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India-US Relations Aren’t All Sweetness and Light

An interesting piece in Foreign Policy by Sadanand Dhume sounds an alarm: the kind of non-alignment that is hard to distinguish from anti-Americanism, a mainstay of Indian foreign policy during the Cold War, is still alive and kicking in parts of the Delhi establishment. India, notes Dhume, sided with Russia and China over most issues relating to Syria and Libya, and a 70 member trade delegation headed to Iran last week to explore new commercial opportunities. Dhume refers readers to a new report by some prominent Indian strategists and public intellectuals that calls for “Nonalignment 2.0” and argues that if anything, the neo-nonaligned are making a comeback.

Read the whole thing. Dhume provides an excellent overview of some of the tensions that trouble relations even between countries whose strategic interests are as broadly aligned as India and the US. Different political traditions, cultural values and the hunt for foreign policy issues among a government’s opponents all make life difficult in many international partnerships, and the US-India relationship is no exception.

A couple of points are worth adding: one is about India, one is more general. On India, it’s important to note that the big tension spots between the US and India that Dhume mentions are in the Middle East. To some degree, the Non-aligned 2.o crowd wants India to carve out an independent role in the Middle East as a way of compensating for its unavoidable cooperation with the United States when it comes to East Asia.

There’s an additional factor at work here. Since independence and the first war with Pakistan over Kashmir, India has a political vulnerability: it fears the “Palestinianization” of the Kashmir issue. It doesn’t want its rule over a Muslim-majority province to become an albatross around its neck; both for domestic reasons (it has a large Muslim minority) and for international political reasons (why join Israel in the doghouse and face BDS movements every time its security forces get a little trigger happy in Kashmir?) India wants to look like part of the noble, post-colonial and oppressed Third World rather than like a collaborator with Washington and all its evil works.

India’s sensitivity on this point is all the greater because it has excellent and growing relations with Israel. The two countries are a natural economic fit, and Israeli technology can help India build up its military forces and seek qualitative advantages over China.If anything were to happen to the United States, India is the most likely country to replace us as Israel’s natural great power ally.

Flaunting its independence from Washington helped detoxify the Kashmir issue during the Cold War; the Non-Alignment 2.0 crowd (and others) no doubt believe that India needs to find some other ways to keep the Islamic world’s attention focused elsewhere now that the Cold War is over.

This is a reasonable point, but India may want to take another look at the politics of the Middle East. Cozying up to Iran isn’t a way to endear itself to the Sunni majority — and the Arabs cheered when Qaddafi fell and most long now to see Assad killed as well. Siding with the dictatorships of the past may not be a good way for India to ingratiate itself with the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

More generally, the political fight between Third Worlders and Transformers in Indian foreign policy reflects battles that are going on elsewhere around the world. The generation educated in dependency theory, neo-Marxism and the colonial theories of the 1970s still tends to see the world as fundamentally divided into a rich North led by the US and a poor South that is struggling to organize and break free. Both nationalists and socialists were often grounded in these ideas in the last generation, and their influence remains strong in many foreign and defense ministries and many parliamentary party leaderships around the world today.

Americans often blithely assumed after the fall of the Berlin Wall that all this tedious and futile thinking had been discarded, and that everyone now understands that capitalism and good relations with the US offer the best path forward.  This was never true, and the succession of financial crises (the Asian crisis of 1997-98, the dotcom bubble, and the global crisis of 2008-9) have revived an anti-capitalist, anti-American discourse that was never truly dead.

This matters for several reasons; from the standpoint of US foreign policy the most important one may be the way these attitudes help shape political debates in some of the most important countries we want to work with. The continuing decline of Europe and Japan has forced the US to look for new partners as the old Trilateral club is no longer powerful enough to shape the world. This has involved a quest for new and deeper relationships with countries like India, Brazil and Turkey to name but a few. These tend to be countries where various forms of the old ‘southern’ school of thought still has legs, and the prospect of deeper engagement with the US has triggered serious debates in all of them.

American diplomacy needs to be sensitive to these debates, and engage at an intellectual as well as a political level. The United States no longer heads or seeks to head a coalition of First World countries enjoying inherited privilege in a post-imperial world. Increasingly our foreign policy revolves around building a world order that meets the needs of new partners. During the Cold War, American diplomats and academic foreign policy experts became quite adept at understanding and navigating the cultural and political currents of our NATO allies; the same kind of engagement is required now as our relationships with a new set of (hopefully) rising powers become more complex and more important.

