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Counterpoint: Soft Power Vs Hard Facts

We have never been a nation of hamburger-heads, a people who allow our appreciation of soft power to cloud our rational judgment, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:05 IST

I went to New York last week for an event designed to make Americans think better of India (see today’s Brunch). But even as

India@60

took over Manhattan, I was less interested in the American view of India than in our view of the United States.

Few relationships can be as complicated as India’s engagement with America. And few seem to matter as much: this government’s continuance will be determined by the fate of the Indo-US nuclear deal.

One view of the relationship — and this is the view that many educated Americans I met seemed inclined to — is that the evolution of the Indo-US partnership has been linear and straightforward. India flirted first with socialism and the Soviet Bloc. But socialist economics did nothing to help our development and the Soviet Bloc soon collapsed. So, early in the 1990s, we saw the light, embraced the free market and recognised that India and the US were “natural allies” (as AB Vajpayee declared when he was Prime Minister).

An increasing number of Indian commentators and journalists also propagate this view. During the debates on the Indo-US nuclear deal, many Indian columnists have acted as though there is a complete mutuality of interest between India and the US and that anyone who does not recognise this is a fool who is trapped in some 1950s mindset.

<b1>Besides, say these commentators, even those who sang the praises of the Soviet Bloc and the socialist model in the 1950s and the 1960s, always sent their kids to the US to study (and not to Moscow University). And there was no document prized more by educated Indians than a green card. So even then, those who railed against Washington in public were privately drawn to the United States and its prosperity. Now, according to this view, the old duplicities can be put to rest and we can all come clean: we love the US and we recognise that India’s best hope for the future lies in close ties with America.

This view is superficially attractive. Yes, we always wanted to holiday in Disney World and not at some Soviet Red Sea resort. Yes, all of us had relatives who lived in America while few of us knew of an uncle in Warsaw or Leningrad. Of course, we preferred Yale or Harvard to Patrice Lumumba University. And certainly, we do accept that the end of the socialist raj accounts for our current growth rate.

But this view fails to take into account the utter and complete revulsion felt by the majority of educated Indians over American foreign policy. We thought the invasion of Iraq was entirely unjustified. We are appalled by the chaos created in the Middle East by unthinking American initiatives. We regard it as entirely plausible that American foreign policy is motivated by greed (for Iraq’s oil, for instance) rather than by any love of democracy. We find it revolting that the US, for all its talk of human rights, continues to prop up a military dictator in Islamabad and will do nothing to stop him from permitting terrorist strikes on India. We are deeply perturbed by the possibility of military action in Iran. And we regard George W Bush as the world’s most powerful idiot.

If the simplistic view that we have now seen the light and have fallen in love with America is accurate, then none of the above would be true. The educated middle class would not be so overwhelmingly hostile to America’s foreign policy and so cynical of the US’s global motives. In fact, even during the Vietnam War, when we were much closer to the Soviet Bloc (and when the Soviet Bloc did exist!), we were never as agitated about the US’s military role as we are today when we are supposed to be America’s ‘natural ally’.

I have always believed that the many Indian commentators who function as cheerleaders for America, who try and blind us with promises and forecasts of huge economic growth and who end each pro-American polemic with a sneer about socialism, the Cold War, and a 1950s mindset misunderstand the mood of the Indian public so completely that they risk coming off as US stooges.

The truth is that there are two dimensions to American power and that while we have always been comfortable with one of them, we have never really come to terms with the other.

It is fashionable — and probably accurate — to say that by the 1990s, the US had won the Cold War and had become the world’s only superpower. But what should be as apparent is that the US had also won a second war: the battle for global cultural domination.

Today, no matter where in the world you go, it is American popular culture that rules. Everybody wears jeans, speaks English, knows the names of Hollywood stars, eats hamburgers and pizzas, drinks Coke, and uses American computer software — or they desperately want to.

<b2>As Indians, we’ve had an inside track on all of this. Even when our leaders were confabulating with the Russian Politburo, they were speaking English, reading Western popular fiction and bringing up children who understood the value of Western education and whose cultural reference points were always American (or English). We saw no contradiction in reading Superman comics, listening to Elvis Presley and watching Paul Newman on the screen while simultaneously railing against the US for its support to Pakistan in the Bangladesh war.

In our minds, there was always enough intellectual sophistication to distinguish between American soft power (as in the power of popular culture) and American hard power (as in foreign policy).

Only if you appreciate this distinction between soft and hard power can you make sense of India’s relationship with the US. When it comes to movies, books, food, clothes, universities, jobs or even the American way of life, what’s there not to like? We’ve always loved them.

But we have never been a nation of hamburger-heads, a people who allow our appreciation of soft power, as in Batman, Harvard or Tom Cruise, to cloud our rational judgment. When it comes to foreign policy, we are not fools. We recognise where our own interests lie and are deeply critical of America’s actions in the rest of the world (in Iraq and Pakistan, for instance).

Those who argue that we were misguided Russian stooges (who secretly longed for the goodies of US capitalism) who have finally seen the light and clasped Uncle Sam to our collective bosom, do educated Indians a grave disservice. We were always keen on US soft power. And we have always been suspicious of US hard power. It does not follow that because we use Windows we will now support George W Bush or that because we eat Domino’s pizzas, we will cheer the execution of Saddam Hussein.

This crucial distinction holds important lessons for everybody. The government must recognise that while we have no time for the Left’s blind anti-Americanism, we do not (no matter what Vajpayee said) regard the US as our natural foreign policy or military ally.

If an election is called on the issue of the nuclear deal, it is unlikely that educated Indians will react emotionally to the thwarting of a new tryst with Washington. We are happy to support the deal because we believe it works to India’s benefit — but we do not accept (regardless of what the deal’s cheerleaders in the media tell you) that America has our best interests (or any other country’s, for that matter) at heart.

<b3>And I have still to meet one person who says that if the choice is the continuance of this stable government (even without the nuclear deal) versus the uncertainty of a new election that leads to an unstable government that depends on Mayawati and Jayalalithaa (and no nuclear deal, anyway), then they will risk the uncertainty because the deal is a make-or-break issue.

It is clear that years of ideological conditioning have turned the Left leaders into pathological anti-US obsessives who fall back on the old clichés about fighting imperialism. But it is as clear that too many of the deal’s cheerleaders misread the mood of the Indian public, and mistake our appreciation of American soft power for support of US hard power and US foreign policy.

Finally, we make our political decisions on merit; on the basis of national interest, not popular culture. We are not blindly anti-American, and nor do we support those who are. But equally, we are not cheap dates who can be seduced by Washington for the price of a Starbucks’ Cafe Latte.

Give the Indian people that much credit.