The Rise of India's Soft Power

It's not just Bollywood and yoga anymore.

India's soft power has now been on display for at least a couple of decades: Indian philosophy has captivated Western minds since the 1960s; Bollywood's prodigious celluloid fare has long drawn huge audiences in significant parts of Asia, Africa, and beyond; India's English-language novelists have often edged out native British writers for the prestigious Man Booker Prize; and, of course, yoga studios have become all but ubiquitous in the United States. However, even South Asian scholars and analysts have rarely thought of India's largesse as a possible source of material power, especially in the realm of foreign assistance.

With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having visited India this week in an effort to secure its cooperation on a range of international issues, it is time to start thinking of India not as a beneficiary of the world's charity (though it still is) -- but as a major donor. Although there is no published, centralized data, or even agreement on the definition of Indian "foreign aid," if one uses the Development Assistance Committee's official definition of aid, India disbursed over $1.5 billion in traditional foreign aid in 2011 -- second only to China among developing-country donors -- even while it remained the world's largest recipient of multilateral assistance. Indian foreign assistance has not only tripled since the turn of the century -- with foreign aid by the five BRICS countries growing 10 times faster than aid by G-7 countries -- but it has also grown in terms of the diversity of recipients. India also recently announced that it will be creating its own aid agency and has built an administrative structure, the "Development Partnership Administration," within its External Affairs Ministry toward that end, though there has not yet been any budgeted increase in the diplomatic corps.

India's identity as an international donor is a downright confounding phenomenon. In the four decades between 1951 and 1992, India was the largest global recipient of foreign aid, receiving a total of approximately $55 billion. During most of the Cold War era, given its anemic growth rates and its pervasive poverty, India was acutely dependent on aid from multilateral and bilateral donors. Indeed, in the mid-1960s, there were moments when foreign assistance, especially food aid, was critical to fending off famine and widespread starvation. And yet, India started disbursing its own foreign aid as early as the 1950s.

In those days, the most meaningful form of assistance that the cash-strapped External Affairs Ministry could proffer was technical advice and training. Indian bureaucrats from various government departments were deputed abroad to help poorer governments with their professional expertise, and civil servants from developing countries were offered training in India through a program launched in 1964 -- the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program. Although ITEC was small in monetary terms, it bore fruit over the subsequent decades as many bureaucrats and politicians from other developed countries received their educational training in India. This year, for instance, 150 bureaucrats from Ethiopia are receiving Indian training. This program, of course, has also provided for good future relations with recipient countries. Take the example of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who attended university in India and enjoys warmer relations with India than with neighboring Pakistan.

Since the 1950s, India has provided modest amounts of assistance to smaller and less-developed neighbors, especially Bhutan and Nepal. Much of it has been in the form of technical assistance, such as 50 years of support for the building of Bhutan's hydroelectric facilities in exchange for fixed-rate electricity. But now, after a decade of nearly 9 percent annual growth (it has recently slowed down somewhat), India is for the first time in a position to provide direct cash transfers and subsidized loans.

India's assistance effort is clearly enmeshed into a larger set of foreign-policy goals: ensuring secure sources of energy for an expanding economy, opening markets for India's increasingly export-oriented industrial and service sectors, and bolstering geostrategic ties with key neighbors. New Delhi's recent reluctance to ostracize Iran over its controversial nuclear program has to be understood in light of India being the world's second-largest importer of Iranian oil. The Indian government has also provided assistance to Tehran in order to expand the Iranian port of Chabahar, linking it via roads and railroads to western Afghanistan -- and beyond, to the resource-rich Central Asian republics.

In Afghanistan, India has specific plans to build a railroad linkage to the city of Hajigak, where several Indian steel and mining companies -- led by the state-owned National Mineral Development Corp. and the Steel Authority of India -- have won the rights to mine Afghanistan's biggest iron ore deposits. Moreover, though the United States objects to India's use of the Iranian port of Chabahar for importing oil, India this year used the port for the first time to deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan -- demonstrating not only its foreign-policy and aid-policy independence, but also that sea-route access to Afghanistan through Pakistan is not the only option.

India is also expanding its development assistance to African countries beyond its traditional relationships within the Commonwealth in an effort to secure access to natural resources as well as serve its broader strategic aims. Through its state-owned companies, it has significantly increased oil imports from African countries like South Sudan -- where India recently sent a special envoy to negotiate a peace agreement with Khartoum. At the 2011 India-Africa Forum Summit, India pledged $5 billion in aid to Africa in the form of concessional loans -- an amount similar to India's current annual health-care budget. In addition, it pledged $700 million to help establish new institutions and training programs in consultation with the African Union and $300 million for the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line. It also promised 10,000 new scholarships for the India-Africa Virtual University, 2,500 training slots under the ITEC program, and 22,000 scholarships for studying in India over the next three years. Additionally, it announced the introduction of an India-Africa Business Council, as well as other smaller programs such as government-supported cultural and artisanal exchanges.

