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Modi's US visit spotlights America's policy choices

James M. Dorsey

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's four-day red carpet visit to the United States constitutes a microcosm of what a 21st-world order century will likely look like.

US President Joe Biden welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House on June 22, 2023, as the two leaders emphasise their close ties. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The visit spotlights the adjustments the United States faces in transitioning from a US-dominated unipolar world to a multipolar world populated by three major powers – the US, China, and India -- and several middle powers with greater agency to hedge their bets and chart independent courses.

Those adjustments include the viability of a foreign, defense, and security policy anchored in alliances rather than more narrowly-focused agreements and micro-laterals like I2U2, which groups the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and India, or AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

I2U2 was created last year to facilitate "joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security."

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, Mr. Modi asserted that the South Asian nation's quest for great power status based on being the world's most populous country and, by 2030, its third largest economy, did not involve "supplanting any country.“

Instead, Mr. Modi said, "We see this process as India gaining its rightful position in the world."

The prime minister noted, "I am the first prime minister to be born in free India. And that's why my thought process, my conduct, what I say and do, is inspired by my country's attributes and traditions."

A former US State Department official and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs, Ashley J. Tellis, argued that India and the United States differ on what a 21st-century world order should entail.

Ashley Tellis speaks during a panel discussion on India’s relationship with the United States. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Tata family, whose Tata Group is India’s largest conglomerate with operations in more than 100 countries, funds Carnegie and the chair.

India “does not harbor any innate allegiance toward preserving the liberal international order and retains an enduring aversion toward participating in mutual defense. It seeks to acquire advanced technologies from the United States to bolster its own economic and military capabilities… It does not presume that American assistance imposes any further obligations on itself,” Mr. Tellis said in a recent Foreign Affairs article.

Bolstering Mr. Tellis’ argument, prominent Indian commentator C. Raja Mohan noted that "the Indian argument of ‘strategic autonomy’…is only deployed in the engagement with the US.

...We rarely ask how Delhi, despite the talk of strategic autonomy, has allowed a massive and unhealthy reliance on Russian weapons to develop over the decades."

Widely viewed as India’s most popular politician rooted in Hindu nationalism with a track record of illiberally hollowing out the world’s largest democracy and rolling back minority rights, particularly regarding India’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority, Mr. Modi stands firm in the struggle to shape the 21st-century world order.

That battle is as much a power struggle as it is a battle of ideas.

“Ideologies play a central role in structuring international orders as well as mounting collective efforts to challenge and transform them,” scholars Gregorio Bettiza, Derek Bolton, and David Lewis noted in a recent journal article.

Juxtaposed with the Biden administration’s democracy vs. autocracy framework, Mr. Modi’s model of illiberalism combined with non-alignment while maintaining close ties to the world’s major economies is increasingly a preferred alternative for autocratic middle powers, particularly in the Gulf, according to Middle East expert Jon Alterman.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on the eve of President Joe Biden’s White House meeting with Mr. Modi that the US leader would not lecture the Indian prime minister about human rights.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on April 24, 2023, in Washington, DC. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Ultimately, the question of where politics and the question of democratic institutions go in India is going to be determined within India by Indians. It’s not going to be determined by the United States,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Mr. Alterman suggested, “That is precisely the conclusion that officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and Cairo—and others—would like Washington to reach about them. They would like to have the US president welcome their rulers without lectures or preconditions.”

It also benefits from the fact that credibility is essential in the battle of ideas. Credibility is what the United States lacks.

The effective dropping of human rights concerns in the US-India relationship is just the latest example of the United States refusing to put its money where its mouth is or, at best, its selective adherence to its democratic and human rights values.

Earlier, Mr. Biden lost ground by framing the Ukraine war as a fight between democracy and autocracy rather than what resistance to the Russian invasion is about: upholding the rule of law and the inviolability of internationally recognised borders.

Mr. Biden’s problem is that inconsistency in US policy has become as much a liability as it long was an asset. The rise of illiberalism in the United States, symbolised by former President Donald J. Trump, compounds Mr. Biden's difficulties.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump speaks at an event in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 18. Photo: REUTERS

To be sure, balancing values with the requirements of big power geopolitics produces uncomfortable compromises.

The United States has yet to attempt to regain credibility by countering legitimate allegations of hypocrisy and opportunism with a well-argued rationale for selective insistence on its values that for decades have rung hollow and insincere.

Mr. Raja Mohan, the Indian commentator, put his finger on the US dilemma by noting that “if Washington can do business for many decades with the House of Saud, the Pakistan Army, and the Chinese Communist Party, it is unreasonable to think it will be squeamish about building on clearly convergent interests with the Modi government.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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