Indian discourse on the temporary setback in pursuing membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group has become a game of smoke and mirrors. There is no dishonour in trying for NSG membership and challenging an exclusionary global order. Diplomatic delays, even failures, are part of any engagement with the world; mature powers recognise that. But what is worrying about this engagement is the false pretences under which we undertook it. The issue is not our claims; the issue is our capacity to delude ourselves about what we were doing.
The delusion came at three levels. The first was a delusion about our own interests. Even if NSG membership was desirable, is the political capital invested in this venture worth the costs? The current waivers pretty much allow us to do what we need to with our nuclear programme; any future changes in NSG guidelines that adversely affected us could have been blocked simply by having just one friend on the inside. Second, there is some delusion about the discreet charms of our prime minister. He has incredible outreach skills. But in this case, he has been unwittingly set up by his government, where the public projection was that this is all a matter of him turning his charm on Xi Jinping; as if nostalgic memories of swinging together on the banks of the Sabarmati can replace the hard realities of politics. If the domestic criticism has been high, it is because government raised the pitch: It appeared desperate to project a political triumph where a prosaic handling might have served it better.
The second delusion was about the international order. There is a touch of narcissism in our analysis: We think the world revolves around us. As the devious Kissinger once said, India is not the most important country in the world, it is the most self-important (This is probably true of most great powers). By making it about us, we misread the global situation. The cardinal fact about international politics at the moment is this. China has a more aggressive outward posture and it is seeking its due. Its concern with India, contrary to what we think, is incidental. But it is deeply concerned with the US. That concern will now manifest in the ambition that it will not allow the US to write the rules of the international order according to its wishes. It will show that the US cannot claim hegemony over redefining the rules of the game. This is what China is doing in its approach to international law; this is what it is doing in building alternative institutions. This is what it is doing in signalling that if the US cannot make way for China because of its need to stand by every ally, so will China stand by every ally; it will allow the way for India, so long as it can also clear a roadmap for Pakistan. When you think of Chinas expansive claims in the South China Sea, remember the Monroe doctrine. We are victims in this instance of that great power jostling. But it is important to see this game for what it is; it is about more than us, and sheer narcissism will not get us to see that reality.
It is also important not to belittle the hesitations and ambiguities shown by countries like Brazil and others. These countries are not insignificant. But more importantly, they are all interested in what kind of a power India will be. Having two powers like the US and China at the high table who believe in great power exceptionalism, particularly when it comes to international law, is problematic. Having India join the table to add fuel to this fire, not to douse it, worries many countries, no matter what our diplomats may say. The NSG waiver we have was an artful compromise. It allowed us the substance of what we want without a polarising debate on the form. But we have in a single stroke reopened the debate on the NPT. If you want to take on the big powers you need to have the ability to hurt them.
But in our overwrought self-confidence, we risk the worst of both worlds: Not having enough fire power to really hurt any of the powers bigger than us on the one hand; at the same time frittering away the cautious virtues that actually have stood us in good stead. The reason this is worth mentioning is because the government is putting out this innuendo that India may even stall progress on climate issues if it is not admitted to these clubs. This would be moral hubris of the highest order: Equating a treaty necessary to saving the planet with membership of a club which has little material consequences for us.
The third delusion is the cynical use to which the American security lobby is putting this episode. There is a line of argument that the NSG fiasco was good because it proved one thing: The US is well disposed to us and China will block our rise. Therefore, we can create the ideological climate for siding with the US carte blanche. And second, those who argue for strategic autonomy can be shown to be living in a fantasy. How can we be equidistant between China and the US when the US so clearly supports us and China opposes? Of course, our relationship with the US will for many reasons be incredibly close. But surely the lesson from this episode is that until India has the power to dictate terms it is in our interest to be an arena of great power agreement. Whether Pakistan or NSG, the US alone cannot deliver what we want. The strategic autonomy argument is mis-described when it is characterised as an equidistance argument. The idea of autonomy requires that you do not frame the issue only in terms that the great powers see the issue. Each issue should be taken on its merits; we should not close off options by overblown pre-commitments. It is a plea to think hard about our interests and not be swayed by others way of framing the world. We need to find ways of putting pressure on China. It is fun to use the China card to beat up on those sceptical of an unthinking embrace of the US as the establishment is doing. But this short-lived ideological high is no substitute for getting a grip on reality. Indias claims are not in doubt. But when a premature machismo runs far ahead of reality, its judgment is.