Even though natural allies, why the US must accomodate India's sometimes divergent worldview and different strategic needs in order for the two largest democracies to cooperate especially during crisis, like for instance, the war in Ukraine.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden at the White House during their first bilateral meeting in September 2021.
If one was to conceptualise the US’ vision of world order today, it would probably look somewhat like an asymmetric bipolarity, with the US’ military capacity and its vast network of allies skewing the balance in its favour against a revisionist China and its challenge to the Liberal International Order. You can think of such an order as two long tables with Biden and Xi sitting at the front of each, with the Chinese premier’s side having noticeably fewer chairs and threatening accessories. The US would certainly like India, as a democratic state and significant partner in the Indo-Pacific, to join its side of the table. But the problem is that India isn’t sitting at the same table at all. India’s version of the world order resembles a roundtable or a concert of great powers, with Modi having an equal even if slightly shorter (considering India is not at the level of military or economic strength of some others) seat at the table. Multipolarity and order transition don’t represent anxiety but opportunity. It is often ignored how these divergent approaches to order making have affected their bilateral ties and efforts at collective action through groupings such as the Quad. But the Ukraine crisis has most noticeably exposed these discrepancies.
To some extent, one can understand the confusion and frustration in Washington with respect to India’s choices. The US and India are after all a natural pairing of the world’s largest and oldest democracies. In age of contest with autocracies, why wouldn’t India align with the US and its allies? Well, the problem is that both the US and India have different ideas of an ideal partnership. This is quite evident in the historical register. The US has preferred partners lower down in the pecking order. It steps in as a security guarantor and economic benefactor but demands unflinching loyalty and commitment for its wider interests in return. Robert E. Kelly and Paul Poast recently wrote about this in a long form article for Foreign Affairs on “why America can get away with bullying its friends”. They highlight that American partnerships are based on hierarchy and dependence, and therefore fully capable of withstanding “capriciousness, browbeating, and neglect”. The US is not a friend, it is a superpower patron. And its partners are not friends, they are protégés.
Now consider the type of challenge India poses to the American template. It is perhaps the most significant military power in its own right the US has tried to befriend since the end of World War II. Arguably, European powers like the United Kingdom and France are also military powers of note, but unlike India are status-quoist and not rising. India is the first partner who does not look upon the US for handouts and to underwrite its security, even with a much larger rival in China. This is not to say India does not need allies, both for military and economic reasons. But only that it will not look to the US as a security guarantor and nor will it tolerate the type of disregard the US has meted out to its partners from time to time. Unfortunately, India’s reluctance to align with the US is often couched in a language of Cold War sentimentality. It is seen as unwilling to shed the shibboleths of nonalignment and postcolonialism. But the challenge for Washington could be much simpler. It simply hasn’t had a major military power as a partner in a long while with whom it cannot weaponize hierarchy and dependence when the time comes.
So, what does an ideal partner look like for India? Once again, if we turn to the historical register we see that India prefers partnerships that do not compel it to make partisan choices, especially those that do not align with its national interest. For India, strategic autonomy and flexibility in partnerships are not something to be avoided, as conventional deterrence theory would tell us. Instead, they hold value as tools to manage uncertainty in a different, perhaps non-Western, way; one that does not seek to reduce uncertainty by removing it from the equation altogether with watertight military alliances assembled with shared enemy images, but rather by accepting complexity and hedging for different possibilities.
What does this mean for Indo-US ties moving forward? I am hardly trying to suggest the partnership is doomed. There is in fact significant convergence between the two states on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific as well as on improving supply chain resilience and deepening trade relations between open societies. However, before India and the US make progress on these issues through institutional frameworks such as the Quad, it is important to have consensus within on order making and what is expected of partnerships. If the US and its allies proceed with the aim of co-opting India into the Liberal International Order and seek to change its preferences in a manner that makes it more amenable to tagging along with Western interests, whether in the Indo-Pacific or elsewhere, at least some of these efforts are bound to be frustrated and may even lead to repeated disappointment. Instead, it may be more fruitful to work towards consensus-building by taking seriously India’s divergent interests and concerns. They both need to find a common table.
(Ameya Pratap Singh is reading for a DPhil in South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford and is the Managing Editor of the international news and analysis platform, Statecraft Daily.)