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Does the elephant dance?
In the bloated body of writing on Indian foreign policy, one minor genre is notable for its acuity and elegance: the handful of books written by scholar-diplomats who have served as envoys to India. John Kenneth Galbraith - American ambassador during the early 1960s - is perhaps its best known practitioner. But more illuminating are the books by Walter Crocker, the Australian envoy who wrote a study of Jawaharlal Nehru, and Escott Reid, the Canadian envoy who penned two important accounts of Nehru's foreign policy. David Malone is heir to this tradition. A reputed scholar of international relations, he was Canada's high commissioner to India from 2006 to 2008. He has now written an account of contemporary Indian foreign policy that is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon: so comprehensive is the coverage and so empathetic the treatment.
Does the Elephant Dance? stands out amongst books on this subject that periodically pour off the presses. For one thing, it is informed by a strong historical sensibility and a thorough grasp of the economic forces that are shaping India's international relations. For another, Malone - unlike most other scholars - does not believe that writing about Indian foreign policy and strategy requires a declaration of war on the English language. The book is lucidly and engagingly written, and is as accessible to the lay reader as to the specialist.
Malone's approach to this broad and unwieldy subject is framed around 'three major preoccupations and an important partner'. The preoccupations include managing ties with its immediate neighbours, dealing with China, and ensuring India's emergence as a major player on the global stage. The partner, of course, is the United States.
The book effectively comprises three sections. The first has a chapter each on the historical background of India's foreign policy, on the evolution of its economic policies, and on the main security challenges confronting it. Malone seeks to explain current Indian policies in terms of historical continuity and change. The strengths of this approach are evident in the three central chapters dealing with the neighbourhood, China and the US. In these, Malone deftly analyses the historical background to the relationship, the factors that have accounted both for persistent problems and dramatic departures, and the likely future trajectories. While Malone appreciates the mainsprings of Indian policies, he is no uncritical chronicler. India's approach towards its neighbours has, he concedes, 'improved in tone and quality' but New Delhi needs to do more. Even vis-a-vis Pakistan, Malone argues, it is 'the larger, stronger, and more self-confident India' that should take the first step.
Malone's treatment of the Sino-Indian relationship is balanced and clear-eyed. That this relationship will be a mixture of competition and cooperation is widely acknowledged. But Malone presents a superb analysis of the sources of this dynamic and considers how it could help as well as hobble this important relationship. The treatment of India-US ties is similarly nuanced. These, he argues, are based on 'specific shared interests in some areas and quid pro quo arrangements in others, all underscored by strong economic inter-dependence. ' He cautions that crafting 'long-term strategies excessively on systematic cooperation would be hazardous for both nations. '
The last third of the book focuses on India's relations with other parts of Asia, with Europe and Russia, and with multilateral institutions. On the last theme - the area of Malone's previous academic work - his analysis is particularly insightful. He argues that there is an asymmetry between how India perceives its engagement with multilateral forums and how the rest of the world regards these. He trenchantly observes that 'The cleverest person in the room may win many arguments, but still not win the game'.
The book would have benefited from a more focused assessment of the strategic dimensions of Indian foreign policy. There is a chapter on security, but the question of strategy tends to get diffused in the wider discussion of specific bilateral engagements. For instance, the impact of India's acquisition of hard power capabilities on its foreign policy is not addressed in detail. Similarly, the question of ends and means in foreign policy does not get systematic treatment.
But these are quibbles. Does the Elephant Dance? is the best book yet on recent Indian foreign policy. It will be required reading for anyone wanting to make sense of the great transitions underway in India's engagement with the world.
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