What the U.S. Gets Wrong About India

March 14, 2024 Topic: India Region: Eurasia Tags: IndiaUAEFranceGreeceIsraelI2U2

What the U.S. Gets Wrong About India

Washington fails to accurately understand India’s deep cultural, religious, and civilizational history.

In the last week of February, top UAE diplomat Dr. Anwar Gargash spoke to a packed room in New Delhi, arguing for Indian representation at the United Nations Security Council. One week before, the Prime Minister of Greece attended the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi as its chief guest. On the sidelines of the gathering, Indian and Greek government officials explored ways to accelerate the IMEC corridor that was announced at the G20 summit last year. While this corridor was inaugurated with the United States, the U.S. approach to multilateral initiatives with India has been different. For instance, earlier in the year, President Joe Biden missed the Indian Republic Day celebrations.

What set this celebration apart was its chief guest. Despite the fact that it was not even his first Indian Republic Day celebration, the chief guest, French president Emmanuel Macron, made a mark on the bilateral relationship between India and France and left a few lessons for the U.S.-India partnership.

Each year, the Indian government invites chief guests to commemorate the anniversary. For the 2024 celebration, it had initially invited President Biden and planned a Quad-like gathering with the leaders of Australia and Japan. However, President Biden excused himself from the event, citing “scheduling demands.” Therein collapsed the idea of showcasing the unity among the Quad nations.

Interestingly, there was widespread speculation that Biden’s last-minute (less than a month) withdrawal could not be explained by boilerplate excuses. A few analysts, such as Bruno Macaes, even used the American president’s withdrawal as a supposed sign of isolation of India on the world stage after its alleged involvement in the killing of a Sikh separatist in Canada and an alleged attempt on the life of another on American soil.

Macron accepted the state invitation without much hesitation. He responded publicly on the social media platform X, “Thank you for your invitation, my dear friend @NarendraModi. India, on your Republic Day, I’ll be here to celebrate with you!”

For New Delhi, this was another instance of Paris having its back as Washington stonewalls.

The lesson to draw here is the difference in foreign policy and diplomatic approaches between Paris, Abu Dhabi, Athens, Tel Aviv, and Washington. Excluding the United States, all four have remained non-interventionist—excusing themselves from the domestic tribulations of New Delhi—with a focus on finding synergies for expanded cooperation to capitalize on shared interests.

On the other hand, Washington continues to stick to its often hypocritical values-evangelism and, as a result, an increasingly interventionist approach.  In this paradigm of values versus interests, values would gain salience when interests rest on a solid foundation. In the case of the four nations and India, defense, trade, increasing connectivity, securing sea lanes, and the shared vision for a multipolar world lay the foundation for stable ties.

While Washington and New Delhi share some of those values and interests, the divergence in understanding of the values and interests continues to render the partnership difficult. Of note, there are three avenues where these nations get it right and Washington wrong. 

Firstly, as a postcolonial society, India is particularly resistant to any intervention by a Western power that challenges its hallowed self-determination and autonomy. The four nations understand New Delhi’s instincts and do not lose sight of India’s larger relevance to their larger geopolitical goals. Washington, on the other hand, simply does not understand or endorse India’s strategic autonomy. 

Secondly and more broadly, Washington fails to accurately understand India’s deep cultural, religious, and civilizational history and its renewed relevance today. Experts in both New Delhi and Washington covering the respective regions often view Indian affairs through the lens of liberal internationalist ideology—which seeks to shape the world according to its ideals. This stands in contrast to realism, wherein people, nations, and states are left to act in their own best interests and values. 

For example, the Indian prime minister inaugurated the Ram Temple in Ayodhya with much fanfare in India and the Indian diasporic community after a struggle of over 500 years to recover the ancient Hindu site destroyed by the Mughal invader Babur in the sixteenth century. Modi even gifted a replica of the Ram Temple to Macron. To many Indians, the Ram Temple is their Notre Dame Cathedral—not only a religious site but also a cultural monument closely tied to their civilizational identity. As reductionist as it would be to call Notre Dame in Paris solely a cathedral for Catholics, so would it be to categorize the Ram Temple as merely a Hindu temple.

Yet, most English language media and other institutions remained silent in response to overtly Christian state events in secular democracies, such as the White House National Prayer Breakfast or Royal Coronation in the UK, while decrying the inauguration of the Ram Temple as a symbol of religious supremacy. In doing so, they ignored its significance and misrepresented or ignored the facts. For example, the Indian government is also arranging the construction of what will be one of India’s largest mosques in the same city.

Similarly, the UAE government has supported the Indian diaspora and New Delhi’s cultural ambitions. It gifted twenty-seven acres of land for the construction of the first stone Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi. The Indian prime minister inaugurated the temple in late February with much fanfare.

Lastly, the divergence in understanding of the world order presents itself as an irreconcilable difference. India’s vision for the world as multipolar with the need for increased representation for different regions of the world and a democratized global financial system are antithetical to Washington’s unipolar vision of the world driven largely by its military and financial hegemony.

External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, best articulated this vision recently by noting that, “It’s important today to make a distinction between being non-West and anti-West. I would certainly characterize India as a country which is non-West, but which has an extremely strong relationship with Western countries, getting better by the day.” 

India, like China, Brazil, and South Africa, has championed new systems and vehicles as alternatives to the existing ones, such as the SWIFT payment system, credit rating, and multilateral lending. Through groupings such as BRICS and development banks such as AIIB and NDB, India is not counting on the West to save the day. This autonomy frustrates Washington, which sees itself as setting the course of the post-world war order. However, as some reports suggest, France is capitalizing on India’s proverbial feet in both the West and the Global South. A recent report suggested India was behind the vetoing of Algeria’s application to the expanded BRICS grouping at the request of the French. Even Ukraine, a country that is not a strategic partner of India, leveraged India’s relationship with Russia as an olive branch to raise concerns surrounding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Washington, however, has not capitalized on India’s position in the Global South but instead has given it a hard time for participation in such alternative groupings.

On balance, the UAE, Greece, Israel, and France accept India for what it is, while the United States decries and prescribes what it should be. Will prescriptive policy work well with a nation-state that simultaneously represents a civilization several thousands of years old, a post-colonial society, the world’s fifth-largest economy (soon to be third), the world’s largest population, and nuclear power? We will soon find out.

Akhil Ramesh is the Director of the India Program and Economic Statecraft Initiative at the Pacific Forum.

Samir Kalra is the Managing Director for Policy and Programs at the Hindu American Foundation.

Editorial credit: Saikat Paul / Shutterstock.com