How to survive the new US-led unilateralism
US President Joe Biden meets virtually with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the presence of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh (centre) and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar (right) in the White House, Washington, April 11, 2022 (Photo: AP)
NELSON MANDELA ONCE famously said that the grievous mistake some in the West make is to insist that “their enemies should be our enemies.” This is so true today. Having made Russia the central target of American foreign policy, US President Joe Biden is insisting that friends like India also target Russia. Biden wants India to burn its bridges with Moscow, a development that will effectively turn India into a US client state.
The Russian military offensive in Ukraine is just the latest in a series of invasions of sovereign states by major powers in this century alone. Such invasions have rarely gone as the invaders expected. Often, they have been long and bloody, leaving behind a vast trail of destruction and destabilising the targeted countries and the region.
Despite America’s own long record of invading other countries, Biden—perhaps the last of a generation of Washington Cold Warriors—is fixated on wreaking vengeance on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine, however, is a member of neither NATO nor the European Union (EU).
Furthermore, Biden has increasingly personalised the conflict with Moscow in a way that never happened even during the Cold War. He has been hurling a steady stream of personal insults at Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also imposed sanctions on Putin and his two daughters. The hurling of insults, however, began long before the Ukraine war.
In effect, Biden has discarded a key tenet of diplomacy—avoid insulting another country’s head of state to preserve space for direct negotiations. Biden has said “this war could continue for a long time.” And America’s highest-ranking military officer, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress he expects the war to last years saying it will be a “very protracted conflict.”
The plain fact is that Biden’s statements and actions are making it increasingly difficult to end the war. It is as if he doesn’t want the war to end. The US is actually getting more involved in the war by transferring offensive weapons to Ukraine, besides providing intelligence on Russian forces and positions and deploying technical teams to Ukraine for cybersecurity. Biden has also put US relations with Russia in the deep freeze. All of which has increased the risks of a wider conflict.
If Biden has any strategy, it is to bleed Russia dry by trapping it in a military quagmire, which explains why the US and its allies have sent a flood of increasingly sophisticated weapons to Ukrainian forces. Putin, for his part, is seeking to avoid that trap by narrowing Russia’s military campaign to help consolidate war gains in Ukraine’s east and south. Putin’s apparent endgame is to carve out a strategic buffer against NATO on Ukrainian territory.
The April 11 hour-long Biden-Modi virtual discussion and the accompanying two-plus-two meetings in Washington were a reminder that, for all the talk of advancing the strategic partnership, ‘sanctions compliance’—as a White House background briefer phrased it—was at the heart of the US outreach to India
Biden’s primary strategic focus ought to be on preserving America’s global pre-eminence by arresting its relative decline. Ukraine should be Europe’s problem, but Biden has made it the focus of American foreign policy.
For years, the US waged regime-change wars in the Islamic world, squandering vast resources and allowing China to emerge as its main challenger globally. Now, as America pours military resources into Europe, its renewed focus on European security, by distracting it from the Indo-Pacific challenges, is serving as a strategic boon for China.
The current international crisis represents the most dangerous period since the end of the Cold War. In employing escalating sanctions to punish Russia (which has the world’s largest nuclear stockpile), Biden is effectively punishing the entire world.
More than the war, the sanctions are imposing global costs, especially on poorer nations, by contributing to higher energy, commodity and food prices and fuelling inflation. The sanctions, to be sure, are also imposing costs on their imposers, with Europe (not the US) likely to bear their brunt.
In the post-World War II period, the US has relied on sanctions to help bring weak states to heel. Regime change, likewise, has been imposed only on weak, vulnerable nations. The Biden-initiated Western sanctions on Russia are the largest, coordinated punitive measures ever rolled out against any country in history. Squeezing a major power with a raft of harsh sanctions is fraught with danger as it could set in motion escalatory moves that spiral out of control.
THE RETURN OF “WITH US OR AGAINST US” APPROACH
The new pressures on a neutral India are a reminder that a “with us or against us” approach has returned to US foreign policy with a vengeance. Seeking to compel India to make a choice between the US and Russia, or compelling New Delhi to comply with America’s unilateral sanctions on Moscow, will only bring the blossoming US-India relationship under strain.
In the proxy conflict between the West and Russia, much of the non-Western world has chosen to stay neutral or pursue an independent line. In fact, the world’s major non-Western democracies—from South Africa and Brazil to Indonesia and India—have chartered a course of neutrality in the conflict.
The Biden administration’s effort to cajole nations into joining the US-led coalition against Russia is actually slipping. On March 2, 141 nations voted at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in favour of the Western-backed resolution “deploring” Russia’s invasion. The one-fourth of the countries that did not support the resolution represented the majority of the global population.
But barely five weeks later in the 193-nation UNGA, the Western-backed resolution suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council was adopted with just 93 votes in support. The resolution failed to win support from multiple US allies, extending from Thailand and Singapore to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE. In fact, three-quarters of the global population abstained or voted against that resolution.
The Biden White House, however, has especially bristled at India for abstaining from the multiple UN votes on Russia since the Russian invasion began on February 24. Because India is the world’s largest democracy, its reluctance to condemn Russia by name undermines the Western narrative that the conflict symbolises a struggle between democracies and autocracies.
Biden has framed the Ukraine war as a global “battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” Never mind that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s regime is no less autocratic than Putin’s.
The fact is that whichever side the US armed over the years was invariably portrayed at that time as “fighting for freedom”—from the Afghanistan-centred anti-Soviet mujahideen (from which Al Qaeda and the Taliban evolved) to Syria’s anti-Bashar al-Assad jihadists (who gave rise to ISIS). Biden’s “new battle for freedom,” as he calls it, will compound the ravages of the Russian military assault, leaving Ukraine destabilised, like Syria or Libya. There is a real danger that, in seeking to bleed Russia dry, Biden could end up bleeding Ukraine dry.
Biden’s policies have a direct bearing on Indian security. After surrendering Afghanistan to Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, pushing Myanmar closer to China through US sanctions and mollycoddling the world’s largest autocracy, China, Biden’s ideologically driven vendetta against Russia promises to make Beijing the main beneficiary. As the American scholar Walter Russell Mead has warned, “The more ideological Americans get about their foreign policy, the more difficult the US-India relationship is likely to become.”
At a time when the Biden administration is appeasing China, it is paradoxically trying to employ human rights issues as leverage against the world’s largest democracy, India. After the “two-plus-two” meetings with the visiting Indian defence and external affairs ministers on April 11, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened a joint press conference by taking a swipe at India in a prepared statement, alleging “a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials.” But when the Indian defence and foreign ministers spoke, they pretended they hadn’t heard the attack.
Blinken’s public rebuke of India on human rights represented a significant shift in his position. Just barely nine months earlier, Blinken told Indian civil society groups during a New Delhi visit that the world’s biggest democracies—the US and India—are united in shared values such as rule of law and freedom of religion, yet “both of our democracies are works in progress. As friends, we talk about that.”
No democracy can claim to be perfect or a model for other states. The US and India are fractured and volatile nations that are being torn apart by petty and hyper-partisan politics.
Without mutual respect, can the US-India strategic partnership advance? Yet, as the US was recently hosting the Indian defence and external affairs ministers for the two-plus-two meetings, Blinken took a calculated swipe at India, while his State Department detailed human rights issues in India by releasing its annual ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’. The dual actions were warning shots across India’s bow, intended to mount pressure on New Delhi to change its independent line in the current conflict between the West and Russia.
Earlier, after India abstained in the February 25 UN Security Council vote to condemn Russia, the US-based news website Axios reported that the State Department had recalled a strongly worded cable saying that the neutral stance of India and the UAE put them “in Russia’s camp.” The Axios story also appeared to suggest that, unless New Delhi changed course, the Biden administration could start discussing “allegations—rarely discussed by the US in public—of democratic backsliding and repression of religious minorities” in India.
On March 2, 141 nations voted at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in favour of the western-backed resolution ‘deploring’ Russia’s invasion. The one-fourth of the countries that did not support the resolution represented the majority of the global population. But barely five weeks later in the 193-nation UNGA, the western-backed resolution suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council was adopted with just 93 votes in support
US diplomacy has a record of using such media “leaks” to serve American foreign policy interests. For example, to upset India’s relations with China, the White House leaked Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton about the Indian nuclear weapons tests. The letter stated, “We have an overt nuclear weapons state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem. To add to the distrust, that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state.”
Biden has learned little from his extraordinary Afghanistan debacle, which has compounded India’s regional security challenges. Revenge is now openly guiding US foreign policy. Such is the overriding focus on punishing Russia that it is trumping long-term US interests. China is set to emerge as the main winner from the US-led sanctions on Moscow, including becoming Russia’s banker and building an energy safety net through greater access to Russian energy resources via secure, land-based pipelines.
By aiding the further rise of a revisionist China, the US will speed up its relative decline. But the main brunt of the rise of a more powerful and aggressive China will be borne by its neighbours, especially India. The US, after all, is located far from China.
