The last three decades have transformed global geopolitics.  While the 1990s saw the dissolution of the USSR and the decline of Russia thereafter, the first two decades of the new millennium have led to the rise of China.  The rapid economic transition during this period has provided Beijing the capacity to become a genuine military and technological powerhouse.  Its growing navy, which is now the largest in the world,[1] is symbolic of this transformation.

For India, which has a complicated relationship with China, this change has posed new challenges.  Not only does India have disputed borders with China, Beijing is hand in glove with Pakistan, which remains overtly hostile.  The changed geopolitical situation has forced New Delhi to adjust its foreign and security policies.  At the beginning of the current millennium, after the Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks, India had embarked on a course to improve its relations with the United States of America (US).[2]  The last two decades have seen unprecedented rapport between the two countries.  Symbolic of this was India signing the ‘foundational’ military agreements with the US, something that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War.

The other facet of Indian foreign policy that is of note in recent years has been the willingness of New Delhi to allow its leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to lapse.[3]  This changed global and regional geopolitical situation, together with a general consensus in India that New Delhi has not benefited sufficiently from its Cold War era non-aligned policies, may be responsible for this approach.

Moreover, the rise of China itself has taught the elite in India the advantages of aligning closer with the West.  Economic investments by the West and Japan in China, after the Sino-Soviet split, were largely responsible for the way the Chinese economy took off after 1990.  India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr Jaishankar, recently alluded to this when he built a case for a compact between India and the West.[4]  There is political consensus in India, barring perhaps the Left parties, regarding a closer relationship with the US and its allies.

While the advantages of such a policy are evident and widely appreciated in New Delhi, the disadvantages accruing from such a course are rarely highlighted.  The left-leaning academia does criticise India’s closer embrace of the US, but does so from an ideological perspective.  However, the general consensus of realists is for building close security and economic relations with the West. This article will attempt to analyse the challenges which India faces if there is a lack of debate amongst realists regarding the costs of this policy.


Western Idealism

During the Cold War, the US-led and USSR-led blocs competed for ideological, political and military supremacy.  Since the Soviet Union and its aligned states were undemocratic and refused political freedoms to their people, the US-led bloc propagated these liberal values and criticised the Soviet Union for ‘oppressing’ its citizens.  This struck a chord among the population in these countries and helped weaken the Soviet bloc.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the newly independent States of Eastern Europe gravitated towards the US-led bloc, creating what Western academics claim to be a US-led liberal world order.  There are however some problems with this term.  For one, the “world” according to the West rarely includes the global South.  As was the case in the two world-wars, which were, for the most part intra-European conflicts (barring the involvement of Japan), the liberal world order, too, is mostly European or north-American and excludes Latin America, Africa or Asia.

Secondly, the propagation of liberal values by the US-led bloc was not universal.  For example, democracy and political freedom in eastern Europe was welcome.  However, the same was unwelcome in Latin American or West Asian States, especially if these could lead to countries moving out of the West’s geopolitical orbit.  The liberal world-order promoted liberal values, but only selectively.

In this context, American political scientist, Joseph Nye Jr., bluntly states, “The American order after 1945 was neither global nor always very liberal. It left out more than half the world and included many authoritarian states.”[5]  The same situation is, perhaps, true for the current state of global affairs.

The United States, and the European Union (EU) even more so, today claim to promote liberal values around the world.  On closer scrutiny though, neither the EU not the US is completely honest in doing so.  While the example of Saudi Arabia, as an absolute monarchy, supported to the hilt by the West, is a readily available example of Western hypocrisy, there are other more recent examples, as well.  For example, in February 2014, the European Union found it far easier to accept the overthrow of a democratically-elected president in Ukraine than to support democracy or the rule of law, both of which it claims are its core values.  While the EU punishes Russia for jailing political dissidents and penalises Moscow, it does not raise a finger when elected opposition-leaders in Turkey are jailed by an increasingly autocratic regime.

