Polaris | India’s Middle East Muddle? Not So Fast.

Is Indian foreign policy non-aligned, absent, anti-American or inflexible? Or is just too damned cautious?

In the context of the endgame in Libya—where it appears to be only a matter of time before Muammar Gaddafi falls—I engaged in a spirited, if somewhat brief, discussion on Twitter with several other commentators about India’s Middle East/West Asian policy. I had previously criticised India’s decision to abstain from voting in favour of the UN Security Council resolution sanctioning the Libyan intervention, but I disagreed with the others’ explanations for India’s actions in the Middle East—or lack thereof. They made a series of inter-related criticisms, all of them legitimate. But the reality is a lot more complex; more often than not, reductive assertions are exaggerations and caricatures that obscure some important truths about India’s engagement with the rest of the world. This is not to wholly dispute their arguments, or contest any criticism of Indian foreign policy whatsoever. I only mean to add a bit of nuance that is not always communicable on a medium such as Twitter.

To a considerable extent, India suffers from an absence of strategic thinking.

This is a popular argument, one that has been made for decades. It is certainly true that India lacks many of the institutions that enable or facilitate the formulation and execution of long-term strategies: its policy planning units are virtually non-existent, its Ministry of Defence conducts almost no policy at all, etc. Nonetheless, the boldness of several key decisions in recent years—whether to engage Pakistan at various junctures, conduct a nuclear agreement with the United States, or test nuclear weapons—should lead to at least some questioning of this popular truism. Even in the Middle East, relations with Israel, Iran and the Gulf have had to be managed, not passively but proactively, given—among other things—India’s defence requirements, its activities in Afghanistan, and its energy imports. Although belated, India’s outreach to Israel was nothing if not a strategic decision, as were the calls to cooperate with Iran on Afghanistan and to reboot relations with Saudi Arabia over the past few years.

India is comfortable with the status quo, and ill-equipped to deal with change.

This is a fair criticism, and one that I often make. But I have yet to see countries that adjust readily to change. The United States, with vastly superior foreign policy institutions, has yet to completely shed its Cold War views, and these have often been reflected in its post-Cold War policies towards China (engagement), Russia (containment), Pakistan (support), and India (sanctions). Even in the Middle East, to which Washington devotes considerable energies, it was completely caught off guard by the Arab Spring, resulting in a number of missteps. Despite the aura of strategy associated with Beijing, China too has been slow to adapt to changes in South Asia (both in Pakistan and India, but also in Sri Lanka with the sudden end of the civil war there) and even in its own region, which might explain its premature assertiveness. India, by contrast, benefits to some degree from less rigid institutions and few legal barriers: it’s jugaad at it’s best, and worst. Can India improve the flexibility of its foreign policy? Certainly. But is it as badly off as so many believe? Possibly not.

India has a deep commitment to non-alignment.

I consider this a facile explanation for India’s unwillingness to wholly embrace the United States as a partner, but it is not without basis. Debates still revolve around India’s commitment to the principle of non-alignment, but they have altered. If one appreciates the extent to which India wants to be unfettered by formal partnerships that it is willing to play off powers against one another, falling back on “non-alignment” as a shorthand for foreign policy flexibility makes some sense. Again, specific examples in recent years come to mind. India found common cause with China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa on climate change negotiations, but has also improved its bilateral defense relationship not just with the United States, but many of its East Asian allies and partners (such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore). These were not lightly-made decisions, nor are they passive or unidirectional. The language of non-alignment ought to be abandoned, if nothing else than to distinguish it from India’s desire for foreign policy flexibility befitting a major power. But in practice, India has already moved far beyond it.

It’s Middle East policy is reflexively anti-American.

I do believe this is an unfair assessment. As mentioned earlier, India is motivated by several factors in its dealings with the Middle East: defence, energy, strategic considerations, not to mention a large Indian diaspora and (often exaggerated) concerns pertaining to domestic politics. For these reasons, maintaining a modicum of good relations with Iran, the Gulf and Israel—and avoiding having to make difficult choices that might jeopardize any of these relations—is a significant priority. Such a policy, particularly as it relates to Iran, might upset Washington, and while it is a complicating factor, it has not yet resulted in a decisive setback for U.S.-India relations. The U.S. also maintains a balancing act in continuing to preserve friendly ties with China and Pakistan, but it would be ridiculous to construe that as a reflexively anti-Indian regional policy.

I do want to end on a critical note. India may not always be a supine actor or blind to new realities. Its strategic community has progressed a long way from deep-seated anti-Americanism and the worship of non-alignment. But it has fallen short on many fronts. India often fails to articulate desired end states to itself, let alone other actors, often with detrimental consequences. Its foreign policy formulation remains shrouded in secrecy, often unnecessarily. There is an absence of area-specific expertise or mechanisms for contingency planning. Perhaps most importantly, its foreign policy practitioners—from the political leadership down—remain far too cautious in making certain decisions of consequence, Libya being but one recent example. This is true more in the multilateral realm, in which India cuts an ungainly figure, than in its bilateral dealings, where India has been considerably more dexterous. All the same, it’s perhaps time to move debates beyond blanket criticism of Indian foreign policy as some sort of dinosaur: unimaginative, reactive,  stubborn and dull.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.