Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman to the Institute of Social Sciences

India-U.S. Relations: Building Democratic Cooperation

New Delhi, August 7, 2018

For more than two decades I have been part of an effort by a small group of Americans associated with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the flagship U.S. democracy-assistance organization, to encourage India to play a greater role supporting democracy internationally.  The exchanges have been cordial and respectful, since many of the proponents of this point of view are among India’s best friends in the United States. But until now the discussions have largely been inconclusive, with most Indians we’ve talked to taking the view that while India is happy to share its democratic experience with other countries, aiding democracy abroad should not be a priority for the Indian government or civil society.  India, we have been told, doesn’t have an obligation or a compelling need to advance democracy beyond its borders, and given the size and extraordinary diversity of its population, its basic contribution to global democracy should be the preservation and nurturing of India’s own democratic system.

There is much to be said for this point of view.  When Indira Gandhi suspended Indian democracy in 1975, there were important democracy advocates who considered the emergency not just a setback for India but a shattering blow to democracy throughout the world.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former U.S. Ambassador to India and later the Senator from New York, was one of those advocates. In his introduction to a collection of essays published on the occasion of the 1976 American bicentennial, he bemoaned the failure of the democratic “experiment” in post-colonial regimes, calling particular attention to the breakdown in India, “incomparably the largest and most important experiment of all.”  Increasingly, he wrote, “democracy is seen as an arrangement peculiar to a handful of North Atlantic countries,” leading him to the dire conclusion that democracy “is where the world was, not where it is going.”

Moynihan, of course, had badly underestimated the commitment to democracy in India.  Though Prime Minister Gandhi had imprisoned most of her political opponents and censored the press, a mass movement of resistance brought the emergency to an end in less than two years.  Not only did the restoration of Indian democracy in 1977 remove the main reason for Moynihan’s pessimism about future of democracy, but it was also a key factor propelling what Samuel Huntington was later to call “the third wave of democratization.”  This was the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s that witnessed the greatest expansion of democracy in human history. India wasn’t trying to promote democracy abroad, but the impact of its successful struggle to restore democracy resonated in the world and helped to reverse the global decline of democracy.

It was in recognition of the importance of India to the future of democracy that that the NED launched the World Movement for Democracy (WMD) in New Delhi in 1999.  India’s status as the world’s largest democracy wasn’t the only reason it was chosen to host this event. Its non-Western identity buttressed the argument that democracy is a universal idea applicable to all countries and cultures.  In addition, the fact that India was also a relatively poor country supported the related argument that a high level of economic development is not a necessary precondition for achieving democratic sustainability.

Amartya Sen’s keynote address to the WMD’s founding assembly was a seminal statement on democracy that drew upon the Indian experience in defending the idea of democratic universalism.  According to Sen, “the rise of democracy” was the most important thing that had happened in the twentieth century and had created the expectation that democracy was “the ‘normal’ form of government to which any nation is entitled – whether in Europe, America, Asia, or Africa.”   Democracy had achieved this status, in Sen’s view, because it had three fundamental values that contribute to the betterment of the human condition.

The first is democracy’s intrinsic value that derives from the fact that “political freedom is part of human freedom in general, and exercising civil and political rights is a crucial part of good lives of individuals as social beings.”  Democracy also has an instrumental value, according to Sen, because it protects people from the abuse of their rights; enables them to organize and work for the advancement of their political, social, and economic interests; and gives citizens the tools to hold governments accountable, thereby fostering good governance and the rule of law.  Finally, he said that democracy has a constructive value, meaning that through democratic participation, people “learn from one another” and become more experienced citizens who can help society form its values and priorities.    

Democracy, in other words, is not just a set of institutions or a finished product, but a process by which people express their dignity as human beings, defend their interests, and mature as citizens and members of a political community.  Sen emphasized that this process is not tied to a particular culture or religion, an argument that had been popularized in the 1990s by Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew who claimed that democracy was a Western idea that was incompatible with “Asian values.”  According to Sen, this argument was wrong historically since ideas of political inclusion, religious tolerance, and government accountability were deeply rooted in Indian, Confucian, and other Asian cultures. It was also wrong theoretically, he said, since the whole debate about whether some people and cultures were more suited to democracy than others posed the wrong question, which is not whether one country or another is culturally “fit for democracy,” but rather how it can “become fit through democracy.”  Posing the question in this way, he said, extends “the potential reach of democracy to cover billions of people, with their varying histories and cultures and disparate levels of affluence.”  

