Hearing on Political and Military Developments in India

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

May 25, 1999

Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee:

I am honored to be invited to testify before this Subcommittee on developments in India and their implications for American policy. India is a much-neglected country and has been invisible to many American policy makers over the past several years. Our neglect has complicated our attempt to develop a balanced policy towards what will soon be the world’s largest country, and has hurt several important American interests—including our interest in preventing or slowing the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons. The detonation of eleven nuclear devices in South Asia last May must be counted as one of the great failures of recent American policy—all the more so because it was foreseeable and preventable.

While I have specific comments on pending legislation, today I will cast a somewhat wider net. It is evident to me, as a student of South Asia and US policy towards India and Pakistan for over thirty years, that the problems we have had with our regional policy stem in some cases from a fundamental misunderstanding of India and Pakistan, and the way in which our own policies have shaped—or misshaped—developments in the region. I will confine myself to three miscalculations, each of which each have specific implications for American policy.

India as a Revolutionary State

First, we need to understand that India is a truly revolutionary state, in that there are radical changes underway in its domestic political and economic order. From about 1989, we have witnessed the inauguration, or the intensification of five separate revolutions.

  1. There has been a caste and class revolution, in which hitherto suppressed or disenfranchised Indians have sought a bigger share of the pie, often through the ballot box, but sometimes through the gun.
  2. We have witnessed the lift-off of an economic revolution, hesitant at first, and now perhaps stalled, but a revolution that has widespread support because only through a transformation of the Indian economy can the system deliver the goods to these newly assertive and powerful castes.
  3. India has also seen the beginning of a federal revolution. As new regional ethnic and caste groups achieve power, their first goal is to capture their state government. As is the case in the United States, the party that controls New Delhi may not control the states, and power at the center must be shared between parties who are rivals at the state level.
  4. Led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its associated social organizations, India is now experiencing an ideological revolution, in which long-established norms and values are being challenged. Again, this can produce shocking acts of violence, as in the case of the recent murder of an Australian missionary and his sons.
  5. Finally, as in many places around the world, India is subjected to the information revolution as ideas and images circulate more freely than ever before. This is accelerated by satellite television and the internet, and cheap travel and growing literacy.

Three points must be made about these revolutions.

First, they are being waged largely by peaceful means, contained within India’s durable and flexible democratic framework. Historically, India has seen the repeated transformation of revolutionary movements into evolutionary movements, there is no reason to expect that the present social tensions, violence, and disorder will not eventually subside. More than in any other large non-Western democracy, the ballot box is seen as the source of legitimacy.

Second, these revolutions occur unevenly across India. Some Indian states remain backward and poor, others have powerful separatist movements. Yet other states have experienced phenomenal growth in income, literacy, voter participation, and good government.

Third, India can give as good as it gets. While Indian intellectuals complain about Western cultural imperialism, especially the American variety, Indian films, music, novels, and stories are pervasive throughout South, Southwest, and even Central Asia, and are establishing a toehold in the West. These reflect India’s powerful culture, adaptiveness, and ability to compete.

The Strategic Transformation of South Asia

These social, economic, and cultural revolutions have occurred simultaneously with two major foreign policy crises, one in 1987 (the so-called “Brasstacks” crisis during military exercises) and a second in 1990 (a compound crisis involving the Kashmir uprising, nuclear threats, and two weak governments). These, in turn, took place just before and during rapid changes in the larger international environment, especially the decline and fall of the former Soviet Union.

These two regional crises, while real, were misunderstood by many Americans. When coupled with the domestic unrest that has grown in India (and Pakistan), they conveyed the impression of a region on the brink of war—a war that after 1990, could have turned nuclear. There were crises, real threats may have been issued, and there were probably nuclear weapons available to both sides in 1990, but Indians and Pakistanis are not fools, and they learned the lessons of what was their own version of the Cuban missile crisis. I am afraid that we have not taken seriously, nor looked closely, at the way in which these two states have managed to contain disputes, especially Kashmir, which not only affect their vital security interests but their very national identities.

America’s Influence in South Asia

Finally, the United States has become a significant factor in Indian (and Pakistani) strategic calculations. Whether we like it or not our laws, our policies, and even our public statements affect their views of each other and even of China. Too often, however, we have approached the region with a bludgeon, a stick instead of a carrot, treating both states as immature and irresponsible. They have made serious political and military mistakes in the past, but perhaps no more, and no more serious ones, than those committed by other major powers, including ourselves.

Our attempts to legislate their security policy have been doomed to fail from the start. No country, when its vital interests are at stake, will forego any weapon or any technology. While I strongly believe that by going nuclear they may have actually weakened their security, their decisions become perfectly sensible, and were predictable, when one understands the domestic and strategic context in which they were made. Both governments, first Pakistan, now India, have had to conduct foreign and security policy while trying to manage a tumultuous domestic political situation. In both, foreign policy becomes hostage to domestic politics, often driving governments to more extreme policies than they would otherwise choose, and neither government has yet fine-tuned the principle of bipartisanship in foreign affairs.

