Murari Sharma: Full and Half Sovereignty

Sovereignty and non-interference in internal matters are deemed as some of the sacrosanct principles in international relations. However, these tenets have been frequently flouted, particularly since the Cold War’s inception. The crises in Ukraine and Syria, among others, are only the latest examples of the erosion of sovereignty and the increase of external interference.

Up until the 17th century, the concept of nation states and sovereignty were amorphous. Rulers fought wars and made treaties to acquire wealth, expand their territories, and maintain their sphere of influence. The Roman, Mongol and Turkish empires decided their foreign and defense policies based on such considerations. European powers continued to follow suit, until the Treaty of Westphalia was signed.

The treaty firmly recognized nation states and sovereignty within secure borders, establishing the concept of one country interfering in another’s internal matters within Europe. However, European powers continued to purse their interests in an anarchic fashion outside Europe, fighting to colonize and exploit overseas territories. World War I weakened them and gave rise to the communist Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union presented the Marxist vision of society and attracted many followers around the globe. World War I sowed the seeds of World War II, which decimated not only Germany and Italy, but also other European countries that were at the receiving end of the German and Italian aggression. At the end of World War II, the United States, which helped European and Asian victims of the war, emerged as the leader of the free world.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union consolidated its power and sphere of influence in the countries liberated by it from German occupation by spreading communism. Both the United States and the Soviet Union invested heavily in arms race and in the expansion of their political, economic and strategic dominance, which came to be known as the Cold War. 

The Cold War drastically narrowed the scope for sovereignty and non-interference. Both hegemons bullied their satellite states around the world citing the threat from the other side.

In those days, there were only two and a half sovereign nations in the world. One was the United States and the other was the Soviet Union. The remaining half sovereignty was shared by the rest of the world. The largest claimant of this residual sovereignty was the group of the Non-aligned countries that sought to keep themselves out of the direct control of either bloc. Within that group, too, there were regional hegemons.

After the Berlin Wall was pulled down and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the United States commanded the position of the sole superpower that could exercise nearly full sovereignty. Other theoretically sovereign nations can exercise only less than full sovereign authority. With its unparalleled military strength, economic clout and social influence, America has dominated the world, claimed American exceptionalism, and punished any person or country that crossed its path.

Syria and Ukraine are the latest examples. In Syria, President Assad, an Alawite Shia, cooperated with Iran, America’s enemy, defied American demand to quit power and earned the American ire. The United States, therefore, supported anti-Assad forces with money and weapons to start an armed rebellion.  President Barack Obama promised to directly intervene if Assad used chemical weapons against the rebels. Assad reportedly used chemical weapons, but Obama did not take action Syria since he had no support for it at home and from close allies. So the conflict in Syria continues unabated.

In Ukraine, Moscow and Washington’s strategic interests came into conflict. After incorporating several Eastern European countries in the European Union and NATO, America strove to swallow Ukraine in the Western economic and security alliances. Russia convinced the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych to join the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Union, rather than the European Union. In response, America supported financially and morally the Maidan uprising against Yanukovych that ousted him.

Yanukovych fled to Russia. Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and supported the Russian-speaking Ukrainians to rise against Kiev. In retaliation, America imposed sanctions against Russia for supporting a rebellion in eastern Ukraine and persuaded, even forced, reluctant EU countries to follow suit. EU countries were reluctant to punish Russia since 30 percent of their gas comes from Russia and their trade with that countries is worth 350 billion dollars annually. US-Russian trade is only to the tune of only 24 billion dollars a year.

Russia imposed its own sanctions against the Western countries. The sanctions have damaged both the European countries and Russia. European exports to Russia have declined significantly. German carmakers, French shipbuilders, Italian apparel makers, and Spanish farmers have suffered from these dual sanctions. Consequently, even Germany, which escaped the Great Recession of 2008-09, is likely to face an economic downturn afresh. Other western European countries, which are struggling under the burden of debt and the recession, are hurting even more. 

