Nuance in the new world order
President Vladimir Putin’s short visit to Delhi last month underlines how the global contest over values, governance and law has only just begun.
India’s role in the current rumbling confrontation is becoming critically important, which is why the Russian President made Delhi only his second foreign visit of 2021. The other was to meet President Biden in Geneva.
On one side stand Europe and North America, leading the charge for what they hail as democracy and freedom.
The other is led by the dual front of Russia and China, with their focus on strong government, raising living standards and expanding territory and influence.
In between lies India, huge and unwieldy and arguably top of the pile of dozens of nations being wooed, bribed and bullied by both sides to join one camp or the other. Many have been here before, and don’t like it.
Fifty years ago, India stood in the crosshairs of a Cold War contest, barely flinched and adhered to its doctrine of independence and non-alignment. The 1971 Bangladesh War exposed muddled contradictions within assumed ideological clarity. The world’s largest democracy ended up allying itself to the world’s most powerful autocracy to withstand influence from the US and all America was meant to stand for.
India shows every sign of doing the same again, except this time, in our heavily interconnected world more will hear its voice.
Putin’s visit led to the signing of 28 Memoranda of Understanding, ranging from space and energy security to setting up a joint small arms factory, as well extending the military cooperation pact to 2031. Above all that, however, Putin and Modi were sending a message that the Russo-Indian relationship was solid and not going away.
The two men get on well and are aware that the relationship has been put under strain by shades of grey swirling around the realignments of power. Each government has become too closely linked to the other’s enemy: Russia to China and India to the United States.
The challenge, therefore, is for Moscow and New Delhi to navigate a path in which their own interests can be protected and, better still, they can leverage their own relationship to cool rising global hostilities.
India’s policy of non-alignment signals to all that it cannot be bought and reflects the thinking of many smaller nations which resent being asked to choose between competing powers. As examples, in recent years, India had gone against Russian interests by joining the Quadrilateral Dialogue with Australia, Japan and the US, aimed at balancing China’s expansion. For its part, Russia has angered India by sidelining it on its dealings with Afghanistan and the Taliban. Yet Moscow did listen to New Delhi on its Himalayan conflict with China and suspended Beijing’s delivery of surface-to-air S-400 missiles.
At the same time, India infuriated the US by ordering those same missiles, choosing Russia as its supplier of a critical air-defence system over the American Patriot and THAAD missiles.
An outraged Trump administration threatened sanctions, indicating how Washington remains locked in an outdated mindset that is way behind the curve. It continues to crave the clarity of good and evil, friends and enemies, which, in today’s climate, is difficult to define.
The September announcement of a new security pact between Australia, Britain and the US was an attempt to bolster the Quad because America could never see India as a reliable ally. As one Indian diplomat succinctly said, ‘It gets us off the hook.’
Beijing, Moscow and Washington would be wise to take note because Indian’s position may well come to represent a new realpolitik in the global balance. It reflects a system of relationships based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations and more suited to today’s interconnected world.
With its unpredictable elections and billion plus voices of individuality, India is flying the flag for those multiple shades of contradictory grey that envelop the real world.
Yes, it may currently be swinging towards some form of elected authoritarianism. But that no more puts it into that global camp, even as it takes it away from the democracy one. Indians have proved this time and again, most notably with the Emergency and the 1977 election, when they decisively expelled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from office for being too hard line and dictatorial.
Washington should realise that a strong relationship between Russia and India is not necessarily a bad thing because it, too, could help balance Chinese expansion. In the same way, Beijing and Moscow know from the brittle failure of the Sino-Soviet pact that big power alliances need far more than ideological slogans to flourish.
Strengthening a tapestry of relationships between power will also take the heat out of rising hostilities.
This would surely be a better way forward than the ideological Cold War relationships when economic growth was constrained by Iron, Ice and Bamboo Curtains, societies were devastated by war, and generations were raised to see others as enemies.
India forged a different path then. It can do so now.