Undermining what should be America’s most important strategic partnership in Asia makes little strategic sense, especially if the US wishes to genuinely pivot to the Indo-Pacific region.
BIDEN SEEKS TO CO-OPT INDIA
A weak and flagging Biden is seeking to entangle India in his new Cold War with Russia. But here’s the paradox: At a time when India still confronts China’s nearly two-year-long border aggression, including its threat to unleash a full-scale war, Biden has refused to open his mouth on that aggression. Equating the victim with the aggressor, his State Department on February 3 urged India and China to find “a peaceful resolution of the border disputes.” Yet, an insensitive Biden called “shaky” the Indian response to a distant war that he helped provoke with NATO’s forward policy, including refusing to provide the US security assurances Russia zealously sought on Ukraine as it built up forces around that country’s borders over a three-month period from late November.
No current head of a Western government has condemned China’s aggression against India or even urged Beijing to reverse its massive military build-up along the Himalayan frontier—a build-up that violates China’s binding bilateral accords with New Delhi. Nevertheless, the West wants India to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On every occasion when India hasn’t blindly followed the US on an important geopolitical issue, the standard American criticism it has faced is that it is unprepared to step up to major power responsibilities. India, like any other important power, must stand up for its own interests. Why should India take sides in the present conflict when it has no dog in the fight?
Located in a troubled neighbourhood, with China’s shadow looming large, India’s challenge is to sustain good ties with the West while not abandoning relations with its time-tested partner, Russia. Strategic hedging demands a diversified portfolio. The Biden administration, however, wants India to put all its strategic eggs in one basket—the American basket—even though America’s unpredictability is legendary, as US analysts acknowledge.
Significantly, Russia has no problem with India’s neutrality. It is the Biden administration that doesn’t like a neutral, nonaligned or independent India.
The April 11 hour-long Biden-Modi virtual discussion and the accompanying two-plus-two meetings in Washington were a reminder that, for all the talk of advancing the strategic partnership, “sanctions compliance”—as a White House background briefer phrased it— was at the heart of the US outreach to India. In the discussions, Biden and his team demanded that New Delhi sign no new major arms contract with Moscow or go beyond the modest quantities of Russian energy supplies it has already contracted to buy, even though energy supplies and energy payments are exempt from the Western sanctions against Russia.
More fundamentally, the Biden White House sees the US-led sanctions on Russia as opening a major opportunity to co-opt India in the new Cold War with Moscow. In this endeavour, it has been encouraged by how America’s Iran sanctions have helped undermine the India-Iran relationship.
The US successfully used its Iran sanctions to deprive India of cheaper oil and turn it into the largest importer of American energy resources. Last year, energy imports from the US accounted for 8 per cent of India’s total energy imports, while such imports from Russia amounted to barely 1 per cent. With dearer US energy supplies replacing Iranian oil, India’s energy import bill went up by billions of dollars annually, even as China has continued to this day to lap up heavily discounted Iranian oil and gas without facing any American reprisals.
China is set to emerge as the main winner from the US-led sanctions on Moscow, including becoming Russia’s banker and building an energy safety net through greater access to Russian energy resources via secure, land-based pipelines. By aiding the further rise of a revisionist China, the US will speed up its relative decline
Today, Team Biden sees its Russia sanctions as offering a twofold opportunity in relation to India: undermine New Delhi’s longstanding relations with Moscow as an essential step to help bring India firmly into the US camp; and turn India gradually into America’s exclusive arms client.
US Defence Secretary Llyod Austin has publicly called on India to cut defence transactions with Russia by turning to the US for all its military requirements. “We continue to work with them [India] to ensure that they understand that it’s not in their—we believe that—it’s not in their best interest to continue to invest in Russian equipment,” Austin told the US House Armed Services Committee recently. “And our requirement, going forward, is that they downscale the types of equipment that they’re investing in and look to invest more in the types of things that will make us continue to be compatible.”
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, for her part, told Congress that, although American defence sales to India have significantly increased, the US now sees “a great opportunity for that to surge.”
The US is clearly not content with bagging billions of dollars worth of Indian arms contracts every year. It seems intent on using its new Russia sanctions and its domestic law, including the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), to downgrade Indian defence ties with Moscow. However, while the Indian media still focuses on the S-400 deal in spite of the first S-400 anti-aircraft and anti-missile system having become operational on Indian soil, Washington is seeking to use its CAATSA threat to stop India from concluding major new arms deals with Moscow.
