Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Recently two American scholars Bharat Gopalaswamy and Gaurav Kampani wrote an article on space code and the Indian debate, in Space News. The article, while citing my Occasional Paper, came to very different conclusions and even suggested that the current Indian debate was the role of a "spoiler." It went on further to suggest that "Indian security pundits seek power for India without the responsibility that comes with wielding it."
Here's my response article that has appeared in the Jan. 23 edition of Space News.
India’s interests in nonproliferation measures have been well known — starting from its efforts on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Despite its earnest intentions, New Delhi has been unable to effect serious transformation in the nonproliferation discourse. Now India is making efforts to play a constructive role on the space code of conduct issue that has been gaining momentum in recent months.
Although two codes are under discussion — the Stimson Center code and the European Union (EU) code — it is the EU code that has become contentious. The EU is making an eleventh-hour effort to gather support to universalize the code although it has been met with certain inflexible positions from non-EU capitals. While most of the countries have yet to come out with a formal position on the code, discussions and debates at unofficial parleys suggest that EU has a long, tough journey ahead in mustering the kind of support that it needs to have its space code institutionalized.
Debates in some Asian capitals have led to position papers that are indicative of certain broad trend lines as far Asian positions on the code are concerned. I recently produced a paper, published by the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, that tried to summarize the perspectives from the Indian strategic, scientific and military communities. A recent commentary in Space News by two respected American analysts, Bharath Gopalaswamy and Gaurav Kampani, criticized some of the arguments made in my paper. I take this opportunity to respond to their comments.
India has an obvious interest in wanting to define the rules of the road on space (as do other powers). India is an emerging space power and it wants to curtail potential norms that will be counterproductive to its ambition in exploiting space. This is particularly important to a developing country that has invested enormous wealth toward its space program and now sees that being threatened because of issues such as space debris, aggravated by potential military tests in space, such as the anti-satellite (ASAT) tests that China and the U.S. have conducted in recent years. Thus, India has a material stake in the kinds of space rules now being proposed.
Gopalaswamy and Kampani underestimate the importance of the political component in international rule-making. The geopolitical value of India’s efforts in this normative exercise is tremendous. While the two authors appear astonished at some of the responses from the strategic community in New Delhi, this can at best be described as lacking an understanding of the geopolitical aspects of this exercise. A code, before it becomes institutionalized, goes through several critical stages — politico-diplomatic, technical and legal clearances.
Of these, the politico-diplomatic is the most critical for a variety of reasons. The kind of political support the code gathers determines the scope of the instrument. A successful politico-diplomatic initiative would ensure that it has wide-based support, even if it means that the content of the treaty is left as broad as possible to include all issues of concern to the various participants, including space debris and the arms race in space. In fact, today it is a problem of decision-making — more specifically, crisis in reaching a consensus (indeed, even in identifying challenges) among the major powers — that is at the root of the problem. This is not a problem unique to space security, of course, but that does not make it any easier. Major powers have to reach a political consensus in tackling some of these challenges, and in fact the technological part of the problem becomes much smoother if there is a political consensus among the major actors. Consensus also would ensure the longevity of any arms control measures in space. Gopalaswamy and Kampani fail to fully understand the import of this political imperative.
The EU clearly lost out on the politico-diplomatic front. If the EU were to do this again, it would be wise to go for an inclusive approach bringing together all the spacefaring nations and making them part of the creative process instead of the EU deciding on its own what is good for the world. While the EU’s initiative is commendable, its method is not.
Gopalaswamy and Kampani assert that India is “doggedly” insistent on a legal framework with enforcement and verification mechanisms built in. India does eventually want a legal framework, but Delhi is realistic to understand that it may have to move gradually toward such mechanisms and that it has to start from a normative exercise. India faces potential problems posed by both space debris and ASAT weapons, which are therefore understandably high on the agenda of Indian decision-makers. China’s ASAT test in 2007 was an eye-opener to the kinds of hard military realities that exist in India’s neighborhood.
The two authors have again reached misplaced conclusions about the importance of space debris in India’s priorities — including their reference to India’s failure to disaggregate space debris and ASAT tests. While the geopolitical and hard military realities may compel India to do an ASAT test, it is not to suggest that India underplays the criticality of space debris. It is also wrong to suggest that India does not pay attention to the creation of debris from a variety of different sources other than ASAT tests. The very fact that certain sections within the scientific establishment in India see the potential in using laser technology in order to reduce the amount of space debris is an illustration of the importance attached. Orbital debris remediation is certainly one area in which India and the U.S. could collaborate, and in fact this could easily feed into a broad array of cooperation in the space domain between the two countries.
