The Axis of Democracy (Revisited)

In The National Interest |


Ariel Sharon’s current visit to India has been widely reported and in some corners scorned as a “Hindu-Zionist” conspiracy, but deeper analysis suggests that the visit actually represents the completion of a triangle of American-led partnerships between nations with similar histories, facing similar threats and with a common commitment to democracy.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, America has forged anti-terrorism alliances of convenience with several unexpected bedfellows, including Uzbekistan and Pakistan. But in light of the same threats, the US has also accelerated strategic coordination with India and Israel, a more reliable set of militarily robust and democratic allies, to confront not only Islamic fundamentalism, but also longer-term threats to American preponderance (such as the rise of China). The non-democratic nature of Uzbekistan and Pakistan makes them less durable allies for the United States than the stable, if struggling, democracies of Israel and India. Like the United States, Israel and India have a strong sense of national identity rooted in a secular ideology despite ethnic and religious diversity. Moreover, they are all located in turbulent neighborhoods, making them important bridgeheads for American engagement. With robust militaries, these states are capable of decisively affecting the outcomes of potential conflicts in the Middle East and in Central and South Asia. Unlike the states comprising the "Axis of Evil," not only do strong ties already exist within the emerging "Axis of Democracy," but these relations are deepening in light of geostrategic imperatives. Consider for example the most visible and controversial item on the Sharon-Vajpayee agenda: the $1 billion sale of Phalcon radar systems. With half of the world’s nuclear powers now located in Asia, there is more than a rhetorical need to build strong democratic alliances in Asia beyond Japan and South Korea. After an estrangement spanning the Cold War and hitting rock bottom after India’s May 1998 nuclear tests, the Indo-U.S. relationship has rapidly blossomed since the Kargil crisis of 1999. The mutual concern over the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal after the Musharraf coup in October 1999, as well as reciprocal visits by President Clinton and Prime Minister Vajpayee in 2000, cemented the strategic reconciliation between what current External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha calls the "Twin Towers of Democracy". Sinha has summed up the emerging realism between the two states more subtly in claiming that they have become "sensitive to each other’s strategic compulsions". The Bush administration’s desire to continue to deepen engagement with India after September 11, 2001, led to a loosening of export controls on dual-use technology, effectively ending the sanctions imposed after the nuclear tests. Bilateral agreements, promoting the transfer of civilian nuclear technology, have now been signed; naval cooperation including joint patrols of Indian Ocean sea lanes—critical for the transport of oil—has proceeded swiftly; and additional funding is foreseen for the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism. The U.S. has also intensified its own role behind the scenes in promoting high-level dialogue between India and Pakistan, a move long resisted but now implicitly accepted by India. Reciprocally, India was also quick to support America’s position on missile defense and has taken to imitating U.S. policies on preemption. For its part, the U.S. has begun to heed Indian Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s warning that, even in the absence of a Kashmir dispute, Pakistan has become the "epicenter of global terrorism" and that India "will not wait for any other country to declare Pakistan a terrorist state". For the first time, U.S. support of Pakistan—as it relates to curbing Islamic extremism within its borders—is welcomed rather than resented by India, which fears a collapsed, radicalized state on its border. Like the U.S.-Israel alliance, India and America are learning to develop a stable partnership in which they will, at worst, agree to disagree; this becomes most visible when Indian rhetoric vis-à-vis Pakistan takes on a character reminiscent of Israel’s denunciations of the Palestinian Authority. Closer to home, the role of Indians in American society is rapidly beginning to resemble that of the Jewish community: 1.8 million Indians reside in the U.S., many of them wealthy executives and doctors, making Indians the richest per capita ethnic minority in America with a concomitant, visible rise in social recognition. The enormous lobbying potential of an emerging collective consciousness in the Indian diaspora is clear; there are now more than 130 members in the India Caucus of the House of Representatives. The India-Israel alliance is more subtle in emergence but increasingly profound. Prior to the current Sharon visit, Major General Uzi Dayan, head of Israel’s National Security Council, visited his Indian counterpart Brajesh Mishra last September for a "joint security strategic dialogue", which was followed by a visit from Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in which he praised India as Israel’s "best friend" in the region. Both face a common nemesis in Islamic radicalism, and India has sought Israeli guidance in counter-terrorism and border patrol through a joint anti-terror commission established in 2000. The Phalcon radar which India now purchases is the same system the U.S. prohibited Israel from selling to China two years ago. In total, over $2 billion in arms contracts have been signed between Israel Aircraft Industries and the Indian Defense Ministry, with Israel selling surface-to-surface Barak missiles, pilotless planes, radar systems, and renovating hundreds of Mig-21 and Mig-29 planes and Russian-made T-72 tanks. With the Sharon visit, the purchase by India of Israel’s Arrow Theater Missile Defense system, the only fielded and operational system of its kind, also appears likely. Though the U.S. must still approve this sale, it would represent a victory for India in countering Pakistan's rapidly growing missile program and in strengthening Indo-U.S. strategic relations, while at the same time serving the Pentagon’s goal of advancing an international missile defense architecture. There is one final candidate for the “Axis of Democracy”: Turkey. As a NATO member state, Turkey played a pivotal role in monitoring Soviet actions in the Middle East and Black Sea region during the Cold War. Despite the Defense Department’s failure to gain access to Turkish bases for the Iraq invasion, Turkey remains a major transport corridor as oil flows from Iraq are renewed. On the domestic front, its ruling party of Justice and Development (AKP), which took power after the November parliamentary elections, has voiced its commitment to proving that a Muslim country can be democratic and transparent. Strong U.S. pressure to accelerate Turkey’s entry into the European Union resulted in a compromise to begin accession talks in December 2004, and Ankara demonstrated its goodwill by acquiescing to an opening of the “Green Line” in an effort to spur resolution of the 40-year old Cyprus dispute. Turkey remains a critical partner for the United States in promoting stability in a dangerous region of the world. Furthremore, despite pressure from Arab states, Foreign Minister Ismael Cem has reiterated Turkey’s commitment to relations with Israel. For the past five years, the Israeli Air Force has used Turkish air space for training and the two nations’ pilots have exercised together. Turkey, Israel and India form a triangle proximate to or enveloping the world’s major energy basins—the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea—and depend heavily on their resources. In the coming decades, America’s alliance with these states could be crucial to securing stable flows of oil from the region. The Bush Administration understands that both the immediate focus on terrorism and the long-term threat of militancy in the Islamic world require stable, enduring cooperation for America to remain unchallenged globally. The group of states comprising this Axis of Democracy will function as a network, coordinating strategies and policies. The U.S.-India Defense Policy Group, established under President George H.W. Bush, was the final link in this set of relationships, complementing U.S.-Turkish cooperation through NATO and the longstanding alliance with Israel. All four states share a realist worldview, allowing them to support common positions in strategic affairs, yet they share a strong commitment to democratization. Alliances may be ephemeral and of convenience, or durable and rooted in culture and history, but they are always based on strategic necessity and joint opposition. Naturally, there are areas of tension within this Axis of Democracy, not dissimilar to antagonisms within NATO. For example, the United States exerts much pressure to contain Israel’s nuclear status and strongly urges restraint on India’s nuclear program. Furthermore, on human rights, America has been critical of all three states at various times. Yet this new grouping could become America’s key geostrategic vehicle for promoting its global interests. Europe, having nearly achieved its ultimate goal of becoming a postmodern "zone of peace", has also become regionally self-obsessed and remains culturally and politically reluctant to share the burden of providing for global stability with America. The Axis of Democracy could prove to be an enduring coalition of the willing against both the threat of international terrorism and future threats to global peace.

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