The Indian anger towards the Joe Biden administration’s seeming inaction last week as India battles a devastating second wave of the Covid pandemic was justified. It is possible that the US government was caught by surprise at the speed with which this wave crashed over India. Government bureaucracies rarely move at the speed of Twitter, especially since the Biden administration is yet to be fully staffed. It is also possible that there were bureaucratic and legal bottlenecks that the US government faced, as some accounts have suggested. And it goes without saying that it was not the lack of US support or vaccine supply that caused the current crisis in India.
None of this should excuse the Biden administration’s delay in at least publicly expressing support for a partner country that is dealing with an unimaginable catastrophe, even if it now has rectified that mistake with statements and tweets of support, including from President Biden. The US may not have been able to do much in practice to help with the current situation but that is beside the point. Powerlessness to help others in the face of this particular pandemic is familiar to people around the world but that has not prevented even strangers from expressing emotional support.
But equally, there is little doubt that this is not indicative of the value of the US-India strategic partnership. It is difficult not to suspect that for many traditional opponents of this partnership, from both the Right and Left of the Indian political spectrum, this became an excuse to undermine the partnership. The Indian Right is suspicious of the Biden administration for ideological reasons, parsing everything it does for indication of any anti-Narendra Modi bias. When evidence is hard to come by, they resort to speculation, such as Democrats retaliating for Modi’s embrace of Donald Trump.
For sections of the Indian Left and the left-over old establishment, it’s a Putinesque nostalgia for the Cold War, which the passage of time has dimmed but not entirely extinguished. For both, the driving force is ideology. Neither will accept the simple Realist proposition that in international politics, ideology plays less of a role than calculations about relative power and insecurity, which is why the US and India have deepened their partnership irrespective of whether it was Barack Obama or Donald Trump or Joe Biden in the White House, or Manmohan Singh or Modi leading India. Because neither the Left nor Right can get beyond ideology and nostalgia, they are bound to keep being disappointed.
Strategy over morality
There are good arguments that can be made about why the US was wrong in delaying help to India with its Covid vaccination production. These have been rare. Here’s a simple one: An India weakened in any way, including by this pandemic, is not in the US’ interest. Indeed, the basis for America’s India policy – like the basis for a lot of US policy towards allies and partners, in general – is the sensible recognition that stronger partners help America’s cause. If the US helped rebuild Europe and Japan after World War 2, it was in significant part a recognition that weak allies are a burden and even possibly a threat.
Instead, much of the criticism has been about what this says about US claims of moral leadership and the hypocrisy in them. So, America’s moral claims are hypocritical. Is this news? Hypocrisy, the difference between how we claim to behave and how we actually do, is widespread in international politics. India is hardly innocent. More importantly, is Indian faith in American morals the basis of the US-India partnership? If so, it would suggest that the US has suddenly become a more moral international actor in the last decade, a ridiculous suggestion.
The simple truth is that neither the US nor India are particularly moral or ethical actors in international politics, though both may be, at least comparatively, better than most others. What correlates with the closer relationship is not morality but something relatively straightforward: Necessity. This is a partnership that has a very specific purpose – balancing against China. This is not a favour India is doing the US, nor the other way around. It was America’s material power that was attractive to New Delhi, not its moral power. If we are not partnering with Sweden or New Zealand – two of the many countries that could make some credible claims of being more ‘moral’ in their international conduct rather than the US or India – it is because their moral power is of little help to India in dealing with China. India’s growing partnership with the US was the result of New Delhi recognising – even now, reluctantly – that it needed the American power to balance China. If France, or Russia – or New Zealand – sufficed, India’s choice would have been different. But they do not have the wealth and power that is necessary to counter China. India needs US partnership because only the US is strong enough for India’s purpose
India has two choices
For both India and the US, in different ways, China represents a threat. For the US, it is a threat to its global position primarily rather than a direct threat to its security, at least so far. For India, China represents both a threat to its territory directly and, equally importantly, a political threat because it could, left unchecked, become the regional hegemon in Asia. That would represent a distinctly uncomfortable condition for India to live under. What opponents of a partnership with the US ignore is that Chinese hegemony over Asia represents a far greater threat to New Delhi’s ‘strategic autonomy’ than a partnership with the US.
The other popular meme over the last few days is that India ‘will not forget’. Will India remember this? Of course. Will it matter? Not in the slightest. International politics is too unforgiving an environment for wallowing in historical grievances at the cost of national security today. Think of the growing closeness recently between Russia and China, who spent decades fighting and trying to undermine each other, or even between the US and Vietnam. India’s deepening partnership with the US over the last few years is not the result of New Delhi forgetting the 1971 USS Enterprise episode or because India has recently become convinced of America’s righteousness.
The harsh but simple truth is that India deepened the US partnership not out of choice but because it did not have any other choice – except, may be, kowtowing to China. That’s a choice that India still has and can exercise whenever it wants if it is unhappy with the US partnership. But I doubt there are many takers in India for that.