The foreign relations committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives gave support to the U.S.-India nuclear deal by very large majorities at the end of June. There is now good reason to expect the deal will go though in more or less its present form. At the same time, American power is being pushed back on several fronts. Both the nuclear deal and the American setbacks in world politics are aspects of a breakdown in the post-1989 unipolar order and the birth of a multipolar order.
America remains tied down in Iraq. The drain of American capabilities and prestige in Iraq has rendered it unable to prevent adverse trends elsewhere. The jihadis are rising in Afghanistan, and America has no reserves available to throw into the battle. Iran is gaining confidence in its ability to pursue its nuclear program, and North Korea is defying America and Japan with its missile tests. What makes these last two trends possible is the growing power and assertiveness of Russia and China. Their refusal to bow to Western pressure in the UN Security Council has disabled the United States, European Union, and Japan from mobilizing pressure on Iran and North Korea.
After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the new Russia was deeply pro-Western. Russian rhetoric of the time aspired that Russia should become a “normal” and “civilized” country like Western countries with their help. But the West responded with NATO expansion, bringing Eastern European countries into a military alliance tacitly directed against Russia. Despite this, Putin responded to the 9-11 attacks by extending support to U.S. military basing in Central Asia. The United States responded with the Iraq attack and then by promoting anti-Russian forces in former Soviet republics. In addition, the United States launched a campaign of accusations that Russia is abandoning democracy. In fact, Russian political institutions are becoming stronger and not less democratic than, say, those of France in the 1960s. Russia is recovering from its post-Soviet economic and institutional collapse due to rising oil prices and the revival of some industries, as well as from Putin’s institutional reforms. It depends little on the U.S. market. In short, Russia is a fast rising independent center of power, a new pole in the global political order.
Meanwhile, China’s economic boom is not subsiding. Every few years brings qualitative shifts in its engagement with the rest of the world. African nations are finding in China an alternative to their long economic dependence on the West. China is becoming a large enough market that some Latin American countries are looking to it to reduce their dependence on the United States. In Asia, the Chinese economy is the strongest engine of growth. America’s dependence on China for the maintenance of its finances and living standard is fast catching up with China’s dependence on America.
Since the start of the Chinese economic boom, many have predicted the demise of its political system. There are growing numbers of protests in China, but they are still miniscule in proportion to the society as a whole. The arguments for Chinese political collapse are grounded well in some aspects of world history. But on the opposite side is the people’s gratitude for prosperity, fear of chaos, and a rising nationalism that lionizes the Communist Party as a savior. The Chinese economy likely has a few doublings ahead before its political system becomes an obstacle.
The newest player in the global order is India. The overwhelming support for the U.S-India nuclear deal in Congress reflects both the American expectation that India will emerge as a significant power, and the awareness that America badly needs new friends. The interesting question is what the two countries should join hands to do.
It is easy to identify some joint projects of common interest. One is a ballistic missile defense adequate to blunt the marginal mass-destruction powers like North Korea and Pakistan. In a thermonuclear war, missile defense would be futile, but in a limited atomic attack, it could reduce deaths. The Bush Administration talked about such a program in 2001 but has made no significant progress. The same shortage of American technical talent that drives outsourcing makes it imperative for America to partner with India for this very large project.
America now expects that its power will decline in relation to China in the coming years. The United States today is clearly intent on strengthening India as a counterweight to China. Earlier America had strengthened China against the U.S.S.R. after the Vietnam debacle. The difference now is that both America and India are pursuing greater cooperation with China as well. The ideal and plausible result is an international order with strong disincentives for aggressive behavior by any major power.
The lessons of the war in Iraq have begun to sink into American thinking at both the elite and mass levels. American interests are harmed by even minor resistance to interventions. That is pushing America to become a very different kind of power than what Bush envisioned in 2003. Further, although America will remain the most powerful state for decades, its ability to dominate all others simultaneously has already passed and its power over others will likely decline further. This means that while it still can, the United States should work to shape new institutions that can endure without American hegemony. In that endeavor America and India would find many common interests.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.