Book Review: “Can the Elephant Dance?” by David M. Malone



Book review: "Can the Elephant Dance?" by David M. Malone. Oxford University Press (2002). 448 pages, U$ 32.95 (Paperback,

David Malone’s book on Indian foreign policy, it must be said from the outset, is one of those rare works that combine fine writing and incisive analysis, packaged in a clear and coherent structure. As a consequence, “Can the Elephant Dance? is a true page-turner. The author, a scholar-diplomat known for his expertise on multilateral diplomacy, does not seek to establish a new theoretical framework, yet his sound analysis will prove extremely useful for both scholars and policy makers. In the introduction, Malone rightly notes that “much of Western literature on Indian foreign policy is self-referential: Westerners citing other Westerners, as if most work of value were written outside the region and countries involved.” His work therefore noticeably draws on Indian voices – established ones like Pratap Mehta, Raja Mohan and Siddarth Varadarajan, but also emerging ones such as Nitin Pai – giving valuable insight into the Indian domestic debate which has not yet gained the international projection it deserves.

The Brazilian reader will be disappointed early on when the author concedes that “India’s relations with Latin America (…) are not discussed at length (…), despite increasingly meaningful economic links with Brazil, Mexico and Chile.” This omission remains the norm, as I have written in previous reviews of books on Indian foreign policy (the three most recent ones being “India’s Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect”, edited by Sumit Ganguly, “India’s Foreign Policy: Old Problems, New Challenges”, edited by D. Suba Chandran and Jabin T. Jacob, and “Nation-building and foreign policy in India: An Identity-Strategy Conflict”, by Tobias F. Engelmeier). Yet nonetheless, Malone’s work should be read by Brazilian foreign policy makers and scholars, as India’s challenges are, in many ways, very similar to those Brazil confronts.

In particular, the chapter on India’s regional policy is illuminating, containing numerous lessons for Brazil. Malone writes that “the challenge for Indian diplomacy lies in convincing its neighbors that India is an opportunity, not a threat. Far from being besieged by India, they could provide their economies far greater opportunities for growth than if they were to rely on their domestic markets alone. (…) But has India done enough to make this option attractive? Judging from (….) its lackluster leadership of SAARC, the answer would have to be not yet.” He continues arguing that as “as the Indian economy is growing at a faster rate than the other South Asian countries”, India’s success will give rise to some difficulties, such as migration to India, creating demographic imbalances in certain parts of the country, giving rise to “friction between communities or simply rises in crime rates”. He suggests that if educational and employment opportunities are created in neighboring countries, they may act as domestic checks to mitigate pressure for migration. He also advocates the creation of a pan-South Asian energy grid that can work on the basis of electricity trading, further unifying the region. He concludes by arguing that “India cannot aspire to be a truly convincing ‘great power’ until it achieves a better handle on its region.” While South Asia differs strongly from South America in many aspects, India’s and Brazil’s roles are comparable in that they have global ambitions without effectively managing their region.

In a more general sense, Malone manages to provide the reader with a systematic understanding of India’s foreign policy challenges and constraints – arguably far more complex than those other emerging powers face. India’s political fragmentation, international security threats, the Kashmir issue, and a lack of regional economic integration and its energy deficits are unlikely to prevent India’s rise, but they nevertheless reduce the country’s ability to effectively pursue its national interest on a global scale. Regarding Sino-Indian ties, which several analysts have called the “contest of the 21st century”, Malone suggests that conflict at this point is highly unlikely (as both sides have too much to lose), but that a better dialogue between the two is necessary to avoid misunderstandings that could increase tension in the region.

The author’s decision to combine India-EU and India-Russia ties into one single chapter is debatable given the important differences between the two (Russia was a key partner during the Cold War). His assertion that the EU is not greatly respected in India is correct, largely because the EU’s largest members compete against each other in their efforts to strengthen ties with India, rather than acting as a cohesive bloc. Malone’s prediction that India-Russia ties are bound to be in ‘gentle decline’ is contentious. While the Western narrative about Russia is one of terminal decay, analysts and policy makers in India are much less pessimistic about Russia. Particularly in the context of China’s rise, there is considerable potential for stronger ties between Russia and India. As India will soon have to import 90% of its energy, and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East remains volatile, Russia could once more turn into a more important partner for India.

India is a notoriously confusing country to study in foreign affairs, and even those who have visited many times often admit that it is virtually impossible to predict India’s behavior on the international stage. Still, Malone’s analysis greatly contributes to a better understanding of South Asia’s giant.

Read also:

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Book review: “India’s Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect” by Sumit Ganguly (ed.)

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