Myth of Multi-Alignment

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
March 10, 2019


Non-alignment was a suitable strategic doctrine during the Cold War between the United States and the former USSR. It gave India an option to make its foreign policy decisions without coming under the diktat or persuasion of erstwhile Cold Warriors.

India’s positions on international events sometimes appeared to have tilted on the side of the United States and at other times towards the former USSR. However, it needs emphasis that Washington and Moscow also tried to align their public stand on certain issues to appear supportive of ideals of non-alignment championed by the developing countries.

For instance, while the United States often spoke of its anti-colonial traditions, the USSR in principle supported national liberation movements. Both at times faulted in terms of operational aspects of it, but attempts were made to disseminate the optics.

When the Cold War ended and some alliance structures collapsed, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) not only survived but also expanded. In the wake of the birth of a unipolar world order, though short-lived, non-alignment made little sense.Yet champions of non-alignment in India and other countries avoided writing of an obituary of the Non-Aligned Movement. A non-alignment 2.0 report in India was prepared to keep alive NAM and the non-alignment strategy. This report made lots of intellectual sense and perhaps academic merits. But in the world of real politik, non-alignment has little consequence.

The Cold War is dead and the unipolar world order could not be sustained. But the current world order does not have clearly identifiable poles to be christened as a multipolar world order. Some of the well-known polls are facing enormous challenges and appear shaky. President Donald Trump has promised to restore the American primacy in the world. What does it mean? It means the American President is convinced that the US has lost its old primacy. In his effort to re-establish the US global influence, he apparently demolished the ISIS, yet planning to surrender to the Taliban!

Russia lost the power, influence and lustre of the former USSR. It has returned with a bang to play a substantive role in world affairs, yet its reach appears confined to Eurasia. China was fast emerging as a new superpower, but its current standoff with the US combined with its slowing economic growth threatens to delay its arrival as a new superpower. The European Union is struggling with its survival post-Euro Zone crisis, post-Brexit and rise of right wing Euro-sceptics in continental politics. Trump’s loss of faith in NATO has raised many questions, but there seems to be no easy answers. Japan’s economic diplomacy has faded with the upsurge of Chinese aid diplomacy and the country still cannot have an independent security role in international affairs.

The fluid structure of world politics does not permit a multipolar world order. Yet those who argue that the current world order is multipolar in character have suggested that India’s non-alignment foreign policy be replaced by multi-alignment. What is multi-alignment? Alignments with all the identified polls? What are the polls? If there would be fundamental differences among the members of the multipolar power structure, how would this policy explain its position? If the views of all other powerful polls of the multipolar structure are not in keeping with Indian interest, would it be anti-multi-alignment?

Multi-alignment cannot be an explicable concept under the present context of the global order. What India actually needs to evolve is a set of “restricted alliances” and “selective-alignment.” Non-alignment principle was completely against military alliances. Discussion on alliances was literally a taboo in India. Even today, there are strong views in India against alliance formations.

However, times have changed and threats have evolved. Accordingly, India should no longer refrain from an option of forming alliances with compatible countries in 21st century global politics. India should have need-based alliances with a few likemindedmajor powers and the terms and conditions should have well-thought-out boundaries.Alliances need not be with major powers alone. Smaller countries in the immediate and extended neighbourhood can be part of the alliances.

The nature of the global political economy and security scenarios have changed to an extent that make it risky for a country to hold on to conventional oppositions to strategic concepts. This includes the risk involved in the so-called principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. One can always determine different thresholds of use of nuclear weapons, but waiting until an adversary uses the nuclear weapons to retaliate can be perilous.A neighbouring country incubating terrorist groups and brandishing its nuclear weapons at perceived slight provocations make the no-first-use doctrine redundant for India.

Strategic concepts and options must be re-examined by India. As far as strategic decisions on critical foreign policy issues are concerned, India should have a policy of “selective alignment” that should be completely based on issues and specific events. Selective alignment should be dynamic with the changing times and permutations and combinations of the selected partners can keep changing as well.