When Indira Gandhi seized unconstitutional power in India in 1975, declaring a state of emergency and arresting opposition MPs, Daniel Patrick Moynihan broke the sad news to President Gerald Ford with the following words: “Congratulations, Mr. President. You are now the leader of the world’s largest democracy.”

I have sometimes wondered how long it took Ford to grasp the joke, not because the president was particularly ill-informed but because India was terra incognita for most American politicians until the war on terror. As Martin Sieff recounts in this superb study of the shifting balance of power in Asia, since it gained independence in 1949, India has been for most of the time a regional superpower and yet almost invisible to Washington.

India’s importance and regional impact are undeniable. India fought and won several wars with Pakistan, shaped the creation of a neighboring state in Bangladesh, intervened militarily (but unsuccessfully) in the Sri Lankan civil war, built a large and efficient navy, developed its own nuclear deterrent (aimed against Pakistan), and in general threw its weight around. Yet successive American administrations gave the country little attention and less affection.

Several strategic tendencies contributed to this bias. Both for good and ill, Washington was obsessed with China and how it might be either blocked or embraced for all of this period. American diplomats tended to exaggerate the value of Pakistan as an ally, having been recruited early by the shrewd Pakistani military as its protection against Indian power. They were also positively affronted because India had forged a close and lasting alliance with the Soviet Union. And, finally, “realists” like Kissinger and Nixon were ideologically irritated by the neutralist and Third World attitudinizing of Pandit Nehru and his successors as Indian prime minister.

Such irritation is understandable. But realists are supposed to rise above such transient considerations as ideological rhetoric. Any realist analysis worthy of the name would have predicted an Indo-Soviet alliance as an almost inevitable accompaniment to the U.S.-Pakistan one. Besides, if the U.S. had wanted an Indo-U.S. axis, there was a perfectly good foundation for one lying unnoticed in the foreground. As Moynihan (who was, like J.K. Galbraith, both an American ambassador to New Delhi and an unillusioned friend of India) could have pointed out, after 1977 there was the democracy common to both countries. Indian democracy was restored in that year when Mrs. Gandhi risked and lost a general election. It is still thriving today.

Washington did not wake up to these possibilities until two related developments changed history: the collapse of the Soviet Union and, because socialist planning was among the ruins, the adoption of free-market economic reforms by successive Indian governments. President Clinton began a vigorous wooing of New Delhi in these newly favorable conditions. But it was not until 9/11 that a really strong courtship of India was launched by the Bush administration. This produced results both strategic and symbolic—a diplomatic alliance in the war on terror, Washington’s willingness to overlook India’s breach of rules against nuclear proliferation, joint maneuvers by the Indian and U.S. navies, their subsequent cooperation in aiding victims of the tsunami, and Indian opinion polls showing a higher approval rating for President Bush than he enjoyed anywhere else, including America.

These signified a real improvement in Indo-U.S. relations. They also led to heady speculation about such prospects as “an Asian NATO” and a new special relationship between the two largest English-speaking countries in the world. Yet as I sat down to write this review, the news broke that Russia’s President Putin had concluded a successful visit to New Delhi with a series of diplomatic and commercial agreements under which Russia would sell, among other things, nuclear reactors, an aircraft carrier, and jet fighters. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underscored Putin’s success by declaring Russia a “key pillar of our foreign policy and a valuable strategic partner.” And the headier notions of an Indo-American special relationship evaporated.

Some Western commentators attributed this reversal to the latest stage of American neglect. The U.S. administration has allowed other priorities—North Korea, resetting Russian relations, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.—to distract it from pursuing its nascent partnership with India. But a simpler explanation is that the Indo-Russian relationship was never abandoned. Russia may have been distracted by more pressing problems, but now that it has organized itself domestically, it is reviving its earlier links. And India is very content to resume a profitable friendship with a major power in the larger Asian neighborhood. Nor does New Delhi see any contradiction between its new and older alliances.

It is one of the many virtues of Sieff’s study that he foresaw this revival of Indo-Russian links and predicted that the Indo-U.S. relationship would continue happily enough but at a lower level of passion. He was able to get these things right because he asked himself a question: not the neurotic “What do they think of us?” so beloved of America’s masochistic political class but the more straightforward “What do they think of themselves?” One way of answering that question, as he does, is to study a map.

When Indians look at a map of Asia, they can see that their country is next door to China, Pakistan, and Russia, and a mere missile-throwing distance from Iran and Afghanistan. India has fought three wars against Pakistan and is currently resisting a terrorist war in Kashmir that sections of the Pakistan military occasionally support. India suffered a humiliating incursion from China in 1961 in a small border war (which, Sieff argues in revisionist passages, had begun to be turned around when the Chinese suddenly halted and withdrew). And Japan—the last member of Asia’s four great powers—is relatively remote. So it makes perfect sense that New Delhi should forge an alliance with Russia—the one major land power in Asia that poses no direct threat—against such dangerous neighbors; that it should maintain cautious diplomatic friendships with Iran and Afghanistan; and that it should seek to remain on good terms with (i.e., appease) the growing economic and military might of China.

