Airstrip One
by Christopher Montgomery

May 27, 2002

Conspiracy Corner

The 39 Steps to Nowhere

There's one very good reason why conspiracies are so genuinely rare in international relations, and that's because, although you can hide what you're doing, you can't very often hide why you might do it. In other words, 'secret diplomacy' and everything more Bondian beneath that is all well and good, but the interests of a state are sitting out in full view for anyone and everyone to have a go at apprehending what they are. Foreign policy actors may and do pursue their ends by covert means every now and again though, in truth, the scope for achieving significant results from this approach is, history suggests, slight but those ends are, by their very nature, in full sight. Rare is the regime whose aims are obscure; indeed, inter-state instability throughout all recorded time has had this very factor at the root cause of more wars than every other put together.

When writing about foreign policy, a more useful, though less sexy term than 'conspiracy theory' would be 'credible narrative'. This, by its very nature, has all the substance of your traditional, free floating conspiracy theory, but, as opposed to historical writing, which attempts to explain why whatever has just happened has just happened, a 'credible narrative' is more of an instant effort to say, 'this has happened'. What a credible narrative seeks to do then, is to point to what is in full view and say, 'look, these facts ought to be viewed thus'.

One such narrative that, completely without evidence, I always found absent and convincing concerns the international, and specifically American reaction to the Indian, and consequent Pakistani, nuclear tests of 1998. In a nutshell, and to avoid any of those embarrassing 'and here from my last paragraph, I produce a ten of clubs, a white rabbit and, whoah, a way out there conclusion' moments, I think that the United States deliberately let go this Indian escalation because she was happy to see a potential regional rival to China built up. There you go, paranoid, unsupported by trivia such as evidence, but as liable to be 'true' as any of the other explanations lying between the poles of Clintonian incompetence and muddle-headed liberal pragmatism. An obvious reason for writing about this supposition is the cheerful talk in the sub-continent (with any number of hacks being glad that they were able to find [sic] an anonymous Indian sufficiently senior to attribute the inevitable, 'well, we could afford to lose, oh, 25 million, but could they?' quote to) of nuclear war. The other reason, and more pertinent to this column, though not perhaps to the wider project, is that, as ever, Britain's diplomacy during and after the 1998 tests shows that we have no inclination in reaching out for independence.

The Failure of Western Policy in South Asia

Some of you aren't going to like this because I'm going to use the language of, to be fusty, 'great power politics'. There are two likely grounds why you might flinch: 1.) you're essentially liberal opponents of war, and hold that even to think in these terms is to subscribe to an inherently aggressive worldview, inimical to peace; or, though why you're reading this, God only knows, you're 2.) a sophisticated fellow, someone who works for a foreign ministry, or an international agency, or reads The Economist, or teaches International Relations at Stanford, and you shudder at the obsolescence of the language. 'That's not', you might kindly observe, 'really the way to understand the world as it is'. Which is a debate, and one we shouldn't shy away from on the right hand side of the fence, but it's not an important one, for we understand, whether Tories or libertarians, truths about states few liberals have an interest in admitting. That said, let's advance some general principles for what Western interests might have reasonably be said, from a conservative point of view, to have been in that period when first India, then, in response, Pakistan merely confirmed what we all knew, that they had a limited nuclear capability.

We can't have liked this as:

we do want to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons because: (i.) unstable regimes should not have access to them, & (ii.) it does 'lessen' our own weight in the world for others to get them;

the US, still hegemon, had responsibilities incumbent upon her because of that famed 'global leadership' and failed to discharge them;

as things, entirely predictably, worked out, pitiful non-sanctions were pointlessly imposed on both countries (whereas meaningfully severe sanctions imposed quickly on India might have deterred Pakistan, and thus kept the pressure concentrated where it should have been, upon New Delhi); the result of this was, of course, to India's benefit in the short term. She was able withstand sanctions far better than her western neighbour; however, in the longer term, this policy failure even if the corrupt regime in Islamabad had wanted to hold off going nuclear, there, due to Western passivity, was no sellable benefit to hand to be touted about for doing so contributed mightily to the domestic tensions that saw Sharif's government consume itself from within, and be replaced in due course by Musharraf's.

