A Paradigm Trap

How busting the myths of non-alignment and autonomy can shed light on Indian foreign policy

01 May 2012
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld welcomes the then Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the Pentagon in June 2005 for talks that led to a historic 10-year defence agreement. In the recent years, India has thrust itself into the American military orbit.

TWO YEARS AGO, Srinath Raghavan wrote a commanding diplomatic history of the Nehru years, War and Peace in Modern India. The historians Sunil Khilnani and Ramachandra Guha, writing the book’s introduction, praised Raghavan’s excavation of the early republic’s statecraft. They also bemoaned India’s prevailing “derivative discourse” on power and strategy, judging it to be “a mimetic response to what we understand other great powers do, a response based on borrowed ideas, theories, and imaginations”.

According to this view, India did not need to articulate grand strategies built around alien, imported ideas—however much outside observers to the country’s rise might expect. The challenge thrown down was to fashion a foreign policy that could rest on something indigenous and—it was thereby implied—authentic.

Yet, the harder Indian strategists have worked to escape this intellectual trap, the more they find themselves accused of a strategic mimesis of their own. It turns out that indigenous ideas, theories and imaginations might also be borrowed, if only from the Indian past.

Earlier this year, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi released Non-Alignment 2.0, subtitled by its eminent authors—Raghavan among them—as “a foreign and strategic policy for India in the twenty-first century”. The report envisioned India as a pivot state, able to flexibly shift allegiance in line with changing circumstances: “We must seek to achieve a situation where no other state is in a position to exercise undue influence on us—or make us act against our better judgement and will.”

The critics immediately leapt on the report—and particularly its title, perhaps missing some of the playfulness of its choice. Bharat Karnad, among the fiercest of India’s hyper-nationalists, rubbished the whole thing as “an exercise to force the present into a conceptual policy straitjacket from the past”. Two former national security advisers, Brajesh Mishra and MK Narayanan, and the incumbent, Shiv Shankar Menon, suggested that they found the term non-alignment to be a dangerous anachronism. Tom Wright, a South Asia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, damned it as something pulled out the “dustbin of history”.

These debates are all the more important because they resonate at the level of existing foreign policy. Abstract questions over the meaning of strategic autonomy and the demands of non-alignment influence and structure India’s national debate—played out in the editorial pages of newspapers and on the broadcast media—over issues such as buying more or less Iranian oil, supporting or resisting a settlement with the Taliban, joining or shunning naval exercises in the Pacific.

However, the problem with framing Indian foreign policy debates around the language of alignment versus non-alignment, or borrowed versus indigenous strategic thinking, is that these terms are becoming emptied of meaning. Not only are they coming to represent inchoate prejudices rather than careful strategic thought, but it’s also unclear whether they capture important dimensions of India’s strategic circumstances.

Two questions are especially important. The first is about the realistic parameters of non-alignment. The second concerns the demands of alignment.

We need to consider whether, and to what extent, India’s present trajectory really allows for the untrammelled autonomy that both critics and proponents of a refurbished non-alignment envision as an option.

Take the issue of weaponry. Over the past five years, 80 percent of India’s arms imports have come from Russia, dwarfing Britain in second place (six percent) and Israel in third (four percent). This might suggest the Soviet connection hasn’t yet been broken. Yet these figures don’t do justice to the way in which India has enthusiastically thrust itself into the American military orbit.

In the past decade, India has bought or is close to purchasing from the United States 10 C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlift aircraft (for $4.1 billion), a dozen maritime reconnaissance aircraft (for more than $3 billion), six smaller transport aircraft (for $1 billion), 24 anti-ship missiles (for $170 million), 145 M-777 ultra-light Howitzers (for $647 million), a refurbished troop landing ship (a bargain at $50 million) and a great deal else.

The meaning of these purchases is stark: India has entrusted vital parts of its security to the US for the foreseeable future, despite still-bitter memories of being cut off from American spare parts and supplies during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, and American pressure on third countries not to supply India during the 1999 Kargil War. Not to mention that some of the arms sales from Israel couldn’t take place without American approval.

For decades to come, Indian aircraft carriers will rely for their safety, and the Indian Army for its mobility, on those transport and surveillance planes remaining serviceable in wartime—and so, potentially, on American goodwill. This trend has only accelerated since 2005, when Delhi and Washington signed a historic 10-year defence agreement. It will accelerate further as Russia is increasingly marginalised in debates over the future of the Indian Ocean.

The paradox is that India has sought autonomy through alignment—diversifying defence suppliers is seen as a way of insulating oneself from the whims of any one power. It’s not clear where non-alignment stops and alignment begins.

What is certain is that India is already aligned—with various powers, in various ways, and certainly to an increasing degree with the United States. But if complete autonomy is illusory, the perceived and projected demands of alignment—let alone alliance—have probably been overstated. The problem comes when we conceive of alignment as a distributive problem.

