New Delhi: There is a passage from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which greatly appealed to America’s foremost grand strategist of the last century and the designer of Soviet containment, George F. Kennan. It is important for India to ponder over the passage as it debates intervention in Maldives which would bring it in confrontation with Chinese naval power reportedly deployed within striking distance of the troubled island state in the Indian Ocean.

Gibbon wrote in the context of distant foreign intervention and power projection that “It is incumbent on the authors of persecution previously to reflect whether they are determined to support it in the last extreme. They excite the flame which they strive to extinguish; and it soon becomes necessary to chastise the contumacy, as well as the crime, of the offender.” On the basis of this passage, Kennan theorized about the indubitable temporariness of both the Nazi conquest of continental Europe and the post-1945 Soviet Empire. He was the first to do so, and like most sages, his words of wisdom only won gradual and grudging acceptance.

Power projection leading to intervention and occupation rarely succeed in their aims. Instances of intervention and occupation in a situation of general war (a world war, for example) are qualitatively different from standalone, isolated power projection. In the first category would fall the post-1945 occupations of Germany and Japan. In the second would come Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the IPKF intervention in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka and the holding of territories thereof. Allied occupations of Germany and Japan were scarcely trouble-free and the populations there were as likely to be hostile towards the occupiers as they were wont to vent fury against wartime fascists who landed them in the mess. Kennan cautioned against demanding unconditional surrender of Germany and of post-Cold War Soviet Union. They found no resonance with his own government. Russia’s belligerence today is a direct outcome of the Gibbon principle. On the other hand, US failures in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are so self-evident that you would expect world powers to shrink in horror from power projection and foreign intervention. Hubris, however, often blinds powers to history.

India’s own intervention in Sri Lanka was disastrous. Political objectives were unclear if they existed at all and the IPKF deployment united all factions in Sri Lanka against India. It happened exactly as Gibbon foresaw. The contumacy merged with the crime of the offender. In the face of united opposition, India had to beat a hasty retreat.

In Maldives it will be no different. In the first place, India does not have a case for intervention. It is Maldives’ internal matter whether it chooses to be a democracy or a totalitarian state. With Maldives having tasted the sweet fruit of freedom for a length of time, though, it would be impossible for the present dispensation to keep a lid on democratic aspirations forever. Distant pressure from India and through partners and the United Nations would serve better than intervention, even assuming China would permit it without a fight. If, however, India goes in, return will be inglorious, having united the Maldives population against India in a classic replay of the Gibbon principle. And the longer India stays, the more it will make enemies of the people. Occupiers are always loathed despite their best intentions. By the way, China would be in a mess as well if it intervenes. The Gibbon rule does not discriminate between democracies and totalitarian states. The Chinese navy will find extended operations in the Indian Ocean away from homes bases exhausting and ultimately fruitless. How long can China occupy Maldives without exciting the flames of Maldivian nationalism? In the event of Chinese intervention, India is scarcely likely to sit back. Its best strategy would be to harry the Chinese to bog them down, and to effect a geopolitical overstretch on China. The Chinese are smart to avoid overstretch.

Without playing the game of the Maldives opposition, India should project its democratic liberal principles into the Maldives crisis. Under Narendra Modi, these principles have been compromised, but what’s left still provides the very best option for Maldives. India has time. Maldives and China don’t. China cannot afford prolongation of the crisis in Maldives because it affects its global ambitions. India must play the waiting game, but does it have the instinct for it?

Editor’s Note: 1. What was the point of inviting Justin Trudeau if he had to be insulted? This will rebound on India.

2. The Nirav Modi scandal has the potential to undermine the banking sector and provoke a sovereign ratings downgrade. The Indian economy is on uncertain ground and the Narendra Modi government has not woken to the danger.