In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, India was confronted with a vastly transformed international landscape. But, in retrospect, the country was relatively successful in adapting to it. It responded to the collapse of the Soviet Union by rebuilding its relations with the United States. Under the impact of the severe balance of payments crisis, it embraced a strategy of economic reform and liberalisation. The economic shift reinforced the political realignment.
Russia continued to be a key source of defence hardware, but the salience of the relationship declined, particularly as a factor in balancing the perceived challenge of a rising China. It is the United States that assumed that role instead. The adverse US reaction to India's nuclear weapon tests in 1998 was only a temporary setback to a rapidly growing partnership, which culminated in the historic civil nuclear deal of July 2005.
The post-Cold War international environment endured for a quarter of a century, up until the global financial and economic crisis erupted in 2007-08. Until then the virtual monopoly of power enjoyed by the United States led to a relative calm in great power relations. Neither Russia nor China were inclined to confront the United States even if there were perceived transgressions of their interests. The European Union consolidated its political and economic influence and the unification of Germany brought a powerful new influence at the very centre of Europe. On regional issues, such as the conflict in the Balkans, the Afghan War after 9/11, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the world acquiesced in the unilateral assertion of American power. On certain issues such as the Iran nuclear programme and tension on the Korean peninsula, there was even a degree of cooperation among the major powers.
This created the illusion that the end of the Cold War had inaugurated a new phase in history, where there was no sharp ideological conflict among major powers and the logic of capitalist market economics commanded universal acceptance. The norms of global behaviour laid down by the Western democracies were deemed to be uncontested.
From a Western perspective, the probability of major power conflict had diminished and the prospects of cooperation on managing the global commons, and dealing with global and regional challenges had significantly improved. Geopolitics appeared to have receded to the background.
From an Indian perspective, the post-Cold War international order was generally supportive of its economic advancement and conducive to the pursuit of its security interests. With the exception of China, the four other members of the UN Security Council joined hands to enable India to gain legitimacy as a nuclear weapon state and engage fully in civil nuclear commerce. The major powers worked closely together to enable the waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in favour of India. Similarly, all major powers supported India's permanent membership of the Security Council, even though for some it was more rhetorical than real.
In Asia-Pacific, India's rise was welcomed and between 1992 and 2012, India graduated from a sectoral partner to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to a strategic partner. With China, too, India was able to leverage a more diversified relationship with major powers to successfully manage a complex and sometimes adversarial relationship.
In a sense, the decline of geopolitics for the United States and the West helped India deal more effectively with its own geopolitical challenges. Geopolitics has returned and there is renewed contestation among the major powers, and this constricts India's diplomatic space.
The new era of geopolitical competition may be traced to the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-08, from which neither the United States nor Europe have fully recovered - although the United States appears in relatively better shape. The persistence of the crisis has meant that the relatively open and liberal trading environment in the West, which allowed the export-driven economies of China and East Asia to flourish and to emerge as major manufacturing platforms, is now under threat.
In responding to sluggish growth and shrinking markets, both the US and Western economies have been resorting increasingly to protectionist measures, using non-tariff barriers such as imposing environmental or labour standards. For India, which adopted economic reforms and liberalisation comparatively late, these protectionist trends come at a time when there is a renewed effort to establish India as a globally competitive manufacturing hub. "Make in India" will not enjoy an international economic environment as supportive as China did in the post-Cold War period. The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its initiative for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) threaten to create large trading zones with restrictive norms and standards.
India faces the risk of being pushed to the margins of an increasingly fragmented global economy. This may also render the strategic partnership between India and the United States unstable and unbalanced. For a strong partnership, both the economic and security pillars must be strong and mutually beneficial.
It is the perception of a weakened United States and Europe that has led to more assertive behaviour on the part of both major powers like China and Russia as well as regional actors in different parts of the world. The United States has been reluctant to intervene in regional conflicts even as it withdraws its military presence from Afghanistan. A more fractured and somewhat anarchic geopolitical landscape has emerged, confronting India with a more complex and challenging external environment. This is particularly apparent in West Asia, but is also reflected in other regions, including Africa.
The crisis has also led to the independent power and influence of Germany, and this has its own implications for the future of Europe. Some analysts see in the Ukraine crisis a not-too-subtle attempt by the United States and the United Kingdom to rein in Germany and retard its growing engagement with Russia. There is no doubt that the West is divided over how to deal with Russia. Few wish to return to the dangerous tensions of a renewed Cold War.
For India, the Ukraine crisis has introduced a new element of discomfort as it seeks to maintain its residual relationship with Russia, without impacting on its growing partnership with the United States. It is also uncomfortable over the tightening embrace between Russia and China, which works to its disadvantage.
In provoking the crisis over Ukraine, the United States does not appear to have thought through its incompatibility with its pivot to Asia. In the US-China-Russia triangle, it is China which now holds the levers, not the United States as hitherto.
There appears to be an implicit assumption that India can repeat the China story by following the same prescription: of export-driven, investment-led growth in manufacturing with access to external markets, in a generally stable and peaceful international environment. India cannot follow China's economic trajectory. The task of managing India's foreign relations is also more challenging. The context having changed, it is time to revisit these assumptions.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman of RIS and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi