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The superpower in winter - and dispensable

Foreign policy expert Vali Nasr argues that the US pivot away from West Asia is ill advised

Talmiz Ahmad 

In a fit of misplaced euphoria, Bill Clinton had described the United States as the "indispensable nation" whose destiny it was to solve the world's problems. Early last year, President Barack Obama repeated this phrase when he asserted that "America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs", and he intended to keep it that way. Vali Nasr's book challenges Mr Obama's assertion, pointing out that, in the face of challenges to US authority and influence in different areas, the US has now been reduced to a "dispensable nation". He contrasts this with the vision and approach of his great hero, Richard Holbrooke, who was briefly special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from early 2009 until his untimely death in December 2010. He coined the irritating acronym "Afpak".

Holbrooke saw himself as an impatient problem solver. In regard to Afghanistan, his big idea was to engage with the Taliban. Mr Nasr does not explain why Holbrooke reposed so much confidence in a group that most saw as the worst expression of Islamic extremism and violence and which had a long record of commitment to Al Qaeda. At the same time, Holbrooke correctly believed there was considerable "commonality of interests" between the US and Iran in Afghanistan, but the White House's opposition put a stop to any interaction. It is now obvious that US policies in Afghanistan have failed; Mr Nasr describes the present Afghan imbroglio thus: "We [the US] have not won this war on the battlefield, nor have we ended it at the negotiating table. We are just washing our hands of it."

In regard to Iran, Mr Nasr is on more solid ground. He perceptively points out that the US has anchored its entire relationship with the Islamic republic to the enforcement of sanctions, which have now become a goal in themselves instead of a means of diplomatic engagement. This is mainly due to domestic concerns and the opposition from Israel and GCC countries that have blocked consideration of even constructive initiatives to address the nuclear issue. Iran sees its engagement with the US as meaningful only if it addresses the totality of outstanding matters so that it can assume a "normal" status in the international community that would accommodate its legitimate interests in the region. Though Mr Nasr is critical of Mr Obama's policy towards Iran, he cannot bring himself to advocate a substantial and robust bilateral engagement.

The book's weakest section pertains to Pakistan. Mr Nasr sets out the American predicament clearly: Pakistan is a long-standing American ally, but it has now become "The Ally from Hell": in 10 years since 9/11, the US has pumped in $20 billion in civilian and military assistance into this country; during the same period, 35,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist violence.

Pakistan's military leaders provide (selective) intelligence co-operation to the US, facilitating drone assaults and even the killing of Osama bin Laden. At the same time, they nurture extremist elements in Afghanistan and in their own country. Holbrooke, however, believed that the US had "vital interests" in Pakistan. Thus, the US continues to prop up and engage with Pakistan's military, "the one functioning institution in Pakistan - the skeleton that keeps its state up right".

Mr Nasr's main criticism of Mr Obama's foreign policy is the announcement of the "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region so that the US can cope with the nascent challenge from China. Mr Nasr regrets this, and points out that it is West Asia that should remain central to US interests, for it is here "where the great power rivalry with China will play out and where its outcome will be decided". China, as he has pointed out, has a clearer vision of its strategic interests in that it sees West Asia, Asia and Latin America as seamless connectivity. Propelled by its energy security interests, it has established substantial economic and political ties with the Arab world, Iran and Turkey. In fact, in the face of America's withdrawal from the Gulf, China would welcome the opportunity to shoulder security responsibilities in the Gulf.

Amid these new security and strategic challenges, new visions and new relationships, Mr Nasr advocates American "leadership", particularly in West Asia, which is now in the throes of the Arab Spring. In this context, he asserts that the US has "secured stability, promoted prosperity, and built democracy in region after region of the world since the end of World War II". This is palpably false: both during and after the Cold War, the US resorted to military power to serve its interests, killing millions of people and wreaking havoc across vast territories in Asia. In not a single country has the US promoted democracy; it has consistently found comfort with authoritarian potentates and military dictators.

What the world, particularly West Asia, needs is a respite from American "leadership" and a new approach that would promote inclusive, accommodative and co-operative security partnerships in Asia in place of the US' hegemonic and intimidatory approach. This is the real challenge before US diplomacy, about which Mr Nasr has little to say.

The reviewer is former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

American Foreign Policy in Retreat
Vali Nasr
Doubleday, New York; 301 pages; $28.95

First Published: Tue, June 11 2013. 21:30 IST