When the military fights with democracy

The strategic dimension of their relationship grows, but India and the U.S. appear less enthusiastic about supporting democratic principles internationally. This is a cause for concern.

Updated - September 18, 2018 02:57 pm IST

Published - September 17, 2018 03:51 pm IST

Narendra Modi and Donald Trump are in charge of their respective nations at a time when military might is touted as the bulwark of a democratic worldview. | Reuters

Narendra Modi and Donald Trump are in charge of their respective nations at a time when military might is touted as the bulwark of a democratic worldview. | Reuters

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The Defence and Foreign Affairs officials of India and the United States met in Delhi on the 6th of this month and held a defence cooperation dialogue called 2+2. The dialogue produced an agreement that was hailed in strategic circles in India. The U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis described it as “highly successful”. The agreement was followed by a visit to the U.S. by India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, to discuss and cement the gains arising from it.

Those in India who support the building of stronger military ties between the world’s “oldest” and “largest” democracies are excited. But it is important to note that the dialogue was the latest episode in a series marked by a decline in the salience of the idea of democracy in the relationship between the two countries.

Commitment to promoting democratic principles in the international arena had been a key feature of bilateral relations as they were forged anew two decades ago. In recent years, however, the two countries have showed little enthusiasm for this commitment. This is a disconcerting trend and, worse, it has gone largely unnoticed.

But first: why should it bother us that India and the U.S. do not appear to be committed to promoting democratic principles anymore? Because democracy is a self-evident global good, the scarcity of which impoverishes political systems. And because the two countries are the world’s most consequential democracies. They have a responsibility to support democracy globally as leading members of international society.

To understand how important democracy in India-U.S. relations is for world affairs, consider two claims made by an academic idea called the democratic peace theory. Firstly, that democracies are peacefully disposed towards each other; and, the more they interact, the more their relationship strengthens, and the stronger they become. And secondly, that cooperation amongst them rubs off onto the international arena, creating a conducive atmosphere for democratic values.



This atmosphere encourages non-democratic political systems as well as societies to invest in governments that are elected fairly, are restrained by a liberal constitution, and respect individual as well as group rights. All this is a good thing, of course.

At the end of World War II, the democratic peace theory guided attempts made by western democracies to forge a lasting peace amongst themselves. In this context, India-U.S. relations became a test for the robustness of the thesis as it was pitted against the West–non-West divide. If the thesis was sound, the two countries were to get along without extraordinary friction.

But that is not how the relationship unfolded. Despite the strong liberal democratic underpinnings of both political systems, the two countries could not come close during and immediately after the Cold War years. This was partly due to the bipolar nature of the international system, in which India did not want to get militarily entangled, and partly due to the state-mediated bottom-up developmental model that India had adopted. The result was that for about five decades, the two democracies remained estranged — interested but not invested in each other’s affairs.

The relationship has undergone a profound shift in the past two decades, owing mainly to altered international circumstances as well as the convergence of elite worldviews in the two countries. The extent to which democracy was invoked to initiate the rapprochement and consolidate the new relationship during the first decade (c. 1998-2008) was remarkable. In his memoirs of the rapprochement process , Strobe Talbott told us that the U.S. was willing to overlook India’s nuclear trajectory, a major obstacle for Washington, and forge a new relationship because of India’s strong democratic credentials and potential as a liberal democracy of great influence in international politics.

The Administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush over-stressed India’s democratic identity to justify their country’s extraordinary support to India’s emergence on the world stage. They emphatically declared their hope that India would partner the U.S. and western democracies to secure the global democratisation process. India and the U.S. were, for them, ‘natural allies’ — a phrase meant to suggest that there was an organic connect between the two societies, their constitutional visions, and their political systems.

Strategists who champion the military dimension of India-U.S. relations at the cost of the democratic dimension view world politics as a video game: an endless spectacle of power, violence, speed and overall lack of humanity that resonates with the primitive instincts within us.


India welcomed this democracy-oriented approach to bilateral relations but was wary of its implications for its foreign policy. Our governments presented India as a supporter or enabler of international democratisation processes but not as an enthusiast of western-led democracy promotion that involved forcible removal of non-democratic political systems (as in Afghanistan 2001 and Iraq 2003). But liberal strategists in India advocated that India must proactively participate in western democratisation efforts. They argued that India would bring its own experience and approach to these efforts and make an essentially western project a truly international one. Their views were both inspired and reinforced by their American and western counterparts.

Curiously, while the first decade of this bilateral relationship saw great momentum and enthusiasm, the second decade — the period under the Barack Obama and Donald Trump Administrations — has been marked by occasional cooling-down and sluggishness. Domestic legal and institutional issues slowed the pace of progress on the civil nuclear agreement. Political friction over an Indian diplomat posted in the U.S. dampened bilateral enthusiasm for a short while. President Obama scaled down America’s aggressive democratisation efforts. He let non-democratic regional players like Russia and Iran gain influence in their immediate and extended neighbourhoods. This was not an undesirable development as it eased the pressure on India and gave it breathing space to strengthen its model of democratic assistance rather than democracy-promotion.

In recent years, which have involved a change of leadership in both the countries, the democracy dimension has tended to recede from the relationship. Although official statements have described their relationship as a bond between the world’s largest and oldest democracies, it is not unreasonable to wonder if these pronouncements amount to anything more than lip service to democratic principles.

Rather, at the forefront of the relationship has been a rapid progress in the military dimension. Four agreements on extensive military cooperation have defined this phase; the third one — COMCASA — was signed two weeks ago at the 2+2 . A White House statement in November 2017 stated that “two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s greatest militaries”. That was as clear an indication of their priority as diplomatic language could offer.


Realist commentators have tended to welcome this trend of recent years. They have argued that democracy should be an element of the bedrock of the relationship but not an active part of the two countries’ international vision. The two countries must converge on a strategic vision for Asia rather than on a political understanding on supporting democratic principles internationally. The view is seductive but problematic. Why?

Liberal democracy is under assault in the West and faces challenges within India. The crisis of democracies has undermined the ideals of democracy in the international arena. Non-liberal models that appeal to base passions and promote extreme self-regard of national societies have gained ground while humanitarian concerns such as refugee rights have suffered. That these are disconcerting developments for all is self-evident. Neither India nor the U.S. can afford to neglect or, worse, perpetuate these developments. As decent societies committed to a liberal democratic constitutional vision, they are duty-bound to stop this assault. And if the governments do not step up to the plate, the enlightened sections of their citizenries must.

Strategists who champion the military dimension of India-U.S. relations at the cost of the democratic dimension view world politics as a video game: an endless spectacle of power, violence, speed and overall lack of humanity that resonates with the primitive instincts within us.

But world politics is not a video game. It is a social process. Both countries require, from the governments and citizens alike, firm gestures in support of Constitutionally-restrained elected governments, separation and protection of powers among the different organs of the state, intra-societal decency towards others, and a recognition that individuals and groups have inalienable rights to positive coexistence. It is what major powers and their enlightened citizens owe themselves as well as the world.

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