Larger mercantilist goals also underpin Indian development assistance today. The far-flung diaspora of Indian traders from Fiji to Kenya facilitated early trade relationships between India and some of the subsequent recipients of foreign assistance. The global economic downturn has increased the necessity of finding new markets for India's rapidly growing industrial and service sectors. India's $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh in 2010 was extended to assist with infrastructure projects, such as highways and communications networks. But by tying the line of credit to 85 percent usage of Indian contractors, the aid also helps create new markets for India's goods and workers. Similarly, $125 million in Indian assistance to nearly 50 countries in the form of the Pan-African e-Network -- which ties educational centers and hospitals in Africa with universities and specialty hospitals in India -- may not be large in monetary terms, but it's also creating a demand for Indian tertiary health and education services at a fraction of their cost in upper-income countries. India has learned from developed countries, particularly the United States, that foreign assistance can create benefits for both donor and recipient. It has also learned from its nemesis China that development assistance can provide seed money to enable the entry of private commercial interests.

India's larger strategic ambitions have also influenced its development assistance. It has bolstered its aid programs in Nepal and Bangladesh in an attempt to curb Chinese influence; it has emerged as the fifth-largest donor to Afghanistan as it works determinedly to keep its long-standing adversary, Pakistan, at bay; and it has also extended its reach into Myanmar to ensure that Beijing does not rule the roost. Beyond its own neighborhood, India has sought to make inroads into Africa -- not only to obtain access to critical raw materials and energy resources, but also to keep a check on Chinese interests and win support in the United Nations for its ambitions to become a permanent member of the Security Council. Crucially to the recipient countries in Africa, neither India nor China usually imposes conditionalities on aid, in contrast to multilateral and bilateral OECD countries, which makes Indian aid, as well as Chinese aid, more attractive to recipient countries.

India's foreign aid activities have now also extended to humanitarian assistance, such as when its Navy participated in an ad hoc coalition with the United States, Japan, Australia, and Singapore to disburse blankets and tents in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2008, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which also devastated significant parts its own coastal regions, India nevertheless provided critical humanitarian relief to other affected countries, particularly Sri Lanka. In 2009, the conflict in Palestine led India to disburse humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories, and India gave humanitarian aid to Tajikistan to avert famine there. Additionally, in response to floods in 2010, India gave humanitarian aid to Pakistan -- a country with which it has fought three wars. These endeavors reflect not only greater institutional capacity to respond to natural calamities, but also the necessary political commitment and diplomatic skill to act swiftly and engage beyond India's traditional neighborhood.

Through humanitarian as well as programmatic lending, India's approach to foreign assistance shows that it wants to be recognized as an emerging great power. In using foreign aid not only to help in times of disaster and spur development in the recipient country, but also to secure Indian resource supplies, seek markets for its goods, and cement larger goals, New Delhi is mimicking the policies of developed countries. Indian foreign aid has seen annual growth rates of 10 to 20 percent over the past decade. And because many traditional aid donors have seen their aid budgets stagnate or even decrease in response to the global economic crisis, India's aid influence could have a multiplying effect.

Due to India's status as an emerging economy, a consolidated democracy, and a developing country free from colonial influence, Indian foreign assistance has great legitimacy in the eyes of other emerging countries -- a legitimacy in clear contrast to that of China. It is this legitimacy that differentiates Indian development assistance and is likely to bolster its soft power.

But as the Indian foreign assistance program increases in size and breadth, it will change how traditional donors view their own foreign aid to India and may well lead to increased questioning among Indians themselves of why a country with a larger number of poor people than all of sub-Saharan Africa is spending its money on foreign aid. For now, however, it seems like international aid to India will keep flowing: Britain recently announced a revamped aid program to India, focusing on the poorest states and most vulnerable groups, with a plan to move from an aid-based relationship to a two-way partnership. And, for once, India's legendarily opaque bureaucracy could have an unintended benefit: Because the country lacks a centralized aid agency with data on the full breadth of Indian foreign assistance -- and because at least a quarter of the population remains illiterate and poor -- it will probably take a while longer for Indians to start questioning their government's aid abroad. So far, this has perfectly served the Indian government, enabling it to distribute aid to serve its larger foreign-policy goals, without having to be held accountable. But with even the richest foreign countries questioning the utility of foreign aid in an age of austerity, Indian leaders may soon have to justify their increasing generosity to voters.

