US Foreign Policy: Perceptions and Priorities: Where Does South Asia Figure?

P.R. Rajeswari, Researcher, IDSA


International relations/politics has had swift movement in the late 1980s or rather the early 1990s要ery clearly between 1989 and 1991. A series of sudden developments occurred one after the other葉he fall of the Berlin Wall which had symbolised the division of the world into two blocs, the end of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the deterioration of the Soviet economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had been the major breakthroughs during this period: one of the crucial players of the Cold War and which had maintained a system of bipolarity in the world politics diminished in no time and left a vacuum for the United States in its foreign policy framework.

The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union did a lot of alterations to the whole world in such a short span of time. With this change in the world arena, there has come about drastic and sweeping re-evaluation of the geo-political factors. The end of the Cold War was supposed to naturally create a unipolar world led by the United States, which would be the unchallenged hegemon in the world power system. This had been one of the major goals of the United States葉o lead the nations of the world under its own guidance and principles. Certain factors could be attributed to the fast change that is coming about in the world. The number of political actors has been on an increase. The issue of nationalism and ethnicity has become a primary one and the number of independent states that have emerged in the world system is amazing. The same is the case of international organisations, at both regional and global levels. Another major factor contributing to changes comprise the fast changing technologies and their implications. With the acceleration of technology innovation, what happens in one part of the world is transferred to another part, so casually and in such a short span of time. Technology-oriented changes, particularly in the military and telecommunications sectors, have had a significant impact on international politics.

A major challenge to the unipolar world has come from the newly emerging regional economic blocs, each around one of the superpowers. The European Union (EU), Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are examples of such groupings. Economic tripolarity is also developing in the world system: there is the emergence of United States, European Union and Japanese tripolarity. According to Fred Bergsten, the "big three economies" will be similar in their levels of gross national product (GNP) and external trade. But there is an inherent instability in a tripolar configuration of power. It is felt that this arrangement encourages each power to worry that the other two will group together against it and adopt excessive policies that could increase conflict.

Analyses of the factors that led the US and the Soviet Union to be considered as superpowers reveal that these were not their significant achievements in agriculture, science and technology, defence or space-related matters, but their capability to destroy each other and the world. Ultimately, the undue cost of this on the economy of the Soviet Union virtually crippled it in a short span of time.

Today, after the end of the Cold War, world power is not measured in terms of political power or military might, but the economic capability of nations.

Having accepted the reality of the fall of the Soviet Union, one has to see what are the US priority areas in its foreign policy framework. The Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill of June 30 clarifies the areas. Senator Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee has pointed out that for the past few years, the Bill continued to emphasise funding in two areas容xport promotion and growth in the New Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union. This Bill has also expanded the support for export promotion. Second is the recovery and reconstruction in South-East Europe, which has come into the US's priority list. The US Senate has approved $12,475 million for Fiscal Year 2000 (FY00), beginning October 1. An allocation of $785 million has been given to the Ex-Im Bank, $780 million has gone to the NIS and $535 million is for economic assistance for South-East Europe. The US priorities are quite clear and they are Central Asia, Europe, Africa and China. Recently, the US has taken significant interest in the African countries and has made huge commitments too.

The US threat perceptions in the post-Cold War have been given as:

l "Regional Hegemons"

l Instability様imited wars

l Loss of control on market accessibility

l International terrorism and rigid religious fundamentalism

l Narcotics and drug trafficking

l Nuclear and missile proliferation

l Environmental degradation

l Abuse of human rights

In the past, where there was a single threat, today there are multiple threats from the above-mentioned issues. In this Commencement Address to the US Naval Academy, President Bill Clinton said:

We must remain strong and vigilant against the kind of threats we have seen already throughout the 20th century羊egional aggression and competition, bloody civil wars, efforts to overthrow democracies. But also, our security is challenged increasingly by non-traditional threats, from adversaries both old and new not only hostile regimes, but also terrorists and international criminals, who cannot defeat us in traditional theatres of battle, but search instead for new ways to attack, by exploiting new technologies and the world's increasing openness...We must approach these new 21st century threats with the same rigor and determination we applied to the toughest security challenges of this century.1

The Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 is an example of the kind of threat the US and other nations could face. India, at this point of time, has been facing many such situations from the Pakistani side. It is in this context that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) becomes a matter of great concern. Countries that do not have WMD or claim not to have them continue to be an issue of concern.

