Non-alignment and its discontents

Earlier this year, a group of Indian analysts and policymakers released [PDF] Non-Alignment 2.0: a foreign and strategic policy for India in the twenty first century, arguing that that India “must seek to achieve a situation where no other state is in a position to exercise undue influence on us – or make us act against our better judgement and will”. (p10)

The report was (surprisingly) liberal internationalist in its economics, Asianist on security, stridently navalist in its military outlook, pragmatic on the question of where India ought to stand in relation to the United States and China, and carefully assertive on how and when India should use force.

On Asia:

It is in our interest that China remains preoccupied with its first-tier, more immediate maritime theatre. The retention of strong U.S. maritime deployments in the Asia-Pacific theatre, a more proactive and assertive Japanese  naval force projection, and a build-up of the naval capabilities of such key littoral states as Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam: all may help delay, if not deter, the projection of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean.

We need to use this window of opportunity to build up our own naval capabilities. Our regional diplomacy should support this approach by fostering closer relations with these ‘countervailing’ powers. This should include a network of security cooperation agreements with these states and regular naval exercises with them. (pp13-4)

On Pakistan:

 We should also be prepared—in the event of a major terrorist attack—to send a political signal to the Pakistan Army. The idea would be to instill a measure of caution and make them think hard before allowing another attack in the future. We have, in the past, resorted to controlled application of force across the Line of Control. Going forward, we need to move away from the notion of capturing and holding territory (however limited) to conducting effective stand-off punitive operations. (p19)

On the Middle East or West Asia:

[W]e need to carefully distinguish between the emerging Islamist political forces and jihadi terrorist organizations like the Al Qaeda and its affiliates. In the past, there has been intense rivalry between them and alliances have usually been tactical and short-lived. We must be ready to work with Islamist groups that have entered the political mainstream in their countries and are competing by legitimate means to enter government.

But we should also be clear that their hold on power will be contested by institutions that have existed long before the democratic turn in these countries. Some of these institutions will be important to us in securing and stepping-up cooperation on security-related activities like counter-terrorism and intelligence. (p23)

On balancing:

Given that India has more interests in ‘direct’ competition with China, and less with the U.S., it may be tempting to conclude that the U.S. is a likely alliance partner. But this conclusion would be premature. While there may appear to be attractions for India to exploit its derivative value, the risk is that its relations with the U.S. could become a casualty of any tactical upswing in Sino-American ties. Nor is it entirely clear how the U.S. might actually respond if China posed a threat to India’s interests. The other potential downside is that India could prematurely antagonize China … The U.S. can be too demanding in its friendship and resentful of other attachments India might pursue. The historical record of the United States bears out that powers that form formal alliances with it have tended to see an erosion of their strategic autonomy. (p32, emphasis added)


Writing in The Caravan magazine, I reflected on how the report was received, and whether both the critics and proponents of an “upgraded” non-alignment might have missed some of the conceptual difficulties associated with it:

The critics immediately leapt on the [Non-Alignment 2.0] report—and particularly its title, perhaps missing some of the playfulness of its choice. Bharat Karnad, among the fiercest of India’s hyper-nationalists, rubbished the whole thing as “an exercise to force the present into a conceptual policy straitjacket from the past”. Two former national security advisers, Brajesh Mishra and MK Narayanan, and the incumbent, Shiv Shankar Menon, suggested that they found the term non-alignment to be a dangerous anachronism. Tom Wright, a South Asia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, damned it as something pulled out the “dustbin of history”

However, the problem with framing Indian foreign policy debates around the language of alignment versus non-alignment, or borrowed versus indigenous strategic thinking, is that these terms are becoming emptied of meaning. Not only are they coming to represent inchoate prejudices rather than careful strategic thought, but it’s also unclear whether they capture important dimensions of India’s strategic circumstances. Two questions are especially important. The first is about the realistic parameters of non-alignment. The second concerns the demands of alignment.

On the burdens of non-alignment – the issue of what an “erosion of … strategic autonomy” might actually mean:

What is certain is that India is already aligned—with various powers, in various ways, and certainly to an increasing degree with the United States. But if complete autonomy is illusory, the perceived and projected demands of alignment—let alone alliance—have probably been overstated. The problem comes when we conceive of alignment as a distributive problem.

In this imagining, Indian diplomatic largesse is something to be apportioned in zero-sum fashion among a fixed set of partners. If the US wins, Russia loses. If Iran is up, the US is down. Ironically, pro-Indian factions in Washington and anti-American ideologues in Delhi share this simplistic framework.

So do others, like Brajesh Mishra, one of the architects of the US-India rapprochement in the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government. Mishra, speaking at the launch of Non-Alignment 2.0, declared that “once you join [the] US, there is no non-alignment.”

This is historically untenable.

And, finally, an electoral metaphor for the future of Indian strategy:

India’s fractious politics suggest a useful metaphor. In parliamentary democracies, smaller parties can enter into a coalition—or they can offer a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, the promise to support a bigger party in individual pieces of legislation on a case-by-case basis.

Indian foreign policy is accommodating to the country’s expanding strategic horizons and new capabilities. Expect it to shun the coalition, but offer deepening confidence and supply to the United States.

One could slap a label on this—but, as veteran columnist AG Noorani observed some years ago, “non-alignment is … a non. It no more indicates how a country pursues its interests than calling a person non-married indicates how he or she pursues happiness.”

Anyway, read the whole thing here.


For other reactions to Non-Alignment 2.0, see: Shyam Saran (one of the report’s authors), C. Raja Mohan, Sadanand Dhume, Tom Wright, Ian Hall, Dhruva Jaishankar, Zorawer Daulet Singh, K. Shankar Bajpai, a bunch of people at Carnegie, Bharat Karnad (who is, er, not happy at all), and Lisa Curtis.


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