For Delhi, the India-US partnership remains the best bet
The last American troops in Afghanistan have flown out, ending the longest war the United States (US) has ever engaged in. There was agreement in the international community that the withdrawal was incompetent, at best, and a disaster, at worst. The withdrawal also generated many claims that it heralded the unravelling of American empire. Given that any sentence containing the words “American” and “empire” is contested not just in the US’s policy community but also among historians, it would be more useful to ask if the end of America’s 20-year war is also the end of American leadership and dominance. There, the jury is still out. And it is far from clear that India must, as some have argued, rethink the India-US partnership.
How great powers decline is a question that many historians and political scientists have asked. One of the most famous exponents of the answer is Yale University historian Paul Kennedy. Kennedy’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argued that attaining great power is a matter of balancing economic wealth and military power, and great powers inevitably decline because the military overreach necessary to sustain their power also requires the draining of economic resources to support it. Knowingly or not, Kennedy’s thesis is often the foundation for quick predictions of great power decline among policy pundits.
However, despite important insights, Kennedy’s argument also had problems. Military overreach is difficult to pinpoint. How many such instances of the overreach of power need to occur, how deep and prolonged do they need to be, and how devastating a loss great powers need to incur, in order to decline is hard to say. Kennedy also did not account for domestic politics, alliances, technologies or ideologies in sustaining or eroding great power. For example, the erstwhile Soviet Union did not lose the Cold War because it lost the war in Afghanistan, but because it could not contain the processes of democratisation and nationalism within its borders, and that led to its disintegration.
Using, various yardsticks of the decline of great powers including those outlined by Kennedy and others, can help us understand the case of the US. It is difficult to say, as some have, that the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaos that has followed was because of military overreach, similar to the American withdrawal from and defeat in Vietnam. Not only were American casualties in Vietnam far higher (58,000 in Vietnam vs 2,400 in Afghanistan), but the Vietnam war bitterly divided Americans and American society. In contrast, the costs of the war in Afghanistan were borne by a small fraction of Americans. Moreover, in Vietnam’s case President Richard Nixon had no choice, but to withdraw. In Afghanistan, however, President Joe Biden chose to pull out rather than maintain a presence. Any predictions of US decline based on overreach, therefore, would have been far more pertinent in the 1970s than now.
If we apply the yardsticks of domestic politics, technologies, or ideologies, we find that it is also not easy to pinpoint the end of American dominance. America’s democratic institutions were severely tested in the aftermath of the presidential elections but they held. Despite political polarisation, the checks and balances that are a hallmark of US democracy served to contain not just the riots but also defeat multiple electoral challenges to vote counts brought forward by Donald Trump’s team. The US struggled to contain the pandemic but the most effective vaccines to defeat the virus were manufactured within its borders in an astounding government-private partnership. Finally, the US-created post-World War II order, with its emphasis on multilateralism and alliances, does not show signs of decline. If anything, China is conforming to these norms to facilitate its own rise.
None of this means that China is not rising or its power relative to the US is not increasing. But it does mean that it is not yet the new leader in town, and perhaps won’t be for some time. For example, China has been rapidly investing and expanding through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but it stands the risk of over-extending its financial largesse — for instance, the Chinese-built Gwadar port has been called a white elephant. Not to mention that poorer recipients of Chinese loans and aid are also acutely conscious that, at any time, China may choose to call in the debt, making participation in BRI a risky proposition. Despite pouring money into research and development (R&D), China has also gained a negative reputation for dubious ethics and disregard for peer-reviewed scientific research. Nor has China yet offered a vision of order that is fundamentally different from the current US-led one.
All of this means that, as far as New Delhi is concerned, the India-US partnership, in which it has invested over the past two decades, is still a sound bet that addresses its geopolitical concerns. The US no more wants a China-dominated world than India does. The US sees a democratic India as its best bet for countering China’s influence in South Asia. And despite the US’s chaotic withdrawal at the expense of Afghani civilians, and the justifiable criticism that followed it, its reach will continue in South Asia and matter for India’s regional relationships, including the one with Pakistan.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and research associate at the University of Oxford. She is on leave from the Pardee School, Boston University where she is associate professorThe views expressed are personal
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