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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Rajan Menon

'India is watching China with a close eye'

June 21, 2007

Why should the United States cling to military alliances started during the Cold War when the circumstances are now fundamentally different? That is the question Rajan Menon asks in his new book The End of Alliances, published by Oxford University Press. He then makes the claim that American alliances in Europe and Asia have become irrelevant to the challenges Washington now faces and are slowly dissolving as a result.

The End of Alliances has received much praise from many academics. 'Menon's astute analysis is a warning against relying on these allies to be the linchpin of a new, post-Bush foreign policy,' notes Jack Snyder, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations, Columbia University. Melvyn P Leffler, Stettinius Professor of American History, University of Virginia, welcomes the book's argument why the Cold War alliances 'need to be jettisoned in order to deal more effectively with the fundamental realities of the contemporary world. Whether one agrees or disagrees, this book both illuminates and stimulates.'

An Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute and the Monroe J Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, Menon is also a prolific op-ed writer published in a wide range of newspapers and journals including the Los Angeles Times; he has also written for The Financial Times, The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, Newsday and World Policy Journal.

Menon, who received his doctorate in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is an expert on Russia [Images]. He is also working on a book exploring Russia's encounter with Islam. He is also the author of Soviet Power and the Third World (Yale University Press, 1986) and co-editor of Limits to Soviet Power (Lexington Books, 1989). A senior advisor at the Carnegie Corporation of New York for two years, where he played a key role in developing the corporation's Russia Initiative, Menon was also a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke to Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Arthur J Pais.

How did this book come about?

I have been an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Timesfor many years. I wrote an op-ed for them called, The End Of Alliances. It essentially, in a much more abbreviated form, made the argument for the book. A few months later, I was asked by the World Policy Journal published by the New School University, New York, to write a similar article. I wrote for them a much longer scholarly article, about 25 to 30 pages, again with the same title.

I wrote a book prospectus when a friend of mine said there is an interesting but very controversial argument here that shakes the cages of established thinking. I received a book contract soon. When someone like me gets a book contract, it really puts the pressure on you.

That's how the op-ed in a newspaper evolved into an article in a scholarly journal, then evolved into a book. I wrote the book in about 1� years and, essentially put aside a lot of things that I was doing, and spent a lot of time (as it were) burning the midnight oil.

What kind of intellectual challenge did this project offer you?

What is interesting about this book for me is that it represents a radical departure from things that I have traditionally written on. Most people of South Asian origin, who are political scientists in the US, work on South Asia. But I am one of the few who has really not.

I have been writing on India most recently, but essentially I was trained as a specialist of the Soviet military. I speak Russian; all of my work, certainly as a young scholar, but until 5 or 6 years ago, has been about first the Soviet Union, then Russia in which I continue to have an interest.

I have moved away from Russia; and exploring a lot of other topics; this book is symptomatic of that.

The limits of the India-US strategic partnership

Essentially, I wanted, in my middle age crisis, to do something different. I decided to do this book and write something brief. And, I did not want someone to wade through a 600-page book. And unlike most academic books that I find hard to read, I wanted the book to be read by intelligent, interested non-specialists.

There are too many books written by academics who constantly complain that they are not taken seriously; when they are atrociously written.

This is written for anyone who happens to be interested in this topic and without much background. I write with the first layer, then build upon it layers upon layers of complexity. It is written with not just my fellow academics in mind but a variety of people in mind.

You have reminded me of the Pulitzer Prize- winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

He was an exceptional individual. He was one of the giants in the field. People like him are very rare. He was a scholar, he knew archival literature, he could write with such supreme beauty! I am no Arthur Schlesinger but that's the kind of person I think of when I ask myself how I should write a book.

So, that's the spirit in which it was done. Good things have come out of it. I have received a fair deal of notice. So far, so good!

What is the central thesis of the book?

If you look through history, countries have adopted 'grand strategy,' and overall sense of how one should use economic, political, ideological resources to further one's interests; all States, particularly big powers, have done this.

When they have a particular grand strategy, the thinking of the country, the institutional culture of the country, the expenditure of the resources of the country, is honed and devoted to that 'grand strategy.'

There is an enormous reluctance to part with it because there is a sense of no other way of engaging the world! But in fact what history tells us is that there are examples of pragmatic departures from the grand strategy of great powers.

What I argue is that for most American history that there has been an ambivalence and reluctance to get involved in long term alliances. No one would have imagined that in 1945 onwards, we would have repudiated that strategy, which goes back to George Washington and his warning against alliances, the global fostering of full-fledged alliances.

My argument is that whatever one might think of what the United States did during the Cold War, one thing is certain, is that that strategy triumphed. Because, although the collapse of the Soviet Union was due to many causes, certainly the United States had a strategy the Soviets could not match.

I have met no one in Russia, even the most anti-American, who believes that in fact the US is here in spite of the Cold War and the Soviet Union is not around.

Now, my argument is that the world has changed fundamentally. There is no Soviet Union. The major national security threat is quite different. So I ask the question: Why should the grand strategy that was prepared for certain kind of environments still continue? And I argue, that we are at the early stages of a different kind of strategy in which the central alliances that defined the Cold War are going to be much less central.

Can the US escape from Empire?

