He may be one of the most important statesmen of modern times—and yet most Americans have never heard of him.
His name is Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. His new book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, shows why.
Jaishankar is one of the architects of a generational transformation of Indian foreign policy. This is important stuff for an American audience. One of the chief beneficiaries of India’s revolutionary change is the United States.
His fundamental argument is that traditional Indian policy and statecraft were ill-suited for the era of great power competition. Further, he saw India changing—facing new unprecedented challenges in markets, energy, and the environment, but also incredible opportunities in developing the nation’s economic and human potential.
Jaishankar was a pioneer in recognizing that the policies of the past wouldn’t serve India’s efforts to grow jobs for its population, increase prosperity, and protect India’s vital interests.
Changing the direction of Indian statecraft was daunting. For decades, Jaishankar served in a system that stubbornly stuck to policies developed during the Cold War, when India served as a leader in the non-aligned movement, believed in closed markets and socialism, and kept its distance from the United States while sustaining a close partnership with Russia from the days of the USSR to Putin. In the contemporary world, all these policies are like slamming on the brakes while trying to accelerate uphill in a Mack truck.
Currently, Jaishankar serves as the Minister for External Affairs, where he has done much to maintain the momentum of reorienting Indian foreign policy. “This is a time,” he neatly summarizes in The India Way, “for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighborhood and expand traditional constituencies of support.”
More than an aspiration, this is clearly the direction Delhi is headed, and what’s more the shift seems broadly bipartisan, representing more than just the aspirations of the current conservative government.
The India Way also lays out a vision of geopolitics that contrasts with the pessimism of Graham Allison’s “Thucydides’ Trap.” Rising powers, like India, don’t necessarily have to compete with status-quo super powers in a zero-sum game as Allison predicted. Jaishankar specifically refutes “theories of the entrenched power resisting the rising one.”
The U.S.-Indian partnership works well despite our imbalances. What makes the U.S.-Indian trust work, Jaishankar argues, is not just that India’s new policies are “realist,” they are also “realistic.” There is no question that Sino-U.S. competition will impact India, and it makes no sense for Delhi to just stand on the sidelines and let the two great powers determine India’s fate.
Thematically, Jaishankar also highlights another reason why the India-U.S. relationship has legs. The India Way also offers an implicit rejection of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” Civilizations based on different foundational cultures don’t have to clash. The United States and India are a case in point.
Too much is made that the two countries are the world’s largest democracies. So what? Democracy never built strategic bridges between the two countries before. There is something deeper going on here. The India Way is specifically framed around Indian ideas with many of his arguments framed in Indian history and culture. Yet Western readers will not find how he introduces concepts foreign or impenetrable.
The reason is that they reflect the beliefs of an authentic civilization, societies that have an underlying respect for human rights, popular sovereignty, religious belief and culture. That is something the United States and India share—and indeed, why Americans are so comfortable importing more South Asian culture every day (hooray for Bollywood).
In contrast to its relationship with the U.S. and expanding ties with Europe, Israel, Australia, Japan, and Taiwan, India has had a problem with cozying up to China. The Chinese Communist Party rejects human rights, freely elected governments, and free enterprise, the essential ingredients that keep the free world free, safe and prosperous.
Explicit in Jaishankar’s case for the future of statecraft is that while international norms are all very nice, norms exist because there are strong moral nations to advance and sustain them. “The real truth about the revival of nationalism is that it has actually been a very durable basis for organizing societies.”
The India Way is a slim volume, but it is dense with ideas and insight, so good a short review cannot do it justice. This is more than a must-read. This is a book we all ought to be talking about.
This piece originally appeared in the National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/exploring-origins-indian-american-partnership-169677