All in all, a clear example of what non-intervention can do, and why being anti-war and anti-intervention are not conterminous.

From a British perspective . . .

The new Labour government failed to offer any leadership within the Commonwealth during the testing crisis. This, in turn, contributes to its ongoing decline into utter irrelevance, and, by default, confines us to the straight-jacket of the EU. For the greatest problem advocates of British independence has is that as far as the political class believe, TINA rules the roost. There Is No Alternative, whether to the Atlantic Alliance, or membership of the EU, or worse still, both, is the order of the day. If we are to break free from this shrew's palsied grip, we have to see where there were and are alternatives for Britain. We have to kill TINA. That's why the quintessentially FCO'd approach the new Prime Minister, and the new Foreign Secretary (then, Robin Cook) took stands proud as impotence looking for an excuse.

What we actually did, and as ever, in America's wake, was to make vague noises about this attack on the Western order, some of us (though not Britain or any major EU state) imposed puny sanctions for a while; and our whole strategy publicly rested on the assumption that, with the Pakistani test out of the way we can get on with the business of getting both states into the non-proliferation regime. Which was silly as this happy schema was never going to pan out (i.e. both countries then were escalating the crisis by adapting missiles for nuclear use, and, would subsequently operate not in the static environment of, e.g. Cold War Europe, but all too hot Kashmir).

How sensible or realistic a course was the one we pursued? Not very. India and Pakistan, ignoring what too many British and American officials saw as the economic logic of their position (and the fact that both lacked outside sponsors in this enterprise) justified measured inaction on its own grounds: this will blow itself out, it's just something they have to do. Yet, what now convinces further aspirant nuclear states that there is the likelihood of concerted, multi-lateral/US led reaction, which sufficiently damages the aspirant's national interests to the point whereby 'gaining' nuclear weapons is not worth the candle? Nothing. As ever the biggest drawback to US leadership in this arena is that its client Israel possesses vast quantities of nuclear material and this is a client that exerts a dangerous influence on the patron, even to the point of blinding her to her own selfish interests. But what if the US, in the era of neo-con sponsored madness about China (and really, go back and read what those idiots were writing under the dying years of Clinton in fact, next week I'll remind you by having a good old laugh at Present Dangers), was making a rational calculation? That preserving, indeed, enhancing the military credit of a nation once already, since independence, trounced by the PRC was a Good Thing, if your military bureaucracy, and its camp followers told you, 'war's a coming'? Look at that map of Kashmir the next time you see, and ponder on the other dotted international border, and remember that India wants revanche in more directions than one.

A Missed Opportunity

Now, you're totally not going to like this, but one of the great tragedies to all this was that Pakistan was there for the taking as a client. Weirdly enough, the readership of, as far as I can provoke it into writing to me, is just littered with U.S. patriots (remember, because the ethos of the site is connected to tiny things like, uh, why Americans should reject imperialism and foreign wars, you're habitually smeared as being unpatriotic by your neo-con brothers). Well, when I say patriot, I mean what leftists quite fairly depict too many on the right as being: insecure, tub-thumping nationalists, who take any implied criticism of their country as a personal rebuke. The best way they find to express annoyance at this insult is, naturally, to lash out at your (specifically, my) country. This takes two main forms, both equally indicative of less than total self-assurance, namely, every global problem is, ultimately, Britain's historic fault, or, we're so pitiful that we, not a single one of us, should even have an opinion on foreign policy that's for the big boys.

That was all by way of a digression; obviously, Pakistan as a client, or, if you prefer, responsive friend, was a more pertinent issue for those with more need of friends, because their foreign policy forces itself into every corner of the planet. My point simply being that, as I'm about to attempt to show, the friendship of Pakistan, now so important and still less than fulsome, was there to have in spades if the response of the nuclear testing had been that bit more intelligent.

Britain, in her response, failed yet again to give a lead to a coherent Commonwealth foreign policy agenda. And this was a very grievous instance, with the likes of Australia and New Zealand crying out for serious G-5/G8 leadership which manifestly the US was not going to deliver on. Then there was the fact that taking a stance would have pleasingly set us apart from the EU (and very far apart from the French) we could have lead vocal condemnation of India, orchestrating calls for punitive diplomatic measures against her, in short, grandstanded, and then some. This, overblown as it sounds to the 'Britain's inherently crap, give it up' brigade (and as I say, there's as numerous here at home as they are amongst Weekly Standard readers getting a dirty thrill from visiting this site), is the sort of thing we have to gear ourselves up to doing if we're to be a credible great power. The US, and the Russians do do this sort of thing, the Chinese would if they could, the French would bite their arm off for a semblance of the opportunity, and we too have to be up for it.

