The United States and India: Multilaterally Abridged Allies
India is having its moment this August as president of the UN Security Council. For decades, the permanent members of the Security Council have gradually eroded the powers of non-permanent elected members, greatly reducing the latter’s ability to utilize the forum in a meaningful way. For New Delhi, having the Security Council pulpit—even briefly—allows it to demonstrate to the world that it can deftly wade into the choppy waters of global governance. Successfully demonstrating this ability will enable the Indian government to more effectively make its case for permanent membership.
Recognizing this opportunity, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi elected to preside over the Security Council meeting on maritime security on August 9, becoming the first Indian premier to act in this capacity. Afterward, India issued a Security Council presidential statement on the topic. This allowed New Delhi to exhibit clout, creativity, and diplomacy, while simultaneously targeting its adversary China, without directly naming it. Other areas of focus for India’s presidency include terrorism and peacekeeping.
By deepening its footprint in multilateral organizations, India seems to be gearing up to be a global rule-maker. New Delhi’s renewed push for inclusion in the Security Council as a permanent member has reignited the debate in Washington regarding where India stands with respect to U.S. interests. Will India be a responsible stakeholder? To what extent should the United States invest in India’s rise within the international arena? Can the United States and India cooperate in the multilateral system? These are only some of the questions sparked by India’s recent attempts to break into the highest echelons of global influence.
In the last two decades, the U.S.-India partnership has improved markedly. However, the frequency at which India votes in line with the United States at the United Nations remains dismal compared to most U.S. allies. This chasm has been a source of both frustration and anxiety for U.S. policymakers. Given India’s frequent multilateral alignment with Russia and China, some believe India is part of a counterhegemonic bloc that can jeopardize many Western interests.
However, some of these fears are misplaced or rooted in imprecise expectations. Convergence on many issues remains possible through dialogue. To demonstrate this possibility, we lay out five propositions that should help solidify India’s status as a U.S. ally-in-the-making when it comes to global governance.
First, we agree with Xenia Dormandy that “India’s interests will be parallel to those of the United States, but they would not be identical.” India has shown that it will stand up for democratically elected governments, with occasional exceptions like Afghanistan and Myanmar. On the other hand, India has been unwilling to sign off on coercive and/or military measures to install democracies in far-flung regions. For example, India would want to stand with the United States in curtailing Iran’s nuclear program—but not if it means risking its geopolitical and energy interests. India begrudgingly terminated oil imports from and has occasionally voted against Iran as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency; however, it would have never treated Iran as a pariah just because the Trump administration wanted to inflict maximum pressure.
Second, except for its relations with Russia, India’s divergent behavior does not harm U.S. core interests. India’s current positions on a number of U.S. interests are far from opposed, if not enthusiastically aligned: containing China, preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, enhancing maritime security, emphasizing a rules-based world order, combating climate change, and promoting free-market democracies. However, some points of friction exist, such as India’s request for a higher vote share in financial institutions and its various protectionist tendencies. Additionally, India is neither a signatory to nor a promoter of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Nevertheless, Washington has either made peace with some of these issues (e.g., India’s nuclear status) or reduced the friction surrounding them by accommodating New Delhi (e.g., India’s request for a quota increase in the International Monetary Fund).
Third, the aspirations of Indian strategic elites for a multipolar world will always accord an equal recognition of other powers’ interests, including Russia. India, however, does draw a red line regarding some of Russia’s methods. For example, although New Delhi found Moscow’s political interests legitimate in Crimea, it refused to legitimize Moscow’s actions by abstaining from a vote on a UN General Assembly resolution on the matter. India also declined to side with Russia at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Sergei Skripal’s poisoning. Russia, India, and China’s voting convergence partly reflect their parallel efforts to court the Global South constituency. In contrast to Russia, India is highly unlikely to willingly align with China after the latter’s recent regional aggression. In fact, Beijing’s actions have transformed it into a common adversary, forcing New Delhi to work multilaterally with Washington and Brussels to halt Beijing’s surging influence at the United Nations.
Fourth, India occupies a grey zone between the developing and developed worlds; India has one foot in the G77 and another partially in the G7, sharing strategic and warm political relations with most G7 governments without diminishing its zeal to endear itself to the Third World. For example, even though New Delhi actively works toward attaining climate goals for itself, as an advocate for the developing world, it still presses its developed counterparts to do more and pay more for climate adaptation and mitigation. Instead of being concerned about this, U.S. policymakers should make every effort to constructively utilize New Delhi’s goodwill with the Global South. Any gaps India leaves with this constituency could be seen as having been ceded to an evangelizing China, which hews closely to the G77 without being a member.
