India's foreign-policy establishment is in the process of disinterring a long-dead grand strategy from its Cold War grave. "Nonalignment" - the doctrine that calls upon India to refuse staunchly any strategic alliances with other actors - has re-entered the broader foreign policy discourse, with the center-left championing such policies in the guise of promoting "strategic autonomy." The credo was touted in an independent report titled Nonalignment 2.0, which offers the vision of "allying with none" as a grand strategy for India in the coming years.
At first glance, nonalignment presents an attractive option for a rising India. It promises freedom from entangling alliances as well as the chance to advance Indian exceptionalism against the Machiavellian imperatives of traditional international politics. Most importantly, it holds out the prospect that India can chart its own path free from machinations of external actors, an understandable objective for a country scarred by its colonial past.
But in light of India's growing strategic vulnerabilities, a return to nonalignment is misguided and potentially dangerous. The doctrine has three major weaknesses that would leave India perilously vulnerable:
First, nonalignment struggles to reconcile competing strands of realism and idealism. On the one hand, Indian policymakers acknowledge the nation inhabits a Hobbesian world characterized by troublesome neighbors and endemic geopolitical competition. Despite avowed recognition of the dangerous environment, the doctrine counsels India to rise above conventional international politics, to avoid behaving like other great powers as it becomes one and instead blaze new paths for the conduct of powerful nations.
Advocacy of moralpolitik in an amoral world is grounded in nonalignment's fervent but suspect belief in the power of example. According to its proponents, India's developmental and democratic successes within would help inspire a following abroad, thus bequeathing an exemplary power allowing India to gain in global stature and influence. This coruscating idealism, however, is at odds with the reality that great-power competition will be alive and well in the future global system. If power politics is in no danger of extinction, then the critical task facing India is maximization of national power through smart choices at home and abroad. Expansion of India's material power in the realms of economic growth, technological advancement, and institutional capacity could make all the difference - with the benefits of example accruing thereafter for free.
It's clear that consolidating material success cannot be subordinated to the chimerical pursuit of an ideal international order, in which India's exceptionalism has room to flourish, so long as the tyranny of great-power competition remains untamed. In this respect, India's new advocates of nonalignment are akin to an older generation of idealists in the United States. From the moment of its founding, the American nation, too, entranced by the Enlightenment and republican ideals, sought to promote a novus ordo seclorum, an ongoing quest for new order for the ages, permitting the country to preserve exceptionalism in the face of all international pressures toward conformity. While many Americans would like to believe that the United States is unique in its global behavior, the truth is that the country behaves more or less like the great powers that preceded it.
Constraints of international competition would ensure that India suffers the same fate.
Although states differ in details of how they conduct themselves, with history, domestic politics and strategic culture accounting for much of the variance - there's little doubt that India, too, would eventually succumb to protecting its own interests, if it doesn't do so already. If the demands of national power came into conflict with the obligations of principle, New Delhi would unlikely sacrifice tangible gains to meet certain ideational aspirations. India's switching to a more accommodating posture towards Burma's military rulers to curb Chinese influence is just a recent example. Nor should India be enjoined to do so, as the nonalignment advocates might suggest, because such actions could be devastating for a still-weak country struggling to thrive in the cutthroat world of international politics.