The US has also created a three-pronged approach佑ontainment猶revention裕ermination. William Perry and Ashton Carter, in Foreign Affairs had identified certain threats and risks to US security:

l "A Threat List"裕hreats which existed earlier like that of the Soviet Union, which put the survival of the US at stake.

l "B Threat List"裕hese are imminent threats to US interests but do not challenge US survival, such as North Korea, or Iraq.

l "C Threat List"悠mportant contingencies that indirectly affect US security but do not directly threaten US interests, like Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, etc.

South Asia does not figure in this categorisation溶ot that South Asia should figure in the US list of threats. However, what one could analyse from this classification is that India and Pakistan might be put in the last basket of "contingency" cases. The recent Kargil situation proved to be a contingency case which could have led to a prolonged war between the two countries or a miscalculated nuclear conflict. A politically fractured nation, be it India or Pakistan, would be a destabilising factor in South Asia. The White House, in its A National Security Strategy for a New Century has indicated certain other threats to the US national security.

l Regional or State-Centred Threats: A number of states still have the capabilities and the desire to threaten American vital interests through coercion or aggression. They continue to threaten the sovereignty of their neighbours and international access to resources. In many cases, these states are actively improving their offensive capabilities, including efforts to obtain or retain nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and, in some cases, long-range delivery systems. In South-West Asia, one faces problems with both Iran and Iraq who have the potential to threaten their neighbours and also the free flow of oil from the region.

l Trans-national Threats: Terrorism, international crime, drug trafficking, illicit arms transfers, uncontrolled refugee migrations are problems which create major instabilities for a nation. The possibility of the use of WMD溶uclear, biological and chemical傭y terrorists and other insurgent groups is a cause of concern to the US as well as other countries. Cyber attack is another threat that is being employed by the trans-national threat groups.

l Spread of Dangerous Technologies: Weapons of mass destruction pose the greatest potential threat to the national security and stability of any country. Proliferation of these weapons as well as the missiles that can deliver them, into the hands of terrorists, rogue states and some international crime organisations means a major issue to the United States. Control of certain dual-use technologies and materials through various export control regimes has been one of the ways to stop the transfer of technologies into the hands of terrorist groups.

l Foreign Intelligence Collection: The threat from some of the foreign intelligence services is more diverse, complex and difficult to counter than ever before. Some of the foreign intelligence services are rapidly adopting new technologies and innovative methods to obtain such secrets, including attempts to use the global information infrastructure to gain access to sensitive information via penetration of computer systems and networks. These threats are now added to the already existing traditional human intelligence activities.

l Failed States: This is another type of threat facing the US interests and policies. Despite international prevention efforts, some states are not able to provide basic governance, services and opportunities for their populations, potentially generating internal conflict, humanitarian crises or regional instability. When governments lose their standing among the population, it results in mass migration, civil unrest, famine, mass killings, environmental disasters and even aggression against neighbouring states or ethnic groups that threaten US interests.2

The White House document has also brought out the US national interests in very clear terms. These interests fall into three categories. The first includes vital interests葉hose of broad, overriding importance to the survival, safety and vitality of the nation. To defend these interests, if necessary, even the military might be used unilaterally and decisively.

The second category includes situations in which important national interests are at stake. These interests do not affect the national survival, but do affect the national well-being and the character of the world in which one lives. In such cases, the US will use all resources to advance these interests in so far as the costs and risks are commensurate with the interests at stake.

The third category comprises humanitarian and other interests. In certain situations, the nation gets into action because certain values demand it, as for instance, responding to natural and man-made disasters or violation of human rights, supporting democratic institutions, etc.

American Foreign Policy: Underlying Principles

The key principles of US foreign policy have to be understood clearly in the context of the post-Cold War period.

l The global commitments of the US remain its paramount concern, in terms of security-cum-geo-political factors as well as its commercial network in the world at large.

l Strategic and geo-political factors are important as they alone stabilise the prevailing order in world affairs according to the American national interests. With the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Chinese factor having been revived in Sino-US relations vis-a-vis South Asia, South-East Asia and East Asia, its foreign policy commitments are:

(a) Stability in the region.

(b) Commercial, economic and market interests remain uppermost.

(c) Added to the two above issues is a major threat perception of the US in regard to the South Asian region預 possible clash of two nuclear states, India and Pakistan.

This aspect has often been referred to by the president and the secretaries of state and defence in their statements on issues of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and such other non-proliferation regimes.