The point to be emphasized is that precisely because India has an interest in the normative process and institutionalizing a space code, it is important for New Delhi to sit on the high table as an active party shaping the debate. It is rather unfortunate to characterize India’s efforts at triggering a debate on space security as that of a spoiler. India is certainly not looking to free-ride with major spacefaring nation status without shouldering any responsibility that comes along with that status.
The importance of being norm-shaper is important in the Indian discourse. This will also send out clear signals to its friends and foes in Asia and beyond about the potential role of India in any normative exercise. Therefore, the larger point is for India to have its own debate about the utility of the code of conduct and then become a full partner rather than to be pushed into it resentfully. Of course India has to come to the bargaining table with a strong proactive position that is considered and constructive and not reactive and defensive. It is not in India’s interests to be a naysayer in an international forum if it has ambitions to emerge as a major power in the coming decades.
Monday, January 23, 2012
Space code of conduct is in news with new developments almost on a daily basis. Here's a quickie from me on the international responses and what India should do to capture the space in framing the debate, published by ORF.
The debates around setting up an international code of conduct for outer space activities is getting more interesting. Recent proposals such as the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the European Union-proposed Code of Conduct have highlighted the importance of a cleaner and safer outer space, although these have not found many takers around the world.
Most recently, the US rejected the EU Code saying that it is "too intrusive." Making the US position clear, Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, during a breakfast meeting on January 12, said, "it's been clear from the very beginning that we're not going along with the code of conduct." However, she clarified that "what we haven't announced is what we're going to do."Thereafter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a Press Statement and the Department of Defense (DoD) issued a Fact Sheet on space code of conduct arguing the need to come up with an international code of conduct. Specific concerns relate to space debris, radio frequency interference and competition as more countries and private corporations enter the fray.1
Official responses by Tauscher and thereafter by the State Department and DoD to the EU Code have sent mixed signals. On the one hand, the US has rebuffed the code saying it constrains the US military's options in space while the DoD suggested that the Code is "a promising basis for an international code." This indicates that there is probably only a minor disagreement - over who spearheads the Code initiative so that it musters wide support. However, this is a smart political move by the US. The EU could not have managed to gather much support for its initiative.
Meanwhile, there have already been some reactions to the US proposal. Moscow ridiculed Washington for sidelining or ignoring the earlier initiatives at framing measures for responsible behaviour in outer space. A few months back, Beijing used similar arguments as the US reached across to start bilateral talks on space security.
Moscow also found slip-ups in the new American approach saying that the critical issue of militarisation of space is missing in Washington's proposal. There is merit in this; the draft treaty proposed by Russia and China, "Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects"(PPWT) at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) makes "prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and of an arms race in outer space" as important elements of their initiative. However, there are also several flaws with this formulation. First, the draft treaty considers only placement of weapons in outer space and does not take into account ground-based weapons for outer space operations. In fact, 'weaponisation of outer space' often refers only to weapons placed in outer space that will damage and destroy space-based assets. But this is inadequate because ground-based weapons can also target space activities. Ground-based lasers, for example, can target satellites.Operations based on ground-based weapons are likely to go up in the future.
Second, China had earlier made it clear that it did not consider space debris as a major issue to be included in a code,which reflects the Chinese intention to carry on with activities that may create debris, and damage and destroy space assets. Third, China's military space activities have continued unabated even as it suggests the PPWT. There are also other contradictions - China, on the one hand, works with COPUOS on the issue of space debris but on the other hand, it makes it clear that it will not support an instrument that considers space debris as an issue.
Now that Moscow has made its position clear, it will be the turn of Beijing to voice its opposition to the US effort as a superficial initiative that does not look at weaponisation of space. It appears that China and Russia will join hands again and earn some brownie points from arms controllers by harping about weaponisation of space while continuing with their weaponisation efforts. But more importantly, Moscow and Beijing need to introspect whether their activities are contributing and strengthening the writing of these rules. Michael Listner, for instance, opines that the two of them have in fact have done the "most destructive ASAT tests" creating debris to such levels where the "ISS is playing the orbital version of dodge ball."
Meanwhile, it appears that Australia is getting on board for an international code under the US leadership. Japan had already endorsed the EU Code and one can see an even greater effort on the part of Tokyo to push and muster support for the US proposal. Canada has also extended full support for the proposal.
