2019年12月20日 星期五

The Interpreter: A test of the global democratic order

What India's turmoil means for the world

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: What’s happening in India, which tells us something big about the world’s future.


India Was Supposed to Represent the Future of the International Liberal Order. Now That’s in Doubt.

Protesters denouncing a new citizenship law near the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Thursday.Altaf Qadri/Associated Press

One of the biggest, longest-running projects of the American foreign policy community — the network of State Department planners, think tankers and policymakers — is enlisting India as a long-term partner in maintaining the international liberal order.

The idea is this: India, as a liberal democracy, is a natural cultural ally of the world’s developed democracies. It is also a big and important country in its own right, one destined to play a major role in the future of Asia — a big deal, given Asia’s expected centrality in 21st-century world affairs. The United States could take the lead in forging lasting bonds between developed democracies and India, making it into a democratic and pro-Western counterweight to China’s rising influence. India would become a lasting force for asserting the democratic, liberal order in Asia, and an order that is aligned with the world’s developed democracies.


In the past two years, American defense and foreign policy officials have grown so enthusiastic that they have formally transitioned from describing the region as “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific.” They have also pushed allies to use the term, which is meant to center India in their vision for Asia’s future. The geographical implausibility of the label — India is not on the Pacific Ocean and has no real presence or influence along Asia’s Pacific Rim — hints at the gap between this mission’s aims and its present reality.

That has been a bipartisan project of the American foreign policy community for nearly 20 years on the thinking that India could be the hinge point for whether the liberal order thrives into the coming century or shrinks from its current global dominance.

Maybe that was a realistic goal or maybe it was not. But India is changing in ways that put that ambition, and therefore the future of the international liberal order in Asia and potentially beyond, in doubt.

Under Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister since 2014, India has, in the last few months, taken a sharp and drastic turn toward illiberalism, Hindus-first ethnonationalism and even degrees of authoritarianism. It has revoked the autonomy of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region of India, and placed its citizens under severe restrictions approaching that of a police state. It has implemented citizenship reforms in a way that could render as many as 2 million Muslim citizens stateless, and changed naturalization standards in a way that makes it harder for Muslims to become citizens. As protests have flared over the citizenship changes, it has shut down internet access, imposed restrictions on movement and arrested intellectuals opposed to the changes.


On Thursday, an official with India’s ruling party issued a public warning on behalf of “the majority” — a reference to India’s Hindus. He referenced an infamous series of communal riots that left hundreds dead, mostly Muslims, in the state of Gujarat in 2002, when Mr. Modi was that state’s chief minister.

“The majority here is capable of repeating it,” the local official said. “Don’t test our patience.” A tweet containing a video of his comments was flooded with replies from Indian users, some showing outrage, but many expressing agreement and praise.

And while protests against the citizenship law demonstrate that these changes have been controversial, they have also been embraced by a large portion of India’s Hindu majority. Bottom-up demand for this version of India, as well as top-down willingness to impose it, are both high. Maybe this is a temporary period of hard-line ethnonationalism amid what will otherwise be a secular and pluralistic India, but it may also be more permanent.

At a time when ethnonationalism is rising globally, this version of India may be incompatible with the goal of making it into an ally and bastion of the international liberal order.

For one, liberal democracies tend to cooperate and to see one another as natural partners — think of the half-century of cooperation between Europe, the United States, Japan, South Korea and others in building a world that resembles their ideals. But illiberal democracies tend to go it alone, or to partner with other illiberal democracies. That is both a matter of foreign policy and of cultural clash. American institutions are already coming under pressure to break ties with Mr. Modi’s government.

That tension goes both ways. The illiberalism of Mr. Modi’s government is already leading it to treat the United States, and in particular the liberal-democratic features of the American system, with a degree of suspicion. According to The Washington Post, India’s external affairs mission abruptly canceled a Washington, D.C., meeting with senior Congressional leaders when lawmakers refused to exclude Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, who had criticized India’s policies in Kashmir.

It is certainly true that the United States has partnered with many outright dictatorships — Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example — in pursuing its foreign policy goals. But those partnerships tend to be narrow and brittle. And those partner countries have hardly acted as a force for a global democratic order; if anything, they often do the opposite.

