Europe is better than the U.S. at talking to India

President Joe Biden meeting with Prime Minister Modi Sept. 24, 2021. Photo Twitter @PMOIndia

In the United States, India’s neutral stance over the Ukraine invasion has led some to question how deeply to invest in the U.S.-India relationship. In Europe, which is more directly threatened by Russia, the opposite has happened. Rather than drifting apart as a consequence of the war, India and Europe seem instead to be growing closer.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Europe this week, visiting Germany, France and Denmark, where he will meet the leaders of the five Nordic countries. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has invited India to attend a G-7 summit in the Bavarian Alps next month. In New Delhi last week, European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen announced a new trade and technology council designed to deepen cooperation between the European Union and India.

Why have America’s European allies reacted so differently to India’s position on Ukraine? Partly, it’s because Europe thinks about its relationship with India the way the U.S. once did – as a partnership that goes beyond the transactional, in which each partner does not always have to agree. Partly, it is because Brussels has succeeded Washington as the location where consequential decisions affecting countries such as India are made. The U.S. has unquestionably turned inward under successive presidents. Meanwhile, the EU has taken the lead in setting regulations for big tech and for climate finance, and has developed its own strategy for engaging the Indo-Pacific region.

Europe’s and India’s very different reactions to the Ukraine invasion have, if anything, enhanced this dynamic rather than weakened it. Indian leaders see a new solidarity between European countries and a determination to enhance their capacity to project power. As Portuguese Foreign Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho said at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi last week, the invasion “powerfully stimulated Europe’s need to think and act strategically, and this makes the European Union a more interesting partner for India.”

At the same time, given their own reliance on Russia for energy, Europeans have a more nuanced understanding of how mutual dependence can constrain national action than the U.S. does. That awareness has encouraged the EU to identify those partners whom it can trust not to abuse the international system and their ties with Europe.

Not only is India one of those countries, it also clearly shares Europe’s deep antipathy to the idea of being caught in a bipolar world defined solely by U.S.-China competition. Both Europe and India aspire to “strategic autonomy” – to be free of the constraints of economic dependence on China but also capable of action without U.S. support or leadership.

Most importantly, perhaps, this is a new Europe. A crisis on its eastern edge has reminded us that the EU is now as much a Central and Eastern European project as it is a Western European one.

While the countries of Eastern Europe are as determined to pick a side on the Ukraine invasion as India is to avoid one, they share India’s aversion to lectures from “the West.” They also speak a language that’s easier for Indians to understand and sympathize with – the language of the formerly colonized, not the colonizer. Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s foreign minister, said in New Delhi last week that “the 20th century was a very difficult period for empires, and let’s do everything possible to make the 21st century even more difficult for them.”

Framing matters. When the invasion of Ukraine is framed as a contest between two spheres of influence, India is likely to shrug and emphasize its non-aligned status. When the U.S. describes it as a unilateral violation of sovereignty and international law, those here who remember the Iraq War are unpersuaded.

But when the invasion is thought of – accurately, in my opinion – as the act of an imperial power imposing its will on territory and people it formerly controlled, then India’s official and public neutrality will begin to weaken. The U.S. has always struggled to find the right language to speak to India about shared values; Europe seems to have discovered it.

India has always thought of itself as the leader of the postcolonial world and anti-imperialism was long central to its foreign policy. A Europe that “speaks the language of power” is attractive. But a Europe that can also speak the language of the oppressed with authority is one that India, and much of the emerging world, might heed with even more care.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and head of its Economy and Growth Programme. He is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy,” and co-editor of “What the Economy Needs Now.”



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