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Why India Became Indispensable to US Foreign Policy and Pakistan Was Left Behind

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Why India Became Indispensable to US Foreign Policy and Pakistan Was Left Behind

Democracy and “shared values” play a major role in diplomacy – something that Pakistan seems to have overlooked.

Why India Became Indispensable to US Foreign Policy and Pakistan Was Left Behind

U.S. President Joe Biden greets India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a G-7 Summit session on Food, Health, Development and Gender with G-7 leaders and invited countries and partners, May 20, 2023, at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima, Japan.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In recent years, Indian officials and analysts have tried to make it unambiguously clear that, despite close cooperation with Washington, India will not play second fiddle to the United States in its geopolitical games. India, as it always has, eschews any talk of joining camps in the emerging great power competition. In the past, India’s policy of neutrality or non-alignment allowed it to, among other things, deepen military cooperation with the Soviet Union, only to later sign a strategic partnership with the United States that enabled it to secure nuclear materials and know-how for its civilian nuclear power industry. 

Today, as an emerging powerhouse, India would prefer to aim for its own geostrategic realm of influence, like other great powers, rather than resign itself to a regional role as a balancing power. Despite India’s assertive neutrality and its hesitation to toe the U.S. line on issues as crucial to Western interests as the war in Ukraine, India enjoys widespread popularity in the United States, and U.S. policymakers remain glued to India. 

The big question is: why?

At the heart of India-U.S. ties is not just a big Indian market that American capitalists would love to have a piece of, or a common foe to counter in the form of China. The core of the relationship is also based on “shared values.”

If officials and analysts are to be believed, the ideological glue of the India-U.S. relationship lies in their “shared values,” as the U.S. State Department puts it, “of a commitment to democracy and upholding the rules-based international system” (notwithstanding the many contradictions in the commitment of the two countries to those values). In fact, the phrase “the oldest and largest democracies in the world” when referring to the United States and India has become a cliché. 

In most joint statements by Indian and U.S. officials, “shared interests” are quickly coupled with “shared values.” Analysts emphasize convergence between India’s values of democracy, plurality, cultural openness, and the free market and American values of freedom, liberty, rights, and the pursuit of happiness. 

“Shared values” are one of the five key pillars of the India-U.S. partnership; the others are defense and security, economics, global cooperation, and people-to-people ties. Most analyses of India-U.S. ties, especially in Pakistan, put overwhelming emphasis on the latter four pillars. But as Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted, “Democracy has also been a force multiplier, bolstering the other pillars of the relationship.”

To many in the United States, India is seen as an island of democracy in the region, surrounded by authoritarian China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Russia. (Pakistan, to its detriment, is seen as part of the latter group.) In fact, this normative convergence is India’s chief source of soft power in the West and an increasingly binding force between the United States and India. And it is likely that U.S. public perceptions of India as a country that shares American values will deepen as the world moves toward an increasingly likely confrontation between democratic and authoritarian powers, possibly in the form of great power competition.

Contrary to the fears of a democratic recession in recent years, data suggests that Americans strongly prefer democracy at home and abroad. Various credible studies and polls by Pew and YouGov suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans support democracy, and most of those who express negative views about it are opposed to authoritarian alternatives. As for the desire to see a democratic world, despite willingness among Americans to work with non-democracies on strictly national security grounds, a 2022 poll by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs found that a solid majority (60 percent) of Americans say “democracy is the best form of government for all countries”; a majority (85 percent) agree that governments that oppress their people at home are more likely to be aggressive abroad; and a majority (57 percent) disagree that the way China treats ethnic and religious minorities within their country is “none of our business.”

A Freedom House study found that a majority (71 percent) of Americans favored the U.S. government taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries; 84 percent agreed that “when other countries become democratic, it contributes to our own well-being”; 67 percent believed that “when other countries are democratic, rather than dictatorships, it often helps make the U.S. a little safer”; and a whopping 91 percent majority agreed that “we can’t control what happens in the world, but we have a moral obligation to speak up and do what we can when people are victims of genocide, violence, and severe human rights abuses.”

This is not to say that countries that do not share values cannot cooperate. The point is that countries that do share values tend to work together more closely on a long-term, non-transactional, sustainable basis. The creation of the European Union, the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, the West’s ties with Taiwan, and the Western defense of Ukraine in its war against Russia are all based on shared values. In fact, if the world returns to a Cold War-like state of affairs, ideological alignment or a preference for a certain regime type will once again become a crucial factor in determining international relations. 

The ideological alignment and the preference for a democratic world, as evidenced from the above-cited studies and public surveys, can explain the overwhelming approval of India – “the world’s largest democracy” – in the United States. Gallup’s annual World Affairs survey shows India is perceived by Americans as their sixth favorite nation in the world, with 77 percent holding a favorable view of the country in 2022, even above Israel (71 percent). A 2021 Chicago Council survey found that 42 percent of Americans find India to be a “necessary partner” with which the United States must strategically cooperate, while another 21 percent called India “an ally that shares American interests and values.” 

Against this backdrop, Pakistan will be well-advised to heed Sun Tzu’s advice, later popularized by Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II”: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The wisest among us learn from their enemies, and so should Pakistan. 

There is no doubt that Pakistan’s long-term strategic cooperation with its biggest benefactor, China, is warranted. But it would be folly to build Pakistan’s cooperation with China at the cost of ties with the West, the mightiest and most influential bloc in the world. To establish robust ties with the West, Pakistan, already a democratic country in theory, should emerge, like India, as a robust democracy in practice.

An authoritarian Pakistan, as the latest Democracy Index of the Economist magazine confirmed, is unlikely to forge a long-term, non-transactional relationship with the West. To many in the West, who form their perspectives based on what they absorb from electronic and social media, there is no ideological convergence between the West and Pakistan. 

True, various U.S. administrations have cooperated in the past with dictators in Pakistan. But that was strictly for national security purposes. The strategic convergence of interests of the two governments is far from the ideological convergence of the two nations.

Unfortunately, weak democratic credentials solidified by this year’s sham elections, as reported by the Western media, have made Pakistan a pariah in the democratic world. If any of Pakistan’s decision-makers were inclined to mend Pakistan’s ties with the West, they would face an uphill battle; a barrage of condemnations and vocal demands for investigations of electoral fraud by dozens of U.S. legislators, the British foreign secretary, and the EU certainly have not carved out a soft space for Pakistan in the hearts of Western people. 

Such a situation is particularly distressing given the commitment to democracy that Pakistani voters have shown in the recent general elections. In other words, Americans, British, French, and Pakistanis do share the values of democracy and a belief in the power of the ballot to bring about change. Perhaps in a world where Pakistanis will be able to form governments as they please, Pakistan could reap the benefits of these shared values.