Sen’s sweeping defense of democratic universalism reflected his pride and confidence in the Indian “experiment,” as Moynihan called it.  Its optimism was also a product of the very hopeful moment in world history when the address was delivered. While the third wave of democratic expansion had peaked by 1999, it still generated positive changes, such as the transitions that occurred in the late 1990s in Indonesia and Nigeria, two major developing countries.  In addition, the global situation was stable and conducive to further democratic progress. The United States was the preeminent geopolitical power in the unipolar world that existed following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the decade, and democracy was widely considered to be the only legitimate political system, a point Sen had emphasized when he called democracy the only “normal” form of government to which any country is entitled.   

But dangers were lurking, even if they were not apparent at the time Sen spoke.  The American writer Charles Krauthammer called the 1990s “a vacation from history.”  He argued that geopolitical competition and threats to freedom and democracy were inevitable, and that “cruel history” would return to challenge the siren song of isolationism that was appealing to Americans on both the left and the right who wanted the United States to relinquish the burdens of global leadership.  

The harsh wake-up call came in 2001 with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  In addition to ending the complacency of the 1990s about global security, the attacks and the ensuing war on terror opened the way for an assault on liberal democracy, as many governments used the security threat to justify repressive measures curtailing political freedoms.   The protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also divided and demoralized the democratic countries, and the global financial crisis in 2008 further eroded the confidence of Western leaders by raising troubling questions about the management and durability of global capitalism.

During the last decade the crisis of democracy has continued to worsen.  While it manifests itself differently from one country to another, the crisis has three broad dimensions.  The first is the growing power and assertiveness dictatorial regimes in Russia, China, and Iran that are hostile to democracy.  The second is the rise of strongman leaders in backsliding countries like Turkey, Venezuela, the Philippines, Thailand, and Hungary who have closed political space and undermined the rule of law.  The third dimension of the crisis is the rise of illiberal populism and nationalism in the established democracies of the West. These problems have brought about 12 consecutive years of decline in political and civil liberties, according to the annual global survey conducted by Freedom House.  In 2017 the concern about the worsening state of democracy in the world led several hundred leading democracy advocates to issue an urgent appeal for “democratic renewal” that opened with the declaration that “Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defense.”

Arguably the greatest threat to democracy today has been the rise of China, which is a source of great concern in India as well as in the United States.  China’s growing power and bellicose behavior have surprised most political leaders and policy specialists in the West, who have assumed that economic growth and integration into the global economy would promote China’s liberalization, as happened in South Korea and Taiwan. In fact, though, China’s growth has reinforced the Beijing regime’s belief in the legitimacy and superiority of its own state-driven economic model.  And the wealth it has amassed as a result of the growth has enabled it to play a much more assertive role internationally.

One person who had no illusions about the dangerous consequences of China’s rise was the Chinese intellectual and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last year in prison.  He worried about China rising as a dictatorship and noted that other rising dictatorial powers like Hitler’s Germany, the Meiji Emperor’s Japan, and Stalin’s Soviet Union “all eventually collapsed, and in doing so brought disaster to human civilization.”  If China followed the same path, he warned, the result would “not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.”

No one heeded Liu’s warning when he wrote these words in 2006 because the conventional wisdom at the time assumed that as China modernized economically, it would eventually become a responsible stakeholder in the global economy and the liberal world order.  Few people today still believe that. Following Xi Jinping’s announcement earlier this year that the Chinese constitution would be amended to allow him to remain as president indefinitely, The Economist magazine bluntly stated that “The West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.”  Xi’s restoration of Mao-like personalistic rule was just one factor leading to this dramatic reversal in Western opinion.  In addition to the drastic centralization of power, the Beijing regime has become far more repressive, arresting dissidents and independent lawyers, closing civic space, and developing what has ominously been called the “surveillance state” that uses facial-recognition technology and other digital tools to monitor the behavior of all citizens to ensure their loyalty to the state.

