Can India become a great power?
India’s lack of a strategic culture hobbles its ambition to be a force in the world
NOBODY doubts that China has joined the ranks of the great powers: the idea of a G2 with America is mooted, albeit prematurely. India is often spoken of in the same breath as China because of its billion-plus population, economic promise, value as a trading partner and growing military capabilities. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council support—however grudgingly—India’s claim to join them. But whereas China’s rise is a given, India is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together. That is a pity, for as a great power, India would have much to offer. Although poorer and less economically dynamic than China, India has soft power in abundance. It is committed to democratic institutions, the rule of law and human rights. As a victim of jihadist violence, it is in the front rank of the fight against terrorism. It has a huge and talented diaspora. It may not want to be co-opted by the West but it shares many Western values. It is confident and culturally rich. If it had a permanent Security Council seat (which it has earned by being one of the most consistent contributors to UN peacekeeping operations) it would not instinctively excuse and defend brutal regimes. Unlike China and Russia, it has few skeletons in its cupboard.
With its enormous coastline and respected navy (rated by its American counterpart, with which it often holds exercises, as up to NATO standard) India is well-placed to provide security in a critical part of the global commons.
The modest Power
Yet India’s huge potential to be a force for stability and an upholder of the rules-based international system is far from being realized. One big reason is that the country lacks the culture to pursue an active security policy. Despite a rapidly rising defense budget, forecast to be the world’s fourth-largest by 2020, India’s politicians and bureaucrats show little interest in grand strategy. The foreign service is ridiculously feeble— India’s 1.2 billion people are represented by about the same number of diplomats as Singapore’s 5m. The leadership of the armed forces and the political-bureaucratic establishment operate in different worlds. The defense ministry is chronically short of military expertise. These weaknesses partly reflect a pragmatic desire to make economic development at home the priority. India has also wisely kept generals out of politics (a lesson ignored elsewhere in Asia, not least by Pakistan, with usually parlous results). But Nehruvian ideology also plays a role. At home, India mercifully gave up Fabian economics in the 1990s (and reaped the rewards). But diplomatically, 66 years after the British left, it still clings to the post-independence creeds of semi-pacifism and “non-alignment”: the West is not to be trusted.
Mar 30th 2013 |www.economist.com
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