4 Questions on India, Liberalism, America, etc.

Ashley Tellis’ interview with Milan Vaishnav on the Grand Tamasha podcast has triggered quite a lot of discussion on the relationship between political liberalism in India and its relationship with the US and “the West” in general. Tellis also advances some of these themes in a recent Carnegie paper; one summary of his claim can be found here:

“To be sure, India’s relevance in the Indo-Pacific will survive, thanks to the exigencies of balancing China. This ensures continued engagement by the United States and other powers, but a constrained acquiescence to partnership is a poor substitute for the enthusiastic boosting of India that would otherwise occur if its liberal credentials were not contested.”

I’ve suggested something similar in the past:

“Those skeptical of India’s political direction may have a higher bar for Indian strategic convergence than those supportive of the Modi government”

Tellis’ claim attracted various kinds of pushback. I found Rohan Mukherjee’s twitter thread and responses, for instance, quite interesting – he argues, among other things, that 1) the US is no position to be judging the liberalism of others and 2) history gives limited evidence of liberal alignment in world politics (i.e. plenty of alliances or linkages across regime-types).

Rather than coming down hard on any side of this (I’ve already said my piece), I think it’s more useful to identify a set of open questions that need to be answered to make this debate useful.

  1. What do we mean by “liberalism” in this context? I generally think of liberalism as not meaning left-right ideology, but instead the quality of mechanisms that prevent the classic “tyranny of the majority” dynamics – individual rights, institutions that treat citizens equally across ethnic/religious/class categories, and an autonomous space for media and civil society. Freedom House and V-DEM provide specific criteria of the different dimensions that can be used to measure this. Japan’s LDP is a conservative party, but Japan doesn’t get criticized for being illiberal. I don’t think that democracy is the same as winning elections, but everyone needs to be crystal-clear on what they mean one way or another.

2. What is the “dependent variable”? I.e., what do we mean by security cooperation and what levels should we expect it to take under different conditions? This is where I see the greatest potential for intractable debates. It’s also why twitter is just the worst for engagement. My read of the Tellis claim is that “ragged engagement” could result from illiberalism in India. This not the same as a lack of cooperation, or a breakdown in relations. There is clearly realpolitik momentum in US-India relations in response to China, full stop.

But then the question is what level of cooperation we should expect from that realpolitik on its own, and what explanatory “value-added” comes from shared regime-type? For instance, it’s undeniably the case that the US has worked extensively with a whole variety of nasty regimes (as I’ve pointed out myself). But it’s also the case that America’s closest security partners have tended to be liberal-ish democracies – the vast majority of NATO, Japan, and the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing partners. Jessica Weeks and Mike Tomz have argued that “individuals are substantially less supportive of military strikes against democracies than against otherwise identical autocracies. Moreover, our experiments suggest that shared democracy pacifies the public primarily by changing perceptions of threat and morality.” There is at least some broad linkage between domestic regimes and international politics (i.e. Seva Gunitsky’s book). Both claims – the US is extremely willing to work with dictators and the US works best for liberal democracies – can be simultaneously true.

The real inferential challenge becomes the counterfactual – if India was more/less liberal, what variation should we expect? Critiques of the Tellis argument could point to US-India cooperation and say “A-ha – there is cooperation, thus Modi can do whatever he wants!” but if there is a counterfactual world in which cooperation would be deeper and smoother and more broad-ranging, then the simple fact of cooperation doesn’t disprove the Tellis “ragged engagement” thesis. In turn, advocates of the “liberalism helps cooperation” thesis need to specify what smoother engagement would actually look like in the absence of an “illiberalism tax.” For instance, one could point to the amount of time and energy Indian diplomats spent on CAA/Kashmir-related topics in 2019 and ask how that time could have been spent in a counterfactual world.

3. What do perceptions of liberalism have to do with perceptions of other things? My basic realpolitik sense is that a rapidly growing, powerful India can get away with a lot of domestic illiberalism with limited international consequences – the US is deeply hypocritical, the French don’t care, the Japanese are worried about China, the UK is led by Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and his people prefer authoritarian strongmen, etc.

But India’s growth/power trajectory is extremely far from predetermined – this Carnegie India summary of India’s current state makes clear the overlapping crises facing India:
“The combination of the compounded economic crisis and the standoff along the LAC underscores the larger fiscal-military challenge that confronts India. One foreseeable consequence of the pandemic is a greater pressure on India’s defense budgets owing to a drop in government revenues.53 Even to keep up the current levels of military expenditure, defense spending will have to rise as a proportion of GDP. This is bound to be challenging against the backdrop of urgent competing demands for spending on public infrastructure and welfare.”

As Ido Oren has shown, perceptions of other countries’ liberalism/democracy can be quite malleable. You can imagine a world in which foreign views change in response to the “hard” economic-military power of India. When I first lived in India back in 2007, there were conclaves about the implications of 10% growth and the like. That feels like a million years ago now.

If you end up with perceptions of Indian underperformance on its power trajectory it may accelerate perceptions that India’s ruling party cares most fervently about detentions and denunciations, and things would look less rosy in both cynical/realpolitik and “liberal” terms (see also Aparna Pande on this). This of course may absolutely not be India’s trajectory, but no one should be highly confident of anything about the future, much less make firm policy demands on that basis.

4. What is the future of US domestic politics? The US is itself moving in a deeply illiberal direction. If that continues, then some set of claims about American perceptions will be operative. But if not, and especially if we see Congress or the White House viewing illiberalism as a global problem with worrisome knock-on effects for the US, then we may end up with a notably different set of emphases. The future direction of US foreign policy is fluid and there are huge partisan splits in views of the top foreign policy problems facing America. Any claims about “what the US will want” in the future need serious caveats. Even if the US wants to manage the rise of China, we can see hugely varying levels of resource and political commitments to Asia over the next decade, from “Nixon Doctrine 2.0” to “NATO Redux” or something.

Simply put – this is all a recipe for less-than-ideal exchanges unless key concepts get defined, measured, and compared.

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