The United States and India have just completed a ministerial dialogue between the U.S. secretaries of state and defense, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, and their Indian counterparts, Minister of External Affairs Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh. This “2+2 Dialogue” was preceded by a video conference between U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and both leaders said they looked forward to meeting again shortly in Tokyo.
Although the “2+2” was nominally focused on international security and was the first to occur since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world’s two largest democracies paid relatively little attention to the largest international assault on democratic values since World War II and what Russia’s assault means for international peace and security.
In a joint statement remarkable for its 13-page length and the breadth of its coverage, only a short paragraph dealt with the situation in Ukraine. There was mention of a humanitarian crisis, a condemnation of civilian deaths, a call for the cessation of hostilities, and lip service to the principles of the United Nations Charter, but nothing more. Nothing about how these great democracies might work together to repair the damage done to international law, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and the prevention of generalized war, particularly war involving nuclear weapons. There certainly was nothing in the joint statement about a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The superficial reasons for this lack of attention to the harm being done to the international order by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how it might be counteracted are obvious. Neither side wanted to get the U.S.-India relationship, which has grown and strengthened so much over the last thirty years, off track. Both sides consider themselves “natural and trusted partners” with a “growing convergence of strategic interests,” particularly in regard to China. Further, the U.S. and India have a wide range of common economic, health, and social issues vital to the wellbeing of both nations. India doesn’t want to offend Russia. It needs arms from Russia, wants cheaper Russian oil, and hopes to increase its relatively small trade with Russia. But there is something more at play in India’s hesitancy to work as a full partner of the U.S. in furthering international peace and security on the basis of India’s own democratic values when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.
This hesitancy can be more fully understood by examining Jaishankar’s framework for U.S.-India relations. Jaishankar’s views are of tremendous importance to the Modi government and to Modi himself. Not only has Jaishankar been the minister of external affairs since the start of Modi’s second term, but he became foreign secretary soon after Modi began his first term as prime minister, an office to which Modi arose without extensive experience in international security matters.
A thumbnail and easily accessible statement of Jaishankar’s international framework can be found in his talk to the Atlantic Council on October 1, 2019. This framework is important not only because of the office held by Jaishankar, but also because it is largely a distillation of the views of many Indians, particularly those of India’s traditional academic and governmental elites. Jaishankar holds a Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University and is personally and professionally connected to prominent Indian governmental circles.
The Jaishankar doctrine is grounded firmly in history and in two analytic divides: East vs. West and India’s political vs. non-political interests.
As expressed in the Atlantic Council talk, the bedrock of his East vs. West analysis is “two centuries of national humiliation” during which “the West” extracted some “$45 trillion” in value from India (as well as subjecting China to a single century of national humiliation). In this formulation, the U.S. is definitely a part of “the West” and India a part of the “the East.” Thus, the U.S. presumably bears some responsibility for the two centuries of national humiliation experienced by India at the hands of the British Empire. This analysis leaves aside the fact that the U.S., like India, was a colony of the British Empire and fought two wars against the British for its independence. It had nothing to do with the “$45 trillion” extracted by the British Empire from India, and yet this Indian colonial experience is somehow relevant to U.S.-India relations.
Unspoken is the concept that Russia and the Soviet Union were not and are not now part of “the West,” but, like India, are part of “the East” and outside any responsibility for India’s historic “two centuries of national humiliation.”
Make no mistake that Jaishankar’s concept of “the West” is now centered on the United States. This concept evidently derives from U.S. leadership of a network of treaty obligations that were designed to constrain the Soviet Union and international communism. At one point in his talk, Jaishankar references Japan and South Korea, and even all the OECD countries, as part of “the West.” In this analysis, “the West” has become not a geographic designation but a political concept apparently growing out of the Cold War. Again, India is not a part of “the West.”
Adding to the historic estrangement caused by colonialism, the U.S., as the leader of “the West,” has imposed on India a “Goldilocks” policy of both supporting India and suppressing India. According to Jaishankar, this is to ensure that India is neither too weak nor too strong but, like the porridge in the Goldilocks story, somewhere in between. Prime historical examples of this, according to Jaishankar, are the 1962 invasion by China, where the U.S. supported India, and the 1971 war for the independence of Bangladesh where the U.S. was not supportive. This historical interpretation of East vs. West fits snugly with the other major dichotomy of the Jaishankar doctrine, namely the political vs. non-political aspects of the East-West relationship.
