Anxious Western diplomats converging on New Delhi these days must cast an occasional nostalgic thought back to the old days of the British Empire. The problems they are having now would not be problems if London could still give orders to the Indian Army, and if that Army would still patrol along the southern frontiers of the Russian Empire.
The task is the same as in the old days of the British Empire: the containment of Russian power along its southern borders. The United States, as today's leading Western power, has some of the responsibilities the British once shouldered, but without the resources.
The British Empire is gone. The unity of the Indian subcontinent is gone. India and Pakistan distrust each other profoundly. Their respective armies face each other. Each is reluctant to turn and face northward toward the Soviet Union.
The result is that President Carter of the United States is little further along with his containment policy today than when he started out nearly a month ago.
His first important move after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan was to ask Congress to lift the existing ban on sending US arms to Pakistan. He got the agreement of the leaders of Congress on Jan. 3. On Jan. 4 White House officials told reporters they were putting together a $400 million package of arms and bullets for Pakistan.
That is as far as the project has yet gone. Pakistan's military dictator, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, called the amount "peanuts." India bristled. Mr. Carter had discussed the project of aiding Pakistan with the Pakistanis, with his NATO allies, and with China; but he had not cleared it first with India.
This weekend, nearly a month after first broaching the subject of aid to pakistan, Mr. Carter was sending Washington's most consulted elder statesman, Clark Clifford, all the way to New Delhi to try to make up for that earlier omission and bring India's new Prime Minister, Indira gandhi, into the project, which without her support can enjoy only the dimmest of prospects.
British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington had preceded Mr. Clifford to New Delhi. He was there on Jan. 17 and did persuade Mrs. Gandhi to back off a little from her initial pro-Soviet stance on Afghanistan and concede in public that Moscow had had to justification for its invasion. But that was a long way from persuading Mrs. Gandhi to look with favor on any idea of US, Chinese, or NATO guns and bullets for Pakistan.
Mr. Carter is having to learn a lesson that several of his predecessors had to learn: It is difficult to built a coalition, or even a "consortium" (the word currently used in Washington), to take anything more than verbal action in a case like the invasion of Afghanistan, which is remote from both Europe and Japan and affects those areas only indirectly.
Most of the nations were quick to censure Moscow for the deed. But applying sanctions, and forming a military front, are different.
President Truman was able to persuade NATO allies to make token contributions to the American forces in Korea during that war. The British sent the largest contingents to back up the Americans and South Koreans.
But that was before the British wanted US help against President Nasser of Egypt after Mr. Nasser had seized the Suez Canal. They were denied help. President Johnson tried to get NATO help for his war in Vietnam, but by that time no one but South Korea was willing to send combat troops.
NATO did not help the British hold Suez. NATO did not help the French hold Indo-China. NATO probably will not help Pakistan today with anything much more than UN resolutions. Mr. Carter must forge a special arrangement for the Middle East and South Asia.
One major difficulty is that the allies in Western Europe, and Japan, are reluctant to have the new tensions of the Middle East disturb their own relations with Moscow.West Germany and France have both sidestepped sanctions against Moscow over Afghanistan. Both look coolly even on the idea of boycotting the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. Only the British seem to be going along with any enthusiasm.
So, over this current weekened, it is a case of back to basics for Washington. If it wants to set up new boundaries around Moscow's southern frontiers, it must first clear the project with India, then work out an improvement of relations with Pakistan and, at the same time, try to clear away the awesome problem of hostages and the Shah, which continues to plague Washington's relations with the regime in Tehran.
Later than was desirable, these ground-clearing operations are now in hand.
There is no shrewder, wiser negotiator and trouble-manager in Washington than Clark Clifford. He began his career under Harry Truman. Ever since, any Democratic president or leader in trouble has automatically turned to Mr. Clifford. If anyone can patch up matters between Mr. Carter and Mrs. Gandhi, he is probably the most promising person for the task.
Backstage work with Pakistan is bearing some early fruit. Pakistan denies that there is any thought of forming a Washington-Peking-Islamabad triangle. It is seeking to reassure Mrs. Gandhi in New Delhi while at the same time keeping the way open for aid from both Peking and Washington.
And Washington and Tehran have both made opening moves toward improvement of relations with each other. The search is on for a face-saving formula that will save the hostages and bring about some investigation of the old regime in Iran with a possible return of wealth at the end (if there is enough to be worth returning).
The expulsion from Iran of US television, with its cameras in front of the US Embassy for daily demonstrations, has reduced that particular form of irritation. Washington officials admit privately that in some ways it was a good thing. The hostages have become, in effect, prisoners of war whose release depends on conclusion of a peace treaty. Matters have reached the point of an informal armistice, with peace negotiations now under way.
There has been some progress over the month since Washington set out to contain the damage in the Middle East and South Asia. If Mr. Clifford can only work out a new and better relationship between Washington and New Delhi progress will be worth talking about. After all, India is the great power in that part of the world.
It was the Indian Army that held the passes against the Cossacks during the days of the British Empire. Those passes cannot be held without the Indian Army. Mr Carter is learning that, if there is to be a modern substitute for the British Empire, it must include the Indian Army.