Paul McGarr: The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945–1965

Paul McGarr: The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945–1965

As South Asia ascends in geopolitical importance and as a terrain of major power involvement, so does the coverage accorded to the region. A litany of books on India, Pakistan and Afghanistan now adorn bookshelves. Major works on the Pakistani army and its intersections with politics have come in the last year and so on Afghanistan. Despite this rise, we have relatively few studies that study the region from an external lens and that from the perspective of major powers that have longed vied for influence. Paul McGarr’s recent history on Anglo-American involvement and engagement in the region from 1947-65 aims to fill this gap and does so admirably. The accessible and meticulously excavated and analysed history looks at key events, personalities and forces that influenced the engagement on Great Britain and the United States in South Asia from 1947-65. The book has nine substantive chapters on major events in the region from these two decades. The introduction looks at how the transfer of imperial power and the end of world war two affected the broad architecture of cooperation and influence over the next two decades. Subsequent chapters cover major episodes like Korean War, Goa Crisis, Sino-Indian war, Kashmir ending with the Rann of Kutch crisis in 1965. McGarr argues that the engagement of Washington and London in South Asia over those two decades has been largely ‘misguided, ineffectual and counterproductive.’ Moreover, their efforts were often colliding with adversaries like Russia and China, whose interventions were more astute and calibrated in comparison. Each chapter and episode in the book details this argument in detail.
Three broad takeaways can be deduced from the book. The first is how the close and the subtly elucidated transfer of power between the United States and United Kingdom influenced the course and developments in international politics as the US assumed its role as the dominant state and de facto policeman of the world. London’s reluctance when faced with this conundrum is on display at several moments and so is the disdain from Washington toward London on matters where the former is less inclined to learn from the latter. But London does have its say at key junctures. When faced with uncertainty and a clear lack of understanding of the region, Washington was not shy in asking London to intervene in their mutual interest. Occasionally, this approach reaped fruit; London’s politicking and manoeuvring behind the scenes to diffuse the 1965 Indo-Pak war makes for some fascinating reading. Clearly, aside from the imperial transfer of power, there was another and more important transfer of power that was unraveling as the cold war raged.
The second is domestic politics and how different personalities in all countries worked to complicate the Anglo-American equation with South Asia. Foremost amongst this group is VK Krishna Menon who was widely despised by his western interlocutors and seen as a critical impediment insofar as bettering Anglo-American ties were concerned. On the American front are actors like Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy and John K Galbraith who were key in managing and defusing problematic junctures like the Goa crisis, Kashmir conundrum and the 1965 Kutch war. In London, several Foreign Office diplomats were key in managing complex relations with both countries – India and Pakistan as they entered the international stage as independent countries. Clearly, the legacies of colonial ties affected early relations between both countries and the CRO and FCO worked to mitigate these tensions. Lord Mountbatten was called on at important moments to lend a hand and move Nehru to toe to the Anglo-American line which he did intermittently.
And the final point pertains to the diplomatic instrument repeatedly used – aid, military and developmental, to browbeat and bring both countries to line when crises erupted. It is clear to say that this strategy was perceptively weak and ineffective to elicit the results expected. The attendant results speak to the efficacy of diplomatic levers used to conduct business. Both countries, India and Pakistan, proved equally good at requesting and accepting assistance and resistant to the expectations that came along with the assistance. And this is painfully evident when looking at several key episodes. More than anything, this lack of imagination from Washington and London coupled with unpropitious circumstances and intractable characters manning situations appears to have contributed to the ineffectual diplomacy practiced by Washington and London in the subcontinent through the first two decades of the cold war.
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