Boring Summits Are Better for Everyone

Why Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh should say as little as possible when they meet in Washington next week.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives as U.S. President Barack Obama's first official state visitor this weekend, Washington will be pulling out all the bells and whistles to welcome the leader of the world's largest democracy. Many already fear that the meeting will begin with a bang only to end with a whimper -- in the form of a communiqué filled with little more than platitudes about ‘shared values' and a desire to deepen strategic cooperation.

Forget the worriers -- let's hope that this is the case. A clichéd, public declaration is what both sides should hope for. Because when it comes to India, the less said about what Washington and New Delhi are doing and plan to do, the more likely the two countries are to build a genuine, strategic relationship that will endure.

I'll explain what I mean by that in a second, but first: Why does India matter? In Washington, the India-U.S. relationship is a bipartisan win-win. For liberals, it makes sense for the world's most powerful democracy to offer a strategic hand to the world's most populous one. But India's charms are not only its democratic ways; realists like the country for its unquestionable position as the enemy of a potential enemy, i.e., China. New Delhi has been warily balancing and competing against Beijing from the very moment of India's independence in 1947. Even now, a low-level conflict is simmering in the disputed Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China's nuclear weapons, stationed on the neighboring Tibetan Plateau, are frighteningly real for India. And New Delhi, like the rest of Asia, is carefully watching Beijing's navy build up to a point that already far exceedswhat would be needed to prevent Taiwanese secession (the official reason given in Beijing's defense white paper.)

There are other important reasons to think India will matter in Asia in coming years, too. The country's economy,which has been in near-constant boom since 1991, is built on the backs of a population that will be larger than China's in several decades, with a much better age demographic. To be sure, the continued success of India's economic reform program -- the key to its continued rise -- is far from assured. (The same could be said of China.) But already,  India has a vibrant and thriving middle class of 300 million people. This means it has a critical mass of people generating the economic resources needed to entrench New Delhi's status as not just a South Asian colossus but a major center of power within the Asian continent.

Then there's its military, where size still matters most of all, and India has the world's third largest force. New Delhi is developing a highly effective navy, including a fully operational aircraft carrier with plans for several more. Of course, it is also a nuclear armed power. But most importantly, India's political leaders have shown that they are not afraid to use their military. India rarely runs from a fight. As its generals boast, they have been in a constant state of war in Kashmir for decades. Neither conflicts nor casualties faze Indian politicians and elites.

The mere existence of a confident and formidable India acts as a formidable structural and strategic constraint against Chinese ambitions in South and Southeast Asia. But again, that's just the icing on the cake. India is ready to engage with the world, after years ofstanding aloof. New Delhi is planning to create more than 500 new positions in its Ministry of External Affairs over the next 10 years. The country has become a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, a regional economic grouping. And the U.S.-India partnership is getting good "buy in" from key states in Asia that do not feel nervous or threatened by India's rise. For example, New Delhi already conducts extensive joint naval exercises with Jakarta, and increasingly with Tokyo, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur.

This is where the virtue of subtlety comes in. Indian political, strategic, and social elites prize strategic "independence," or at least the appearance of it, above all else. India will not allow itself to become perceived as a dutiful and secondary player in any grand U.S. strategy -- one that is designed, for example, to manage China's rise. Joint statements declaring a grand bargain with the superpower would create domestic suspicions within India. After all, the era of British colonization, which left behind an enduring fear of subjugation by foreign powers, only ended in 1947. Any suggestion of a grand alliance with Washington would simply be too much too soon.

There is also another important reason why boring public statements are good. The security dynamic in Asia is still in a precarious flux, as many states try to hedge against the chance that China will rise, the United States (and Japan) will decline, and India will stagnate. And though almost all Asian states do not trust China, they do not feel comfortable with any arrangement that is explicitly designed to "contain" it. China is simply too important to the regional economy, and Beijing's diplomatic response to such a strategy is hard to predict. A case in point is the 2007 Quadrilateral Initiative involving ministerial level meetings between the United States, India, Japan and Australia in order to deepen military cooperation between the four countries. The Initiative raised Chinese hackles and made Southeast Asian states nervous, reluctant to explicitly ‘choose' between China and other great powers. And just a year later, the project was subsequently abandoned by the incoming Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Meanwhile, the emergence of India as a significant strategic player in East and Southeast Asia took Beijing by surprise, as did the rapid conclusion of a U.S.-India nuclear deal signed in 2008, which effectively legitimized India as a nuclear power and allowed it access to nuclear materials and technology. Beijing is watching Washington's blossoming relationship with New Delhi with greater interest than ever before. Many within the Chinese Communist Party and the Peoples' Liberation Army desperately want irrefutable and public evidence that the U.S.-India relationship is a provocative one designed to prevent China from rising. This would provide Beijing with a convenient opening to justify its rapid military buildup, not to mention an excuse to escalate border tensions with New Delhi. When Obama and Singh emerge from the White House doors to give their public remarks, they should ensure that no such excuse becomes available.

