Last week’s 2+2 — or 3+3, with President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi first setting the direction of the talks between the foreign and defence ministers — showed that India and the United States (US) have the maturity to deal with differences and keep their broader relationship intact.
This is good news for both countries. The Indian government understands the value of the relationship with the US as well as the manner in which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is making the West more powerful, more than what some its supporters on social media, who have resorted to a strange kind of anti-Americanism, would like to acknowledge. The US administration understands both the value of the relationship with India and the need to treat India as a sovereign entity with its own judgment and choices, more than a set of its own supporters, who would like Delhi to instantly fall in line with DC’s preferences, do.
But while the 2+2 helped in managing differences for now, it is important for both capitals — but Delhi in particular — to have an honest conversation internally.
Within India, the system is divided. All actors know the US is important. But some appear to think that US power is on the decline, or that Joe Biden isn’t entirely coherent in his decision-making, or that India is so indispensable that the West will continue to court it in the manner Delhi wants, irrespective of its position and actions. All of these are questionable premises.
First, the US is — of course — not as powerful as it was during the unipolar moment. And top policymakers, especially in this administration, recognise it. That is why they have focused on alliances to shore up strength. From repairing the Trans-Atlantic partnership to investing in NATO, and beefing up European security to nurturing Quad and focusing on smaller island states in the Pacific to encouraging new groupings in West Asia which cut across traditional divides, Washington is creating a web of partnerships to offset the erosion in domestic support for its international commitments and its own inward domestic economic focus. But this doesn’t mean that the parameters that have made US extraordinarily powerful have disappeared. From military and technology to economy and finance, the US remains way ahead of the game compared to its competitors put together.
And that is why Modi was right in telling Biden that India sees the US as integral to its development journey for the next 25 years. If our markets are doing well, the investment from foreign institutional investors in the US has helped. If our start-ups are booming, investors in New York or Silicon Valley have played a role. If our relations with a range of other countries — Japan, Australia, South Korea, Israel, or even some of the Gulf countries — have improved, it is credit to Indian diplomacy, but it is also because being seen as a friend of Washington helps open doors in many of these capitals which are still tied to the US security umbrella. If we need support at the United Nations Security Council, there is the American weight in the multilateral system.
If we want a manufacturing boom, both in terms of investments and export destinations, the US will play a part. If we want to diversify our energy sources, the past decade’s figures already show the US becoming a more important partner. If we want to be at forefront of innovation, partnerships with the the best institutions and companies in the US is indispensable. If we want support for our climate transition, we need to work the Americans to get them to meet their commitments on financing. If our students want to continue going to the US, and if we want their universities to come to India, and the American system to recognise our professionals, a deeper knowledge partnership is essential.
If we want intelligence on what the Chinese are up to at the Line of Actual Control, or some back-up support during a crisis, having America on one’s side helps, as it did in 2020. If we want someone to read the riot act to Pakistan, when it is up to its usual terror-exporting mischief, the US can play a constructive role, as it did after Pulwama. And if we want to push back the Chinese challenge in the neighbourhood, greater coordination with Washington strengths our hand and sends a message to interlocutors in Kathmandu and Colombo and Male.
This is not to say that US hasn’t declined — it has — nor is to say that US does not have own narrow set of interests in all these domains to work with India (it does). But it is to suggest that the US is still enormously powerful and it is still useful for all of India’s security and development goals. And it will only be honest to admit that.
Two, the premise that Biden is somehow out of his depth is questionable. While Afghanistan represented a shameful abdication of responsibility that the US would rather not talk about, the Ukraine crisis has shown Biden’s strengths.
American intelligence anticipated the Russian invasion much before anyone else — and Biden decided to make it public to shape global opinion against Moscow. American support to Ukraine has enabled a far more fierce resistance than Russia had anticipated. American investment in allies has led to a reset in Europe’s geopolitical calculations in a way which would have been hard to imagine just two months ago.
American control over the international financial system has sent a message not just to Moscow but also to Beijing about what its expansionism can lead to. At the same time, American restraint in not imposing no-fly zones, or directly getting embroiled in a confrontation on Ukrainian soil, shows that it is playing a calibrated game — of achieving its strategic objectives without escalating the conflict.
This is not to suggest that the US is acting only out of noble values — its core interest is in preventing Russia from restoring its arc of influence in the region and preventing it from becoming a regional hegemon. Nor is the suggestion that America will achieve all its objectives. But to think that the US does not know what it is doing, or that Biden — just because he is not the most eloquent speaker around and fumbles occasionally — has lost the plot would be erroneous.
And finally, to assume that India is indispensable and this means that there will be no costs to its position, may lead to a degree of overconfidence that facts don’t warrant. India is important but it is one among the many poles in the international system.
India’s position has evolved for the better — from speaking of Russia’s legitimate interests before the war began, to underlining the importance of territorial integrity and sovereignty when the invasion took place, to a firm condemnation of civilian killings and warnings about implications of the war on the global food, financial and energy systems as the war intensified. But as a democratic power, as a status quoist power which doesn’t want the kind of rupture in global stability that Russian actions have caused, and as country with soft power which relies on positive public sentiment in the West, India’s policy posture must continue to evolve in the same direction.
The US must continue to show the maturity it displayed last week. It must rein in voices that believe threatening India with consequences can change Indian behaviour. It must be acutely aware of how its historical behaviour makes its self-righteousness sound hypocritical. And it must show India how it can help meet Indian interests more effectively. But Delhi must build on the 2+2 and continue its structural shift westwards. National interests dictate it.