In this imagining, Indian diplomatic largesse is something to be apportioned in zero-sum fashion among a fixed set of partners. If the US wins, Russia loses. If Iran is up, the US is down. Ironically, pro-Indian factions in Washington and anti-American ideologues in Delhi share this simplistic framework. So do others, like Brajesh Mishra, one of the architects of the US-India rapprochement in the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government. Mishra, speaking at the launch of Non-Alignment 2.0, declared that “once you join [the] US, there is no non-alignment”.

This is historically untenable. It is true that the idiosyncrasies of the post-war international order predisposed Americans to think of diplomacy in terms of grand alliances in which sentiment and interest would be permanently fused. The unprecedented American financial and military commitment to Western Europe, and the prolonged occupation of Japan, produced the expectation that allies would and should habitually demonstrate solidarity, whatever their own local interests.

Rarely was that expectation met. The history of the Cold War is the history of an alliance in perpetual disarray. Perhaps the most important example for India is the French Gaullist tradition, and its rejection of unconditional Atlanticism. France’s rebellious streak—including withdrawal from NATO’s military command and the development of an avowedly independent nuclear deterrent—neither undermined French security nor resulted in American abandonment.

India is looking at a Gaullist future. Stephen P Cohen of the Brookings Institution recently remarked that, for the US, Pakistan was fated to be an ally but not a friend, and India a friend but not an ally. In fact, despite its growing alignment, India probably isn’t keen on either of those terms—or, at least, conceives of friendship as entailing a different, and rather less onerous set of obligations. It is the countries that grasp this dynamic that will have the most success in engaging Delhi.

In this respect, the circus surrounding India’s $11 billion choice of a new multirole fighter jet was instructive. It was widely speculated that India chose the French aircraft, the Dassault Rafale, because it was the cheapest of the shortlist. But on a deeper level, the decision was symbolic.

France shielded India from international censure during its nuclear tests in 1998—at a time when the purveyors of the Rafale’s competing aircraft, the US, Britain and Germany, were beating India with a non-proliferation stick. France allowed India to illegally modify its Mirage aircraft during the Kargil War, and suspended sales of other jets to Pakistan. India appreciated France’s willingness to bend the rules—but perhaps it saw something of its own strategic temperament in France.

Sadanand Dhume, another critic of Non-Alignment 2.0, expressed in Foreign Policy magazine his hope that “India learns to view foreign policy like most other countries—in terms of national interest rather than attachment to abstract doctrine”. Dhume is right that there are those in India who have confused non-alignment with anti-alignment, a cocktail of anti-Americanism and so-called third-word solidarity. But it’s a characteristically American error to assume that when India pursues policies contrary to Washington’s expectations, it is acting out of allegiance to antiquated ideological whims rather than hard-headedly following its own interests.

India, whose refineries are configured for Iranian oil and therefore faces particularly difficult challenges in complying with sanctions, has compelling reasons to avoid burning bridges with Tehran. Iran will be increasingly important as American forces draw down in Afghanistan, and its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, will be drifting closer to Pakistan as part of Riyadh’s nuclear hedging. Delhi also disagrees with the dominant and probably wishful American view that the Iranian regime is on the cusp of collapse and therefore unworthy of Indian favour.

Yet there’s a deeper question, to which Americans are yet to offer a satisfying answer. Why should Indian defiance over this specific issue—or, say, its abstention on the UN Security Council vote to authorise intervention in Libya—erode the foundational assumption of the US-India relationship: that India is the West’s optimal counterweight to Chinese preponderance in Asia? If the past decade is anything to go by, then American attitudes to India and its rise are essentially decoupled from any specific action that India does or doesn’t take, and more closely linked to the shadow cast by China’s rise, and how lucrative the Indian consumer market appears.

C Raja Mohan, one of India’s preeminent foreign policy analysts, suggested in a seminal 2006 essay that India could join the “political West”—the US-led bloc, taking in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia, which dominated the world order for most of the 20th century. But India does not want to join the political West. It wants to join, sustain and reshape the open international economic order which depends decreasingly on the weight of that club. Indeed, Non-Alignment 2.0 is enthusiastic about open trade and investment to a degree that would have shocked Americans just 20 years ago. But it would be another typically Western error to assume that this economic thirst will pull India politically westwards.

India’s fractious politics suggest a useful metaphor. In parliamentary democracies, smaller parties can enter into a coalition—or they can offer a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, the promise to support a bigger party in individual pieces of legislation on a case-by-case basis. Indian foreign policy is accommodating to the country’s expanding strategic horizons and new capabilities. Expect it to shun the coalition, but offer deepening confidence and supply to the United States. One could slap a label on this—but, as veteran columnist AG Noorani observed some years ago, “non-alignment is … a non. It no more indicates how a country pursues its interests than calling a person non-married indicates how he or she pursues happiness.”

Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and a fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Keywords: politics India foreign policy non-alignment alignment Non-Alignment 2.0