A strength of the Jaishankar doctrine is that it allows for a full range of cooperation on “non-political” aspects of the U.S.-India relationship. There is a recognition that the United States has had a policy of strengthening India from an economic developmental perspective and has been a fount of growth for world development generally. Now that India has largely dismantled its top-down economic model, or “license raj,” the way is open for full cooperation on all “non-political” fronts. However, when it comes to “political” endeavors, i.e. those having to do with international security and strategic matters, the aforementioned East vs. West analytic dichotomy requires that the relationship must be more circumscribed. The Cold War ended badly for India in the sense that the USSR and Russia were no longer the strong sources of support they had been up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still the political nature of the India-Russia relationship seems to require that India maintain a distance from the United States and the West where Russia is involved
This distancing is often referred to by Indian commentators as “strategic autonomy.” A key component of this strategic autonomy seems to be resistance to outside requests, comments, or even questions concerning India’s strategic or political choices. Apparently still influenced by what Jaishankar formulates as the two hundred years of national humiliation by the West, such entreaties may be viewed as infringements on strategic autonomy if not national sovereignty.
This was on display in Jaishankar’s response to a press inquiry at the end of the 2+2 meeting. A question was asked concerning Russian alignment with China diplomatically, economically, and militarily. Obviously irritated, instead of answering the question, Jaishankar replied in part, “we draw our conclusions and make our assessments. And believe me, we have a decent sense of what is in our interest and know how to protect it and advance it.”
Of course, India should make its own decisions regarding its national interests, but its decisions should not be circumscribed by whether the interest falls into a “political” or “non-political” category.
To achieve full and equal partnership between the world’s two largest democracies, the U.S. needs to do more in working with India to satisfy India’s needs for arms and energy without bending to Russia. The 2+2 made continued progress on the arms front as indicated by talks between Secretary Austin and Minister Singh as well as Singh’s post-meeting visit to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii.
Greater oil, gas, atomic, and renewable energy support also seem to be making progress. But a full U.S.-India partnership requires that India adjust the analytic approach which contributes to India standing aside when it comes to opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The old “East vs. West” dichotomy no longer applies to U.S.-India relations, if it ever did. Certainly, India and the U.S. are different, but these two great democracies have far more in common than India has with the traditional pillars of “the East” – Russia and China. This is particularly true when it comes to the fundamental value and rule of the post-World War II era: that nations must refrain from the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.
Some may seek to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the basis of U.S. transgressions of the past. This is simply a reiteration of the schoolboy amoral justification of “he did it too.” Two wrongs still do not make a right and the rule of law requires that each situation be judged on its own merits. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the use of force is singular in its breach of the rules that have kept the planet from another world war over the past seventy years
The dichotomy between political and non-political interests is also in need of adjustment. India is no longer a new republic struggling to throw off the remnants of British colonialism and rightly sensitive to perceived restraints on its sovereignty. India is a great power. The U.S. needs to treat India like a great power, and India needs to act like one. Great powers do not take umbrage at requests or criticisms simply because they are from foreigners. Rather they evaluate such entreaties and make judgments as to what is in their interests in the present and the future. Great powers work with others to strengthen their own security even where it involves binding commitments.
Reality is not divided into political and non-political spheres. In today’s world some issues traditionally viewed as “non-political” are as important to national security as any traditionally “political” issues. The internet of things and the hacking of systems comes to mind. The opposite is also true. Numerous “political” issues from defense procurement to immigration have enormous “non-political” consequences.
The essential point is that strategic decisions should be premised on present and future interests, including fundamental values. The U.S. and India must make decisions based on present realities and future needs, not premised on an analysis of the superseded past. These decisions should not be bound by historical conceptions of East vs. West or political vs. non-political. The U.S. and India should recognize that present decisions are setting precedents. If the Russian use of death and destruction and nuclear threats in regard to Ukraine are successful, the use of these tactics by authoritarian regimes such as China is sure to follow. This is a manifestation of the violent approach to international affairs that has plagued mankind throughout history and now again faces the U.S., India, and the world.