For another, an illiberal ethnonationalist India, one centered on putting Hindus above all others, would most likely not become a democratic counterweight to China. It would almost certainly remain a rival to China — its size and geographic position make that all but inevitable — but not one that sees projecting democracy and a wider pan-democratic alliance as necessary, even desirable.

If anything, India’s Hindu nationalist turn makes it more of a natural partner of authoritarian Asian states that have also prioritized suppressing their Muslim minorities, such as Thailand and Myanmar. And it all but ensures tense relations with India’s Muslim-majority neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all but compelling those countries, which are much smaller than India, to yoke themselves to China.

The future of democracy and the liberal order in Asia was already in doubt even with India expected to be a liberal democratic counterweight to China. If India instead becomes a force for illiberalism and ethnonationalism, that will push Asia even more firmly away from a hoped-for liberal democratic future.

The American foreign policy community is already wrestling with the possibility that Mr. Modi’s India might not play the role they’d long hoped — though giving up that 20-year project is not coming easily.

“It is my belief that the US-India relationship should continue to strengthen even if India is turning in a very troubling direction,” Christopher Clary, who served as an architect of that relationship as a Pentagon policy official in the mid-2000s and is now a political scientist, wrote on Twitter.

But, he added, “There might be redlines — things so horrible that they would cause me to reconsider this trade.”

And Mr. Clary’s case for that relationship, he wrote, rested on his view that “the problem of a rising China is just incredibly daunting,” and that “India, whatever it’s stance toward its Muslims, is more humane than what China is doing next door.”

That is a significantly more modest ambition than the long-held vision of India as a force for liberal democratic ideals in Asia. Rather, it is a case that Mr. Modi’s India, and the ideological and political trends it represents, are the lesser of two evils compared to China and its influence.

No one is quite describing this as a downgrading of expectations for India and, therefore, for the future of the liberal order in Asia. That is simply our read on things. But it is hard not to read that into statements by members of the American foreign policy community whose civilian-sector jobs allow them to expound freely.

Vipin Narang, who studies security issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggested “a more clear-eyed view of the relationship, and more realistic expectations.” Rather than hope to reconcile the growing divides between the American and Indian systems and worldviews, Mr. Narang suggested that the United States “move past them for geopolitical purposes.”

Maybe that is the best to hope for. But it is a significantly different vision for the future of Asia than had been hoped for, and one in which the liberal order’s future is much less certain.

What We’re Reading

  • Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster whose work we have cited before, has published a comprehensive study of international responses to Israeli steps toward annexation of territory, and the effectiveness of those responses in deterring annexation. The questions she poses — what shapes the international community’s response and its effectiveness — are increasingly important as Israeli leaders express growing support for policies that many observers consider to amount to de facto annexation of Palestinian territory. She concludes that the international community has generally taken a lighter response to Israel in this regard than it has to other states and that it has adopted responses that are generally ineffective at deterring Israel. Something would have to change in the world’s approach to this issue, she concludes, if it wishes to prevent the de facto annexation of Palestinian territory.
  • It’s been well documented that a growing problem in American life is the polarization of the news: People on the political left and right increasingly diverge in what news outlets they follow and therefore their underlying understanding of the world. Americans live in different realities according to their partisan identity, which binds partisan polarization into the very social fabric of American life and makes it ever more difficult to surmount. A new study by three University of Oxford social scientists, Richard Fletcher, Alessio Cornia and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, find that, across 12 countries they examined, news polarization is highest in the United States. And they find that, generally, news polarization is higher among people who get their news online than those who get it offline. But that is not true in every case — in rare cases, online news consumers are less polarized than offline — which leads the authors to conclude that “despite the well-documented fears associated with algorithmic selection, news audience polarization is not inevitable in environments that are increasingly characterized by digital news consumption.”
  • The Guardian followed the online news consumption habits of six Brits during the run-up to Britain’s recent election, and the results are striking. Users followed the news by reading headlines rather than the articles, or simply by reading whatever Facebook memes popped up on their feeds. Many seemed to seek out news that would validate their existing political biases, which is not surprising but is really something to see play out.

How are we doing?

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