How should India react to the developments? It is in India's interests to institute a code for guiding certain responsible behavior in order to ensure a cleaner, safer, and less congested outer space. It is also in Indian interests to ensure that a code takes shape that brings certain restraint on China. And, it will be to our benefit if India took the lead in spearheading the creation of a code along with the US and other major spacefaring powers. It is understood that in a recent briefing on the issue in Washington DC, US officials repeatedly emphasized the potentially critical role that India could play in developing a code, starting from negotiations to giving shape to the final instrument. Consultative meetings should start towards this end in the next few months and it will do well if India debates this internally and reaches considered and constructive position on the subject. India should recognize that it should not let opportunity pass again on a major global issue. New Delhi has to be inside the tent rather than outside if it is to be able to frame the rules and regulations that will affect its own future in space.
1 It is estimated that there are around 60 nations and government consortia that operate satellites. There are additionally several commercial and academia satellite operators, which make outer space a congested place. There are roughly 22,000 objects in orbit out of which 1,100 are active satellites, tracked by the US Department of Defense. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of small objects that may be difficult to track but those that can still cause damage to assets in the orbit. For info, see Department of State, International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities: Strengthening Long-Term Sustainability, Stability, Safety, and Security in Space, January 17, 2012, available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/181208.pdf.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
In the recent weeks, there have been several developments on the space code ... most recently, the US rejecting it saying it is too restrictive. Here's my take (published on ORF website) on the debate and the future course, particularly looking at whether India and the US can shape this debate and ultimately a code of conduct on space.
Space debris, traffic management and orbital frequency being issues that concern both India and the US, this ideally should be on the agenda in future US-India endeavours. It might be good for both the countries if they can engage in shaping this debate that would give them ownership of the issue.
As outer space becomes increasingly crowded, it has become clear that there needs to be some clear rules for regulating activities of different nation-states in space. Instituting such a code of conduct on outer space activities has been at the centre stage for the past few months. The United Nations took the lead in this regard in 2008, with the General Assembly adopting resolution 62/217, endorsing the "Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines" of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The European Union (EU) also proposed a code of conduct on space, but it has run into rough waters for a variety of reasons and the EU has not managed to muster much support for their initiative outside the EU capitals. While the EU needs to be complimented for its initiative, unfortunately the EU did not institute a consultative mechanism, which could have brought together all the major space-faring countries. This has hurt the prospects of the EU Code.
While India has not taken a formal position on the EU Code, discussions at informal parleys suggest that India too has concerns. To start with, India has been concerned with the fact that the EU did not engage major space-faring powers, including India, in this exercise. The exclusive approach adopted by the EU in this regard has made this exercise futile. Second, while the EU Code is a voluntary and non-binding arrangement, it expects states to establish national policies that are in sync with the EU guidelines, which may or may not be in the interests of India. Such measures have been seen as affecting the legitimate national security interests of other countries.
Similar concerns have been expressed in Washington as well. Most recently, the US rejected the EU Code on the grounds that it is "too restrictive." On January 12, Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, made the US position quite clear on the EU Code saying that "it's been clear from the very beginning that we're not going along with the code of conduct." However, she also went on to say that "what we haven't announced is what we're going to do."
American concerns have ranged from the fact that this non-binding, voluntary arrangement could restrict the US military's options in space to the issue of a non-ownership of the code, the document having been produced by the EU. For instance, in a Senate hearing in May, Senator Jeff Sessions said, "we've advanced further technologically in development and actual deployment of these systems than anyone else, and agreements [and] codes of conduct tend to … constrain our military." An assessment by the Pentagon's Joint Staff supported this assessment, stating that the US becoming a party to the EU Code "would hurt the US military's space operations in several areas." Similarly, a State Department cable on the subject noted that the US "continues to have significant concerns about the widespread use of language connoting binding obligations, such as 'shall' and 'will,' in the proposed non-binding Code of Conduct."
Having junked the EU Code as too restrictive, the US is now in the process of working on a new draft, of course, with the EU draft "as a promising basis for an international Code." US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Press Statement made amply clear the importance of instituting a code that "will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space." The US intends to join the EU and other countries in developing a code as a way of strengthening international cooperation while constraining irresponsible behaviour. However, the US move in this direction has already come in for criticism from Republicans on the ground that this is a typical Liberal arms control measure. John R. Bolton, former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, criticised the new move saying, "the last thing the United States needs is a space code of conduct. The idea of arms control has already failed in the Russian 'reset' policy, and it is sure to fail here as well." Among other criticism, two national security officials condemned the administration's national security policies as arms control-driven, which emphasise on concluding international pacts rather than building its military capabilities.