Russia has suffered even more seriously. The rubble has plunged in its value by one-fourth. Russia has witnessed the exodus of foreign capital and drying of foreign investment. Senior Russian officials have been banned from visiting western countries. The Russian economy, which was recovering steadily from the 2008 financial crash, has stalled.

The worst may yet to come. Russia may stop supplying its gas to EU countries at the height of the coming winter to punish Ukraine. Ukraine has a huge outstanding gas bill to pay to Russia. Russia has it would not supply the gas to unless Ukraine pays in advance and promises to pay the outstanding amount. Ukraine has a history of siphoning off the Russian gas that flows to western Europe through the pipelines in its territories. If it resorts to doing so, Russia might cut off the supply altogether in the coming winter.

America seeks to aggravate this EU-Russia standoff to benefit economically and strategically.  Economically, Ukraine’s membership of the European Union will deprive Russia of a major market for its products. If EU countries are weaned from the Russian gas, America can make Europe the captive market for its own gas production. After the fracking technology has matured, the United States has become a major gas producer looking for markets. Ukraine’s EU membership will smooth the way for Kiev to join NATO, which will weaken Russia strategically. 

There are major differences between Syria and Ukraine in their culture, economic and strategic significance for the region and the world. What they share in common is that both Assad and Yanukovych defied the United States to earn its ire. Therefore, America supported the anti-Assad and anti-Yanukovyh uprising. Western European countries, which have abdicated their foreign and defense policy decisions to Washington for quite some time, were forced to follow the American leadership.

We should have no impression that only America punishes the person and country that defies its will. Other countries — including Russia, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil — do the same in their respective regions. Such external interference compromises the sovereignty of smaller and weaker states, as it is happening in Syria and Ukraine now. During the Cold War, there were two global hegemons. Now there is only one. That is the only difference.


The Modi Phenomenon: By Murari Sharma

Since the Indian general elections in March this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become a phenomenon. Indians appear to be enthralled by the political success of the former tea-seller and the international community intrigued by his phenomenal rise in a country otherwise known for sclerotic political leadership. Modi ran in the election on the agenda of investment, growth and respect for India. If his agenda is implemented, India will become a pole in a multipolar world order.

First, Modi surprised India’s smaller neighbors.  He invited all SAARC heads of government to his oath as prime minister, and they turned up at the ceremony. Afterward, Modi visited Bhutan and Nepal followed by Japan from where he has just returned home. Wherever he has visited, Modi has made a strong impression. By making Bhutan the first country to visit, he has won the hearts and minds of the people of that tiny kingdom. In Nepal, where India is often perceived as a bullying big brother, he was able to garner accolades from a broad spectrum of Nepali society.

Nest, Modi visited Japan recently and signed significant agreements on defense, nuclear power, and trade and investment sectors. Both countries, which have serious territorial disputes with China, worry about Beijing’s increasing territorial assertiveness with its neighbors. The accords reflected that concern. This is one more success of Modi in strengthening India’s ties with its friends to push his country forward. All this has happened without any diplomatic challenge so far.

However, his diplomatic skills will be tested when he welcomes the Chinese President Xi Jinping in New Delhi and he travels to the United States shortly. China is the major economic partner and the main strategic threat to India, and the two countries have territorial disputes along the long, common land border. His nationalist and pragmatist facets will compete to deal with Beijing.

If his nationalist facet wins, Modi will take a strong stand over the territorial dispute; otherwise, as a pragmatist, he will minimize such irritants and focus on strengthening bilateral economic relations. One of the daunting challenges for him will be to assure China convincingly that, during his recent visit, he has not colluded with Japan to encircle and contain it.

Modi will meet US President Barack Obama later this month, when he travels to the United States to participate in the UN general debate. US relations with him have long been fraught. America denied him a visa in 2005 citing his reluctance to prevent and control the Hindu-Muslim riots as Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002 and painted him as a Hindu fundamentalist. On his part, Modi openly criticized Washington for mistreating Devyani Khobragade, a junior Indian diplomat in New York, over a complaint by her maid.