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Annan's Mission Impossible

Why is everyone pretending that the U.N. plan in Syria has a prayer of succeeding?

The world is learning hard lessons in Syria. The United States has already admitted that the mission of U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan is likely to fail, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that Washington is preparing to take other measures against Bashar al-Assad's regime. She pointed out what is clear to all: U.N. observers cannot operate effectively while Assad refuses to abide by a ceasefire.

Let's be clear about why Annan's mission has been unsuccessful. It is not failing because the U.N. observers have been slow to deploy, or even because Assad has yet to implement a single point from Annan's six-point plan. The fundamental reason for Annan's failure is more basic than that: His plan is flawed because it was formulated on the misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith.

It is high time to debunk once and for all the popular myths about the Syrian regime. People have believed for too long -- whether out of naïveté or cynicism -- that Assad has been willing to initiate political reforms and will do so in due time. He has not and will not. Nor will the regime stop its violence. Doing so would hasten its demise, as Syrians took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest freely and assume control of large parts of the country.

And yet, the world still clings to the hope that the Annan plan will somehow bring an end to the violence. It seems that we have lost our moral compass, unrealistically hoping that Annan will succeed -- and largely doing so because we are too timid to contemplate seriously other options to assist the Syrian people.

Assad's behavior during the 14-month long uprising shows that he has never seriously considered a "fundamental change of course," as Annan has demanded. Instead, Assad has sought to solve his problems through intimidation and brute force. The estimated death toll of more than 11,000 Syrians since the beginning of the uprising serves as a bloody testament to that fact.

Annan's plan relies on the hope that Assad will negotiate in good faith, perhaps under pressure from his Russian backers. He will not, and the regime will not accept any credible opposition to its rule -- regardless of Moscow's preferences. The regime's war crimes -- including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, the forced displacement of civilians from cities, and the sanctioning of a mass campaign of rape against women by security forces, including paramilitary shabiha brigades -- speak for themselves. While the international community continues to focus on Annan's efforts, it is unbelievable that Assad and his regime are still not seen as international pariahs. The Syrian government has lied to the international community at every turn. When will the world realize that any attempt to negotiate with Assad is utterly futile?

The Assad regime has so far successfully employed a strategy of buying time, agreeing to the Annan plan while doing everything it can to undermine it. Meanwhile, the international community has played into Assad's hands by buying into the fanciful logic that the introduction of unarmed U.N. observers will establish calm inside Syria and moderate the regime's behavior. Indeed, it was only a few short weeks ago that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé declared that the Annan mission was "our last chance to avoid civil war." In a rare moment of clarity, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, admitted that not even 1,000 observers could end the bloodshed.

The only surprise here is that the U.N. Secretariat, which had grown increasingly risk-averse following the al Qaeda bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 that killed 22 of my former U.N. colleagues, has now embarked on one of its most dangerous missions since then. Its brave blue berets have been thrust into a situation where they are simultaneously in grave danger and do not have the capability of fulfilling their mandate. This latest mission shows that the United Nations has not learned the lessons of its failures in Bosnia in the 1990s, when the initial peacekeeping mission did not have sufficient capabilities to stop the slaughter in Srebrenica.

Not even the Syrian regime's international protectors can convince it to abide by the terms of the Annan plan. Russia, and to a lesser degree China, have indeed leaned heavily on Assad in this regard, and there are signs from senior diplomats and those close to the foreign policy communities in both countries that Moscow and Beijing are getting fed up with Assad, and even consider his eventual demise to be inevitable. But these frustrations have amounted to naught. Neither country has convinced Assad to implement the Annan plan, and they have not placed greater pressure on him to remove his heavy armor from Syria's main cities. Instead, the Syrian army has resorted to placing sheets over some of its tanks in a transparent ploy to trick the world that it is abiding by the terms of the ceasefire.

Perhaps Russia and China, like the Syrian regime itself, know that Assad would quickly lose control of large parts of his country if he did so. Ironically, Moscow's fears -- of losing its closest strategic ally in the region, of what comes next, and of being frozen out of a new Syria, as was the case in Iraq and more recently in Libya -- are taking it further from its strategic objectives. Assad's game of buying time is losing Moscow valuable friends in the region. Working toward a post-Assad Syria remains the only way to strengthen these fragile ties.

