The Axis of Democracy (Revisited)

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 betw

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.