India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar Image Credit: ANI

At the recent Munich Security Conference (MSC), Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr Subramanyam Jaishankar make an intervention that deserves to be considered seriously. He said, “I think it’s important today to make a distinction between being non-West and anti-West.

I would certainly characterise India as a country which is non-West, but which has an extremely strong relationship with Western countries, getting better by the day.” Jaishankar made this statement this during a panel discussion on Feb. 18 in which his fellow-participants were US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock.

Why is this distinction important? Because the West, which continues to dominate the world order, albeit its position has declined in the last decade, needs to adopt a slightly different approach when it comes to an ascendant global player such as India.

India, we need not underscore, is the world’s largest democracy, besides being the most populous country on the planet. It is also a major and still rising economic and military power. From the point of view of the West, much more than its arch-rivals China and Russia, India is also a key swing state and balancing regional power.

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To adopt the older binary approach, “If you are not with us, you are against us,” therefore, would be imprudent. Not only is it somewhat outdated, but it does not do justice to the primary postulation that underlies foreign relations: every country must act in its own self-interest.

We might, from a dharmic perspective, add the important caveat that such self-interest must be enlightened. That is to say, it should not be fundamentally and intrinsically opposed to the interests of others, whether in its own neighbourhood or farther away.

That is why systems and ideologies such as colonialism, classic or retooled, and its non-occupying variant, imperialism, do not qualify as valid in today’s world. To seek to maintain one’s dominance or hegemony over others, whether via browbeating or blandishment, is not good policy in the long run.

Our long-term interests lie in cooperation and concert, both of which require a rule-based world order and friendly relations across multiple fronts and frontiers. At least this has been the Western view since Immanuel Kant published his influential essay Zum ewigen Frieden: Ein philosophischer Entwurf or “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” in 1795. Else, the law of the jungle, with the strong preying on the weak, would prevail as Hobbes gloomily foresaw.

Did the West itself follow this formula? No. Not only during the era of Napoleonic wars and internecine conflicts within Europe, but the exploitation and colonisation of the rest of the world for another 150 years. The last phase of this period, the greater part of the twentieth century, was the bloodiest in human history, with two world wars, the Holocaust, India’s partition, the Korean and the Vietnam wars. Millions perished in these conflicts.

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Bound to reciprocate

In addition, there were man-made famines and genocides in many Communist countries which were supposed to present an alternative to the greedy and violent capitalism of the West. Indeed, even in the relatively more peaceful last few decades, certain parts of the world, such as the Middle East, have never been free of conflict.

It is this historical background that helps us better appreciate Jaishankar’s point: being non-Western does not mean being anti-Western. India has never been — nor can ever be — part of the West, whether historically, geographically, or culturally. Therefore, it cannot be expected to toe the Western line blindly or automatically. When it comes to Russia, Jaishankar emphasised not only the depth of the traditional ties between the two countries but also that Russia has never acted against India’s interests. India is bound to reciprocate.

This principle holds regardless of the very real and continuing defence and energy ties between the two countries. At the same time, India has no interest in turning the growing group of nations originally called the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), or for that matter any other so-called third-world alliance, against the West.

Instead, the West, especially the United States, needs to be more flexible in its expectations from its allies, partners, and friends. Simply put, the right measure of friendship is not shared antagonisms or enmities, but common objectives and interests. India and the United States, from this point of view, have the brightest possible prospects for mutual benefit in the years to come.

US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, too, seemed to support Jaishankar’s views. He said that he believed that the US, in dealing with various global challenges, “may have different collections and coalitions of countries that bring certain experiences and capacities.”

In other words, the US also rejects the splitting of the world into “rigid blocs.” When it came to Indo-US relations, Blinken was unequivocal: he asserted that the relationship was “the strongest it’s ever been.” Apart from wide-ranging international collaborations such as the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Forum), the new comfort level derives from lasting economic, technological, and human ties, especially the highly talented and wealthy Indian diaspora in the US.

Notwithstanding India’s traditional leftist tilt, anti-imperialism, nativist suspicions of foreign influence, Indians in general are known to be, by and large, very pro-American. This is also true of Americans, despite the geopolitical contradictions and confusions that both countries face.

The Narendra Modi administration, especially, has engaged with key countries in the world in a novel and innovative manner, breaking free of older paradigms and straitjackets. The watchword has been pragmatic self-interest, which is also tantamount, from time to time, to strategic self-assertion. India will no longer be a pushover or punch below its weight.

The BJP government, all set for a third term, can no longer be pejoratively dismissed as “the Hindu revivalist or right wing.” Indeed, most countries have found doing business with them much easier and mutually beneficial than the Congress that ruled India for nearly 60 of its 75 years as an independent country.