Pakistan, and this statement was just as relevant in 1998 as it is today, is a 'frontline state' worth preserving as a bulwark of British interests. She is being undermined internally by at least India and Iran, as well as the corrosive effect of her own religious militants and endemic political malfeasance, and she could best mature politically and strategically under a perfectly competent foreign nuclear umbrella. But this is now as dust. For pity's sake, just as theatre, even Britain could have considered rushing, purely as a short term expedient, military assets to Pakistan just to show solidarity. The surface point of this would have been to reassure the Pakistanis that they didn't need to go down the dangerous atomic road the Indians just had; the subtext would have been, we get nothing out of India as it is, let's offer a hand of friendship to someone who needs it and see what happens. Such an alliance would have acted as a restraint upon Pakistan these last four years, for serious allies provide all-important security (diminishing the trend towards rashness from desperation), and, they act as a backstop, i.e. states formulate policies with a view to what their allies will wear, the maintenance of the alliance rapidly becoming an end in itself.

Imagine the sort of superbly disingenuous speech a Bevinite new Labour foreign secretary could have delivered in 1998:

India is in great danger on her present course of throwing away the leadership of South Asia. In a country with such great economic problems relating to the mass poverty of her people, the tactically foolish and strategically useless acquisition of nuclear weapons will cost ordinary Indians dear. Already British, Commonwealth and European aid has been cut off, and we are working in the UN to agree comprehensive sanctions on this rogue and isolated state. In the Commonwealth we have supported the move to suspend Indian membership, and we are giving a lead in the EU to measures to co-ordinate aid and trade policy there.

By being apparently bad you can do good. This is not a profound insight, but it's a relevant one when you in a country whose institutional attitude to foreign policy is, 'yeah, we're keen on decency, really quite priggish in our outlook, but all we'll ever do internationally is keep our heads down so at least we don't positively do bad'.

Way Out, and Helping Friends As We Go

I keep coming back to the historic existence of alternatives because it is the perceptual conceptual even, for some absence thereof that convinces the governing British elite to subscribe to the inept foreign policy it does. Take, in the same timeframe, Indonesia. That was another case where, separate of the EU and the Americans, we could have helped give a lead to the concerned and affected Commonwealth states Australia and New Zealand. They sought it, we flunked it. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, every which way you look at it, if you want to see Toryism in Britain again, John Howard is the man to turn to for an example. Or take Cuba a revived, collaborative Commonwealth would as one mobilise behind British support for the Canadian line on Havana. This wouldn't make a teaspoonful of warm spit's difference to the situation in Cuba, but that's not the point. The Point is that even Canada Canada can venture dissent where it won't matter, and the beauty of this is that you start building alliances were it's safe to do so.

Even as things stand, tomorrow, before UK and Canadian ministers attend G8 meetings or sub-meetings, or before the UK attends serious Security Council hoe-downs London could evolve the practice that papers are submitted, normally by the resident High Commissioners, or by External Affairs Ministers, for discussion and co-ordination. Whitehall could make a show of discussing things with Commonwealth allies. Thereby a rough stab would have been at a 'common position'. This both would give meaning to a revived Commonwealth (i.e. it would give access to the top table for those who currently lack it, and never will possess it as of right), and it would enhance Britain's position at the top table as she would be speaking with a still louder voice.

The problem for, for example, Australia and Canada, is not that they are incapable of pursuing distinctly Australian and Canadian foreign policy goals. It is that the means by which they have chosen, a subordinate alliance with the disproportionate power of the United States, is misguided. It is especially misguided in that the United States, rightly, does not have their interests at heart. They, by being slavish, directly contribute to the power of the US over them, and over each other. Every notion of how any of the English speaking countries outside of America can break free of her grasp indicates the same practical and paradoxical conclusion: by coming together, only then can they follow their own courses.

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