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India's rebuke of Putin should reduce Washington's fears of a multipolar world

The U.S. should not treat the Global South’s welcoming of multipolarity as anti-Americanism.
Photo diptych: Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi
MSNBC / AFP via Getty Images; AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin's declaration of the partial mobilization of military reservists — a decision he's hesitated to make up to this point — signifies the depth of Russia's military setbacks in Ukraine. But he has also been taking political hits on the international stage.

At the gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last week in Uzbekistan, Putin hoped to show that Washington’s efforts to isolate him have failed. Instead, India subtly rebuked him for continuing the war.

Many in the West hailed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s criticism as a sign of the tide turning against Russia. But India’s criticism shouldn’t be misread: India was not siding with the Western coalition against Russia in its criticism, just like it wasn’t siding with Russia when it refused to join anti-Russia sanctions at the outset of the war.

India’s behavior illustrates how the world is becoming more multipolar.

Instead, India’s behavior illustrates how the world is becoming more multipolar, as other midsize and large nations become more powerful relative to the U.S. Washington fears losing its hegemonic position on the world stage. But India’s rebuke of Putin shows that the U.S. should not treat the Global South’s welcoming of multipolarity as an expression of anti-Americanism. A world where power is more broadly shared will also entail pushback against the United States’ rivals.

“I know that today's era is not of war and we have spoken to you many times on the phone that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue are such things that touch the world,” Modi told Putin last week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. “Today we will get a chance to discuss how we can move forward on the path of peace in the coming days.”

These were not harsh words, but they reflected New Delhi's growing impatience with Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine and its severe local and global implications. Putin appeared to have understood that he could not dismiss Modi’s concerns, telling the Indian leader: “I know your position on the conflict in Ukraine, your concerns that you constantly express. We will do our best to stop this as soon as possible.”

India was not alone in pressing Putin to end the war. President Xi Jinping of China didn’t comment on Ukraine publicly at the summit, but Putin’s own comments revealed Beijing’s growing frustrations. “We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” Putin told Xi at the outset of their meeting. “We understand your questions and concerns in this regard. During today’s meeting, of course, we will explain in detail our position on this issue, although we have spoken about this before.”

Though the Global South has suffered from many of the consequences of the war — from rising fuel prices to food shortages — many non-Western nations like India and China have also taken advantage of the crisis. India has dramatically increased its imports of heavily discounted oil from Russia — from 22,500 barrels per day in April to June 2021 to a stunning 682,200 barrels per day in the same period in 2022. In June of this year, it reached around 950,000 barrels per day. More than half of Russia's seaborne oil exports now go to India and China.

Washington has expressed displeasure with New Delhi's decision to import huge amounts of Russian oil. Yet the U.S. clearly recognizes that pressing India on this point too aggressively will be too costly, because it can’t afford to jeopardize its overall relationship with India, a vital ally for balancing against China’s power in Asia. And while the United States’ charge that India is disregarding the moral implications of its decisions has some validity, the reality is that India is powerful enough now to act as Western powers have acted for centuries: taking advantage of crises in various parts of the world to advance their own political and economic interests. (After all, the U.S. is not selling billions of dollars of weapons to repressive Middle Eastern dictators out of the goodness of its heart or out of concern for regional stability.)

Still, anxiety in Washington about the U.S. losing its hegemonic position is so great that even the word “multipolarity” has increasingly become an ugly term. It is treated as a false invention of America’s foes in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran to counter U.S. policies. In reality, it is to a large part of the world the result of the United States squandering its power through reckless military interventions and misguided foreign policy adventurism.

In this new world where the U.S. no longer is the sole superpower, America must resist its long-standing inclination — from George W. Bush to Donald Trump to Joe Biden — to strong-arm countries by claiming that they are “either with us or against us.” This outdated mindset reflects an unwillingness to understand and accept the reality of multipolarity. (The joint declaration coming out of the Samarkand meeting explicitly mentions the member states’ “commitment to a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order.”) It's a futile effort to turn the clock back to the era when the U.S. was the sole and undisputed superpower of the world. While the U.S. manifestly can’t push around countries as big as India at this point, the mindset of “You’re either with us or against us” continues to define its overall foreign policy.

A multipolar world will provide both threats and opportunities.

Here, India’s soft rebuke of Putin — and note that the Russian president’s comments reveal that China and India have repeatedly pressed Russia to end the war — should bring some nuance to Washington’s understanding of how the world could look without America dominating it militarily. Despite Russia’s aspirations for great power status, it is not a candidate to establish hegemony, given Moscow’s military fiasco in Ukraine. Nor will China be able to dictate the rules of the road because it too will have to face off against the competition in a multipolar world. Other major powers like India and Japan will likely join the U.S. in balancing against any potential Chinese bid for hegemony, just as many states outside of the West appear to be coalescing to balance against any effort by the U.S. to restore unipolarity.

The United States’ agenda to rally the world behind opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should not serve as a cover for trying to reverse the inevitability of multipolarity. Instead of making America more safe, Washington is more likely to pit itself against a swath of countries in the Global South who only seek greater freedom to pursue their own interests rather than becoming pawns in the competition between other powers. Rather than compelling them to side with America, we will push them into the arms of Putin — where they clearly don’t want to be.

A multipolar world will provide both threats and opportunities. The greatest threat, however, will emerge if America seeks to deny or reverse it rather than finding creative ways to adjust to it. Washington may even discover that shared leadership will provide greater security to the American people than the belief that we must dominate others to make ourselves safe.