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  • Luke Lea

    “If anything were to happen to the United States, India is the most likely country to replace us as Israel’s natural great power ally.”

    Not to be rude, but this doesn’t pass the laugh test.

  • Luke Lea

    “The continuing decline of Europe and Japan has forced the US to look for new partners as the old Trilateral club is no longer powerful enough to shape the world”

    Again I think there is something mistaken here. Europe and Japan together with the Anglo-sphere have the economic resources — the economic leverage I should say — to shape the world if they would only use it. I mean trade sanctions — as in TARIFFS — to force countries like China to reform. They also have the resources to finance a joint naval force to police the oceans for decades to come.

    All this in my inexpert opinion of course.

  • Luke Lea

    I just can’t see India as a serious power. They don’t have the human capital, and their caste system prevents their full development as a market economy.

    China, on the other hand, is emerging as a very dangerous power, thanks to our foolishness. They will challenge us in the South China Sea for sure, and Taiwan will no doubt have worries. Yet I feel Kazakhstan has much more to worry about. ”Central Asia is the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens,” as General Liu Yaxhou was quoted in the NYT.

    This only makes sense. That’s where the resources are. War there could engage tens of millions of young unemployed males. And China needs room. It all makes sense.

    Furthermore, if China rolls they will have a hard time restraining themselves it they meet with immediate success. It might require a concerted effort by Eureop and the US to keep them east of the Urals. That’s where India’s manpower might eventually come in handy.

    But, hey, what do I know. I’m just an amateur arm-chair strategist with some rudimentary demographic information and a globe. I haven’t even given it much thought.

  • gs

    Some time ago this column noted that the Chinese weren’t doing much, or had few options, in response to the alliances established by the US.

    As China observes the ongoing “smart diplomacy”, the participants are outsmarting each other and themselves. So far, Chinese unresponsiveness seems to be a pretty good response.

    Beijing will act at a time and place of its choosing.

  • Anthony

    “Strategic autonomy has been the defining value and continuous goal of India’s international policy….” The above goal remains signal to India’s history of nonalignment even as she attempts to bring confluence of interests and values in line with 21st century realities – Western underpinning of stable and open international order.

  • J R Yankovic

    Some questions:

    Nowadays one might be forgiven the impression that, in Western diplomatic circles, Shiites have become the personae non gratae of the Middle East. The folks that, whatever the circumstances, we should NEVER have fraternized with, much less encouraged the “liberation” of. And yet Shiites show no signs of diminishing their demographic strength in the Persian Gulf. A problem that may seem to warrant more Bahrain-like efforts at repression throughout the region. In the event those efforts continue to be (for the time being) successful, is there a chance an ever-more-repressive “Sunnification” of the Persian Gulf may lead to a steadily-more-confident Saudification of that region – and eventually of the greater Arab Middle East? And that Saudi’s renewed prestige – combined with the mounting heat of an approaching “Arab Summer” – will tip the balance in favor of more militantly anti-Western, anti-secular elements among Sunnis all over the Muslim world? Including, incidentally, Egypt, Syria and Pakistan? But if so, just how will that help either India OR Israel in the long term? Or maybe even in the closer-than-we-think medium term?

    Shiites in Lebanon and Syria, as islands within a Sunni sea, have POSSIBLY always been prone to radicalization. Must we assume the same has always been true of Shiites in Iraq and Iran? That the MAJORITY of Shiites in these countries are inherently more suspicious of modernity and secularity than Sunnis, or less capable of democracy, or of engaging with the West? Is that where, for example, Iranian society AS A WHOLE has been going in recent years? Or has it been simply more convenient for us to assume these things, thereby feeding the sort of conditions which create self-fulfilling prophecies? Because, after all, we’d much rather do business with Wahhabis and Salafis (“So much more reliably anti-RUSSIAN, you know!”)? And esp. the kind who’ve been provenly brilliant at engaging us with one hand while stabbing us in the back with the other?

    I guess my questions at bottom are: What is it about Shiite anti-Westernism, that makes us so much more willing to risk aggravating and inflaming it? And about Sunni anti-Westernism, that makes it so much more worth appeasing? Is is JUST oil? Or are certain other, seldom discussed or even overtly recognized, factors also at work?

    I’m not suggesting we should tilt in favor of one or the other – much less stoke the tensions between them (“And why NOT? Just LET the bastards blow each other up! It’s not like it can POSSIBLY have repercussions outside the region!”). Encouraging confessionalism in either Middle Eastern or South Asian politics has always been a losing proposition – dangerous for the West and Israel, deadly (as in spilling-over-and-out-of-control deadly) for the people on the ground. Though I’ll admit the latter are a most unfashionable consideration in today’s globally, aggregately enlightened world.

