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Giovanni Arrighi defines hegemony in his essay, “The Three Hegemonies of Historical Capitalism” (Stephen Gill eds., Gramsci, Historical Materialism, and International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), as the power of a state to exercise governmental functions over a system of sovereign states. This power is something more and different from dominance pure and simple. It is the power associated with dominance expanded by the exercise of intellectual and moral leadership. Of course, when the use of force is too risky and the exercise of moral leadership problematic, corruption and fraud may temporarily step in as surrogates of power. In any case, hegemony is the additional power that accrues to a dominant group in virtue of its capacity to pose on a universal plane all the issues around which conflict rages.

In the post-Cold War era, the only state that has had the means to exercise hegemony (or attempted to do so) has been the United States. Without going into a critique of American foreign policy and its underlying motives and assumptions, suffice it to say that American presidents since have had at best a lacklustre track record when it comes to knitting together coalitions for international goals. The primary reason for this is that they have not been able to convince their potential partners that their interests are, as Arrighi says, universal. Largely, for other countries to do so would require an element of trust, something the US is in very short supply of anywhere in the world. The removal of all restrictions placed on the mercenary (at best, jihadist at worst) nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan is a case in point: it does not serve the interests of the United States at any level, especially when the Obama government is in the process of strengthening the non-proliferation regime and putting pressure on India to accede to the Comprehensive test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In the New World Order under George W Bush, the United States was trying to steer closer to India. By offering to supply the Indians with F-18s and the required blueprints for indigenous manufacture, the United States signalled that a significant change in policy was in the works. The Americans also offered India a nuclear deal by which the exchange of civilian technology and material could take place, provided of course, that India clearly demarcate its military and civilian reactors and ensure no flow of resources to the military side from the civilian side. Admittedly, there is much to gain for American firms in this as well as for India, but that never resulted in nuclear cooperation of the magnitude planned ($100 billion in 10 years) before now. Further, the strengthening of India would create a thorn in China’s back, drawing Chinese resources away from the international arena to protect its South Asian flank. Bush also indicated a dehyphenation of Indo-American relations from US-Pakistani relations, something India has tried to do since independence. Pushing for transparency and accountability on Pakistan’s border with India, Bush sent a signal to India that he meant business.

It is not clear what role the Obama Presidency wishes India to play in South Asia or world affairs, but the re-hyphenation of India and Pakistan has not been a positive first step. To compound that, the lax handling of proliferation concerns when it comes to Pakistan and China is sure to be of concern in India. AQ Khan sold weapons to states high on America’s threat radar – Libya, N. Korea, and Iran. By their own admission, former CIA director George Tenet described Khan as being “at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden.” (New York Times, November 24, 2004). After the story of the Khan network broke in February 2004, the nuclear watchdogs did nothing. The inconsistency in their attitudes deserves some further analysis: for suspicion of possessing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the United States and Britain passed sanctions against Iraq for twelve years. The Nuclear Suppliers Group ostracised India for decades in retaliation to the 1974 test at Pokhran despite conceding that India had one of the best non-proliferation records. Even in the Pakistani case, AQ Khan did not materialise out of nowhere; there had been ample evidence against him and complicity in his activities by the United States and other nations. Dutch intelligence, for example had been monitoring Khan since 1972 when he first joined Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory (FDO), a subcontractor of Ultra Centrifuge Nederland (UCN) – UCN is the Dutch partner in the Urenco uranium enrichment consortium. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, American intelligence officials convinced Dutch authorities, according to former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, on two occasions not to arrest Khan for the purposes of monitoring his activities further. However, the Dutch government tried and sentenced AQ Khan in absentia in 1983 for espionage (four years imprisonment). Finally, in 1979, Pakistan was cut off from economic and military assistance by the United States after U.S. intelligence learned of the newly commissioned enrichment facility at Kahuta. However, the strategic importance of Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ensured that no meaningful sanctions would be imposed. This policy was consolidated following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In 1981, the CIA learned of preparations for a Cold Test (detonation of a nuclear mock-up without the fissionable core). This was after Indian and Israeli intelligence noticed tunnels being dug in the Ras Koh mountains in a manner suited only for nuclear tests. However, given Pakistan’s new importance in the US assistance to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared that as long as Pakistan did not test a nuclear device, the United States was perfectly willing to look the other way. Over the next few months, Undersecretary of State for Security Assistance James Buckley and other US officials travelled back and forth between Washington and Islamabad, refining the back-channel deal on the Pakistan nuclear program.