Implications for American Policy and Legislation

These three sets of American miscalculations (our misunderstanding of South Asian political dynamics, our inattention to the region during a period of major international change, and our failure to appreciate how we can best influence strategic and military decisions) have led to a number of specific errors of perception and policy.

First, our incomprehension of India’s domestic revolution led to an underappreciation of the way in which domestic politics now influences strategic and military decisions. Paradoxically, such decisions as adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are both more and less important to Indian governments. They are more important because this is an issue that could be used to attack a very weak coalition government; they are less important because Indians are less interested in foreign policy issues than before. If we had developed a broader relationship with the Indian people, then such issues as the CTBT, the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMT), restraints on the development of nuclear weapons and on further flight-testing of missiles, and cooperation on containing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their associated technologies would have been placed in a larger, more “normal” framework. Instead, our single-minded pursuit of the proliferation issue made it impossible to expand these other ties, with the consequence that we wound up with the worst of both worlds: a proliferated India (and Pakistan), and even deeper suspicion about economic and strategic ties with the United States.

Second, our failure to understand the significant changes in India-Pakistan relations after their two crises, and the simultaneous end of the Cold War led us to treat the region as crisis-prone: “the most likely place in the world for a nuclear war.” Pursuing a one-issue agenda, non-proliferation, we turned to China as a partner in South Asia. Yet, China has been part of the problem as well as part of the solution and our failure to understand China’s key role in arming the Pakistanis and as a factor in Indian calculations was a serious mistake. I agree with our policy of “engagement” with China, but that did not preclude a similar policy towards India. Instead, our China policy looks to Indians very much like an alliance. As for our focus on non-proliferation, while well-intentioned it conveyed the impression that this was our only regional interest, whereas we have diverse and complex interests there.

Third, we have been trying to conduct a complex diplomacy armed only with sticks and stones. Our diplomacy, constrained by restrictive and highly specific legislation, had nothing to offer but threats, and these failed to work. Inadvertently, we strengthened the hands of the anti-American groups in both countries as well as those who sought to build and deploy nuclear weapons: they could now argue that India had come in the American gunsight, and that they had better arm to protect their countries. Conversely, we weakened the standing of the many Indians who sought to cooperate with us on important economic, strategic, and security issues.

Toward a Fresh Start?

I would strongly urge that the Senate follow two broad paths. First, it should move speedily to allow the Executive branch as much freedom as necessary on existing economic sanctions and technology embargoes. The latter appear to Indians and Pakistanis to be discriminatory “blacklists” against regional institutions and even individuals. Sanctions failed to deter India and Pakistan from moving ahead with their nuclear programs, they can be lifted.

The argument that we have to “make an example” of India and Pakistan to deter other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons is well-intentioned but factually impossible to sustain. While sanctions can be a useful tool of diplomacy (and certainly give the impression of doing something), they must be evaluated in their application, not in their abstract.

The remaining candidates for nuclear status fall into two broad categories, allies and rogues. These allies (for example, Turkey, South Korea, and Japan) look to the United States for their security. Our commitment to their defense is far more important to them at the moment than risking our ire with a nuclear weapons program that may be ineffective in any case. The rogues are well known, most are already under punitive regimes, some are under the threat of military attack—and none regard India and Pakistan as a role model.

Further, neither India nor Pakistan have been “rogues,” they are vast, complex democracies, struggling primarily with issues of domestic reform. This has led them to turn inward, not outward. We want to encourage this process, since the major security threats to both countries come from within—slow economic growth, illiteracy, separatist movements, terrorism, corruption, environmental; degradation, extremist ideologies, and most serious of all, incompetent governance. I think we can assume that both states will work out for themselves the fact that nuclear weapons are of little use against these enemies, but we should not underestimate that dangers to democracy in both countries, especially Pakistan. In the past India had its brief spell of civilian dictatorship and Pakistan has had its long periods of military rule. It now seems to be slipping into an elected autocracy, intolerant of any autonomous center of power. The Nawaz Sharif government has systematically attacked most of the institutions needed to sustain a genuine democracy, most recently the press and non-governmental organizations. This has very serious implications for not only our nuclear policy but our larger relationship.

Second, we need to undertake a comprehensive review of our India and Pakistan policy. Right now, we have a nonproliferation policy (which has demonstrably failed), we have warm and positive feelings towards India (but feelings, no matter how warm, do not make a policy), we have the residue of a special relationship with a former ally, Pakistan, and we have various special interest groups advocating particular goals. These do not add up to a whole. I urge the committee to act upon current proposed legislation as a step towards a comprehensive review of US policy.

Having spent two years in the government as a policy planner, I know how difficult it is for governments to think more than a few weeks or even a few months ahead. Practically speaking, the only time fresh thinking takes place is when one administration (or one Congress) succeeds another. Without completely giving up hope in the negotiations now underway between Strobe Talbott and the lame-duck Indian foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, Congress should, as it did in past decades, undertake its own review of relations with this one-quarter of the world. A multi-year suspension of most sanctions will bring us well into the next administration. It is best that such a review be undertaken before that administration assumes office so as to assist it in conducting its own reexamination of American policy.