Let's just take NATO, for example, it is not clear to me what the purpose of it is. Now, there is certainly no prospect for resurgent Russians that threatens Western Europe in population and GNP. Western Europe has resources that are at least equal to economic resources; perhaps, somewhat greater than the United States. So, the idea that they (the Western European countries) need a military alliance to defend them strikes me as very peculiar.

There is an argument that you have to pull up the ex-Soviet Bloc and so on. My argument is that there are much better institutions that are suited to doing that, namely the EU.

If you get into the business of saying that a military alliance's purpose is to take countries and consolidate their democracy; that is a very strange definition of what a military alliance is.

What's interesting about these countries who have joined NATO (like Poland) and seem to need protection against Russia is that their defence expenses have actually gone down. This is very curious!

NATO also has out-of-area operations. Iraq and Afghanistan show that, if anything, out of area operations divide NATO; in acrimony. So, I am absolutely certain that people are thinking that NATO can reinvent itself and become an extra European organisation, and intervene militarily here and there. NATO in that sense is gone!

If you say to me that it can metamorphose in a grand political coalition, then fine; I have no problem with that. But, that's not going to make it a military alliance. It is defined as a defence treaty that says that we have a common adversary; if that adversary attacks us, we in return will attack it!

But, of course, there are institutions and bureaucrats and academics and thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic that expect to hold a whole professional career devoted their time to NATO. For them to shed this view is going to be very difficult. So, the book is not particularly welcome by people like them.

But to the extent it will provoke arguments and discussions and a certain amount of soul searching...

What I wanted to do is, specifically, to get a debate going. That was the purpose of the book. At the end of it, I outline a kind of alternative strategy. I argue that the world has changed and the United States will have many new partners but there will be coalitions that are built to deal with certain specific issues. India is a case in point.

India is an excellent example of how 'grand strategy' can shift. During the Cold War, these two countries had a relationship that was cool at best. Essentially, the United States took a decision -- wrong in my view -- that its South Asia policy should be anchored at Pakistan.

There are many reasons for this; but, one reason is that India was not prepared to shift its policy of non-alignment and was not prepared to have American military bases on its soil, whereas the Pakistanis were.

The Pakistanis, essentially, had a strategy of sort of balancing India by creating this alliance with the United States.

What gave the Pakistanis a great advantage was that they were on the southern side of the Soviet Union. The Pakistanis had this great saying that 'When it came to East and West, we are your (America's) most allied ally.' So the default was that the Indo-Soviet relationship of the Soviet Union became very dense and intense.

As you well know, this had nothing to do with India's Communist sympathies and what have you; in a sense, rational logical balance of power and calculations. Because of the close Indo-USSR relations, the United States-India relationship was very cool. At that time also, India had a much more State-controlled, State-regulated economy; and, the prospects of trade and investment, and so on, were very limited.

Now, what has happened is that the Soviet Union has disintegrated, India still has a close relationship with Russia; but Russia is not a threat to the United States. The Indian markets have opened up.

If you take the Indian middle class, it is as big as the populations of France [Images], Germany [Images] and Britain put together. It is a huge market.

The American defence industries are looking at the Indian air force and navy; there are huge opportunities here.

Now what has happened is there have developed powerful institutional interests to say: Let's change the relationship with India. So, something that we could not have imagined in the 1960s, if someone had told you that there would be that relationship between the US and India today, you would have been laughed at; people would have thought it was impossible.

India-Russia ties through pictures

Let me give you an example: I worked over a decade ago, for a year, as the National Security Advisor to Stephen Solarz (the former United States Congressman) who is a friend of India. I don't even think Steve would have foreseen that we would be in this position. Now, the other side of the coin is that for some hawks of the United States, India is seen as a countering balance to China.

I think, in the long term, India is watching China with a close eye. I don't think, frankly, that the Indo-US relationship can be built on the principle that India is going to be, essentially, a piece of American strategy involving China.

I think India is too big and complicated a country with its own interests. I don't think it's going to be seen as an adjutant or adjunct of somebody else's policy.

So that said, you have the China factor, you have the collapse of the Soviet Union, you have the Indian market economically and for American military goods; and, you add the fact that there is now a South Asian community.

When South Asians first came to the US, they focused on becoming rich. Now that they are rich and are thinking: What are we going to do with our money? Like every other ethnic group in the United States and their long history of ethnic politics here, the South Asians too want to influence public policy. They want to contribute to campaigns, too.

With all of those things together, what you have is a sea change in the relationship between the US and India. Now, there are some wrinkles along the way, troubles with the nuclear agreement that we are having. But the future is quite clear. There is going to be a different relationship.

One final example that shows the shift: Take Vietnam and the US; they have an increasing close relationships now. In the 1960s, if we had said that this would happen, we would have been sent to the lunatic asylum.

The Vietnamese now are also on the same page with the US in the following sense: They have developed and opened up their economy with great success. They, too, like the United States, have an eye on China. And as a result of this, there has been a transformation of what used to be a hostile relationship.

The United States, after leaving Vietnam in 1975, was licking its wounds, and was in no mind to have much to do with Vietnam. There has been a dramatic change.

This goes back to the thesis of the book: In point of fact, things change and move in the foreign policy of countries in ways that are not often seen as possible at a given time.

Now, I am finally convinced of one thing -- that the 'grand strategy' the United States had for 50 years after the Cold War is increasingly irrelevant to the national security interests of the United States now.

First published in India Abroad

The Rediff Interviews