Empires Don’t Build Rivals

In the background of the Indo-US nuclear deal now going into "overdrive", as well as the increasing economic co-operation and (most importantly) the joint military excercises and interoperability efforts and acquisitions made by India, there is a geopolitical notion: that the US is building India’s military capacity in order to counter potential rivals China and Russia in the region. Indeed, proponents of the nuclear deal smeared its opponents by suggesting their opposition was "pro-China". As the deal goes forward, with India potentially trading the chance for peace with its nuclear-armed neighbours for the chance to make US companies very rich buying tens of billions worth of technology the West isn’t using, acquires the latest US weapons, and makes its military interoperable with the US, a major historical lesson has perhaps been forgotten.

Empires don’t build great powers. They build clients and dependencies.

India has reason to know this, since neighbouring Pakistan is a striking example. For six decades, Pakistan was in the US camp, rejecting nonalignment and joining the US system of alliances (CENTO) against the Soviets early on, then allowing itself to be used as a base for the US to supply the Afghans in their war against the Soviet occupation. Pakistan traded its location on the Soviet borders for the latest American weapons and technology (for use against India).

Meanwhile nonaligned India acquired its weapons from Russia, and while it accepted help from major powers (from the USSR in 1971 and from the West against China in 1962) it kept out of their blocs. Today, India, with its high growth rates, electoral democracy, freeish press, and social movements, is benefiting from its past foreign policy choices. Pakistan, with its military entrepreneurship, precarious civilian rule, and periodic US raids and bombings into its territory,  is paying the price for its own choices.

It is true that India still has hundreds of millions of its people in brutal poverty, its democracy is hugely flawed, its economic growth threatened by inequality and its natural environment at risk from many different threats. But Pakistan has all these problems and more, and some of Pakistan’s additional problems are a consequence of its dependency on the US.

Pakistan is not the only example. South Korea, a more economically successful dependent state (partly because it ignored US economic advice and maintained strong regional economic connections), still got North Korea’s nuclear weapons pointed at its capital for its trouble. Today most Koreans want peace and integration and the US is the obstacle.

On another continent, Colombians paid billions of dollars for American weaponry so that their government could fight a guerrilla insurgency: they were rewarded by paramilitary terror, murdered unionists and journalists, and impunity for the government-sponsored killers.

The price of independence can be high: Venezuela’s president was nearly overthrown for it in 2002, and Cuba has suffered embargo and terrorism for it. But the people in Venezuela live in less fear than their counterparts in Colombia; Cuba regularly sends doctors from its excellent health care system to help people in US dependencies like Haiti or Jamaica that can’t afford care.

The fate of loyal friends of the empire is always precarious, as the Israelis or Saudis know. But there are few fates worse than that of a former friend of the empire: Saddam Hussein learned that, and Iraqis are still paying the price. Pakistan may face the same in the coming years.

India must not set itself up for a similar fate.

Justin Podur’s blog is www.killingtrain.com. He is based in Toronto but is in India until August 8.

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