In sum, while the Obama Administration's interests in instituting a code for a safe and workable outer space environment is legitimate, this is an election year and neither the Obama Administration nor any of the other Presidential candidates will want to commit themselves to a code, especially when it has not been produced by the US.
Can the new US proposal to write the rules of the road on space be an area of interest for India? India clearly has interests in laying out the rules of the road for space conduct but it also has an interest in being recognised as a major space-faring power whose voice should form an intrinsic part in creating these rules. India cannot come on board as a latecomer. In a sense, the "Not Made Here" syndrome probably best characterises the Indian position on the EU Code. Indian interests are driven by several factors including the geopolitics of Asia and the Indian neighbourhood, which is rather hostile. Therefore, it has an interest in a normative exercise that will reduce China's aggressive and unregulated behaviour in outer space, best illustrated by their irresponsible Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in 2007 that left behind a huge amount of space debris. Given that space debris, traffic management and orbital frequency are issues that concern both India and the US, this ideally should be on the agenda in future US-India endeavours. New Delhi's broader approach has been to institute an inclusive and comprehensive approach in addressing space security.
How should India shape the discourse in this regard? As a first step, it will be in India's interest to produce a backgrounder or white paper outlining the importance of space in India's developmental and security calculus. This in turn should lead to identifying what kind of a space future it would like to see and thereafter identify areas that would contribute to such an environment while putting in place measures that would constrain India's ability to help generate such a future. It might be good for both India and the US if they can engage in shaping this debate that would give them ownership of the issue.
Saturday, January 7, 2012
The US recently announced its new defense strategy, taking into account the new geopolitical realities and the fiscal compulsions back home. The new strategy lays particular emphasis in developing a long-term strategic partnership with India. Here are my quick thoughts on the new strategy.
Outlining the challenges, opportunities and priorities, President Obama released the US defence strategy, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, on January 05, 2012. After an overstretch by the US military in the last decade in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is now attempting to rationalise its defence strategy. The changing geopolitical circumstances and fiscal compulsions add new dynamics to this strategy.
The new strategy, however, should not to be mistaken for a retreat. Obama was categorical in stating that while the U.S. military will be downsized, moving towards a smaller and leaner force, they will remain "agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies" with continuing investment in capabilities, including "intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; counter-terrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; operating in anti-access environments; and prevailing in all domains, including cyber."
The defence strategy outlined the core US national interests as "defeating al-Qa'ida and its affiliates and succeeding in current conflicts; deterring and defeating aggression by adversaries, including those seeking to deny our power projection; countering weapons of mass destruction; effectively operating in cyberspace, space, and across all domains; maintaining a safe and effective nuclear deterrent; and protecting the homeland."
The document also highlights the US plan to effectively deal with anti-access and area denial (A2AD) strategies. This emphasises a range of capabilities, including developing new stealth bombers, improving missile defences, improving the effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities and submarine technologies. Recognising the importance of information and communication networks in future operations as also the vulnerability that these mediums face, the document attaches special attention to further protection to cyberspace and space assets. International partnerships with allies and partners to develop new capabilities to effectively defend their networks and maintain operational effectiveness in outer space and cyberspace are an important part of efforts to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen defences. U.S. and India have a great deal to cooperate, particularly in this regard, given the kind of threats and attacks that the two countries have witnessed in the recent years.
While the U.S. interests are global, its security and economic interests are intertwined with developments in the regions, from Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Therefore, the U.S. presence and influence in the Asia Pacific region is seen as "of necessity rebalancing." Similarly, even though the importance of its traditional allies remains unquestionable, the need to have more friends and partners in the region is undeniable. Accordingly, the U.S. is seeking to build and strengthen partnerships in the region so as to improve "collective capability and capacity".
It is in this context that the US sees India. The U.S. investment "in a long-term partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region" is clearly part of this effort. However, in less than 24 hours after the release of the defense strategy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in an interview to the PBS, has talked about rising powers including India as a challenge. While it is fair that the U.S. is still coming to grapple with the new and fast-changing geopolitical shift from the West to Asia, it is unclear why they see India in somewhat the same light as China, as a challenge.
On the other hand, China's rise as a regional power in the Asia Pacific presents both opportunities and challenges for the U.S. While both countries have interests in seeing a stable East Asian order, the opaqueness of Chinese military objectives and intentions continue to be a factor in U.S. thinking. However, U.S. recognises that issues such as freedom of navigation that ensures smooth flow of cargo and resources and the U.S. influence in the region will depend partly on the kind of U.S. military posturing.
