A critical, sometimes embarrassing account of American relations with the major nations of South Asia.
Americans have been poking around in South Asia since the beginning of the republic. As Raghavan (India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia, 2016), a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, writes, the British Raj refused to issue credentials to George Washington’s choice of consul, a businessman who had been living for years in Calcutta. “Britain’s reluctance to sanction an American consul stemmed mainly from its desire not to dilute its hold over the Indian economy,” writes the author, but the Americans kept at it, establishing themselves as an important trading partner in an economy that has done nothing but grow. At the same time, and especially in the period since Indian independence, the U.S. has not quite known what to do with India. Some administrations have been friendly, others eager to treat China as the sole Asian power worth dealing with, and still others more inclined to side with Pakistan in the binational rivalry. Things have become no less murky in recent decades, and the result has been a particularly difficult relationship. During the Eisenhower administration, for example, India’s policy of nonalignment could mean nothing but a pro-communist stance, with China, in the words of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, “attempting to rally all of Asia to rise up to eject violently all Western influence.” A case in point in America’s difficulty in wrapping its collective diplomatic head around South Asia is a dam project in Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley, modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority, which “would at once cater to irrigation, electricity, and farm extension." Begun in the early 1950s, it has met only partial success, though the opium trade has certainly benefited from irrigated poppy fields.
Encounters with America, writes Raghavan, have not always been negative, but as his book shows, there’s much room for improvement.