China’s international behavior has also alarmed its neighbors as well as the United States and Europe.  Among the threatening actions it has taken are:

  • the fortification of reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, in defiance of a ruling by a U.N. arbitral tribunal;
  • the comprehensive buildup of its military forces that a recent Pentagon study described as “perhaps the most ambitious grand strategy undertaken by a single nation-state in modern times;”
  • the execution of a massive and multi-decade plan to use industrial espionage and cyber theft to acquire artificial intelligence and other critical future technologies with military as well as commercial applications;
  • the launch of the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative targeting more than sixty countries to advance Beijing’s military and geopolitical goals, including securing access to strategic ports and terminals and the export of Chinese techniques of state surveillance and dispute resolution; and
  • the promotion of an ideological offensive against democracy, involving the investment of $10-15 billion in so-called Sharp Power information tools to manipulate target populations and promote its own preferred authoritarian ideas, norms, and models of governance.

In sum, China has emerged as a major geopolitical, economic, and ideological rival of the world’s leading democratic countries, using the leverage of military, economic, and ideological power to promote its own model of authoritarian development as an alternative to democracy – “a new option for other countries,” as Xi Jinping declared last October at the 19th Communist Party Congress.

Beijing’s push for global leadership has already provoked a vigorous reaction internationally that The Economist has called “the starkest reversal in modern geopolitics.”  In the United States it has triggered a proliferation of proposals to counter and contain China’s expansionism, ranging from efforts to balance China militarily in the South China Sea and other potential conflict zones to demands for a policy of “reciprocity” in dealing with China.  Such a policy calls for treating China the way it treats other countries. For example, investments would be screened in order to block access to Chinese companies that is denied to U.S. companies in China. In addition, cultural programs like Confucius Institutes would be monitored to ensure that they are not used as tools of political intervention, and the U.S. would insist that American cultural centers in China have equal access to universities and other institutions.

I needn’t emphasize that India, which shares a disputed 4,000-kilometer border with China, is at least as concerned about these developments as is the United States.   The view from India, as a former Foreign Secretary recently told a U.S. official, is that Beijing’s goal through its Belt and Road Initiative and other policies is “hard-wiring Asia is to make sure that all roads lead to China.”  The fact that India and the United States share a common concern about the rising power of China is the principal reason that there is a growing strategic convergence between the two countries.

This reflects how much the world has changed since Amartya Sen addressed the founding assembly of the World Movement for Democracy two decades ago.  While his defense of democratic universalism remains as valid today as it was then, democracy is now being challenged ideologically in a way that it wasn’t back then.  We also need to consider how the different security environment has changed the context of the discussion about democracy. If in 1999 we talked about building a new post-Cold War relationship between the United States and India based on shared democratic values, in today’s more insecure world there is a stronger belief that geopolitics and shared interests should drive the relationship.   

That’s good as far as it goes, but it would be a mistake to separate values from interests, or to assume that the idea of shared values is nothing more than rhetoric and should count for little in developing policies to address immediate issues and dangers.  Like the United States, India will have to pursue a foreign policy based on realism that will involve cultivating friendly relations with countries that are both democratic and non-democratic. There’s nothing unusual about that. No one today questions the wisdom of the United States having allied with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II.  Later, during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the United States worked cooperatively with a number authoritarian countries that were called “friendly tyrants.” Many of these countries like South Korea, Chile, and South Africa eventually became democratic, largely because the stability of the liberal world order provided a favorable context for democratic progress, and democracy was widely believed to be the best path to legitimacy and successful development.  

The situation is no different today when the United States and India share a common interest in defending a rules-based international order.  Towards that end, both countries will inevitably seek to build relationships and coalitions that include countries that have different kinds of political systems with varying levels of democracy.  But if they succeed in preserving a rules-based order, they will not only be defending their respective interests but also, in the long run, advancing both their shared values and the progress of democracy.  

The reason for this is quite simple and was contained in Sen’s speech defending democratic universalism.  People all over the world want democracy because it is the only political system that respects their dignity, protects their interests, and allows them to mature as citizens and shape the destiny of their societies.  China is promoting an alternative model of authoritarian development that is guided and controlled from Beijing. In this competition China is investing enormous resources and has demonstrated great determination and strategic focus.  But it is unlikely to prevail because its model represents values that do not have universal appeal. Democracy does have that appeal, and it is actually India’s greatest competitive asset in defending its interests and security. How it uses this advantage in the years ahead will affect its own well-being and profoundly influence the future of democracy.  NED hopes to continue the dialogue with its Indian friends on this vital issue.