Even as Syria's death toll has mounted and the Annan plan increasingly looks like a lost cause, decisive international action has been hard to come by. For all the anti-Assad rhetoric coming from Ankara, Turkey has been reluctant to act without U.S. and NATO backing to establish the much-hyped "safe zones" inside Syria. Ankara has its own problems to deal with: As Georgetown University professor Birol Baskan explains, Turkish reluctance is due largely to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's fraught ties with his nation's secularist military establishment, as well other domestic vulnerabilities. And despite all the talk of arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular -- have hesitated, too.

The United States also has little appetite for a more aggressive role in Syria. It is clear that President Barack Obama is running for re-election on the narrative that America's wars in the greater Middle East are coming to an end. "As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America," he declared during a speech last week in Afghanistan. Washington has accordingly been willfully slow to take advantage of the strategic opportunity presented by regime change in Syria. Instead of pressing its advantage and further isolating the regime's backers -- in particular, Iran -- the United States has taken the seemingly safer course of increasing the economic pressure on Assad's regime.

In the absence of clear and determined U.S. leadership, trying to make the doomed Annan plan work will take the international community through the summer and the U.S. presidential election, making any decisive international action unlikely until the middle of next year at the earliest. This will be fatal for the future of Syria, leading to more bloodshed, more radicalization on both sides, and a heightened risk of ethnic and sectarian conflict.

The consequences for international security will be dire. Syria's descent into chaos is increasingly dividing the country and may even threaten its future as a unified nation-state. Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which is increasingly flexing its political and economic muscles, has demonstrated that borders cannot be taken for granted in this highly volatile region. Syria's crisis may do for the Levant what the Iraq war did for Mesopotamia, unraveling the post-World War I political fault lines of the Middle East. Worse, continued conflict in Syria will likely spill beyond its borders and could re-ignite smoldering sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, threatening the stability of the entire region.

With the stakes so high, the international community cannot afford to pin its hopes on the Annan plan. Instead, it should accept the hard lessons of the past 14 months and redirect its efforts toward changing the balance of power on the ground.

Those countries with a stake in Syria's future should do their utmost to help Syrians organize a broad-based national movement that unites people on the basis of opposition to the regime and commitment to a democratic Syria. This will require undoing the Assads' 42-year old "divide and rule" strategy, bringing together key groups of Syrian society such as minorities and tribes. These groups now have a crucial role to play to hasten the regime's demise and place Syria on a path to a democratic future.

There are indications that such a strategy would meet with success. Over the past few months, I have conducted extensive roundtable discussions with many Syrian constituencies -- such as tribal figures, members of established families, religious leaders, and representatives of the Kurdish community -- whose interests are often poorly understood by the outside world. From these conversations, I have found that there is a growing desire among tribal groups from the strategically important eastern and northern areas of Syria to resist Assad, including through military means, and to unite with other groups, particularly the Kurds. In turn, some Kurdish leaders have indicated their willingness, in ongoing private conversations with the tribes, to engage with these groups. Although the Kurds are divided in their stance toward the revolution, all want their culture and rights recognized in a post-Assad Syria. Other communities, such as the Christians and Druze, have largely stayed on the sidelines in the absence of a Syrian national project in which they have confidence.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), an anti-Assad opposition body that operates largely outside the country, has assumed international importance as "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people," in the words of the "Friends of the Syrian People" group. However, my conversations with tribal and minority figures clearly reveal that they have little confidence in the SNC. Many point to the fact that it has no presence on the ground, and most are suspicious of the influence that the Muslim Brotherhood and its perceived patron, Turkey, wield within the organization.

These groups express greater support for the fragmented FSA, even if it has struggled to establish a clear command-and-control structure inside Syria from its Turkish base. Tribal figures have stated that they want the international community to support the FSA by providing expert assistance and help with communications and specific armaments. They worry that the uncoordinated, steady trickle of arms through private sources and the determined efforts of jihadists to enter Syria through Iraq will lead only to further chaos. They also point out that many FSA leaders and ordinary soldiers are "sons of the tribes," and that more would join its ranks if the FSA had greater external support. Notably, there is also increasing talk of a military alliance between the FSA -- in collaboration with the SNC -- and the tribes and Kurds.

The world should abandon the fiction that the Assad regime can be persuaded to reach a political accommodation with its adversaries. Rather, it is time for a renewed effort to forge a genuine united front, including all groups in Syria's social fabric, dedicated to Assad's downfall and the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic state in the aftermath. This effort needs stronger international backing today -- opposition leaders inside and outside the country do not have the resources to unite their ranks alone. If an endeavor to create a genuine grand opposition coalition were to succeed, the Assad regime would face a greater political and military challenge than ever before, stretching its forces to a breaking point. With Annan's peace plan in tatters, that's a goal the international community should embrace.