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G8, a reality check for Manmohan Singh
July 15, 2006
The 'reading list' for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he prepares for the visit to St Petersburg for the G8 summit between July 15 and 17 will unlikely include the cover story of the July issue of The Nation magazine, titled 'The New American Cold War' by the renowned Soviet Russia scholar Stephen Cohen.
Sadly, it may not even include The Russia Hand, the authoritative memoirs of Bill Clinton's presidential diplomacy with Boris Yeltsin, recorded by Strobe Talbott, Clinton's deputy secretary of state.
But the lapse is understandable. The mainstream thinkers of the Indian strategic community (and, arguably, the Indian establishment) would ask what was the point -- the Cold War ended after all, and so did history, some 15 years ago circa 1991.
Yet, Cohen triggered a feverish debate in American intellectual and political circles about the trajectory of Russian-American relations. The debate acquired a sense of immediacy since the G8 summit had become a theatre where the passions of Russian-American relations were playing out.
Plainly speaking, Talbott and Cohen wrote how behind diplomatese, Washington pursued its global strategies with a cold-blooded diligence.
'Since the early 1990s,' Cohen wrote, 'Washington has simultaneously conducted two fundamentally different policies toward post-Soviet Russia -- one decorative and outwardly reassuring, the other real... The decorative policy professes to have replaced America's previous Cold War intentions with a generous relationship of strategic partnership and friendship...'
The public image of this approach has featured happy talk meetings between American and Russian presidents, first 'Bill and Boris' (Clinton and Yeltsin), then 'George and Vladimir.' The real policy has been very different -- a relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia's post-1991 weakness. It has been even more aggressive and uncompromising than was Washington's approach to Soviet Communist Russia.
The forthcoming G8 summit, therefore, becomes a reality check for Manmohan Singh. It is a fortuitous opportunity presenting itself even ahead of the UPA government's Global Strategy Task Force submitting its report shortly.
Three points emerge out of the G8 summit saga. First, the United States as a superpower is just not in the business of making world powers out of other countries clinging to the greasy pole of world politics. Evidently, Washington estimates that a country with immense potential like Russia cannot simply be allowed to emerge at the top of the heap of world powers -- despite Russia's obvious relevance as a 'counterweight' to China.
This may cause uneasiness among Indian strategic thinkers who are otherwise complacently transfixed on the claim advanced by a middle level American functionary at a briefing in Washington on March 25, 2005 to the effect that the US intended to help India become a first class world power in the 21st century.
The factors working on Washington's Russia policy offer a litmus test of the complex alignments of power politics in the first league. From Washington's point of view, despite being a transitional economy, Russia maintained its nuclear missile arsenal. This immensely perturbing ground reality, coupled with Russia's formidable scientific and intellectual potential and its continuing status as a space superpower, implied shortfalls in the fulfillment of US aspirations to dominate the world.
Thus, Washington's moves in unilaterally withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pressurising the Kremlin to sign an agreement that absolved the US of any actual reduction of nuclear weapons (and indeed allowing the development of new ones) had the underlying objective of establishing nuclear superiority over Russia.
Furthermore, the US began advancing the thesis that NATO must have its own missile defence system; began stepping up the military encirclement of Russia through a string of NATO satellite states; and, waded into Russian politics and its economic and 'near abroad' policies.
'The result is,' Cohen warns, 'a US-built reverse iron curtain and the remilitarisation of American-Russian relations. The Cold War ended in Moscow, but not in Washington, as is clear from a brief look back.'
Second, Washington sees that with oil-rich Russia's membership, G8 is no longer the cosy little affair that it used to be. Worse still, the hosting of the summit signifies in more ways than one post-Soviet Russia's emergence as an influential player in world politics.
The summit, therefore, has become a grin-and-bear-it event for Washington. A sustained attempt was evident during the past six months since the run to St Petersburg began, that Washington would do its utmost to detract from the pomp and circumstance of the G8 summit.
A first rate controversy lent itself in the nature of energy security. When Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed energy security as the theme of the G8 summit, that made sense to world opinion. Consistent with Russia's priority of integrating its economy with the European countries', Russia suggested that energy security must involve both security of supply as well as security of demand.
But the US lost no time introducing a new rhetoric in the nature of 'energy dependency', the real aim being to rally the European Union under Washington's transatlantic leadership banner in any negotiations with Moscow.
As the controversy developed in the subsequent months, geopolitics inevitably crept in since oil exports accounted for a quarter of Russia's GDP and increasingly provided the space for Russia's diplomacy. The resulting stalemate ensured that the G8 would turn out to be a tepid affair.
Indian strategic thinkers might feel somewhat confused over all these mutually reinforcing negative tendencies in the Russian-American relations.
The core assumption in their worldview has been that the Cold War is over and the new Cold War is over China's rise, and that the US is on a desperate lookout for an Asian 'sub-set' of the global balance of power, within its strategy of containing China -- a matrix where India must exercise the option of allowing itself to be courted by Washington.
Indeed, if today's highly volatile world order can be reduced to such neat formulae, then, Washington should rather build up the strategic capability of Russia, which, after all, had a profoundly troubled relationship with China lasting through centuries -- unlike India, which apart from the 1962 war co-existed peacefully with China through millennia.
Besides, post-Soviet Russia used to be in the 1990s no less enthusiastic than India in being a 'natural ally' of the US.
Clearly, the templates of the G8 summit in St Petersburg call into question the surreal postulates of the Indian foreign policy wonks. Two incredibly na�ve assumptions lie behind the prevailing mainstream opinion in the Indian strategic community.
First, that China's phenomenal rise has been due to the US policy of 'building up' China in the Cold War context; and, second, that the US triumphal-ism in claiming 'victory' in the Cold War is justified. In large measure, India's present-day, myopic 'unipolar predicament' emanates out of these two assumptions.
Suffice it to say that China could be the America' 'strategic partner' in the Cold War against the Soviet Union in any meaningful way only after 1979 when the dust of the Cultural Revolution settled and Deng Xiaoping initiated China's change of course. But within the next 4 to 5 years it was obvious to Western capitals that the 40-year Cold War had exhausted itself.
At the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at Geneva in 1985, the two superpowers already began negotiations over the actual modalities of winding down the Cold War. So, if at all Washington 'built up' China as a great power vis-�-vis the Soviet Union, that must have been over a 4-5 year period at the most. Now, can 'greatness' be thrust upon a country -- even an ancient civilisation like China -- in a brief 4-5 year timeline? There is food for thought here for Indian revisionist theorists of world politics.
Again, the contradictions that have surfaced over the St Petersburg summit, in essence, hark back to something which completely eluded Indian discourses over the prevailing international system -- namely, that following the historic Gorbachev-Bush summit at Malta in 1989 when the two leaders announced the end of the Cold War, it was a mutual Soviet-American decision, and not a Russian 'defeat' or a great American 'victory.'
Unfortunately, it was the triumphalist narrative of the American Cold War zealots that permeated the Indian strategic thinking. It is in this sense that the forthcoming G8 summit assumes importance for New Delhi. It serves as an eye-opener.
The summit reveals the range of multilateralism that is at work in international relations today -- and the phenomenal shift of power from the West to the East. It shows up the futility of Washington forcing its agenda on the international community -- be it over Iran nuclear issue or North Korea problem, issues of energy security or the 'frozen conflicts' and the 'democracy project' in the former Soviet republics, or the reordering of the Middle East, including Iraq.
Equally, the Indian ringside view of the St Petersburg summit will not fail to take note that far from pursuing a policy of 'containment' of China, Washington is compelled to draw in China as a stakeholder. The Iran and North Korean standoff vividly bring this home.