Are the Indians as crazy as American officials believe?
You can't understand the crisis that has erupted with India's nuclear tests last month without taking into account the mind-set that has prevailed in official Washington for the past quarter century.
That mind-set--the hidden attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes that American policy-makers share with one another--goes something like this: The Indians are nuts. They don't have to be taken seriously. They don't merit the respect and first-class treatment devoted to, say, the Russians or Chinese, the French or Germans, the Israelis or the Saudis.
You can find examples of this Washington disdain for India in published memoirs: Henry A. Kissinger, for example, wrote that Nixon couldn't stand Indira Gandhi.
You can also find it in private conversations. In covering foreign policy in Washington, I have often heard high-ranking U.S. officials speak of India with derision.
This set of attitudes is reflected in official U.S. policy. American leaders have long ignored India. When Madeleine Albright stopped in New Delhi last November, she was the first secretary of state to visit the Indian subcontinent in 14 years. (And then she had to cut short her trip, leaving early because of a crisis over Iraq.)
Compare this with how America deals with China. Over the past two decades, secretaries of state have visited Beijing nearly once a year. American presidents make triumphal tours there. Vice presidents and defense secretaries stop in China regularly, too.
To be sure, this disparity in American treatment of China and India had its origins in the last 20 years of the Cold War, when India had the support of the Soviet Union while China was aligned with the United States. However, after the Cold War ended, U.S. foreign policy failed to change as much as India had hoped. The old American attitudes have lingered.
Last week, when asked about India's nuclear test, National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger became exasperated. "There are ways of expressing your national identity and greatness other than by blowing off a bomb," he told a group of columnists.
And yet, when the subject turned to American policy toward China, Berger's tone was different. "You cannot turn your back on a quarter of the world's population," he declared.
Berger was merely reflecting the enduring assumptions of the past quarter-century: China is a nation to be taken seriously; India is not.
To its credit, the Clinton administration has gone further than its predecessors in seeking to improve relations with India. But its efforts have been belated and insufficient. Indeed, over the past two years, the Indians have seen that the Clinton administration has been expanding America's defense relationship with China once again.
"What's happened in India is an unintended consequence of America's China policy," observes Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson.
If you were an Indian leader, you might fairly ask: Aren't we also nearly a quarter of the world's population? How did China manage to gain the respect from the United States that we cannot seem to attract?
The explanation is not merely one of economics. At the time America came knocking on China's door in 1971, China was a basket case. If you talk about future markets, India will be as large as China. While Americans spout cliches about China's growth and prosperity, Bombay enjoys a middle class that is at least as rich as Shanghai's.
One of the main reasons China commands greater attention, of course, is that it has nuclear weapons. When American policy-makers explain why it is necessary to do business with Beijing, sooner or later they come around to the fact that China is a nuclear power.
And so India's new leaders have concluded that they want the deference brought by nuclear weapons, too. This might not be pleasant or even moral, but can we say it is utterly irrational?
"It trivializes the problem to say that what India has done is strictly a matter of domestic politics," says Jonathan Pollack, a specialist on Asian security at the Rand Corporation.
Pollack notes that there were, until recently, two competing schools of thought in India concerning nuclear weapons.
One group, which we might call the moderates, believed that India didn't need to test nuclear weapons. Instead, India could get the respect and benefits it sought, particularly from the United States, without nuclear testing. The idea, explains Pollack, was that India could become "America's democratic partner in Asia."
The other school of thought, Pollack says, is the one represented by the current Indian leadership, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its view is that there is no substitute for nuclear weapons in gaining international standing--and that, even if Washington is at first infuriated, eventually it will deal with India in a new way.
Look at China. When China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, it was thought to be dangerous, irresponsible and even a little crazy. After all, under Mao Tse-tung's leadership in the 1950s and 1960s, China was in the midst of domestic turmoil far greater than anything in India today.
Nevertheless, within the next decade, the United States decided to reach out and form a new relationship with China. And eventually, America may well follow down this same path with India.
Washington has been saying for years that China is an emerging world power and wants to be treated like one. So does India. Now, to our sorrow, we know.
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.