The most important point I want to make in this regard is that we are entering a new and complex era. We are confronted prospectively by two open geopolitical futures. The first is a world where security competition grows, but is embedded in economic relationships that become ever tighter. This leads to an attenuation of the threats, but the threats never quite disappear. There is, however, an alternative world where the globalisation of the last fifty years simply collapses because of some event that taxes the adjustment capacity of the international system, as previous episodes of globalisation did-and we end up essentially in a new phase of more or less traditional geopolitical competition or another Cold War. These are the two universes that confront us: a future where what we see as the years go by will be a deeper variation of what we see in the present, or a breakdown in the current trends and their replacement by new forms of acute competitiveness. The problem from the viewpoint of policymaking in India and the United States is that we do not know which of these two futures will eventually win out. And therefore we confront two specific problems: how do we make sound strategic policy when we do not know which future is going to materialise? And second, how do we avoid the problem of self-fulfilling prophecies, where in an effort to protect our security we may end up undermining our economic growth, or in our effort to protect our prosperity we end up increasing our own geopolitical vulnerability?
Russia has great latent capacity, but poor social organisation. It has a very weak state and it has terribly predatory elites.
This is the dilemma that confronts both India and the United States. And I have some bad news for you here. This dilemma is fundamentally insoluble because the simultaneous maximisation of power and plenty is, strictly speaking, impossible in a globalised world. Therefore, when people say that India should maintain its highest rates of economic growth, and acquire the most effective military capabilities possible, and deepen its relationships with friendly states in the international system, this is sound advice-no question about it. But, the challenge will lie in implementing such advice because, in the current international system, all bilateral relations between the great powers (and I include India in my definition of great powers), are going to be in a state of continuous, reflexive, and omni-directional re-equilibration. This dynamic of perpetual motion will obtain because any improvement in the character of the relationships within a given dyad will provoke competitive effort at improving relations by other states with each member of the original dyad because no one wants to be left out of what is an emerging virtuous circle. Since this process, however, will always produce uncertainties about who is gaining and by how much, and to what ends these gains are oriented, the dynamism of this process will always become hostage to competing pulls and to alternating bouts of integration and dissipation.
In this context, how does one pursue sound policies when the differences between friend and competitor are defined not by type but only by degree? And how does India pursue an optimal strategy when the very forces that increase its prosperity could also contribute towards increasing the dangers that confront it? This question is particularly relevant because interdependence not only increases the wealth and welfare of all partners but also increases their material capability to harm one another. Since there is no solution that allows a country to secure all the benefits that accrue to prosperity while simultaneously minimising all the threats that ensue from growth, India is likely to face continuing tension as it works out its national security policies amidst the growing realities of interdependence over the next few decades. I want to flag, in this regard, three particular sets of tensions that are very important for us to appreciate.
First, India, like the United States, will not have the freedom to pursue simple and clear strategic policies, but only complex and ambiguous ones. This is going to drive many people crazy because policies that are characterised by subtlety will leave no single constituency, domestic or foreign, completely satisfied. These policies will invariably be policies of the “second-best,” where the most a country can do is to “satisfy” not “maximise” its objectives. This reality will apply as much to India as it will to the United States.
Second, India, like the United States, has to perform a delicate juggling act which involves developing deep and collaborative ties with a set of friends that are likely to be of the greatest assistance to itself, while at the same time seeking to pursue some minimal levels of interdependence with its competitors. And while interdependence with its competitors is important, because of the need to give one’s competitors a stake in one’s prosperity, developing stronger ties with one’s friends becomes even more important. This hinges, of course, on a very sophisticated judgment of who has the capacity and who has the intention to levy the greatest harm. And when one’s friends and enemies are arrayed by these criteria, it is likely that they will be distinguished not by distinct differences of category but rather by location across a spectrum. And India, like the United States, will have to make its strategic decisions based on where its partners stand along that spectrum. There is a canon of sound geopolitics that still applies in this context: those who are the most powerful and the furthest away can be one’s best friends. The implications of this proposition ought not to be lost sight of in India.
India, like the United States, will not have the freedom to pursue simple and clear strategic policies, but only complex and ambiguous ones
Third, India, like the United States, will need to develop the organisational and the psychological capacity for diplomatic, political and strategic agility because an increasingly globalised world will confront both countries with the need for perpetual flexibility, reflected in continual, albeit incremental, course corrections. Because neither country is going to have the luxury of pursuing policies that are utterly transparent or completely straightforward-as would be the case if a Cold War was inevitable-both New Delhi and Washington will have to develop the institutional and psychological capacity to move deftly. Whether India can develop these traits and domesticate them remains to be seen. But the next two or three decades-while the global system is still in evolution and while the United States continues to dominate it while remaining a friend-will provide ample opportunities for India to put these capacities in place.
Let me say one other thing. Political agility is highly prized by diplomats. It is absolutely detested by democracies, because democracies want certainty, stability, and consistency of policy so as to meet the test of public legitimisation. And both India and the United States thus have a common challenge, of developing the capacity for strategic agility, the ability to move quickly and responsively to changing interests, despite the fact that there will be a wide variety of public constituencies constantly calling the political leadership in both countries to the bar to explain the rationale for these “constant shifts of policy.”
Let me end by putting my personal prejudices on the table as I promised I would at the beginning of this presentation. I did not want to make this lecture yet another invocation for the necessity of a strong US-India relationship because I have done that many times in the past. What I hoped to do was to describe the character of the international environment in such a way that it would leave you with no choice but to draw the conclusion that a tight US-India relationship is very much in both our interests. I hope I have succeeded in that purpose.