3 November 2018

Seven Myths are Keeping India and the United States from Pursuing Closer Ties

by Jeff Smith 
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In America, the word “alliance” conjures feelings of friendship, loyalty and support. In India, by contrast, the A-word is more likely to be received with suspicion or derision, associated with submission and entanglement. This stark difference between the world’s oldest and largest democracies is a legacy of India’s influential post-independence philosophy of nonalignment, which cautioned against dependency on superpowers. While its appeal has diminished since the end of the Cold War, existing proponents of nonalignment continue to shape India’s geopolitical maturation, not least through the perpetuation of several myths and misconceptions about the costs of “alignment” with the United States.

From Nonalignment to Non-American

Oft-derided today, for India the Cold War logic of nonalignment was arguably more compelling—at least more flexible and pragmatic—than it’s remembered for. Facing profound developmental challenges following independence in 1947 and an intractable rivalry with Pakistan, India was determined to maintain working relationships with both the United States and USSR, even as it had philosophical and policy disagreements with both. It saw alignment with either power as fraught with danger: as the junior partner it feared becoming ensnared in its patron’s rivalries and assuming their enemies as its own.

India did its best to remain aloof from Cold War rivalries as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement until practical realities forced its hand, which they often did. India accepted U.S. military aid when China launched an offensive across the disputed Sino–Indian border in 1962 and signed a mutual defense treaty with the USSR shortly after America signaled an opening to China in 1971. Even then, India jealously guarded its autonomy. It welcomed discounted arms deals from Moscow and geopolitical cover at the United Nations Security Council while largely avoiding entanglement in the USSR’s ideological and military struggles.

Nonalignment outlasted the Cold War, albeit in a weakening state. Since the turn of the century, it has gradually given way to a more flexible conception of “strategic autonomy” as India has taken several meaningful steps toward alignment the United States and Japan, and more robust strategic engagement with a host of others.

Yet, the ghosts of nonalignment still stalk the halls of South Block, erecting bureaucratic roadblocks and conjuring contentious debate over every self-interested shift in America’s direction. And make no mistake: in its current form, nonalignment is very much a non-American faith. There’s nary a peep from its acolytes when India signs defense agreements with Russia, conducts military exercises with Japan, buys arms from Israel or trains Vietnamese soldiers. Once based on pragmatic considerations, their cause has become a more visceral, sometimes irrational, impulse—one fueled by the perpetuation of several hollow myths.

Myth Number One: Allying with the United States Is a Dangerous and Costly Proposition

For the nonalignment crowd, an alliance with America is akin to a pact with the devil, one lined with costly obligations and emasculating dependency. At every turn they’ve argued that if India were to do X with the United States—sign a civil nuclear deal, purchase U.S. arms, sign a foundational military agreement—it would be reduced to an American lapdog, ceding its sovereignty and agency to Washington politicians. And in every case, their ironclad predictions proved comically wrong.

So, I ask them: What great costs has India borne from its growing partnership with the United States? What, exactly, has India been forced to do against its will and interests as a result of its maturing partnership with the United States? What unholy burden has offset the significant advantages India has gained from advanced military hardware and expertise, international support for its nuclear status, cyber and counterterrorism cooperation, and intelligence-sharing arrangements—all of which have been praised by the Indian security establishment?

Myth Number Two: Allies of the United States become American Lackeys

Any country willing to ally with the United States, the nonalignment crowd insists, will be forced to follow American dictates and be drawn into American conflicts. Is that true?

The president of Turkey, a U.S. treaty ally, issues anti-American screeds on an almost weekly basis and has consistently opposed Washington on key regional fault lines, largely free from retribution. U.S. allies frequently and vibrantly break with Washington when they see it is in their national interests to do so, whether it’s over support for Israel and Taiwan, the Iraq war or America’s Iran policy.

Yes, but what about the sanctions? At the moment, India is potentially under threat from two sets of U.S. sanctions: one designed to punish those doing business with Russia’s military and intelligence establishment; the other targeting those purchasing oil from Iran. Isn’t this proof that getting too close to the United States carries risk? Not really.

India has good reason to feel slighted: through no fault of its own, it is being asked to make costly adjustments to its economic policies and foreign relationships. However, this is not a function of India's proximity to the United States—quite the opposite. Both sets of sanctions apply to friend and foe alike. If anything, they underscore the importance of India’s growing partnership with the United States, which has created domestic constituencies committed to securing India’s preferential treatment and shielding it from dual sanctions.

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