Fifth, India does not hold any militarized disputes and has not expressed any revanchism beyond its standing disputes with neighboring China and Pakistan. India’s limited geography of conflicts not only reduces the likelihood that it would abuse its power but also means that India has fewer geopolitical constraints and could therefore play a relatively neutral role globally as a permanent member of the Security Council. Additionally, it is worth noting that India resists global interference with its present disputes.
These five propositions do not mean that all of New Delhi’s attitudes and actions are conducive to achieving a permanent seat on the Security Council or elevating its position on the global stage more broadly. If the United States needs to reassess India’s position and interests, so too must India reorient its global behavior. Regarding multilateralism, if a Third World focus has dominated India’s economic thinking, India’s desire to obtain global support for its Security Council bid and its position in the Kashmir conflict have constricted its political thinking. India’s desire for a permanent seat carries a whiff of entitlement. Indians believe they should sit at the Security Council table by virtue of having the world’s second-largest population, their historic contributions to peacekeeping, and, of late, their increasing economic heft. What is missing from this perspective is the focus on responsibilities—financial, material, and political—that are required for such an elevation. For instance, India contributes roughly $23.4 million to the United Nations’ vast $3 billion operational budget. Is New Delhi willing and able to share more of the burden? Apart from regularly assessed contributions, permanent Security Council members provide vast voluntary contributions. India will need to bring its aspirations and obligations into closer alignment.
From India’s perspective, the only hurdles to its ascension to permanent member status are procedural and political, which it believes it can overcome by continually pressing for Security Council reforms and improving its international appeal. A practitioner of non-alignment during the Cold War, India currently abides by a policy of issue-based alignment, continuing to abstain from identifying consistently with any bloc. Furthermore, to marshal maximum support for its Security Council bid, New Delhi has sought to avoid alienating any major UN constituencies by taking positions that harm their interests. Hence, abstentions are considered India’s default choice in UN voting. This risk-averse, non-alienation strategy has paid off in terms of international goodwill and has elicited some global support for its core interests, such as its territorial claims in Kashmir. The strategy, however, fails to signal to India’s Western partners whether it is willing to take strong stands, including offending others in egregious situations if need be. India will likely refrain from altering its time-tested, “silence is golden” orientation until it is a permanent member.
In the meantime, however, India can at least learn to rise above Kashmir when acting as an international player. For instance, India has distanced itself from the Arria Formula meetings (informal consultations at Security Council) ever since Pakistan tried to abuse that format to raise the issue of Kashmir. If India truly seeks to become a dominant global player, it cannot be so thin-skinned. When Estonia arranged an Arria Formula meeting to mark the seventh anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia participated in the process even though the event was unpalatable to Moscow. The Russian Mission to the United Nations later called its own meeting on the topic. Moving forward, India needs to stop dodging and distancing itself from such informal arrangements, and instead use them as creative diplomatic opportunities. Similarly, New Delhi should prepare itself for more scrutiny from its friends and partners as its status rises.
From the perspective of the United States, policymakers are right to bet on democracies like India. Nevertheless, any expectation for India to be like other established Asian democracies (e.g., Japan or South Korea) will be frustrating and ineffective for multilateral, if not strategic, efforts. As formal allies, both Japan and South Korea have comfortably placed themselves next to the United States on a range of global governance issues, such as the executive powers of the UN secretary-general, nonproliferation treaties, conditional debt relief, and even regime change operations. India, which is still averse to the idea of a formal alliance, will sit in the same pew as the United States and its allies, but a little farther away. Nevertheless, India remains amenable to critical U.S. and Western interests, as seen by evolving, constructive position on efforts to mitigate climate change.
Although New Delhi’s current disagreements with Washington are indeed due to non-overlapping interests, the divergence between the two governments pales in comparison to Beijing’s truculence. As its economy continues to rise and affinity with the West grows, New Delhi’s interests will continue to evolve. For now, India and the United States have an abridged alliance within the multilateral arena, meaning that India will not be a promoter of the entire gamut of the United States’ positions; however, India is not likely to jeopardize the United States’ core interest of maintaining the current global order.
India’s August Security Council presidency and its role in the maritime debate proved that a shared adversary can create a common cause—both bilaterally and multilaterally. As common threats in areas like maritime security grow and the old order weakens, Washington should seriously consider that now is the time to permanently bring a partner like India onto the Security Council permanently.
Harsh V. Pant is Director of Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation, and Chirayu Thakkar is a Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center and doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore.