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 the creation of a new trade and technology council to deepen cooperation between the European Union and India.
Why have America’s European allies reacted so differently to India’s stance on Ukraine? This is partly because Europe sees its relationship with India as the United States once did – as a partnership that goes beyond the transactional, in which each partner does not always have to be Okay. This is partly because Brussels has taken over from Washington as the place where consequential decisions affecting countries like India are made. The United States has unquestionably withdrawn into itself under successive presidents. Meanwhile, the EU has taken the lead in establishing regulations for big tech and climate finance, and has developed its own strategy to engage the Indo-Pacific region.
The very different reactions of Europe and India to the invasion of Ukraine have strengthened this dynamic rather than weakened it. Indian leaders see a new solidarity between European countries and a desire to strengthen their ability to project power. As Portuguese Foreign Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho said at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi last week, the invasion “has powerfully stimulated Europe’s need to think and act strategically, which makes the European Union a more interesting partner for India”.
At the same time, given their own dependence on Russia for energy, Europeans have a more nuanced understanding of how mutual dependence can limit national action than the United States. This awareness has encouraged the EU to identify partners it can trust so as not to abuse the international system and their links with Europe.
Not only is India one such country, but it also clearly shares Europe’s deep antipathy to being caught up in a bipolar world defined solely by US-China competition. Europe and India both aspire to ‘strategic autonomy’ – to be freed from the constraints of economic dependence on China, but also able to act without US support or leadership. .
Perhaps most importantly, this is a new Europe. A crisis on its eastern periphery has reminded us that the EU is now as much a Central and Eastern European project as a Western European project.
While Eastern European countries are as determined to choose a side in the invasion of Ukraine as India is to avoid it, they share India’s aversion to the sermons of “the ‘West’. They also speak a language that is easier for Indians to understand and sympathize with – the language of the former colonized, not that of the colonizer. Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s foreign minister, said last week in New Delhi that “the 20th century was a very difficult time for empires, and let’s do everything we can to make the 21st century even more difficult for them.”
Framing matters. When the invasion of Ukraine is presented as a competition between two spheres of influence, India is likely to shrug its shoulders and emphasize its non-aligned status. When the United States describes it as a unilateral violation of sovereignty and international law, those who remember the war in Iraq are not convinced.
But when invasion is viewed – accurately, in my view – as the act of an imperial power imposing its will on a territory and people it previously controlled, then India’s official and public neutrality will begin to weaken. The United States has always struggled to find the right language to speak to India about common values; Europe seems to have discovered it.
India has always seen itself as the leader of the post-colonial world and anti-imperialism has long been at the heart of 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, could heed even more carefully.