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America Should Be Realistic About India

The United States' Indo-Pacific strategy cannot afford to alienate its most important partner.
January,2021,Delhi,india.,Indian,Air,Force,Rehearsing,For,Indian,Republic

The University of Chicago international relations theorist John J. Mearsheimer has been lambasted on social and traditional media in the Western world for his views about the conflict in Ukraine. Meanwhile, in India, his analysis is revered, not just by TV talk show hosts, or Twitterati, but by foreign policy experts and scholars.

Mearsheimer’s analysis of global alliances and events, examined through the international relations lens of realism, resonates with a wide audience in India. Realism seems to be the foreign policy perspective of the Indian government, which has conducted international affairs with its national interests at the forefront, above perceived moral rights and wrongs. Understandably, despite the war in Ukraine, India has not meandered from its razor-sharp focus on the Indo-Pacific, unlike the U.S., which has once again drifted toward “saving democracy from autocracy,” this time in Eastern Europe.

India has prioritized its immediate neighborhood and allocated its resources towards meeting those threats in the region. This is what the realist doctor ordered. But for the U.S.—the liberal hegemon, as Mearsheimer would call it—under Biden, that priority is immoral and on the wrong side of history. The U.S. has on multiple occasions expressed its displeasure with India abstaining on votes condemning Russia at the U.N. Security Council, as well as India’s continuing trade with Russia despite economic sanctions.

If the Biden administration engages in friendly fire, and continues targeting India with moral lectures or more, the U.S. may not have a regional balancer in the Indo-Pacific to contain China’s rise. Biden’s team is patently aware of the challenge India faces with regards to the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Nonetheless, aside from holding back on providing the diplomatic solution, the U.S. has sought to save face as the leader of the liberal international order by engaging in virtue signaling in official press briefings.

In some ways, American foreign policy still reflects Cold War thinking, where Pakistan and China are allies while India and Russia are ambiguous and perilous actors, respectively. While Pakistan has moved toward “frenemy” status and China toward “competitor” (a highly contested description within the Biden administration), Russia remains an enemy. India has been moved to strategic partner by the U.S., but if the Biden administration wishes to have a coherent Indo-Pacific strategy, it needs to dial the clock up from 1972 to 2022.

America and most Western countries cannot fill the void that would be left by Russia if India were to toe the line of the Western alliance and sever its relationship with Russia. Russia is India’s largest arms supplier, its partner for the development of its supersonic missile “Brahmos,” supplier of crude at discounted rates, and an old friend. America is none of those things. The U.S. will not supply India with the much-needed arms and ammunition, even as it supplies Pakistan. At least not until Henry Kissinger’s doctrines are discarded by the wayside. It is not going to jointly develop supersonic missiles with India, and in fact sanctioned India for nuclear tests.

The difference between India and America’s foreign policy approaches lies in their visions of the world. India sees a multipolar global order. America under Biden is still living the unipolar dream. As Elbridge Colby puts it “a moralistic foreign policy turns into hypocrisy when it inevitably meets reality”.

India’s external affairs minister recently gave a dose of reality to the Western media establishment. Jumping in to respond to a question from Reuters to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, about whether the U.K. was disappointed by India buying Russian oil, Subramanyam Jaishankar pointed out that in March, Europe bought 15 percent more oil and gas from Russia than the month before, that most buyers of Russian oil are in Europe, and that India buys the bulk of its oil from the Middle East with about 8 percent coming from U.S. and less than 1 percent coming from Russia.

The minister’s comments came with the backdrop of several American officials taking moral jabs about “being on the right side of history” at India, while avoiding such public conversations with their transatlantic partners that are the largest importers of Russian energy: Germany and Italy. U.S. deputy national security advisor Daleep Singh, in Delhi warning against constructing alternate payment mechanisms with Russia and buying more oil, said “there will be consequences” if India persists and warned that “If China breaches [the line of actual control] again, Russia will not come running to India’s defense.” The fact of the matter is, nor will America.

And nor should it. America should drop saviorism and liberal hegemony as its foreign policy approach and adopt regional balancing, a branch of offensive realism, as a strategy not to self-isolate but to engage more efficiently with the world. Rather than sending American troops and resources around the globe, the U.S. should support regional balancers and create regional coalitions to address global challenges. America should leverage and support India’s power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean to prevent the region from falling into China’s orbit.

This would, however, make a huge ask of America: conceding the unipolar dream and accepting the multipolar reality. Not so long ago, when the world was facing the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, China and India were the first countries to ship vaccines around the globe. Indian vaccines reached the Dominican Republic, a nation less than 1,500 miles from the United States, before American vaccines did. China and India are vying for the mantel of leadership in the Global South.

Even if the U.S. does not actively support India’s campaign for leadership of the Global South, it is at least in the U.S.’s interest not to sabotage it, for China would have the most to gain. In regions of the world where the U.S. has a trust deficit or very little strategic interest, India can fill the void. Moreover, during times of crises like this one, the U.S. could use an intermediary like India to speak with Russia.

In order to get buy-in from India, and as a token of good faith, the U.S. government and the foreign policy expert community in Washington, D.C., should quit the virtue signaling, moral posturing, and, worse, veiled threats. With statements like “there will be consequences,” the U.S. may be losing sight of the significance of the Indian-American relationship for its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Alternatively, the U.S. could offer India a seat at the high table, such as permanent membership at the U.N. Security Council. India already has a seat at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the AIIB, and BRICS, along with Russia and China, among others. India will not want to play second fiddle in the Western alliance system while it can get an equal seat at the table with countries of the Global South. India is the United States’ most vital partner in the Indo-Pacific, and it high time the U.S. begins to treat it as such, not view it through the dusty old binoculars of the 1970s.

Akhil Ramesh is a research fellow with the Pacific Forum based out of Hawaii. 

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