India's on wrong path to status

July 10, 1998|By Flora Lewis

PARIS -- It is evidently the quest for international status that underlies India's determination to be, and to be recognized as, a nuclear power. Pakistan also feels a need for protection against India's overwhelming conventional force, and likes the idea of "me too."

But despite India's references to the need for a "minimum deterrent" against China, pointing out that it has neither "the resources nor the will for parity," New Delhi's statements make clear that it is a long-simmering resentment at the world's apparent disregard for India's weight that pushed the nationalist-leaning coalition government to hold and publicize nuclear tests.

A European diplomat recently asked Indian officials why, if they felt the need for nuclear weapons, they didn't copy the Israeli tactic of building them without attracting the international opprobrium of vaunting it.

Arms stockpile

At one point, that had been the strategy. An unidentified Indian "senior official" told Western correspondents last week that aside from the recent nuclear tests, India already has atomic arms it could use, and the systems to deliver them.

This, of course, has been suspected for some time. But beyond the thesis for deterrence, India craved recognition.

A New Delhi communique, denouncing the joint U.S.-China summit call for both India and Pakistan to curb a possible arms race, was blunt. It said, "India categorically rejects the notion of these two countries arrogating to themselves joint or individual responsibility for the maintenance of peace, stability and security in the region. This approach reflects the hegemonistic mentality of a bygone era in international relations."

The Indians have a point in complaining that despite their size and numbers, they are routinely put in a class well below China in status. And they can make a fair argument that with the end of a two superpower world, permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council is by no means an evident measure of importance.

It happens that the five permanent members are all nuclear powers, the only avowed ones until the Indian and Pakistani tests. None had atomic weapons when the council membership and its rules were adopted.

Status, ranking in the world, has always been a consideration for states alongside the influence that power brings. Now, however, it is becoming a prime factor that distorts conventional strategic analysis and cannot be overlooked.

Russia is the most obvious current example. Whatever else it disagrees on, the Russian establishment is unanimously hypersensitive to making sure its country continues to be regarded as a great power. That, many people say, is the real reason they are so upset by the expansion of NATO, which they view not as a military threat but a psychological one that could produce a backlash of nationalism.

Importance of symbols

Likewise, China's satisfaction with the deferent warmth displayed by President Clinton on his nine-day trip was more what I call "geo-psychics" than any substantive gain or agreement. What mattered to Beijing was the symbolism.

In fact, There is a profound contradiction between the United Nation's founding principle of the sovereign equality of all states and reality. Geo-psychics is an attempt to bridge the gap by induced perception. The urge cannot be ignored. There is no inherent reason why possession of nuclear arms should be the test, and many reasons for rejecting it.

But then there has to be some other way to acknowledge that some states are, at the least, more equal than others. This is a problem of the gradual transition in the way nations deal with one another. New measures, new protocols are needed to satisfy the need for symbolic importance.

Psychologists should be recruited alongside diplomats and military staff to sort out ways to accommodate sensitivities which don't really require weapons, or spheres of influence, or even money, but do provoke tangible irritation.

Flora Lewis is a former foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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