Think of a country that maintains friendly relations with Israel, the United States, and Iran. No, this is not a reference to Switzerland. This nation is India. Ever since India’s independence in 1947, its foreign policy has been largely devoid of a grand strategy. This began with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s development of the Non-Aligned Movement, which aimed to promote neutrality in the geopolitical context of the Cold War. Today, however, India’s ambivalent foreign policy is a product of its economic exigencies.
In his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech on the night of India’s independence on August 15, 1947, Prime Minister Nehru averred that India would “take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.” Sixty-five years after India’s independence, the nation has emerged as a key world power. The question one must now ask is whether India has satisfied its pledge to advance not just its own interests, but also those of “humanity” as a whole.
Certainly, India is amassing the economic power necessary to gain more international political influence. Since 1997, the Indian economy has grown at an average annual rate of seven percent. It has a young and dynamic population filled with entrepreneurs, a high savings rate, and a promising inflow of foreign direct investment.
Many nations characterized by this growth and potential would embolden their foreign policy strategy, yet the paradox of international politics today is that India has not. Its leaders have been reluctant to recognize their nation’s growing geopolitical significance. Put simply, India has yet to establish a defined foreign policy.
History partially explains this lack of foreign engagement. In 1955, Nehru served as the senior statesman at the Asia-Africa Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia. This was where the Non-Aligned Movement took form – a group of nations committed to remaining undirected by the influence of the Soviet Union and the United States.
Though India maintained its neutrality throughout the Cold War, domestically, its leaders more closely followed the Soviet economic model by practicing socialistic and protectionist economic policies. This vision for the Indian economy engendered the so-called “Hindu rate of growth” of about 3.5 percent per year. With such meager economic development, it was clear that India had to focus on domestic troubles rather than international relations.
Manmohan Singh jumpstarted India’s economic growth as Finance Minister in the early 1990s, which commenced India’s dramatic rise. The subcontinent was one of globalization’s biggest winners as jobs in sectors like manufacturing and technology helped millions of Indians become part of a burgeoning middle class. While this economic growth has helped to increase the nation’s wealth, it has done little to widen India’s foreign policy goals.
Economics Subordinating Foreign Policy
The Reserve Bank of India recently lowered the country’s economic growth rate forecast from 6.5 percent to 5.7 percent. Problems such as insufficient infrastructure, decreased global demand, and increased inflation have dampened prospects for sustained high growth rates. About five years ago it seemed a sure thing that India would be one of the strongest emerging markets; today, prominent investors such as Ruchir Sharma, the head of the Emerging Markets Equity team at Morgan Stanley, say that these bullish forecasts have only a fifty-fifty chance of coming into fruition.
Perhaps India would have pursued a more assertive foreign policy if growth rates continued to average seven percent or more. The reality is that New Delhi has had to focus on its domestic structural dilemmas. This is precisely why it refused to help impose Western sanctions on Iran. Even though Indian imports from Iran fell by 42 percent over a month period from June to July, India still holds the dubious title of being one of the Islamic Republic’s biggest oil importers.
On the other hand, India has remained friendly with Israel and the United States. For example, it is the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment. In addition, an Israeli Foreign Ministry study ranked India as the most pro-Israel country, barely ahead of the United States, as 58 percent of Indians supported Israel compared to 56 percent of Americans. Concerning Indo-American trade relations, the United States is India’s third-largest trading partner, after the United Arab Emirates and China. Therefore, India amazingly has maintained strong trade and diplomatic ties to Israel, the United States, and Iran.
The Relationship of the World’s Two Largest Democracies
American leaders have recognized the importance of the Indo-American relationship not just in terms of trade. Bill Clinton’s five-day visit to the subcontinent in March of 2000 marked the first time a U.S. President visited India in 22 years. The Bush administration trusted India to have nuclear technology in the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. President Obama was the first U.S. President to endorse India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, declaring during his 2010 visit that “India is not just a rising power, India has already risen.”
To the surprise of American diplomats, India has not fallen in line with U.S. foreign policy despite the aforementioned American efforts to befriend the nation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on India to do “even more” to reduce its oil imports from Iran in her visit to New Delhi in May, but New Delhi would not budge any further.
The World Trade Organization has also been a medium for conflict. The United States recently filed a complaint about an Indian ban on poultry imports from the U.S., while India lamented American import duties imposed on Indian steel products. Meanwhile, India and China reached a bilateral agreement of a trade target of $100 billion by 2015.
An Indian Superpower?
The point is that India has refused to be directed by other nations. Economic relationships trump diplomatic ties for a nation yearning for greater economic development. In an interview with the HPR, Professor Niall Ferguson remained bullish on the Indian economy in the long term, comparing India and China to “the tortoise and the hare,” respectively. According to Ferguson, India has two options: it can either “one, participate in a containment of China or, two, play second fiddle to China. India will pick option two.” This is because “strong economic prospects don’t translate into an aggressive foreign policy,” and “[i]t’s hard to imagine India bidding for superpower status anytime soon.”
Regional Democracy and a Role for India
If, as Ferguson suggests, India does not realize its political potential in the near future, the prospects for spreading democracy in South Asia are grim. If India is to play “second fiddle” to China, how will China’s autocratic governance affect the surrounding region? The largest democracy in the world does not seek to disseminate its values abroad, despite the array of opportunities it has to do so.
Consider the political climates of India’s neighbors. The Maldives experienced a coup in February in which President Mohamed Nasheed claimed he was forced from power. New Delhi did not take serious action on the matter. During years of civil war in Sri Lanka, India decided not to intervene. Myanmar has suffered years of unrest, with one recent highlight being the 22,000 displaced due to Muslim-Buddhist clashes according to the United Nations. Once again, India chose not to get involved. While military action would probably have been inappropriate, Indian diplomatic officials could have at least made some effort to reach out to these countries and express solidarity with peace activists and proponents for democracy.
As China becomes a more aggressive actor diplomatically and militarily, it will remain essential for India to champion the cause of democracy in the region. For now, India will not be a global superpower, but it very well could be towards the end of this century. Until then, we can only hope that India will begin to fulfill its pledge to further not just its own economic interests, but also the “larger” interests “of humanity.”