The US record in supporting liberal democratic values is even more chequered.  From supporting military-ruled regimes in Pakistan to communist dictatorships in China, the US has, historically, paid little heed to liberal values when they come in way of its realist goals.  Currently, it is seeking closer ties with communist Vietnam, in quite the same way as it had sought closer ties with communist China after the Sino-Soviet split.

It is not difficult to discern a pattern in this behaviour.  As stated earlier, liberal values are welcome only if they further realist goals.  Secondly, they become less important in the immediate neighbourhood of western States, wherein only realist approaches dominate.  The US brooks no opposition, whether democratic or otherwise, in Latin America.  Similarly, European States are unwilling to promote liberal values if this means strengthening Russia, which they see as a direct security threat.  Propagating values and claiming ethical high ground is pursued much more easily when it is done in countries where such changes will not have a direct negative impact on western interests.

In contrast to the West, which at least pretends to be ethical, China, Russia and other powers do not concern themselves with exporting values.  Moscow and Beijing firmly oppose moral sermonising by the West and claim that such pontification is nothing but a ploy to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign States.  As such, these two States mostly sit in the opposite camp from the West, when it comes to discussing problems in third countries.  Moreover, the western military interventions in Iraq, the Balkans, and Libya, which often took place under the garb of alleviating human suffering or preventing nuclear proliferation, ended with regime-changes.  Moscow, in particular, is vehemently opposed to western intervention as it feels it was short-changed by West-sponsored ‘colour revolutions’ in its immediate neighbourhood, which endangered its security and reduced its political influence.


India’s Neighbourhood Policy

The common theme that binds even the most liberal of European States to totalitarian powers within Eurasia is that where their immediate neighbourhoods are concerned, all of them put national interests above values.  All powers are sensitive about developments in neighbouring States.  For the most part, security concerns drive these sensitivities.  States remain acutely aware that destabilisation in their immediate neighbourhood could easily spill over into their own territories.  Even worse, hostility by a neighbour in conjunction with an extra-regional power would almost certainly increase the security challenges to any State.

India, which is a regional power in the Indian Ocean region, lives in a hostile neighbourhood.  With Pakistan on the West and China on the North-East, India’s strategic geography is already unenviable.  However, India also trumpets its being a liberal democratic State, and highlights that it is the only State in the global South to remain committed to liberal democratic values, well after certainly its independence.  Moreover, its peaceful historical struggle for independence, led by Mahatma Gandhi, provides India with a moral high ground, enabling it to stand with oppressed and struggling masses everywhere.

The non-aligned movement, built in part through the efforts of early leaders of India, was an effort to leverage this moral high ground.  However, as stated earlier, the end of the Cold War and the rise of China have led New Delhi to reassess its approach to global politics.  This reassessment of its security challenges has prompted it to realign its foreign and security policy.  As India seeks a membership at the high table of global powers, non-alignment has been firmly placed onto the back burner.

Frequently, however, India’s politico-strategic leadership seems to be oblivious to the fact that other States in the neighbourhood do not share either its challenges or its vision.  While India may well have moved on from non-alignment, many countries of the global South, including several that are located in India’s immediate neighbourhood, continue to remain suspicious of Western designs.  As such, the more India moves away from its traditional leadership of non-aligned States, the more these States become wary of India on account of its association with the West.

A classic example of Indian relations with a neighbouring State deteriorating in this manner and for this reason, is offered by Iran.  India’s adherence to the unilateral American sanctions imposed upon Iran has driven a wedge between New Delhi and a neighbour that is immensely important for India.  Harsh economic sanctions have been placed upon Iran to force that country to comply with American wishes despite an earlier American administration, along with other States, signing an agreement with Teheran.

