A U.S. critique of Nonalignment 2.0 says the report’s fundamental flaw is the gap between its realist reading of world politics and its idealistic solutions

Whether India should lean west, look east, walk straight, stand at attention in a tough neighbourhood, or be at ease with a giant, fast-paced China are important questions for policymakers. Earlier this year a group of Indian analysts made a serious attempt to provide answers in Nonalignment 2.0, charting a grand strategy while trying to plant firm feet in a shifty and shifting global environment.

The release of Nonalignment 2.0 was greeted mostly with criticism, some of it eviscerating, some breezy and some undeserved. The title itself set off fireworks, from Delhi to Washington, preventing many critics from looking beyond initial outrage and into the text, so discombobulated they were at the very thought of reviving a term they had buried with the Cold War. But the same title gave comfort to others who still believe in the magic realism of nonalignment.

Perhaps it follows that the report had no separate chapter or detailed analysis of India-U.S. relations and how the 2008 civil-nuclear agreement changed the strategic environment for India. Another country to escape all notice and acknowledgement was Israel despite the increasingly tight defence relationship.

Nonaligment 2.0 mentions the United States only in a tertiary and sometimes even in a backhanded manner, much to the quiet chagrin of India’s supporters in Washington.

This when for at least the past decade and through two prime ministers, a string of superlatives upon hyperbole — “the defining partnership of the 21st century,” “natural partners,” “engaged democracies” — has described the growing relationship. One of the authors, explaining the missing link to Washingtonians, recently said the U.S. was “a running thread” in the document, an assumed presence. It didn’t wash.

Analysis

It is no surprise then that the most detailed critique of Nonalignment 2.0 yet should come from Washington. Ashley Tellis, one of the most respected strategic thinkers and a key voice on India-U.S. relations, gives Nonalignment 2.0 the thorough attention it deserves minus the acidity of an ideological takedown. But a takedown it is, albeit a considered one. Tellis assesses its prescriptions in almost as much detail as the writers do in laying out their premise. And then goes about systematically countering each one of the national security recommendations.

Nonalignment Redux: Perils of Old Wine in New Skins, to be released early July by the Carnegie Endowment, may raise tempers but it shouldn't be ignored. Tellis is all praise for the document’s strong advocacy of economic liberalisation for India and greater integration with the world. Its declaration that globalisation presents more opportunities than risks is music to his ears. The enthusiasm for an open economy is surely a huge leap forward from nonalignment 1.0, and has enormous implications.

The second track of argument in Nonalignment 2.0 is strengthening of Indian democracy as a “strategic” task for a nation burdened by rising aspirations and ineffective delivery systems. Tellis finds an “honest and penetrating assessment” of India’s democratic condition but evasion in the answers. While Nonalignment 2.0 endorses the current government’s effort to create “a rights-based welfare state” where citizens are provided all basic needs, it does not address the question of costs. The price tag “could actually end up undermining the larger economic growth that is critical for India’s success,” according to Tellis.

The third and perhaps the most important strand in Nonalignment 2.0 is the discussion of national security into which the previous two streams flow. And on this Tellis’ hammer comes down hard and repeatedly. For him the report’s fundamental flaw lies in the gap between its realist reading of world politics and its idealist solutions. He finds the report’s embrace of nonalignment as the best organising principle for India’s relations with the world as “misconceived and downright dangerous” even when disguised as strategic autonomy.

All countries want to preserve their physical security and autonomy of decision-making to the extent possible so India’s quest for “strategic autonomy” is not unique, he says. The desired end is the same for all. Tellis contends that the original idea of nonalignment was about the “means” to get there by staying clear of both blocs. It was a method for the madness of the Cold War. Nonalignment 2.0, however, “conflates the ends and means” of nonalignment and resurrects the concept with “avoidance of sharp choices.” That in short means not choosing the U.S.

China factor

Ironically, even though the report regards China as the greatest challenge for India and agrees there is a meeting of minds with the U.S. on this perception, it advises against a closer partnership with Washington. “By so doing, Nonalignment 2.0 fails to appreciate the central paradox of our times: Strategic autonomy is best achieved through a set of deep strategic partnerships among friends and allies,” Tellis concludes. Contrary to the report’s assumptions, India may not have the luxury of choices the authors envision and even if it does, all partners are not created equal. India can’t afford “allying with none” given the differential of power with China and the report’s own analysis.

The “faulty” conclusions, according to Tellis, may be because the authors begin with a faulty premise. The key question should be whether India needs partners to realise its political aims and who best fits that purpose. Instead, Nonalignment 2.0 frames India’s primary challenge as its ability to leverage the interests of various rivals seeking its hand. In that it exaggerates India’s geopolitical importance and bargaining capacity. Tellis finds this “solipsism” dangerous because it presumes that the U.S. needs India more than India might in case of an eventuality vis-à-vis China. He finds it counterproductive because the smugness prevents genuine cooperation with the US.

India would be better served by “a sturdy ring” of relationships with countries near and far because it would create “objective constraint on China’s misuse of power,” according to Tellis. But Nonalignment 2.0 walks gingerly around China, saying India should not get into relationships that go beyond “a certain threat threshold in Chinese perceptions.” The worry whether the U.S. would come to India’s rescue in case of a Sino-Indian conflict is genuine but it would be real only if India “chooses a priori” not to develop a meaningful partnership with the U.S. The U.S. then would have no incentive to take on China for India.

But interestingly, the U.S. is not seeking an alliance against China despite the persistent commentary to that effect, because “strategic coordination” and a deep partnership would suffice, Tellis says. Finally, the question is would India realise its power and potential when the U.S. is preeminent or another country? Washington is a cheerleader for a stronger India while China busily strings pearls around.

Tellis’ assessment is organic food for thought and it should widen the debate.

(Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based journalist.)

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