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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 32

Learning from Clinton Climb-down

Wednesday 30 July 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty

Sometimes the man-in-the-street’s reactions to world events turn out to be more pertinent than the profundities of foreign-policy pundits. Not that the foreign policy of a country could be decided by the public excitement of the day. There are occasions when a wise statesman may not hesitate to go against the tide in the conviction that the public would ultimately acknowledge the wisdom of a decision which may not have evoked instant applause.

The importance of public opinion in the formulation of the foreign policy of any country today is borne out by the stamp of History. Gone are the days when Kings and their courtiers could decide the fate of countries. The last of such an exercise took place more than a century-and-a-half ago at the Congress of Vienna where the vast empire left behind by the defeated Napoleon was partitioned by the rulers sitting as victorious powers. But that pattern could not be sustained as new waves of popular awakening—centering round the demands of the people awakened by the industrial revolution—smashed up the Vienna design in the decades immediately following.

This is a lesson which our leaders in government and Opposition have to learn. No country can dictate to another country its policies, since no government of the day can flout the will of the people however incoherently it might have been articulated.

When the Prime Minister left for Washington, quite a few had entertained the misgivings that raising contentious issues with President Clinton might be unwise. Since we are the supplicants, this would hardly be to the liking of the US authorities. There was at that time visible annoyance, if not consternation, at the uproar in Parliament about persistent US pressures on Kashmir and the human rights question, on nuclear non-proliferation and capping of missile technology. Those who are keen on forging stronger links with the USA were upset that such demonstration aimed at the US would tie down the Prime Minister’s hands while it would displease the US authorities and thereby might endanger the prospects of getting investments and further credit from the US corporate sector and from the Fund-Bank in which the US voice is decisive. In fact, this was rather bluntly spelt out by the Chairman of the US House Foreign Relations Committee, Lee Hemilton, before the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington.

First, the United States is the world’s only superpower. A close relationship with America can help India achieve its security goals. An antagonistic America would pose a substantial obstacle to Indian aspirations. Second, the US support for concessional financing from the World Bank and the IMF is crucial if India hopes to address the economic and social needs of its people.

It was, therefore, with considerable trepidation that the Prime Minister set out on his long-cherished trip to Washington, accompanied appropriately by the Finance Minister and his aides who have long established top-dog credentials in Washington. The visit passed off without any hitch. The US multinationals and the NRI big-wigs were cultivated with painstaking thoroughness, never undertaken before by any Prime Minister of India. There was exuberance of come-hither blandishments with tempting offers of guaranteed returns as in the case of the power sector and tax concessions and reliefs of a magnitude unthinkable since the colonial days.

Thirty years ago, Ashok Mehta had urged that India should open up her womb to receive foreign capital. Today under the Manmohan dispensation our government has shown its readiness to discard even the fig-leaf of self-respect to enable the US corporate giants to come and virtually take over our economy. Whether they would come or not is another question. The readiness of our government to bring them into the country at any cost is unquestioned. The government came out with an open-door telecom policy just on the eve of the Prime Minister’s departure. Now it is learnt that one of the giants in the line, the US West, has been insisting on a ten-year tax holiday, a ten-year holiday on all custom duties on all their imports, a ten-year holiday on all taxes payable to the States in which the company would be operating and waiver on all surcharges due to all Central Government agencies.

Obviously, such concessions to the US Big Business hardly fetches popular support for the government. Witness the sweated labour the Congress leaders have been putting in to convince the public that the country’s interests were not sacrificed by signing the GATT. But the government really has no answer to the query of the public why Super-301 and Special-301 would still hold good even after agreeing to the GATT arrangement. The Finance Minister has glibly assured that the question of Super-301 and Special-301 can be taken to the WTO once it is set up under the new GATT, but Dr Manmohan Singh very well knows that the US has made it clear that its own laws are non-negotiable before any outside agency.

In contrast to our weak-kneed stand on the economic front, the Prime Minister did not allow himself to be bullied or cajoled into yielding ground on the nuclear question. As for the missile programme, there seems to be some ambivalence though the government, realising the public mood in the country, has announced that the next test of the Prithvi missile would soon take place—a befitting answer to the hectoring by the US Ambassador-designate, Frank Wisner. On the question of the Agni missile, the public feelings are equally strong as it would expect the government to be categoric about the future of this missile project and not yield to the US pressure.

In this background one has to take into account the public reaction to President Clinton’s spectacular climb-down on the question of dealing with China. During his presidential campaign, one of his points of attack was that President Bush’s Republican Administration had let down the sacred crusade for human rights by doing business with the butchers of the Tiananmen massacre. What happened to such holy anger against the betrayers of human rights? In the very first year of his Administration, President Clinton extended the Most-Favoured-Nation (MFN) concession to China, while saying that he would insist on restoration of human rights there. But his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who had gone to Beijing to take up the human rights issue, was unceremoniously sent back by the Chinese authorities. Swallowing that humiliating snub, President Clinton has now not only extended MFN status to China but has abjectly yielded by making the public avowal that his Administration from now on would not link the question of human rights with the question of trade. The President of the mighty solitary superpower has to eat crow, as they say in America. Why this stunning climb-down?

The message that President Clinton has candidly conveyed to the world is that nothing matters today—neither democracy, nor human rights, nor disarmament, nor non-proliferation—nothing but the imperatives of trade. The post-Cold War period is the age of fierce trade war, and in this the US Big Business can hardly be expected to forego the 14 billion dollar trade with China. The world struggle today is not for grabbing territory or fighting communism. It is plain and simple the question of trade, grabbing market for investment and goods.

There is much to learn for us from this latest acrobatics of President Clinton—the lion’s roar turning into mousy whimper. Our economy, our market need not be mortgaged to the USA. That would be misreading of current history. Since the market supersedes ideology or principled politics, we should be confident enough to bargain with all the four—the EC, Japan, Russia and the USA. That’s the way to get the best of terms for our country, and defy all the frowns of Super-301/Special-301. This is the way India can reinstate itself in the leadership of the NAM—not by just being a camp follower of the US bully, but the pace-setter for the Third World in the new world context.

Herein lies the real import of globalisation.

(Mainstream, June 4, 1994)

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