India abstained in the UN General Assembly vote on a Jordanian-led resolution that called for an immediate humanitarian truce in the Israel-Hamas conflict. More recently, the UN Security Council (UNSC) too failed to adopt a Brazil-led draft resolution that would have called for humanitarian pauses in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict to allow full access for aid to the Gaza strip after the US vetoed the text.
The US had then said it was disappointed that the Brazil-led UN resolution had made no mention of Israel’s right to self-defence. The Indian government defended its decision to abstain in a UN General Assembly vote on a resolution calling for a humanitarian truce and ceasefire in Gaza, saying it did not include “explicit condemnation” of the October 7 terror attacks in Israel.
In a recent article, this author explained the normative-existential issues concerning both the limitations of international law, its applications, and the circumscribed (often selective application of) the international justice architecture to deal with concerns tied to an applied understanding of ‘justice’ and ‘sovereignty’.
The US’s own outlook to foreign policy and its pre-defined paradoxical outlook has often been studied under the broader ambit of applied American exceptionalism, which suggest a number of confrontational features in America’s foreign policy outlook.
While discretionary use of American exceptionalism is not to be understood as a “unified body of thought,” it is described along the lines of “an unwavering belief in the uniqueness of the United States and a commitment to a providential mission to transform the rest of the world in the image of the United States.”
In the Indian context, its own version of amoral exceptionalism has no rational, coherent foreign policy explanation. This is also not the first time India has taken such an indifferent stance under the Modi government.
Even during the Russia-Ukraine war, India consistently continued to provide indirect economic support to the Russian economy by buying cheaper crude oil while justifying its economic choices under a strategic non-alignment foreign policy outlook. India’s abstention and silence too came at the expense of taking a ‘moral’ position which would have voiced support for the Ukrainian situation-or helped in restoring peace.
If A’s friend commits murder and A maintains a position of ‘silence’ or gives the friend a free pass, what does it say about A and her/his moral character?
I raised this question then, and we can ask the same now.
If India’s position was to really non-align, a projected ‘Vishwaguru’ that spent crores of PR money during the G20 summit in hailing India as a ‘mother of democracy’ and a ‘voice of peace’ could have utilised each of these situations to play peacemaker and work closely with both countries towards peace. We see no such effort or intent on part of the Modi government. Tokenistic statements or symbolic gestures have little meaning when the state of conflict continues to expand with not only regional but also global ramifications.
Criteria of an exceptionalist foreign policy
The scholars Nicola Nymalm and Johannes Plagemann argue, “An exceptionalist foreign policy (may) consist of five criteria: a mission to “liberate” others in the pursuit of a universal “common good,” a sense of being free from external constraints, the need to have an external enemy in a hostile world of “universal threats,” and perceiving oneself as an innocent victim.”
American exceptionalism has often been equated with unilateralism or even exemptionalism, namely the belief that the United States is not bound by rules and norms governing the “unexceptional rest.” Exemptionalism thus legitimises the transgression of international law, for example through interventions made by the US like the Iraq War in 2003.
Exceptionalist discourse also expresses a peculiar link between a state’s foreign policy and its self-understanding as a unique society or civilisation that is related to some form of higher order revelation or spiritual or otherworldly character.
This link, according to Nymalm and Plagemann, is peculiar because it establishes uniqueness as a foundation for, first, a conviction of moral superiority over virtually every other society, based on which the self-ascribed exceptionalist state pursues an allegedly universal common good in its foreign policy conduct.
Second, exceptionalism based on uniqueness implies the belief in an exceptional state’s disposition as impossible to be replicated by others.
The interplay between ‘uniqueness’ (or particularity) and ‘universality; is what constitutes the paradox of exceptionalism: A unique insight into supposedly universal values and their foreign policy implications is derived from a particular civilizational or spiritual heritage, political history, and/or geographical location.
In the current context, the US’s own reasons for vetoing the Brazil-led UN resolution may find its own justification rooted in voicing support for its ally, Israel, and its right to self-defence.
It speaks of American ― and now Indian ― hypocrisy and the double standards of Washington, which supports one war ― Russia-Ukraine ― and garners alliance support from allies on humanitarian grounds for the Ukrainian cause while splitting its focus wide open in another scenario. That’s the world we are living in.
In a multipolar world, one needs to take a closer look within our own actions, as nations, at the paradoxical and insidious nature of amoral, apathetic ‘exceptionalism’ evident in similar foreign policy interventions, when nations act paradoxically on meeting their own interests and strategic goals at the expense of civilian lives (often labelled as ‘collateral casualties’).
The lives and livelihoods of Palestinians, as Noam Chomsky has argued, have often been less relevant to the cause of the powerful and wealthy nations, than their land, which doesn’t promise any wealth or natural resource endowments, but only allows other nations (like Israel) to brutalise and occupy them without fear of punishment or sanction from their more powerful allies.
From the Indian perspective, this questions our own collective conscience and understanding of justice ― what it means for those who are powerless, and apathetically ignored due to the exceptionalism and presumed moral superiority of a force that builds its moral foreign policy structure around projected values (vishwaguru, mother of democracy, voice of Global South, peace, justice, democracy, and freedom) aligned to its own narrow self-interest.
Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of Economics and director, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University.