Meanwhile, even as the EU is still paying Russia about $1.1 billion a day for oil and gas supplies and Britain is relying on imports of Russian diesel and other fossil fuels, Washington—after driving up global energy prices with its escalating sanctions—has stepped up pressure on New Delhi to refrain from accelerating its purchases of Russian oil. It also opposes New Delhi’s effort to revive the rouble-rupee payments arrangement with Moscow.
INDIA FACES AN IMPORTANT TEST
Make no mistake: India faces such pressures largely because it remains a soft state, despite domestic critics and the Western media portraying Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “strongman”. India has made itself vulnerable to Western pressures.
Take America’s Iran sanctions: India should have tied its sanctions compliance to rival China’s compliance and to America’s commitment to sell oil to it at discounted prices, as Tehran was doing. Instead, without any quid pro quo, India began meekly complying with the unilateral US sanctions against Iran, while China still flouts them with impunity.
In its bilateral meetings with China, the US gets lectured on its “deplorable” human rights record, including publicly, as happened at Anchorage, Alaska. In contrast, Blinken censured India on human rights in the presence of Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. And the two ministers pusillanimously chose not to respond to the attack.
Since the attack came from his US counterpart in a prepared opening statement at a joint press conference, Jaishankar ought to have responded, but politely, when his turn came to make his opening statement. He could have, for example, said that the US and India, to help advance their strategic partnership, should respect each other’s democratic system and avoid levelling allegations that give a handle to domestic critics in either country.
After allowing Blinken’s public rebuke of India to go unchallenged, Jaishankar subsequently sought to manage news coverage back home by addressing Indian reporters in Washington and speaking about human rights. “People are entitled to have views about us. We also are entitled to have views about their lobbies and vote banks. We will not be reticent. We also have our views on other people’s human rights, particularly when it pertains to our community,” Jaishankar told the Indian media, without revealing anything on India’s views on what he called “other people’s human rights.”
This wishy-washy statement was then spun by the Indian media as an effective pushback against Blinken’s criticism of India. “India gives it back to the US,” declared an anchor on one of the major Indian news TV channels.
Like previous Indian governments, the Modi government seems more concerned about its image at home than about standing up for national interests.
The Biden administration seems to believe its pressure on India is working. Since the two-plus-two meetings in Washington, State Department spinmeisters on social media have switched from criticising India for its stance to making positive comments on the relationship.
Coinciding with the two-plus-two meetings, the state-run Indian Oil Corporation (IOC)—India’s top refiner and largest oil importer—suddenly dropped Russian Urals crude from its newest tender, as if to signal that India was yielding to US pressure. Earlier in March, Indian refiners bought just three days’ worth of Urals crude.
India, one of the world’s top oil importers, consumes a staggering 4.8 million barrels per day. Every $1 change in price makes a big difference to India’s oil import bill, totalling more than $100 billion.
Russia’s flagship Urals crude has been trading at a discount of over $30 a barrel to Brent, the global oil price yardstick. So, why isn’t India snapping up the much cheaper Russian oil, especially through a government-to-government deal? (The Indian refiners’ practice of spot purchases via open tenders denies them the full available discounts as this process can be manipulated by oil intermediaries, who often seem to know what price they need to beat.)
India can save many billions of dollars in every quarter—and rein in inflation at home—by boosting imports of heavily discounted Russian oil. But just as India has been docilely complying with America’s sanctions on Iranian oil, Jaishankar’s recent comment that “we won’t be in the top 10” buyers of Russian oil implies that India will not significantly go beyond its traditionally modest imports of Russian oil.
Succumbing to pressure only begets greater pressure. The US, in fact, wants India to replace even the small quantity of oil it imports from Russia with costlier American oil.
More broadly, despite the continuing talk of a rules-based world order, a new era of US-led unilateralism has dawned since the Ukraine war began. The unilateralism extends from the West’s weaponisation of finance to arbitrary confiscation of state and individual assets. As the American commentator Katrina vanden Heuvel has put it, “The United States champions a ‘rules-based order’, in which we make the rules and hold ourselves exempt from them when desirable.”
The new era of unilateralism holds important policy implications for India, which still talks about a rules-based order.
Indeed, India faces an important test in relation to the US. It would like to further deepen its ties with America. But such cooperation cannot be exclusionary. Nor can the US expect a friend like India to be its follower. India is America’s strategic partner, not an ally in the patron-client framework of the Cold War era. How India copes with the new US pressures will have a significant bearing on its strategic autonomy and economic and military security.