The United States' principal aim is to achieve total prevention of the weapons of mass destruction. It wants the nations of the world to accept an array of international nuclear agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT); Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

At this point of time, it is worth noting some of the characteristics of US interests in South Asia given that the region contains one-fifth of the world's population, occupies a critically geo-strategic position and is surrounded by China, and the huge oil and gas reserves of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin. US interests center around regional stability; human rights and Islamic resurgence and fundamentalism and economic policy issues.

To further narrow down the policy objectives would translate into:

l Preventing war of any sort in South Asia.

l Promoting democracy and internal stability.

l Expanding economic growth, trade and investment.

l Developing political and, if possible, military cooperation on a host of regional and global challenges, including terrorism, drug trafficking, and environmental degradation.

Problems crop up when there is disagreement on issues like the NPT, CTBT, etc. It is also a well-known fact that both India and Pakistan are not signatories to the NPT or CTBT. US foreign policy should not sacrifice its many interests in South Asia in order to promote unrealistic aims in the nuclear realm. In particular, a complete "roll-back" to a non-nuclear South Asia is simply not a realistic or even medium term policy option for the United States.

Neither country will eliminate its stockpile of fissionable material or declare itself ready to sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

Another major US concern regarding Pakistan has been that a stable Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons is enough of a worry; an unstable Pakistan would be much worse. This is really a major concern for the US as Pakistan will start selling its nuclear technology and certain dual-use materials to other Islamic countries, making it a regular income-generation programme. This becomes a cause of concern to India, keeping in mind the Sino-Pak nexus on a series of defence and nuclear-related issues.

Both India and Pakistan, at this point of time, are under a soft state system wherein a vulnerability of accidental factors can escalate a crisis point.

The US, therefore, is committed to the following measures in this region:

l Containment of regional conflict, where it could lead to a nuclear war.

l Prevention and elimination of any such threat perception that exists.

l Maintaining amicable and friendly relations, where the commercial interests may remain the priority issue.

l Elimination of religious fundamentalist forces which result in destabilising the region, and go counter to the national interests. Religious fundamentalism can spread from one area to others such as countries in West Asia, the Gulf states, Emirates and Central Asia.

The Task Force Report brought out by the Brookings Institution and the Council of Foreign Relations has outlined the immediate foreign policy objectives of the US in South Asia:

l To make a formal commitment to refrain from further nuclear weapons testing by signing the CTBT.

l Participate in good faith in negotiations that aim to end the production of fissile material and sign the FMCT.

l Announce a willingness to participate in a broad-based moratorium on production of fissile material.

l Not to transfer nuclear or missile technology or equipment to any third party and to abide by the MTCR guidelines.

l Not to deploy missiles with nuclear warheads or aircraft with nuclear bombs.

l To implement fully and unconditionally existing bilateral confidence building measures (CBMs), including regular use of hot lines and the provision of advance notification of military exercises.

l To negotiate and implement additional CBMs (including regular high-level bilateral meetings, increased trade and other exchanges), exchanges of observers at military exercises, and a ban on ballistic missile flight tests in the direction of one another's territory.

l To initiate political, economic, and military steps designed to calm the situation in Kashmir while avoiding unilateral acts that could exacerbate tensions there.

l To enter into sustained, serious negotiations with each other on the entire range of issues that divide them. Temporary positive action, followed by reversion to enmity could be the worst, as has recently happened in Indo-Pak relations. First, the Lahore Declaration, and bus diplomacy, followed by intrusion and infiltration in Kargil has been a blow to Indian diplomacy.

The Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh dialogue throws light on some of the US priorities towards India and Pakistan. Talbott outlined five issues that he has been raising with India and Pakistan:

1. Adherence to the CTBT.

2. With regard to the production of fissile material...we hope that the two governments will decide for reasons of their own that it makes sense to have a moratorium on further production of that kind of material until the negotiations on this subject in Geneva can produce a universal ban on the production of fissile material.

3. With respect to ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft, we are hoping that the two governments will see fit as a matter of, in each case, a unilateral defence policy, to restrain and restrict the development and deployment of those delivery systems so as not to exacerbate or accelerate the ballistic missiles arms race that might otherwise prove ruinously expensive to the two countries, and also destabilising.

4. On the issue of export controls, making sure that Indian and Pakistani laws and regulations are very much in keeping with international norms so that these two countries continue to do what I think they've already established a pretty good track record in doing, and that is making sure that they don't transfer dangerous technologies to other countries.