Of course, the U.S. is even more remote than Japan. And though it has the worldwide strategic mobility of a superpower, it also has worldwide commitments that might well distract it from being any real help in a crisis for India. Also—and since China poses the only potentially mortal threat to India, most importantly—the U.S. brings to the table its own potential crisis with China in the form of an alliance with Taiwan. India has neither reason nor intention to get involved in that imbroglio—and increasingly, as Sieff points out, the U.S. itself is determined not to be dragged into a conflict by Taiwanese actions over which it has too little control. Finally, America’s record of blowing hot and cold toward India over the last 40 years is hardly likely to inspire total trust in New Delhi.

From an Indian standpoint, the U.S. will probably be most useful as a counterweight to China in Asia’s balance of power—a maritime equivalent to Russia on land. A prudent American policy for India, therefore, would be to forge a defensive alliance with the U.S. but to exclude strictly any commitment that might bring it into accidental conflict with China, Russia, or any other power. In other words, it must not repeat Britain and Germany’s 1914 mistake of making commitments to other powers that then dragged them half-wittingly into war (or lesser conflicts). As it happens, and as Sieff approvingly points out, India seems to have decided on exactly this policy. The recent agreements with Russia are merely one more piece of evidence demonstrating the fact.

What Sieff also argues, however, is that this policy is right for the United States as well as for India. He fears that if the U.S. were to develop a strategic relationship with India of the kind that Nixon and Kissinger established with Mao, this would give today’s China an incentive to build up its military. It would also worsen China’s relations with both New Delhi and Washington. Though he does not quote the Tacitean line, he comes close to suggesting that the warning motto for America should be “capax imperii nisi imperasset.” The U.S. should be available as a friend to all, but as an exclusive ally to none.

Yet the comparison with 1914 also suggests that as America’s “unipolar moment” as the sole world superpower passes in Asia, so the continent begins to resemble the Europe of 1914. There are four great powers, some rising (India, China), some declining (Russia), some with local allies or rivals (Pakistan, Taiwan), all jostling for pre-eminence. This is a recipe for either a great game of diplomacy or a historical tragedy. If Sieff is right, the new Asian great powers seem to be acting more cautiously and sensibly than their European predecessors. That is fortunate, but it cannot be relied upon. And if the U.S. is to be the balancing factor in Asia, it will sometimes take sides despite its most pacific intentions. Is China likely to blunder into a row with Washington (or vice versa)?

Though this review has concentrated on Sieff’s treatment of India—partly because India is less well-known than China to Americans—his analysis of China’s policy and problems is also modestly optimistic. He comes close to arguing that the Chinese governing elite acts both internationally and domestically mainly from fear of instability and disorder. This is persuasive. And if it is correct too, the U.S. can work with Beijing to resolve most issues—but not all. Sieff is nervous of a conflict between China and the U.S. arising out of American support for democracy in Central Asia. But the pressure for democracy and human rights in the “Stans” comes mainly from below. All the U.S. and the West can do is to help its expression through public diplomacy and seek to protect it through regular diplomacy. And on that the U.S. and Western Europe see eye-to-eye. Not to protect human rights would be a diplomatic bridge too far—and one we are probably not capable of upholding in domestic debate. That is something.

What the U.S. can offer China and India is support for their national sovereignty against the transnational actors that want to replace it by global institutions. We saw the start of such an alliance at the Copenhagen climate change conference, where the U.S. joined an alliance of the new rising powers led by China against, among others, the European Union to defeat a massive extension of global regulation. As China and India become richer and enjoy using their sovereignty, the U.S. will find itself increasingly allied with them both on such issues. But Washington will usually find India easier to deal with than China, less because India is democratic than because it is an English-speaking country shaped in part by the same cultural preference for liberalism that shaped America. That will not overcome sharp differences of national interest; but it will make trust and compromise easier between Washington and New Delhi. To that degree India will always be a more amenable partner than China—but we can’t very well force other countries to find us difficult.

Arnaud de Borchgrave told me, shortly before I joined him at United Press International, that Martin Sieff could write three serious foreign-policy analyses in the course of a normal working day. I soon found that this gravely underestimated Sieff’s skills. The secret of his productivity was a deep scholarly knowledge of international politics and particular national histories. He didn’t need to “do research” that week. He had long ago accumulated all the necessary research in the back of his head. His second secret was detachment: he could analyze any problem from a completely disinterested standpoint (and therefore from every standpoint). These skills are wonderfully present in this invaluable guide to America’s future Asian strategy. The U.S. State Department should bulk order it; the Indian and Chinese embassies have probably already done so. 
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John O’Sullivan is the author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister and editor at large ofNational Review.

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