Apart from Iran, other neighbouring states in the Indian Ocean region such as Myanmar have also been subjected to Western sanctions, in the past.  After the recent military coup in Myanmar, there is a good chance that fresh economic sanctions may once again be imposed on the country.[6]  The US has already imposed travel bans and asset-freezes in respect of the leaders of the coup.  Similar actions had also been ordered against Tanzanian leaders in January 2021.  In that case, the US accused pro-government officials of undermining the democratic process in this East African country.[7]

Myanmar is an immediate neighbour of India while Tanzania is a next-shore neighbour within the IOR.  Band-wagoning with the US would probably affect our interests far more adversely than those of the West, which may well be playing to the gallery.  The risk is that if pushed too far, these States could end-up seeking closer ties with that rising giant, China, thereby aggravating the very situation that New Delhi is trying to manage by getting closer to the West.

India’s neighbourhood policy, therefore, demands that the country adopts and follows its own independent policy, at least within the IOR region.  In so doing, there is no better example than that of European States or the US.  The contours of India’s ‘neighbourhood policy’ should be guided by Indian interests alone.  New Delhi should certainly promote humanitarian values which are enshrined in the Indian constitution, but must do so on its own terms and not so as to curry favour with diplomats or leaders of extra-regional States.

Moreover, the promotion of humanitarian values is not an end in itself.  India would be able to support humanitarian values, democracy and freedom, only when it itself is secure and independent.  Therefore, the long-term security of India should be kept in mind when reacting to events in the neighbourhood.  Whether India supports idealist Western positions in the IOR region or not must be decided only after such a policy goes through the litmus test of securing Indian interests in the first instance.

It is prudent to remember that the ‘liberal global order’ is not quite as ‘global’ as it is propagated to be.  Other powers, such as Russia, continue to remain relevant in both South-East Asia as well as Africa.  If Western idealism negatively affects Indian interests in countries that are critical to us due to their far greater geographic proximity to India as compared to the West, New Delhi must not shy away from cooperating with Russia and other countries such as UAE in pursuing India’s own interests.



The changing geopolitical situation of the last two decades has prompted India to realign its foreign and security policies towards closer relations with the West.  However, this policy is fraught with several significant risks.  The countries in the IOR are significantly more important to New Delhi than they might be to the West, in much the same way as Latin America is far more critical to the USA than it is to India, or the immediate European neighbourhood is of far greater significance to Europe than to New Delhi.

Therefore, India’s interests may not always align with those of the US or of Europe. In scenarios where we disagree with the often-pretentious idealism of the West, we must decide our own policies rather than deciding to bandwagon.  New Delhi’s response to each development in the Indian neighbourhood must be based upon on a dispassionate calculation of net benefits and losses, over both, the short- and long-term.  India’s decision to support humanitarian and democratic ideals that appear to hold high value to the West (especially in areas far removed from their own immediate neighbourhood) must flow from our own policy-imperatives rather than any compulsion to support other countries and their goals, which may often be different from those of New Delhi.


About the Author:

Rajesh Soami is an Associate Fellow of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF).  A prolific writer, his research is presently focussed upon maritime developments in the Indo-Pacific in general and the geopolitical and geostrategic ‘game-moves’ of Pakistan, China, Russia, and Turkey, in particular.  He can be contacted at



[1] Wesley Rahn, “China has the World′S Largest Navy — What Now for the US?”,  Deutsche Welle News,  DW, 21 October 2020,

[2] Strobe Talbot, “Engaging India – Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb”, revised edition ed. Brookings Institution Press, 2010, Project MUSE,

[3] Suhasini Haider, Narendra Modi Skips NAM Summit Again”, The Hindu, 23 October 2019,

[4] Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, “External Affairs Minister’s Remarks at Atlantic Council, Washington D.C. on 1 October 2019”, 03 October 2019,

[5] Joseph S Nye, Jr., “Does the International Liberal Order Have a Future?”,  The National Interest, 28 December, 2020

[6] “Burma’s Military Coup Under New Executive Order”, U.S. Department of the Treasury,

[7] “US Imposes Visa Restrictions on Tanzanian Officials Over Vote”, Bloomberg News, 19 January 2021,





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