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SOUTH ASIA

Old World Diplomacy Equals Empty Dialogue

April 08, 2001|Paula R. Newberg

WASHINGTON — Washington's visiting schedule is as regular as its cherry blossoms. Last week, a year after President Bill Clinton visited South Asia, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh returned for consultations with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Most South Asian leaders are curious to understand the meaning of President George W. Bush's streamlined foreign-policy realism. But the substance and style of the Bush administration's talks can help the United States and South Asia shed their old preoccupations, prejudices and practices and turn their attentions to global issues in which they have equally critical stakes.

If ever there were a place where old diplomacy hasn't worked, it's South Asia. It can be argued--and in South Asia, it generally is--that Western shortsightedness has brought the region bad policies, bad tempers and bad luck. The Cold War and its aftermath facilitated dangerous nuclear habits, proxy wars by the armful and enough failed governance experiments to keep analysts busy for decades to come. Sober U.S. diplomats still introduce South Asia by reciting a list of woes: Maoist insurgency in Nepal, gruesome guerrilla war in Sri Lanka, a failed state in Afghanistan, economic vulnerability in Bangladesh and every problem known to mankind in Pakistan. Only India escapes initial recrimination--until someone remembers that 750 million Indians live in aching poverty untouched by techno-trade, international capital flows or nuclear weapons.

It's a carbon copy, at first glance, of the region the Republicans left behind in 1992. But as much as this description rings true, it's also false. Correcting the oblique angle of U.S. policy, as much as South Asia's, is important business for the Bush administration, the shaky Indian political coalition that Singh represents and onlookers across all of India's borders.

At its best, foreign policy is like a respectful conversation. But what passes between the U.S. and South Asia rarely resembles dialogue or diplomacy. Instead, complaints, veiled threats, an occasional shrill ultimatum and punishments have worn thin the fabric of intercontinental discourse--and that's just on the U.S. side. Decades of disciplinary legislation--including a raft of sanctions against bombs (real and imagined), technology transfers, terrorists and narcotics trade--have sharply restricted the ways in which the U.S. can work with Delhi or Islamabad, and have frozen relations with Kabul.

Punitive sanctions don't work. Like South Africa, Pakistan and India developed nuclear arsenals under sanctions; like Iraq, Afghanistan's Taliban movement has consolidated political gains under sanctions while its people starve. Ineffective though they are, however, sanctions unfailingly encumber strategy and create busywork that passes for negotiations.

Equally troubling, sanctions force judgment to replace diplomacy. Hatched in Congress with the tacit agreement of several administrations, three decades of sanctions have framed U.S. relations with South Asia so thoroughly that policymakers seldom distinguish a largely non- existent regional policy from its ineffective instruments. The limited subjects for discussion--the tools of war rather than the seeds for peace--and the gruff manner of exchange have matched superpower petulance with supplication, resentment and occasionally spectacular intransigence among all of South Asia's political governments, parties and civil society groups. It's easy to see why discussions are so often misconstrued as battles: The lines are drawn before real talking starts.

But South Asia is as impatient with itself as it is with the U.S.; it is well aware of its shifting place in the world. Peace in Afghanistan, Kashmir or Sri Lanka is not itching to break out, and public opinion has yet to move more than a millimeter from centrist, pro-nuclear views in either Pakistan or India. The countries of South Asia nonetheless recognize that old-world diplomatic task lists and the convenience of restrictive national-security discussions are perilously out of place in the changing global economy.

South Asia has become a laboratory for new economies and a testing ground for new technologies. Poverty has led to mass migration from farm to factory, but even more, east to west and south to north; remote villages are now tied as tightly to the international economy as are computer companies. The juxtaposition of unremitting deprivation and unlimited opportunity colors every country in the region, every day.

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