China has already reacted saying that while the U.S. is encircling China, Beijing cannot afford to bend backwards to appease Washington. In this context, 'Freedom of the seas' is an obvious reference to the South China Sea - an area in which there has been greater exchange of minds between India and the U.S. But, Panetta in the interview to the PBS, was of the view that the U.S. will need to work with China on a host of issues, including North Korea, nuclear proliferation and free passage of goods and resources in the international waters.
While Obama has been categorical that the new strategy should not be seen as a drawdown of the U.S. in any manner, the important question is how the proposed budget cuts are going to affect certain weapon platforms such as the F-35. Similarly, it is not clear how the whole budget mess will affect the U.S. capacity to fund this strategy. Equally important, there is the possibility that this new approach might not last very long considering that Obama faces a tough presidential campaign over the next year.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Here's an article of mine on the emerging Asian views on a space code. The article appeared in the Diplomat yesterday.
Asian concerns on a space code are important because future challenges to space cooperation may well come from Asia, not least because so many of the new space powers are emerging from this region.
Establishing international norms for space has gradually started to become a priority in recent months, with two codes – the EU Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities and the Stimson Center’s Model Code of Conduct – being the subject of much international debate. And while the Stimson Code has been perceived as less controversial, the EU Code has come in for significant flak, particularly in Asia.
Asian concerns are important because future challenges to space cooperation may well come from Asia, not least because so many of the new space powers are emerging from this region.
One key mistake the European Union made was not engaging India, one of the oldest space faring powers, earlier in the process. India is interested in instituting norms to guide the behavior of others in the space arena, but it’s also interested in being acknowledged as one of the major space powers. While the Indian position is evolving, the “not invented here” syndrome characterizes much of its current mood.
But even as the European Union is making fresh efforts in reaching out to countries to gain support for the code, nations such as China have already made their positions clear. One EU official speaking at a conference in Paris, for example, described the Chinese as being opposed to space debris being a major item in the code. This suggests that China has plans to carry out more anti-satellite tests, something that has raised a red flag in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, China has been critical of the EU’s emphasis on sharing information about national space policies and strategies, including objectives for security related policies. Beijing has made it clear that it will be “impossible” to share information on national security.
In addition, China has articulated the need for a code under a multilateral framework that includes discussion among all space faring powers. But it has also made clear it won’t agree to any arrangements potentially affecting its development in the military space domain. While China has been active at the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space over a number of issues, its military space program has made considerable advances.
In contrast, another Asian space giant, Japan, seems to be completely behind the code. Hirofumi Katase, deputy secretary general in Japan’s Secretariat for Space Policy, urged the code’s global adoption. This move was in many ways expected given Japan’s preferences for major arms control measures. Still, the reality is that Tokyo’s space program has clearly begun to shift from completely civilian toward a potentially more militarized program.
Australia, meanwhile, hasn’t formally made its position clear. It appears in principle to agree with the sentiments expressed in the EU code, and there’s a general appreciation for the emphasis on transparency and confidence-building measures, which are traditionally popular in the West.
The United States hasn’t taken a final official position on the code, but it’s unlikely that it will fully endorse the document. Concerned that U.S. military utilization of outer space may potentially be restrained, the Department of Defense has expressed reservations over the United States becoming a party to the code.
While instituting a code of conduct on space is of the utmost importance, the West, particularly the European Union, needs to acknowledge the global nature of the issue, and the importance of the involvement of all concerned countries. The need to have Asian space powers on board is significant given the geo-political weight of Asia, and unless Asian countries are brought properly into the process, any code that the West may pursue will simply end up being a toothless treaty.
2012 has begun on a hectic note for me. Hence, even posting an article that was published on January 01, 2012 has got delayed. Anyway, late better than never. So, here it is ... an OpEd of mine on the much-hyped US retreat. Is it a retreat? I would say, in sum, the picture is mixed. While the US has suffered some strategic reverses, it has also made a few gains. It is not yet time to write off the United States of America. The OpEd was published by The Pioneer on January 01, 2012.
The United States saw a retreat, both economic as well as strategic, in 2011. Will the decline be arrested in 2012?
Talks about America’s retreat, both economic and strategic, are gaining momentum. The 2008 financial crisis and its continuing reverberations, the American pull out of Iraq a few weeks back and Afghanistan next year, and the strategic stalemate in Iran and North Korea where Washington hasn’t been able to force these weaker powers to bend to its will — all these are touted as indicators of US decline. While these signs need to be taken seriously, there are pointers which clearly suggest that its dominance in world affairs is far from being over.
