The language and conduct of international diplomacy is a constant tussle between rhetorical niceties and realism. Historically, rhetoric has outstripped reality. But not anymore.
The illusion of the ‘liberal internationalism’ of the United States, which sought to justify American aggression in pushing the agenda of supposed democracy (overtly, covertly, or even militarily), was one such farce. It was as insincere as the promise of equality and welfarism made by the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Below the veneer of idealism and morality was the less-than-savoury reality.
US History Isn't Squeaky Clean
The US openly tolerated – even patronised – dictators, as long as they opposed the rival ‘bloc’. In 1971, the military dictator of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan, who knowingly perpetrated the genocidal slaughter of Bengalis and their exodus into India (ironically led by a democratically elected Indira Gandhi), had the complete backing of the US, even as it brandished its so-called ‘liberal internationalism’ for the masses to see.
The end of the Cold War resulted in a recalibration of the world order, newer forms of hypocrisies emerged, and absolute idealism was put aside to accept ‘nuance’ in diplomacy.
But the residual fluff of diplomat-ese still sees occasional binaries. George W Bush’s infamous, “You are either with us or against us”, is an example.
The principle of realism in diplomacy is based on national priorities and complexities. The ability and maturity to agree to disagree on some specifics, whilst aligning overall on the end goals is the new acceptable construct of bilateral diplomacy. The absolute insistence on complete alignment (more like vassalage) with a sovereign is an outdated expectation.
Diplomacy Is About Realism Now
The recent Indian decision to ‘abstain’ from voting on the condemnation of the Russian war on Ukraine may have raised some heckles, but the long roster of countries who did the same includes the likes of Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Bhutan, Brazil, etc, and even sworn US allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, etc. This is modern-day realism and nuance in diplomacy, in action. Each voting country had its own unique and complex rationales to vote for, against, or abstain, which went beyond its singular perception of Russia.
For example, the UAE is in a strategic security relationship with the US, a significant economic relationship with China, and a transactional energy relationship with Russia, and therefore, it chose to ‘abstain’.
It is even speculated that the UAE may have indulged in a ‘vote exchange’ as it earlier got Russia’s support to renew the arms embargo and sanctions against the Houthi Yemenis (a hypersensitive point for the UAE), as a quid pro quo for the UAE’s abstinence from denouncing Russian invasion. This does not imply that the UAE is jettisoning its strategic alliance with the US and is replacing the same with Russia – only that, it had ‘understandable’ reasons and compulsions to do so.
This ‘nuance’ of diplomatic assertion (owing to pressing national interests) is a global phenomenon, and it applies to India, too.
India's Experience With Iran
Former US President Donald Trump had unilaterally reneged on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran Nuclear Deal, to the displeasure of the global watchdog agency IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), as also all other P5+1 signatories. Global outrage on the unfairness of the US actions notwithstanding, Trump launched a ‘maximum pressure campaign’. India’s own and unrelated relations with Iran on significant bilateral trade (top three oil suppliers), strategic investments (Chabahar Port, alignment on Afghanistan) and civilisational tied were called into question by the US.
Despite the on-camera bonhomie and red carpets shared between the leadership in Delhi and Washington, the US administration threatened India openly. And India succumbed and complied by downgrading its engagement with Iran, just as it had acquiesced similarly on Venezuelan oil.
Despite murmuring their disagreement with Washington, the European capitals, too, capitulated similarly.
Later, the same US administration of the ‘Namaste India’ or ‘Howdy Modi’ fame riled Delhi up by offering to ‘mediate’ between India and Pakistan, even though Delhi had consistently shunned external interference. The same man who was afforded ‘Agli baar Trump sarkaar’ festoons threatened India with ‘retaliation’ on the Hydroxychloroquine issue during the COVID-19 pandemic; yet again, he offered a rather pusillanimous offer to ‘mediate or arbitrate’ during the India-China border violence, knowing fully well the futility of his words.
India had clearly sacrificed a lot of sovereign pride in diminishing and de-prioritising its own national interest to support the US’ interest, as had a lot of US allies.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
Today, in responding to the Russian aggression on Ukraine, many NATO allies are either unsure or ‘iffy’ (like Germany), or even brazenly defiant of the US approach (like Turkey). This independence of stand in international affairs with mealy-mouthed justifications that seek to posit a ‘nuance’ instead of a binary is becoming a global phenomenon.
The recent Indo-US discussions under the ‘2+2’ framework were held under the changed nature of global diplomacy and expectations. That India has a similar strategic engagement under the ‘2+2’ template with Russia (besides, with QUAD partners Japan and Australia) says something about the underlying equation of trust and necessity that Moscow and Delhi share historically.
Expectedly, both sides reciprocated by verbalising each other’s concerns. US official Antony Blinken noted China’s efforts to ‘refashion the region’ using ‘dual-use infrastructure’, and thus the need to ‘continue to stand alongside’ Delhi. Delhi ticked the box by ‘unequivocally’ condemning civilian deaths and urging ‘immediate cessation of hostilities’ in the Russia-Ukraine war. Thus far, nor more.
Many things remained prickly and unresolved, but that is par for the course. President Biden’s mild suggestion that importing oil from Russia (and the unsaid issue of the CATSAA law towards the S-400 Air Defense System) was not in Delhi’s interest and was politely ignored. Both hailed the ‘constructive’ agreements to support each other, despite some unresolved points.
It's the Age of Expectation Management
The US knows fully well that no amount of militaristic wherewithal sourced by India from Russia is aimed against US security interests. If anything, it strengthens the only credible regional ‘pivot’ against a common enemy, Beijing. But the US cannot say so openly, especially as its position on Ukraine requires beseeching a certain reaction from its allies – who, in turn, also have their own unique interests.
Under the new normal of diplomacy, though Biden did call India ‘somewhat shaky’ in condemning Russia, he ultimately insisted on going ahead with the strategic 2+2 engagement and acknowledged India’s own historical equation with Moscow, regional sensitivities, and national interest.
Welcome to the new world of ‘nuance’ in expectation management.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)