John Moore/Getty Images


Military Deglobalization?

Long-distance military interdependence is taking new forms.

When people say that our era is defined by rapid globalization, they are quick to cite the usual evidence: a litany of impressive statistics such as the trillion-and-a-half dollars that flow daily across borders, the growth of trade as a proportion of world output, transnational industrial production chains, and, of course, the advent of cheap, instantaneous communication over the Internet. But in military terms, is this an era of deglobalization?

With so much focus on economic globalization, we sometimes forget that there are other forms of interdependence -- ecological, social, cultural, military -- that do not always vary in the same way. Discussions of global interdependence often require an adjective to be accurate. For example, the assertion that 19th-century globalization halted in 1914 and did not recover to prior levels until the 1970s holds true for economic globalization but is completely off the mark for global military interdependence. The period from 1914 to 1991 was one of extraordinary globalization, with two world wars and a Cold War that involved all inhabited continents. It is in fact hard to imagine anything more global than the strategic balance between the Soviet Union and the United States. Not only did it produce world-straddling alliances and interventions in distant local conflicts but either side could have destroyed the other with nuclear missiles in 30 minutes.

In that sense, the end of the Cold War has meant military deglobalization. In 1985, the two superpowers had more than a million troops abroad; today, that number has been cut by more than two thirds, and annual world military expenditures are down considerably from their 1987 peak of roughly a trillion dollars. In the 1960s, U.S. presidents visited Vietnam to cheer up the troops; today, they go to sign trade agreements. In the 1970s, President Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski declared that strategic-arms limitation talks died "in the sands of the Ogaden"; now the outside world seems largely indifferent to turmoil in the Horn of Africa. There are even faint signs of détente in that Cold War military remnant, the Korean Peninsula.

So, has geoeconomics replaced geopolitics? It's not that simple. In earlier centuries, economic and military globalization went hand in hand. Nineteenth-century patterns of trade and finance depended on European empires on which "the sun never set." As for the disruption of economic globalization during the 1920s and 30s, economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation reminds us that economic hardship came not just from war but from the inability of European polities to cope with the inequalities (and the disruptive responses of communism and fascism) that grew out of laissez-faire economic growth. Moreover, the roots of contemporary economic globalization go back to U.S. geopolitical strategy after 1945 and the belief that open economies and liberal institutions were necessary as a bulwark against communism. Economic and military globalization are not always opposing forces.

Today, many observers describe the state of global military interdependence as "unipolar." That is, only one country has truly global military reach, with air, naval, and ground forces that include almost 300,000 troops in Europe, Asia, and near the Persian Gulf. Even with a one-third reduction since the Cold War, U.S. military expenditures exceed the defense budgets of the next five countries combined. In today's unipolar world, the Cold War strategic chessboard is gone. Instead, as journalist Thomas Friedman argues, an "electronic herd" of investors creates disincentives for conflict. According to this view, because countries are punished for fighting, regional conflicts are more likely to become ghettoized than globalized.

But there are some things wrong with this picture. For one thing, economic globalization is not everything. With the rise of social globalization, humanitarian concerns interacting with global communications have dramatized some conflicts and spurred military interventions in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. While highly selective and not purely altruistic, these military interventions cannot be explained solely in terms of classical strategy. Could social globalization be leading to some revival of military globalization?

Unipolarity is also misleading in that it focuses solely on the balance of power among states. But military technology continues to flow transnationally, and nonstate actors can use chemical, biological, or electronic technologies to exploit vulnerabilities in open societies. In addition, weak states can follow asymmetric strategies of supporting terrorists or manipulating transnational interdependencies to counter U.S. power. For example, young Chinese officers have written about using terrorism, drug trafficking, environmental degradation, and computer viruses to update Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for an age of globalization.

On the dimension of geopolitical competition among states, the world since the Cold War has been marked by military deglobalization. But the electronic herd is not fully in control. Long-distance military interdependence is taking new forms. And a geogovernance of military globalization is slowly evolving. In the 19th century, states faced few legal constraints on recourses to war or trade in weapons. Since 1945, the United Nations Charter has tried to limit war; peacekeeping forces have been interposed to dampen local conflicts; and multilateral treaties have slowed the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as well as missile technology. International humanitarian law is gradually taking shape, but as the U.N. Security Council impasse over intervention in Kosovo demonstrated, consensus is not yet at hand. Geogovernance of military globalization still lags far behind the dynamic changes in the technologies of destruction and the increasing roles of transnational actors.