India is arguably the most important swing nation in world politics. She is influential enough to shift the balance of power, and her loyalties are neither obvious nor consistent.
India is both the world’s most populous country and the only country among the top 10 economies that has not clearly chosen a side in what President Biden calls the struggle between democracy and autocracy. On the one hand, India is skeptical of a Western-led world and has helped fund Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by continuing to buy Russian oil. On the other hand, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Washington yesterday and loudly announced his country’s proximity to the US
Modi’s visit, which included an address to Congress and a state dinner at the White House yesterday, has understandably caused some Americans to feel uneasy. (Several Liberal Democrats declined to attend his speech to Congress.) In addition to working with Putin, Modi is a Hindu nationalist whose party cracks down on political opponents and foments anti-Muslim bigotry. At a White House press briefing with Biden yesterday, Modi brushed aside reporters’ questions on these issues.
If the Biden administration chose its international friends solely for their commitment to freedom and democracy, Modi’s India would be an odd nation to celebrate with White House pomp. But the reality is that the US cannot have everything it wants when it comes to foreign policy. There are inevitable compromises.
If the US included only those countries with a purely democratic record, it would not be able to create a very powerful global alliance. The US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea are not strong enough to dominate the world as they once could. They need allies in the Global South and the Middle East. And India is not only the largest of these countries; It is also among the most democratic, despite Modi’s flirtation with autocratic methods and India’s historical proximity to Russia.
There is an irony to the situation, but Biden and other US leaders cannot simply wish it away with high-flying rhetoric. An alliance of only liberal democracies would likely weaken global democracy: it would anger many countries in Asia and Africa, prompting them to develop stronger ties with China and Russia.
“The primary refusal to cooperate with India because its ideology and democracy do not match Western ideals would only strengthen China,” the editors of The Economist recently wrote. “It would also show that America has failed to adapt to the multipolar world that lies ahead.”
Finding the balance between effectiveness and morality in foreign policy is not easy. Modi’s critics are wise to use his visit to Washington as an opportunity to highlight his dangerous Hindu superiority. In the long run, the cause of democracy would benefit from a less xenophobic, less authoritarian India, just as the cause would benefit from a US where the Republican Party is fully committed to democracy and pluralism.
(The Times editorial board has urged the Biden administration to urge Modi on these issues at this week’s meetings. And Maya Jasanoff, a historian, writes in an op-ed piece: “Modi has the country’s widest assault on democracy, civil society and minorities headed rights in at least 40 years.”)
As much as the US urges Modi, it has never been powerful enough to build an effective global alliance while insisting that all of its members are American-style democracies. In today’s multipolar world, the US certainly cannot do this. The compromises can often be uncomfortable, but they are inevitable.
Democracy is much more likely to thrive in the coming decades if India and the US are imperfect allies rather than antagonists.
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