America has spent enormously, both in wealth and blood, in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Kabul mission has had greater domestic support, Baghdad has always been a controversial venture even within the US. Their global implications have been equally, if not more, disastrous. A decade of efforts by the world’s most powerful military, using the world’s most advanced technologies of warfare, has been insufficient in gaining Washington a clear victory. Though the US managed to extricate itself from Baghdad in a relatively better condition than it did out of Saigon in 1975, there is little doubt that the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to provide tangible results.
The second indicator of American retreat is Washington’s declining global economic dominance. The financial crisis that hit the US in 2008 began to have serious impact on the nation’s debt-income ratio. In 2011, the country’s national debt overtook its national income. As of December 15, 2011, the gross debt was $15.098 trillion, of which $10.438 trillion was held by the public and $4.659 trillion was intragovernmental holdings. In contrast, in June 2011, the annual gross domestic product was $15.003 trillion.
Meanwhile, other powers such as China and India have been growing fast. Though these trends have been long-standing ones, going back to the end of World War II, their consequences are now appearing to be quite grim for the US. The rise of the BRIC nations, America’s rising foreign debt and a steady shift of the manufacturing sector out of the US are all suggesting that Washington’s global dominance is nearing its end.
Third, Iran and North Korea have become belligerent and the US appears to be in no position to convince them to change their behaviour. The fact that Pyongyang can only be influenced by Beijing has only worsened the situation for Washington. After all, China has been less than forthcoming in helping tone down the aggression of the North Korean leadership. In two decades of negotiations, Pyongyang has become a nuclear power, withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is now thought to be a potential nuclear proliferation threat. Likewise, the US is unable to get Iran change its policies and countries like Russia and China with veto power have restrained America’s manoeuvrability to a large extent. The fiasco with the bad intelligence that led to the Iraq war has meant that Washington is not in a position to convince global opinion that Tehran is building nuclear weapons.
Fourth, the impact of the Arab Spring on the US and its global image hasn’t been positive either. This is odd. After all, America has for long been championing the cause of democracy and human rights in the region. Several US allies have been the ones whom the Arab street targeted and threw out of power, leaving a big question mark on the support for America in these countries. Egypt is a case in point. The new leadership/regime that emerges in these countries need not necessarily be US-friendly and this undermines Washington’s position in the region.
While all these may seem unfavourable, a more holistic overview would demonstrate that it is not that bad for the US. While the decline (in relative terms) is indisputable, there are counterpoints that need to be kept in mind.
So, if one were to concede a strategic and economic retreat for America, how bad is it? For instance, everyone talks about the economic mess that the US is in today, but we should remember that almost every country is in trouble today. Also, the dollar appreciation in recent times demonstrates the economic strength of America. For all the Chinese economic growth story or its influence/stake in the financial restructuring, Beijing does not have the ability to float an alternate currency. Nor can it afford to invest its money in any currency other than the dollar. The Euro crisis has further reinforced the American role in the global economic system.
Second, America’s retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan may appear as weakness, but the move will help Washington consolidate its domestic economy, besides reducing the direct threat that the country faces from Islamist terrorists. Refocussing domestically should help the US deal with the problem better.
On the strategic front, while the US may be disappointed in not being able to get its way vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea, President Barack Obama’s unwearied policy in dealing with the two is gradually paying off. Today the allies as well as other countries in the region are calling upon the US to take necessary action, thus giving Washington a lot more legitimacy to pursue a pro-active policy. For instance, the Arab League is more open to a concrete action being taken against Iran. Similar is the scenario in East Asia, where most countries are today far more keen about the US playing an active role in the region than they were a decade ago. Of course, China’s aggressive foreign policy towards its neighbours has helped the American cause.
America’s military modernisation is another issue. While China is doing a lot in terms of catching up with the US, Washington still maintains an unmatchable technological edge. The drone war, for instance, which the US has pursued against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a feat that no other country can duplicate anytime in the near future. Similarly, the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was an incredible exercise of the American hard power. The kind of intelligence, military and technological capabilities that the country put to use was stupendous and cannot be replicated by other nations in the near future.
Last, the Arab Spring may have been bad news for some American allies, but many of its regional adversaries (Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria), too, have also suffered losses.
In sum, the picture is mixed. While the US has suffered some strategic reverses, it has also made a few gains. It is not yet time to write off the United States of America.