‘The Cold War’s Long Shadow’

CASI visiting fellow Swagato Ganguly discusses Indian foreign policy and Indo-Pacific geopolitics

Map of the Info-Pacific region, including India, China, and Japan in the north, down to Australia and New Zealand in the south
India is an important partner in creating a liberal order, Ganguly said. “It is the only country in the world whose human resources can match China’s. It is committed to a rules-based international order. It has the world’s sixth largest economy with room to grow much further. It can help with diversification and building resilient global supply chains.”

Swagato Ganguly came to Penn in the 1990s to pursue a doctorate in comparative literature. More than 20 years later, following an extensive career in journalism, Ganguly is back, this time a visiting fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in India (CASI).

Comparative literature prepared him for a career in politics, Ganguly says, as the field incorporates politics, cultural studies, and philosophy. “It was extremely interdisciplinary,” he says. “Philosophy is a kind of master discipline, if you will; it opens up most other disciplines.”

While on a fellowship in India for his dissertation research, Ganguly began submitting articles on politics and international affairs to Indian newspapers. After completing his Ph.D. in 1998, Ganguly worked as a journalist, writing for the editorial pages and ultimately serving as editorial page editor of The Times of India from 2009 to 2021.

At CASI, Ganguly is working on longform articles and researching his next book. As part of his fellowship, Ganguly also gave an talk via Zoom on “The Cold War’s Long Shadow: Indian Foreign Policy and the Current State of Play of Indo-Pacific Geopolitics.”

In the talk, Ganguly charted the evolution of India foreign policy beginning with Indian independence in 1947 and defined as three periods. For each, he gave a broad outline of geopolitical context and India’s interest.

The first he marked as the Cold War, ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. From an Indian perspective, this was the period of decolonization and the consolidation of post-colonial states on the world scene, Ganguly said.

The second phase, he said, was the era of globalization and, for India, an era of economic reform that opened up the Indian economy after 1991.

The third phase he described as “a post-post Cold War era.” This includes populist backlash against globalization combined with rising Chinese and Russian assertion, Ganguly said. “Geopolitics is back. This phase poses grave challenges, not just for the rules-based international order, but also, in my argument, for Indian foreign policy itself.”

The Cold War, Ganguly said, was not won by the West, nor was it a straightforward battle between titans. While it may have been a contest for power between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, the Cold War was played out on a global stage. If anyone won this contest, it was arguably China, he said

The assumption that the West won the Cold War “reveals a sort of Eurocentric perspective, as it privileges what happened in Berlin in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, over near simultaneous events in Beijing, when students and others calling for democracy were massacred in Tiananmen Square,” Ganguly said.

Post-cold war, India’s strategy was nonalignment, he said. Meanwhile, the country had to solicit a bailout from the International Monetary Fund to address “a serious balance of payments crisis.” Consequently, India launched reforms, which opened India’s economy while improving trade and relations with the United States, as well as with Japan and other east Asian powers.

In 1998, India conducted nuclear tests, which boosted the country’s national security status. “If India had joined the nonproliferation treaty and forsworn nuclear weapons, as Ukraine did in 1994, India would’ve been quite defenseless” in the event of a Chinese or joint Chinese/Pakistani invasion.

During this period, India also saw rapid economic growth and poverty reduction, Ganguly noted. “According to UN statistics, if 49.4% of Indians were living below the poverty line in 1994; that dropped exactly half to 24.7% by 2011.

“One could argue that India actually did well out of the West-led liberal order that marked the globalized era” after 1991, he said. The policy of nonalignment became multi-alignment, “in which India retained the flexibility to have good relations with everybody. All of this can be glossed as India wanting to preserve its independence and freedom of action and to have more of a say in global affairs.”

This brought the audience to the present day. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine “may have come as a shock to many,” Ganguly said, “in some ways it represents a crystallization of trends that have been under way for quite some time since the 2008 financial crash, or perhaps even before.”

Ganguly quoted former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said in a Washington Post op-ed that “America has taken a 30-year holiday from history.” After the Cold War, the West was tempted to assume that the liberal order would uphold itself and no further safeguards were needed, Ganguly said. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has woken America from that holiday from history, he said.

During America’s “holiday from history,” political rights and civil liberties declined and the economic management of liberal democracies has led to a populist backlash against technocratic and financial elites, Ganguly said.“And while that wave of populist nationalism may have had some accurate hunches about flaws in the global liberal order, the solutions proposed are way too simplistic, sometimes tantamount to witch hunts, and they have the effect of short-circuiting democratic rights, political accountability, checks and balances supposed to be inherent in the liberal order,” he said.

The liberal order has been “superseded by an illiberal order in the 21st century.” It’s time to consider how India, the U.S., and others can jointly “tackle the challenges which have been crystallizing for a while for one or two decades.”

In a world that has become increasingly worried about China overreaching, India is an important partner, Ganguly said. “It is the only country in the world whose human resources can match China’s. It is committed to a rules-based international order. It has the world’s sixth largest economy with room to grow much further. It can help with diversification and building resilient global supply chains.”

So what does India want? Better trade terms, more defense, and technology, Ganguly said. “If we are going to construct a global liberal order—that is, better than the way it was before—a strong partnership between India and the West would promote that kind of thing.”

An understanding between India and the West would shore up the rules-based international order, Ganguly said, creating favorable conditions for India’s rise.