Video Interview with Writer Tunku Varadarajan: Challenges to the American-led World Order; India and Its Relations with America and Israel

by March 2024

Read the full transcript below. 

Ksenia Svetlova: Some people see a decline in American power. Are we going through a more chaotic period where there are no rules anymore?

Challenges to the American-led World Order

Tunku Varadarajan: I think that it’s not fair to say you don’t have rules anymore. What is fair to say is that you have countries like China and Russia, China particularly, which are pressing hard to change the rules in the world. They have not yet succeeded in changing those rules. We still have Pax Americana. We still have a world order in which America is the guardian, in which American guardianship is definitive.

You are quite right to say that America has for the first time since the end of the Cold War real competition in the form of China, for the numero uno position in the world. But China is far away from displacing the United States, militarily and economically, as well as offering the rest of the world an alternative attractive ideology. The United States isn’t just a superpower because it’s rich and strong. It’s a superpower because almost everyone in almost every country in the world wants to come and live here. The United States offers a vision of life and a vision of politics and democracy that the rest of the world sees as a paradigm. China does not offer that.

Ksenia Svetlova: And yet there are other countries including American allies who join BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa].


Yes. Countries are always looking for ways to get themselves into the light, to get themselves onto a bigger and better stage.

Let’s look at BRICS for a minute. You have Brazil, which is a complete non-entity on the stage of international relations. Not even in South America is Brazil influential. You have Russia, which is not an example to anyone in the world. It’s waging war on the sovereignty of a neighboring country, whose right to exist it denies. You have China, which denies its own citizens freedom.

Before we start talking about China’s support for the Muslims in Gaza, let’s think about China’s lack of support, in fact China’s oppression, of the Muslims it has in its own territory in Xinjiang or East Turkistan, as I prefer to call it.

Then you have South Africa, which marched Israel off to the ICJ [International Court of Justice] on accusations of genocide, a few days after you had a genocidal attack on Israel by the very people that South Africa says Israel is trying to wipe off the face of the earth.

The one country I haven’t mentioned yet in BRICS is India, the “I” in the middle of that terrible acronym. India doesn’t belong there, and I’ve always said that India needs to get out of BRICS. The faster it gets out of BRICS the better. Maybe BRICS should include Indonesia to keep the acronym going. India has no business being there. If BRICS is a counterforce to resist American power in the world, it doesn’t suit India because India and the United States have never had better relations than they do now. And India has never needed the United States more than it does now in order to counter China, which has designs on Indian territory, and in fact has taken by force several thousand square kilometers of Indian territory.

Q: Why are they there?

I don’t think India takes BRICS terribly seriously. I think it’s there in BRICS because why turn down an invitation to join a group of other countries.

India-US Relations

India has recently been somewhat ambivalent about America. Let’s not pretend that India has always been an American ally. The Indian relationship with America was always a troubled one until about the mid-’90s, when the Indian economy started to open up and liberalize and India decided that it was going to be a full-blown capitalist country as opposed to a quasi or full-blown socialist country. That’s also about the time when the Soviet Union collapsed and the non-aligned movement got washed away in that flood of change. So India began to redefine itself.

But at the same time, you have in the Indian foreign policy establishment and the Indian political establishment a lot of people who still have nostalgic memories of the Cold War and anti-Americanism and pro-Sovietism. So for them, a group like BRICS is a nice way of confirming that India is not in America’s back pocket. It provides them with an alibi for [foreign policy] independence, however hokey or spurious it may be.

India-Israel Relations

Not only does India not belong there [in BRICS] because it’s increasingly pro-American, India doesn’t belong there if the BRICS grouping is going to be anti-Israeli. One of the most refreshing things in the last 20 years on the global stage has been India’s relationship with Israel, India’s alliance with Israel, I would go so far as to say.

A lot of credit has been given to Mr. Modi, who is the current Prime Minister. But let’s not forget that the warming of relations between India and Israel predates Mr. Modi by several prime ministers.

And I think to Israel goes the satisfaction of having flipped a major country. It’s not like Israel’s relations with Nauru or Honduras or Costa Rica, or one of those lovely countries. I’m glad they support Israel. But getting support from Honduras isn’t the same thing as getting support from India.

You have a country of 1.3 billion people with India’s massive economy, India’s massive armed forces, and India’s increasing heft in the world, and India’s increasing desire to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which I think will be fulfilled one day, especially as it’s now the world’s most populous country. Israel will then have an ally among the P-6, which is what it will become, or perhaps P-7, and it will have acquired a country that will be an ally, a country that’s favorable to Israel.

We’ve seen India’s attitude to Israel during the whole post-October 7 Gaza war where previously there would have been unadulterated condemnation of Israel coming from New Delhi. You’ve had quite the opposite.

The problem you have in India is that the Indian left is still hostile to Israel. India has a very large Muslim population, about 12 or 13 percent of the population. And their leaders parrot the line that is commonplace in the Ummah [the Muslim world community] which is that Israel is oppressing Muslims and needs to be resisted, a line that is never uttered with regard to China and the Uyghurs, by the way, or about pretty much any other Muslim population that is slaughtered anywhere in the world except the Palestinians. So there we are.

Ksenia Svetlova: Can you say a few words about India’s interests in the Middle East. Israelis became more aware of India’s role after the US announced a deal for the transport corridor [India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor].

Tunku Varadarajan: India has a delicate dance. It’s energy dependent. It depends on imports for its energy. It gets its energy from Saudi Arabia. It gets it from the Gulf states. It also gets it from Russia. India is not energy independent. India also has vast numbers of expatriate workers in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, the Gulf states who sent home billions of dollars in remittances. Indian oversees labor sends home the largest chunk of remittances of any country in the world. So India has to be careful in its warming of relations with Israel not to put in peril both its sources of energy and its sources of remittance. It has to make sure that the countries in which these millions of its citizens live and work aren’t suddenly hostile to these workers.

But of course, what is in India’s favor is that these countries are themselves adopting a more pragmatic and practical attitude to Israel. They don’t see India’s warming of relations with Israel to be the sort of betrayal of Indo-Arab solidarity that they might have seen it, say, 20 years ago.

We’re in a stage of a great deal of pragmatism with regard to Israel. Some countries like India have embraced the relationship openly. Other countries like Saudi Arabia have embraced it in a slightly surreptitious way. Then you have the countries in between. The Abraham Accords have opened diplomatic relations with Israel, formal accords, and they’re offering a kind of template to other Arab states and other Muslim states to really concretize relations with the only democracy in the Middle East.

Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova is the Executive Director of ROPES (The Regional Organization for Peace, Economics & Security) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is a former member of the Knesset.
Read the
print issue
Get the latest from JST
How often would you like to hear from us?
Thank you! Your request was successfully submitted.