During Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent visit to India, he was asked to justify Australia’s signing of a deal to sell uranium to the country. In response, the prime minister said, “India threatens no one” and “is the friend to many.” This was no mere diplomatic nicety, but a carefully chosen answer based on India’s international image. It is an image that is rare amongst great powers of India’s size and strength, and will give Delhi a unique soft power advantage in the future multipolar world.
Much of the globe sees India as a relatively non-violent, tolerant and pluralistic democracy with a benign international influence. Its values are seen as largely positive.
The U.S., with its Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, accorded India special treatment in nuclear cooperation. The deal provided benefits usually reserved for Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories. Washington justified cooperation with India by highlighting Delhi’s impeccable non-proliferation record. This stance was replicated by other states, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) member states who allowed India’s participation in international nuclear commerce and supported the Indo-U.S. deal. The NSG decided to re-engage with India following an India-specific safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA’s Board of Governors endorsed a nuclear safeguards agreement with India by consensus that would permit Delhi to add more nuclear facilities to be placed under the IAEA safeguards framework. India did not have to have an Additional Protocol like the non-nuclear weapons states who are NPT signatories. India also received favorable treatment from Canada (which agreed to supply “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian and military applications), Japan and South Korea.
This cooperation was not merely driven by these states’ strategic relationships with the U.S. Russia has long cooperated with India on nuclear technology. Even China, as a member of the NSG, did not oppose the group’s decision on India. Today, India is the only known nuclear weapons state that is not part of the NPT but is still permitted to engage in nuclear commerce globally.
India’s reputation extends beyond its nuclear posture. Since independence, the country has been viewed as a neutral and harmless power by most foreign audiences, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia. This is in part due to its prominent role in the Non-Aligned movement. Whilst Delhi’s reputation in its own neighborhood is quite different, South Asian states do not see India as a threat in the way that many of Russia or China’s neighbors view those powers. Even long-time nemesis Pakistan is unlikely to have been as adventurous in its dealings with its much larger and more powerful neighbor had it not had firsthand experience of Delhi’s restraint – even before Islamabad had nuclear capability.
So what is behind India’s benign image? In part, it is self-created. For 60-plus years Delhi has favored cultivating the impression of a non-violent India. This is particularly clear in the realm of nuclear posture. Despite having tested weapons in 1974 and 1998 and being a non-signatory to the NPT and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, India has been one of the most vocal advocates for global disarmament. It has arguably been the most passionate anti-nuclear campaigner amongst the world’s nine known or suspected nuclear weapons states, with one of the world’s most notable pleas for global disarmament made by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the U.N. in 1988.
The pursuit of this image continued a decade later, even after the Pokhran II nuclear tests. BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee stated that the tests were not a repudiation of the disarmament goal. In the Draft Report on Indian Nuclear Doctrine, the very first sentence of the first paragraph describes the use of nuclear weapons as the “gravest threat to humanity and to peace and stability.” The paragraph goes on to criticize the virtual abandonment by states of the goal of disarmament.
Delhi sought to avoid labels of hypocrisy by positioning itself as the “reluctant nuclear power.” India argued that the bomb was a last resort in a world of threatening nuclear states who make no pledges to refrain from first strikes and the use of nukes against non-nuclear states. Somewhat legitimately, Indian leaders asserted that the country’s nuclear weapons could act as bargaining chips to support its global disarmament agenda. India was said to have more credibility as a nuclear weapons state with itself having something to sacrifice in order to usher in global disarmament. India declared that its security would be enhanced and not diminished in a nuclear free world.
Delhi also sought to project an image of non-violence in other areas of foreign policy. In relation to the norm of “Responsibility to Protect,” India voiced support for those aspects of R2P that encouraged and supported states to protect their own populations, and expressed extreme caution at R2P’s coercive side. When some of the world’s greatest debates over intervention occurred at the U.N., Indian ambassadors drenched their speeches with the language of non-violence.
This preciously guarded national image is not merely a strategic ploy to increase India’s soft power. Policymakers wish the country to be seen as non-violent, pluralistic and tolerant, because India genuinely holds these values. Within the nuclear realm the influence of non-violence is seen through the foot-dragging in relation to integrating nuclear weapons into military strategy and in relation to serial production of weapons. A further sign of this influence is the long public debate before going nuclear – a rarity amongst nuclear powers. We have seen repeatedly that India’s leaders find it morally inconceivable that nukes could ever be useable tools of war. Delhi’s disarmament pleas were not merely PR: they consumed valuable diplomatic resources including precious stage-time in international forums. More broadly, non-violence affected for India’s relatively restrained conduct in several conflicts with Pakistan.
When it came to humanitarian intervention, over the last 25 years India’s opposition or support was directly related to the level of intrastate violence entailed in intervening. This was true regardless of who was intervening in whom, for what reason, and whether there were strategic gains in it for Delhi. This included interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. India’s opposition to intervention was compounded by its pluralistic worldview, with acceptance of all regime types.
It would seem that India’s values of non-violence, pluralism and tolerance stem from the independence era, when the country’s foreign policy and modern identity was crafted. Mahatma Gandhi made India’s independence movement synonymous with non-violence. First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru imbued morals into his external relations. But if the values influencing India’s foreign policy took shape only then, they would have fizzled when Congress lost power. Instead the values have remained, as has the resultant global persona.
This is because the values that help guide Indian foreign policy and underpin its image are rooted deep in the country’s cultural history. These values attained dominance during the formative stage of Indian civilization – the period between the Vedic era and medieval times when the greatest empires arose. India and China are the only modern great powers that have held a largely continuous culture for several millennia. Ancient India’s cultural connection to its present-day manifestation is far stronger than ancient Greek, Roman or Anglo-Celtic culture is to present-day Western states, or the ancient Middle Eastern civilizations are to today’s Arab world.
It remains to be seen how India’s international reputation will fare as its strategic interests expand throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. With some diplomatic craftsmanship, Delhi can convert its somewhat ethereal values-based soft power advantage into hard strategic and economic gains. Modi’s government seems to have recognized this and is building on Congress’ initiatives to enhance India’s public diplomacy toolkit.
India’s soft power has rare characteristics when compared with the other great powers of the emerging multipolar world: U.S., China, Russia, Japan and Europe (as a unified entity). Its relatively neutral, non-threatening image will make India a uniquely attractive great-power partner for countries looking to hedge against future fallout between the U.S. and China, and not wanting to antagonize either superpower. Australia has chosen a wise time to solidify ties with one of the world’s most dynamic rising powers.
Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda is a former diplomat whose PhD and upcoming book investigated Indian foreign policy. He was a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford.