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Obamas Passage to India has raised Washington-New Delhi relations to new level

Nov 13, 2010 7:17:44 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The mass media are a mirror of society would it be correct to observe that Sri Lankan society has paradoxically become more insular as the world, and human existence itself, has become more globalised?

I pose the question not only because I did not notice a single Colombo newspaper carry a front page photograph of the important Obama visit to India, but also because I grew up with a father who as editor of the Daily News, introduced syndicated columnists of the New York Times, including the iconic James Reston, into the paper’s pages and wrote considered editorials on Nixon’s visit to China.

Obama’s passage to India may or may not prove quite as historic as that visit in 1972, but it is of enormous significance. The explicit articulation of a strategic partnership between the USA and India, its definition as a partnership of equals, the regional and global aims of that alliance, Obama’s open support for India’s Security Council aspirations and the reciprocity that would doubtless ensue in multilateral forums and India’s superb demonstration of ‘soft power’ will all have their impact in the years and possibly decades to come.

What is most interesting about the Obama–India interaction and the new levels it has taken the equation to, is precisely the combination of hard power and soft power: the convergence of strategic interests and congruency of values. Both powers, and more crucially, both societies and peoples, see themselves as secular, federal, pluralist democracies.

Since the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2005, and certainly President Bush’s visit of the next year, commentators have speculated about an Indo-US alliance, but Sri Lankan readers had been alerted to the prospect from at least one year prior to the nuclear deal, as far back as 2004, and their attention redrawn to it in the years that followed. In two articles in 2004, I wrote:

“Historically India’s Congress Party has been more comfortable with the Democrats, and Washington and Delhi will draw still closer than they are today…. An Indo-US condominium…the emerging constellation of a Democrat victory, the Congress govt. and a strengthened US-India axis…”

(‘Chandrika’s options, Ranil’s tactics, JVP’s game, Mahinda’s role’, http://www.island.lk/2004/06/06/politi04.htm)

I repeated this later in the same year:

“…Historic, ideological and personal ties make for closer convergence between Washington and Delhi under Democratic and Congress administrations… a closely congruent equation between Washington and New Delhi… an Indo-US condominium …the emerging constellation of a Democrat victory, the Congress government and a strengthened US-India axis …” ( A Kerry Win: Implications for Sri Lanka Oct 14th, 2004)
Commenting in early 2006 on President Bush’s visit to India, I wrote:

“The South Asian region affects us; more so when the development involves both the pre-eminent regional power, our giant neighbour India, and the world’s sole superpower, the United States. And yet, Sri Lankans have been notably myopic with regard to the qualitative leap in the Indo-US relationship by means of the nuclear deal, a deal, which is symptomatic of a portentous new factor in world affairs. This factor could unleash a new, history-making dynamic…The rights and wrongs of the new agreement between Washington and Delhi should not detain us here. What is more pertinent is how the Indo-US axis affects Sri Lankan interests…”
(‘America’s passage to India: Implications for Sri Lanka’, Dayan Jayatilleka www.dailynews.lk/2006/03/15/fea01.asp)

It is against this back drop that all thinking Sri Lankans must take cognisance of the chapter on Sri Lanka in a brand new book by Robert D Kaplan, entitled Monsoon: The Future Of The Indian Ocean And The Future Of American Power (2010). Kaplan, a member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board and the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the US Naval Academy is an influential political writer and opinion maker in the strategic community, author of 12 books, and national correspondent for The Atlantic. Legendary former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, regarded as the author of strategy for the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan and of ‘Communism’ in Poland, describes the book as “an intellectual treat: Beautiful writing is not incompatible with geopolitical imagination and historical flair”.

It is not necessary to concur with Kaplan’s assessment of Sri Lanka. Prof Michael Roberts’ and Sergei de Silva-Ranasinghe’s critiques of his extended essay in The Atlantic on Sri Lanka as smacking of ‘Orientalist’ prejudice, resonates with me. That criticism holds true of his chapter on Sri Lanka in this book, but that is neither here nor there. What is significant is his main thesis, which the book’s dust-jacket (the hardback’s cover is illustrated with an ancient map in which Ceylon is quite centrally placed) summarises in the following terms:

“Like the monsoon itself, a cyclical weather system that is both destructive and essential for growth and prosperity, the rise of these countries (including India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Burma, Oman, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Tanzania) represents a shift in the global balance that cannot be ignored. The Indian Ocean area will be the true nexus of world power and conflict in the coming years. It is here that the fight for democracy, energy independence, and religious freedom will be lost or won, and it is here that American foreign policy must concentrate if America is to remain dominant in an ever changing world”.

Having opined that “Sri Lanka grows in importance in this Indian Ocean-centric world” Kaplan writes that “Sri Lanka…is the ultimate register of geopolitical trends in the Indian ocean region” (p 209).

Many Sri Lankans may find this flattering and some part of me does too, but I am far too aware of the seminal observation of the founder of realist history writing, Thucydides: “the real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight: the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon [Sparta]”.

Acutely aware as I am of the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides’ History Of The Peloponnesian Wars, and the relative unimportance of our perceptions of ‘right’ when the perceived strategic interests of the mighty are at stake, I trust that in the great power competition in the Indian Ocean region, Sri Lanka will not be misperceived as a 21st century isle of Melos.