    A very thought-provoking counterpoint to the prevailing Sunniphile wisdom can be found in commentary by M D Nalapat, Professor of Geopolitics and UNESCO Peace Chair at India’s Manipal University. And in particular in this fairly recent article: (Though I don’t – as yet – subscribe to Nalapat’s view that the UK [more so than, say, the US] was “crucial to the birth” of Saudi Arabia as a country.)

  • Jim.

    “Americans often blithely assumed after the fall of the Berlin Wall that all this tedious and futile thinking had been discarded, and that everyone now understands that capitalism and good relations with the US offer the best path forward.”

    It’s a source of great frustration to any thinking person that so many things have been forgotten so quickly — especially the fact that communism is an unworkable disaster of an idea.

    Handing huge amounts of money to people for creating no wealth — doing nothing at all — leads to stagnation and collapse.

    How soon we forget.

  • Kris

    “If anything were to happen to the United States, India is the most likely country to replace us as Israel’s natural great power ally.”

    I won’t be as blunt as Luke, and don’t fully buy into his more general theories, but I hardly consider India to be a great power. It is a significant country, with great potential, and Israeli-Indian cooperation is a no-brainer, but a “great power ally” for Israel? Eh. More likely is a very reluctant and suspicious alliance with Russia or even China. (No need to expound on the drawbacks to allying oneself to these characters.)

    JR@6: 1. As I’ve written before, the Shia were, in the past, regarded by many as the more moderate branch of Islam (in its secular manifestation). 2. The Saudis and the Wahhabi have been useful allies to the United States, but in the very same way as Stalin was. We should not let the importance and usefulness of our working relationship blind us to the fact that they are long-term enemies. (Or get bamboozled by your “other factors”.)

    I think the Nalapat article very much overstates the extent to which Israel and the US have deliberately adopted an anti-Shia policy. This doesn’t mean that US policy has not been, more often than I’d like, objectively pro-Wahhabi. So: I disagree with his description of the situation, but agree we should be more wary of our “good friends”.

  • sudhir


    Am from India and this is just my nonexpertly 2 cents:

    1. India has good reasons to be sceptical about US talk of partnerships or alliances, thanks mainly to Pakistan. The American pro-Pak tilt seems inexplicable after the end of the cold war but increasing largess in terms of arms (Sicne Pak can;t buy them, US suppplies them for free. From P-3 Orions for anti-submarine warfare to Nuclear capable F-16s, ostensibly to fight ‘terrorism’ perhaps) , credit (see repeated IMF extensions to all Pak loans), intelligence sharing (the David Headley affair marked a new low in India US intell ties when we realized that US assets and double agents(inadvertantly?) helped Pak plan the Mumbai attacks and were later protected from Indian law) and protection (At the UN, in other int’l fora etc).

    2. During the India-Pak Kargil war (1999), our Navy sought to blockade the karachi harbor to cutoff Pak oil supplies but hwt diud we see – the US Navy was escorting tankers of Saudi oil right into Karachi port. The FBI also conveniently ‘lost’ evidence of Pak made detonators that Indian agencies naively shared with them in the 1993 Bombay blasts case (that killed 250+).

    3. Now why would the US risk alienating a growing and promising partnership with India for the sake of a basketcase rogue state like Pakistan? Observers in India believe the US is continuing the same British game of ‘holding the ring’ or balancing local adversaries against each other so that US power, access, interference, relevance, leverage etc in a given region remains intact.

    Sorry, but Indians are neither blind nor dumb. We can do without the duplicity on plain display. And no, we’re done being someone’s coolies. We’ll be independent, or whatever it takes.

  • Alan

    “every time its security forces get a little trigger happy in Kashmir”

    The author, like nearly all political realists, is lost in a world of abstract states and dazzlling theoretical constructs. He has either forgotten or is purposely avoiding what really matters: human beings. So young Kashmiri girls are brutally raped and their brothers disappeared, tortured, and extrajudicially murdered, and these things are breezily noted as “trigger happy security forces.” Despicable.

  • Dave

    Remember all of us are income groups, money defines our values and our fate. If one thinks he is a nation, he is mistaken. Money is the new religion and the only nationality. Either you belong to that or not. Sit in any part of the world and spend and life is rosy. Why bother about nations. Life is shaped by more immediate things than big things like nations.

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