuclear deal, it is worthwhile for India in general to have a good relationship with France, which is prone to act as a gadfly, often indulging in knee-jerk anti-Americanism. India should play off the Americans against the French (and Europeans in general) as both are keen on the billion-person Indian market. India can wrest concessions from both.
Neither America nor France is particularly India's bosom buddy, but that they are both jockeying for position in support of their national interest. This is a cliché, but it is not clear that Indian negotiators have internalised this.
For instance, in the current furore over Mittal Steel's proposed takeover of French rival Arcelor, European chauvinism and racism has come to the fore -- for instance note Arcelor chief Guy Dolle sniffing that his steel was 'perfume', while Mittal's was 'eau de cologne'. Excuse me, I thought steel was steel was steel. Perfume? Surely he jests!
What are the roots of the tension between America and France? A few months ago, Americans were up in arms against France, renaming 'French fries' as 'Freedom fries' and so forth, over something so trivial that they have (and I have) now forgotten what the fuss was all about. And French condescension towards parvenu, uncultured Americans is legendary.
Bernand-Henri Levy, the French author, in his recent book American Vertigo takes a look at this question -- and he acknowledges explicitly that he is following in the footsteps of his celebrated compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote, 170 years ago, one of the most penetrating analyses ever of what makes American society tick. Levy believes that part of the reason for this animosity is that both nations believe in a sort of 'manifest destiny' -- that they are uniquely qualified to lead the world to a new vision of egalite, liberte, fraternite in one case and 'democracy' in the other.
Of course, we all know that these fine sentiments do not always jive with action on the ground. The French were keen imperialists, and the Americans have always preferred ruthless military dictatorships over mere democracies when it comes to choosing allies. Levy calls himself an 'anti-anti-American' meaning that he opposes the reflexive anti-Americanism endemic in Europe, which perspective he believes opposes everything that is actually good in America.
Levy asserts that in fact it is the French Right that hates America, not the French Left. Coming from the former leftist, this may have credence. According to Levy, the French Right believes in a mythology of homogeneity, of blood and race and color, and of that as the basis of nationality. America, a nation that luxuriates in the diversity of its population, is clearly the very antithesis of this belief, and apparently that is the thing that sticks in the craw for the French Right: it repudiates their fundamental beliefs.
Of course, India shares the element of diversity with America, in a manner reminiscent of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass: 'I am large, I contain multitudes.' And the Lord in the Bhagavad Gita, XI:5:
Pasyay may Partha roopani shatasho'tha sahasrasha:
Nanavidhani divyani nanavarna krtani cha |
Arjuna, behold presently in hundreds and thousands
My multifarious divine forms, of diverse colors and shapes.
India is the ultimate in heterogeneity, a mixture of people and ideas that somehow, out of this diversity -- and despite the active attempts of its current ruling class to, well, divide and rule -- has always been a nation and a civilisation. And despite the best efforts of its rulers to destroy the nation by destroying its millennia-old cultural roots, the idea of India survives.
Neither the old culture of Europe, as embodied in the idea of France, or the brash new culture of America, is an exact analog of India's culture. They may complement each other: India needs to work with each of them and gain whatever it can from both. India has been generous with its cultural gifts to Europe and now America, and it is time to call in the favours. It was after all, a Frenchman, Voltaire, who said, memorably, the following:
'I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis'
Comments welcome at my blog at http://rajeev2004.blogspot.com