Longtime India watchers should not be surprised at this latest turn of events:
India worked hard behind the scenes on Friday to dilute a Saudi Arabia-drafted UNGA resolution, which severely indicted Syria for the situation prevailing in the country, but finally abstained from voting after the draft could not be rid of reference to the July 22nd League of Arab States resolution that called upon Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down.
India has a long tradition in foreign policy of supporting absolute sovereignty; like Russia and China, it does not want to see the ‘international community’ getting the right to overthrow governments—even bad ones—or to otherwise meddle in the internal affairs of states.
In India’s case, this is partly about suspicion of Western imperialism disguising itself as humanitarian intervention, and partly about not wanting the UN to acquire rights of meddling in disputes like the one over Kashmir.
These attitudes and concerns are deep set in the Indian bureaucracy and parts of its political class, and they won’t change overnight. Working out a new and closer relationship with India is going to require a deep and sustained engagement by US diplomats and others to find more common ground between Indian and U.S. approaches to global issues.
In fact, voting to abstain rather than voting ‘no’ showed some evolution in India’s position. In the past, India often defined its international position by being one of the toughest countries in the world against foreign and especially Western meddling. As a co-founder and leader of the non-aligned bloc, it stood firmly against any efforts to curb the behavior of third world tyrants in the belief that establishing and strengthening the independence of post-colonial countries was more important than enforcing international norms against them. The abstention suggests a softening in this position.
As so many U.S. cold war allies (especially in Europe) continue to cut defense budgets and turn inward, the U.S. needs to go back to the patient work of developing relations with the countries like India who will matter more in the next phase of world history. A vote like this one on Syria should remind us both how much progress has been made, and how much more work still remains.