5. The United States is prepared to continue to use its good offices with India and Pakistan to try to foster or encourage direct dialogue between the two countries on the key issues that divide them and have been the source of such enmity and occasional conflict over the years, and that includes, of course, the issue of Kashmir.3

On all of these issues, there has been improvement through bilateral dialogue. The most remarkable thing is that this is the first time that the US has engaged in this type of dialogue with any country on serious issues like the NPT and CTBT. This shows the US concerns in this region about nuclear issues. The two countries have made great progress in these areas. The Indian side is close to signing the treaty provided there is US support for a UN Security Council seat for India.

Regarding the NPT, the US makes certain specific reactions:

l The US believes that it is opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five nuclear weapon states, recognised by the NPT.

l The US perceives that Pakistan has three major problems:

First, their economy is in very bad shape. Tax collections are not keeping pace with government spending. The balance of payment is in the doldrums. They have borrowed a great deal of money from all the international financial institutions and cannot repay it without international help.

The second problem is that the provinces are not pulling on very well with the centre. Punjab as the biggest province has become a source of trouble for the centre.

Most of the big institutions in Pakistan are not functioning as well as they used to. The civil service, the tax collection authority and provincial governments are in total chaos, creating serious problems of governance in the state for the last 10 years.

Next on the line of issues is that of Kashmir which has been the most dangerous point of contention between India and Pakistan. This is an issue with the greatest potential to trigger a conventional or even nuclear war. According to the report, the United States wants India and Pakistan to:

l Refrain from provocative public rhetoric.

l Convene bilateral talks (as well as three-way talks involving Delhi, Islamabad and those representatives of the inhabitants of Kashmir who are willing to eschew violence) devoted to discussing ways of calming the situation in Kashmir.

l Accept an increase in the number of observers on both sides of the Line of Control to monitor troop dispositions and to discourage any armed support for militants.

l Accept a thinning of Indian and Pakistani forces along the Line of Control.

In addition, India should be urged to:

l Grant increased political and economic autonomy to the inhabitants of Kashmir.

l Reduce the size of its forces stationed in Kashmir that carry out policing functions.

l Accept an increase in the number of international observers monitoring human rights conditions within Kashmir.

At the same time, Pakistan should be urged to:

l Eschew use of military force in or near Kashmir.

l Provide no material support to insurgents operating in Kashmir.

l Deny safe haven to any Kashmiri insurgent group.

Ambassador Shaffer, who was giving a brief about the Kashmir situation, said, "The US has always tried to avoid taking sides in this dispute. We have a long standing relationship" with Pakistan擁mportant military ties in 1950s and 1960s, especially the US-Pakistan collaboration over the Afghan problem. Relations with India have had economic and scientific dimensions. "...US goal has always been to maintain good relations with both countries and not to try to choose between them."

In regard to Kargil, the US thinking goes as follows: India should not read too much into the US support to India on Kargil. The basic problem that the US faced was the de-escalation of the conflict between India and Pakistan. The continuation of a local war in the subcontinent had the potential to escalate into a nuclear war, either accidentally or due to an over-enthusiastic supranational outburst on either side. The US desires to avert such a situation at any point of time in the subcontinent and this has been a major policy objective of the United States in South Asia.

The US interests in South Asia, and India in particular, for the future would be based on economic and commercial issues. The US has been India's largest trade partner and the largest foreign investor too. US exports to India in 1997 were $3.6 billion, while US imports from India in the same year totalled $7.3 billion. The US aid programme for India for FY1998 includes an estimated $51.35 million in development assistance, $91.874 million in PL 480 funds, and $475,000 for International Military Education and Training (IMET). For FY 1999, the Clinton Administration has requested for $56.5 million for development assistance, $91.752 million in PL 480 funds, and $450,000 million for IMET.4 Also the US AID (Agency for International Development) has increasingly been focussing on sustainable development programmes that support India's efforts to restructure and privatise its economy. This does not mean that all is smooth in Indo-US economic relations. Major areas of irritation have been the issues of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), Super 301, etc.

What one could infer from the above is that US interests in South Asia have been becoming prominent in the recent years. However, there are areas of agreement and disagreement in the relations and the two countries should pursue the whole bilateral exercise by concentrating efforts on issues that bring them together like those of counter-terrorism, narco-drug trafficking, etc.



1. USIS, "US Security Policy in a Changing World", US Foreign Policy Agenda, September 1998.

2. The White House, A National Security Strategy for a New Century (The White House, October 1998), p. 7.

3. USIA, "Transcript: Talbott Worldnet 'Dialogue' on South Asia", Wireless File, November 17, 1998.

4. Barbara Leith LePoer, "India-US Relations", CRS Issue Brief, Updated June 22, 1998.