Can India Revive Nonalignment?

By Ashley Tellis
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A second and more problematic flaw in nonalignment as a grand strategy is its conviction that refusing to align with other great powers remains the best organizing principle for India's foreign relations because it preserves the nation's "strategic autonomy." This attempt to equate nonalignment with preventing loss of sovereign agency confuses ends and means. If nonalignment were primarily about the end, states seeking to avoid strategic policies that were defined elsewhere from their own capitals, then all states would necessarily be nonaligned.

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But when nonalignment is defined as a means - "the avoidance of sharp choices," as Nonalignment 2.0 aptly puts it - then it becomes more dangerous, thanks to India's strategic circumstances. In the north, China is a rising geopolitical competitor whose potential threat to Indian security interests is only complicated by two countries' burgeoning bilateral economic relationship. In the west, Pakistan continues to pose dangers to India because of a peculiar combination of increasing state weakness married to a propensity for perilous risk-taking.

Together, these threats to Indian security suggest that New Delhi should invest in preferential strategic partnerships with the enemies of its enemies because such affiliations could help mitigate the perils posed by India's immediate adversaries. Oddly, however, nonalignment supporters take the opposite tact, running away from preferential partnerships in a quest for strategic autonomy. Accordingly, they fundamentally misread what success requires, especially when political competition coexists with economic interdependence and containing adversaries is not a realistic option.

The strategy of nonalignment might make sense if India could muster the necessary resources to cope with its strategic challenges independently. Yet the doctrine's third weakness consists of its failure to assess whether the transformative reforms necessary to build India's comprehensive national power can in fact be consummated, considering the current circumstances of India's domestic politics. The realities of Indian politics suggest that the successful "internal balancing" required for the realization of genuine strategic autonomy could fall on hard times. India's capacity for resource mobilization is undermined by the disarray of its two national parties, the continuing ebb of power away from the national center and towards the states, the rise of powerful regional parties, and the advent of populist politics focusing on economic redistribution rather than growth. Accordingly, India's national security managers ought to treat the doctrine's exhortation to eschew preferential strategic partnerships with a friendly power like the United States with skepticism.

Ultimately, nonalignment fails to recognize that when internal balancing is impeded, external balancing becomes imperative. At a time when the growth of Chinese power continues unabated and different threats posed by China and Pakistan continue to grow, New Delhi must give serious consideration to accelerating the growth in its own national capacities through tightened affiliations with a small number of friends and allies. Instead of avoiding coalitions, New Delhi should thus enter into preferential strategic partnerships taking the form of high-quality trading ties, robust defense cooperation and strong diplomatic collaboration. To be successful, India needs these ties with key friendly powers throughout the world - especially the United States - because neither its example as a successful democracy nor its efforts at internal balancing are likely to produce the security necessary to its well-being. India's strategic challenges are grave and increasing. New Delhi must recognize that the strategic solution to the country's predicament cannot consist of simply resurrecting nonalignment in a new guise.

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Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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