India and US need each other to achieve their goals, but strengthening both democracies is crucial
India’s democracy is key to sustaining the momentum of its Indo-Pacific vision over the turbulent years to come.
What Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed about God in the age of the enlightenment, international relations scholars recently concluded about the liberal global order. Some said the United States killed it by abandoning the global leadership position it enjoyed since World War II. They forewarned of a “descent into the chaos of a world without effective institutions that encourage and organize cooperation.” Others deemed the demise the inevitable outcome of China and Russia’s rise. The countries’ authoritarian leaders would never have allowed a global order based on Western-styled liberalism to endure because it threatens their rule.
Still others pointed out that the so-called liberal global order was neither entirely liberal nor particularly orderly. Change need not be for the worse. The shakeup could be an opportunity to build a more democratic, humane, and environmentally survivable world.
So, what happens next? Chaos or progress, or something in-between? Short of revolutionary regime change in China or Russia, the answer largely depends on the relationship India and the United States build over the next decade. Although increasingly called into question, the United States wants to maintain global supremacy and keep China from expanding its influence. India wants to become a great power. Each needs the other to achieve – or at least not to impede – these ambitions. India and the United States, therefore, need to cooperate. But, effective and enduring cooperation would require more than arms sales and security summits. It would require both countries to maintain and strengthen their democracies.
Some of the leading India foreign policy experts are currently puzzling over how India could become a great power. Bharat Karnad notably argues that it would take policy elites aggressively harnessing the country’s economic and military potential. Aparna Pande points to the need first to tackle a multitude of deep societal, political, and economic problems.
As it pursues the overdue upgrades, India must maintain and strengthen its democracy. The country’s prestige as the “world’s largest democracy” is its comparative security advantage over China and Russia. This is especially the case when it comes to soft power and threat. As Pande summed up in an interview: “[T]he world is comfortable with a rising democratic, plural, secure, tolerant India. The world may not be as comfortable with the rising majoritarian India.”
In a recent book, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman examine whether American democracy is in decline. They show that it has historically been more fragile than commonly believed, and highlight four conditions that threaten its survival: political polarisation, conflict over who belongs as a member of the political community (particularly along racial or ethnic lines), high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power. These conditions currently exist in both the United States and India. While the two countries’ democracies have historically exhibited remarkable resilience, the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis may make it particularly difficult to bounce back without addressing structural inequities. As do the cultural shifts and erosion of democratic norms and institutions.
Promoting democracy around the world is not a top priority of the current US administration, but it is expected to be important to the possible – and likely – next US president. Kashish Parpiani predicts that the Biden administration may link the confirmation of envoys or clearance of arms sales to India’s human rights and civil liberties record, especially if progressive legislators gain some influence over US foreign policy agenda. New Delhi’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and citizenship law have attracted unprecedented international attention and condemnation, weakening the country’s image in the eyes of the American public and policymakers.
The United States may be a fickle partner, as Indian observers frequently lament, but it would unlikely stand by if India’s rise is accompanied by authoritarianism. As it does with China, chances are Washington would perceive such a development as threatening. Take, for example, the “free world” strategy. According to Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the new world order is one of great-power rivalry rooted in “a clash of social models – a free world and a neo-authoritarian world.” The United States is to lead the free world, while China and Russia try to legitimize and promote the neo-authoritarian model. The “free world” strategy is crucial, according to Wright, for political (and economic) freedom inside the United States and other democracies. He directly links the preservation of democracy at home to fighting neo-authoritarianism abroad:
“If you believe in a free and open society based on the rule of law, whether you are a constitutional conservative, a centrist, or a progressive, you cannot just mind your own business at home. Your vital interests are directly threatened by this competition of models. If you want to protect your democracy or a free press or the rule of law or an open internet or the integrity of critical infrastructure or nongovernmental organizations or countless other things, actions at home are necessary but not sufficient. You need to support a competitive foreign policy that pushes back against neo-authoritarianism.”
Within this framework, which is likely to appeal to both conservatives and liberals in the post-Trump era, India’s retreat from democracy would automatically be deemed a threat to the United States and other democratic countries. Alternatively, for a democratic India, a robust alliance with the United States in the style of Britain or Israel would not be out of the question.
Sumit Ganguly and M Chris Mason note that India’s leaders are not enthusiastic about being used by the United States to “balance” Beijing. But, after the May 2020 border clash, Ganguly and Manjeet S. Pardesi warn that China sees India as “the principal impediment to the realisation of its ambitions to dominate Asia,” and this is likely to lead to more violent confrontations. They advise New Delhi to pursue a “multifaceted strategy” that includes “cooperative elements,” but caution that there is ultimately “little that India can do to assuage the underlying sources of the rivalry.” If their Thucydides-inspired logic is correct, India has all the more reason to partner with the United States in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-style arrangement.
Such an arrangement is already in motion. Washington envisions the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) playing as important a role against China “diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific” as did NATO to counter Soviet expansion. New Delhi is vital for the Indo-Pacific strategy. Harsh Pant describes India as “the critical anchor in making the idea of Indo-Pacific a viable strategic geography” and advises it to “sustain the momentum of showcasing the Indo-Pacific vision and its operational realities.”
India’s democracy is key to sustaining the momentum of its Indo-Pacific vision over the turbulent years to come. This US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear in the run-up to his visit to New Delhi in October 2020. Among the main topics Pompeo said he plans to discuss is cooperation to maintain “free and open Indo-Pacific,” as well as “how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Views expressed are personal.
The article was originally published on ORF Online and has been reproduced here
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