America, and Europe, will face challenges to win him and his country under him. Though Obama sought to mend the fences by congratulating Modi warmly at his election by sending Secretary of State John Kerry to visit India, Modi might find it difficult to bury the personal insult. His feelings towards Europe are similar for the same reason. And Modi is not a pro-West intellectual, as most other Indian prime ministers of India, who would tolerate the Western heavy-handedness, including in the freedom to proselytize Hindus into Christianity, lightly.

On a broader level, India has never been close to America. During the Cold War, it was close to the Soviet Union. It does not appreciate the American support to Pakistan in the Indo-Pak conflict and American economic sanctions imposed after it tested nuclear weapon in the 1990s. US President Bush reversed the course somewhat by signing nuclear and economic cooperation agreements and putting pressure on Pakistan to control anti-Indian terror groups. However, India’ reluctance to implement the agreements and America’s arrogance in dealing with Indian officials have remained constant irritants.

In the midst of these irritants, Modi also presents a set of opportunities for America. He is pro-private sector, pro-market, pro-foreign investment, and pro-growth. He is likely to welcome American investment and expand trade and technical cooperation between the two countries more than his predecessor, Man Mohan Singh. He will also be more eager, albeit tacitly, than his predecessor to work with the United States and Asian countries to contain China, which is the crux of the American Asia policy.

In addition, America needs India’s support to stabilize Afghanistan and isolate Russia over the Ukrainian crises. Afghanistan needs a regional understanding and arrangement to stabilize and India will be a key player. America needs to isolate Moscow and impose broader sanctions supported by India, China and others to force Russia from supporting Russian-speaking rebels in Ukraine. Western sanctions have hurt but not repealed Russia. Although NATO has proposed a rapid reaction force to back its Eastern European members, there is no military solution to the conflict, as Obama has repeated umpteen times.

Modi is eager to strengthen India’s collaboration with the fellow BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa. His first overseas trip was to Brazil for the sixth BRICS summit in April this year, which adopted the Agreement on the New Development Bank, the Treaty for the Establishment of a BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement and agreements among BRICS Development Banks and Export Credit Insurance Agencies. These measures are expected to weaken the West-dominated economic order and evolve a new order in which India will have a greater voice.

In foreign relations, Modi’s daunting challenge will be to freeze, let alone resolve, India’s long-standing conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. The two countries have already fought three wars. Pakistan-based terror groups have attacked several places and Al-Qaida has decided to set up its branch in India. The two countries have traded barbs over the recent cross-border firing. Political protests, tacitly backed by the military, have weakened Pakistani Premier Nawaj Sharif dimming the prospects of peace.

There are equal chances that Modi will fail or succeed. His fractious party, the disruptive opposition parties, the change-averse bureaucracy, and states under the opposition’s control can sputter his agenda. A section of his party opposes his rise and private investment bias. The alliance of opposition parties will spare no opportunity to drag his feet. Indian bureaucrats would not cooperate if they think Modi is just a passing fad. Besides, without existential threat or substantial benefits, states under other parties will not collaborate with him.

A debacle at home will weaken Modi externally. India’s friends and allies will begin to downsize their expectations and wait him out, rather than seeking a compromise with him. In a vicious cycle, it will stifle his agenda and program further at home.

Alternatively, the Modi phenomenon might roll on. For it to happen, he should carry his party, which enjoys a majority in the parliament, with him and preserve the coalition he leads to stifle the opposition. Likewise, he should convince the Indian bureaucracy that he is there to stay and the states that they would benefit by cooperating with him. This will accelerate growth and revive the Indian economy that has slowed down over the couple of years.

Such growth will give Modi strength and resources to implement his ambitious agenda, to strike prudent deals abroad, to win the next election and to go down in history as Lee Kwan-Yu and Mahathir Mohammad. Consequently, India will emerge as a key player — along with the United States, Europe, Russia, China and South Africa – in a decentralized, multipolar world order.