The liberal paradox

There is an abiding paradox in Indo-US relations that calls for deeper reflection. From India's point of view, those whom we think of as liberals within the American spectrum seem much more difficult to deal with than conservatives. This was not always the case. During the fifties the conservatives were miffed at India's reluctance to be at the frontline of anti-communism, while liberals were trying to garner support for India. Now liberals are less enthusiastic about India.

At one level, this is easy to explain. Contemporary conservatives believe in a straightforward calculus of power, shorn of any moralistic pretension; you can engage with them straightforwardly on that terrain. American liberals pretend to greater idealism. They therefore have higher moral demands: they want countries to be the perfect environmentalists, fair traders, human rights activists, and renounce nuclear weapons. India is a problematic case for them because India's position has been simple. India will go along with this version of internationalism only if it applies to all powers, including the major powers.

But this is where American liberals run up against two of their own limitations. First, their version of liberalism is not about replacing American hegemony with some equitable conception of world order; it is about using the language of liberalism and multilateralism to preserve and prolong American pre-eminence. Even as thoughtful and influential a document as the "Princeton Project on National Security", that aimed at "Forging a World of Liberty Under Law", could barely disguise the undercurrent that its commitment to a global rule of law was not for intrinsic reasons, but because it could enhance American power. But rather than owning up to its own limitations and its powerlessness against American double standards, American liberalism needs an object on which to assert its ideological identity. Since they dare not take on China, India is the easier target. Certainly there is something quite bizarre about the extraordinary construction of India as an "obstructionist" state that still permeates discourse in the American liberal establishment on almost every issue.

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