Unwilling to leave matters entirely in the hands of the Reagan Government, the Mossad bombed a German company that supplied parts for A. Q. Khan’s nuclear weapons program in Pakistan. The company had been doing business with Khan through one of his representatives in Paris since 1976 and had sold Pakistan lead shielding and remote-controlled equipment to maneuver radioactive substances. The Israelis even considered a strike on Kahuta but cancelled at the last-minute due to intense American pressure. As Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark reveal in their book, Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, Pakistani Foreign Minister Agha Shahi met US Undersecretary of State for Security Assistance James Buckley in Islamabad in 1981 following a large grant of US aid. The aid was conditional on Pakistan stopping its nuclear weapons program, but, according to Agha Shahi: “I mentioned the nuclear caveats and emphasized that if we had a bomb and wanted to test it there was nothing the US could do. Buckley shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I understand. Yes, we know.’” Thus, the Reagan White House circumvented Congressional legislation that demanded that the White House certify that Pakistan was not making nuclear weapons before any aid could be given to them (1985-1990). Furthermore, from 1983 to 1987, Pakistan also purchased some 40 nuclear-capable F-16s, ostensibly for use against the Soviet threat to make good on their desire for a warm water port. In 1989, they purchased 60 more.

In late 1990, shortly after Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait and the UN Security Council imposed an embargo on Iraq, Khan offered to help Baghdad produce gas centrifuges and design nuclear weapons (Iraqi nuclear officials, ironically suspecting that the offer was a sting operation because Pakistan was a U.S. ally, proceeded cautiously and requested a sample of what Khan could provide). In 1997, the Clinton administration gave the Chinese government a clean bill of health over the sale of nuclear technology and material to Pakistan despite concerns and warning signs since 1977. In fact, Khan had received the bomb blueprints from China’s fourth nuclear test in 1966 in the early 1980s. The year after, after the tit-for tat nuclear tests in South Asia, former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the event and emphasised that the real dangers to American security were Iran, Iraq, and N. Korea. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, brought Pakistan back into America’s good books and all sanctions were removed to help recruit Pakistan for the War on terror.

It was only in 2003 that the world came to know of the Khan network when reports emerged from Iran and Libya of Pakistan’s assistance to their nuclear programmes. Also in 2003, in April, German authorities intercepted a ship in the Suez Canal with a large cargo of strong aluminum tubing en route to North Korea, intended for use as outer casings for P-2 centrifuges. In October, the German cargo ship BBC China was intercepted en route to Libya with components for 1,000 centrifuges. Even more damaging was the discovery that although the US had known about this as early as the early 1990s, not much was done to stop it (David Albright, “An Iranian Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist 51, no. 4 (July/August 1995): 20–26). When news broke out, the Pakistani government nonetheless initially resisted arresting Khan, whom most Pakistanis considered a national hero. It was only after Colin Powell personally met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that Khan was finally arrested. Although many Pakistanis have been detained since the scandal broke, none have been prosecuted. The Government of Pakistan (GoP) has also not allowed anyone outside the Pakistani government to interview Khan or the others that were detained. And on August 29, 2009, AQ Khan is yet again a free man.

So what message does that give America’s present and potential future allies? Two lessons are clear from all this: 1. the United States will do anything within its means to pursue a short-term goal, however costly it may turn out to be in the future, and 2. it will do so clandestinely with no regard to the security of its allies. As a result of Reagan’s monumental obtuseness, there is at least one other nuclear power in the world (N. Korea) endangering a US ally (Japan), and another potential nuclear power (Iran) threatening yet another one of America’s allies (Israel). A nuclear Pakistan, to which the United States played midwife, is, needless to say, a threat for a potential US ally (India).

With the release of AQ Khan and not as much as a murmur from Foggy Bottom, it must be clear to New Delhi and Tel Aviv that the United States is not in touch with the realities on the ground in their respective regions. If this is the case, it makes it very hard for either country to forge a close and functional relationship with the US – trade in civilian and military goods not withstanding (the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967 demonstrates this clearly). It is going to be more difficult for the United States to convince regional actors that the interests of the United States and of its allies are congruent if the United States continues to undermine its allies for ill-conceived goals and thoughtless action. If the United States wishes to forward a hegemonic discourse successfully, it is about time they took a good look at their assets and liabilities in different regions of the world and did a quick rethink. Otherwise, the Pax Americana will be over sooner than they think.