Like a monster in a B-grade horror film, India's love affair with non-alignment refuses to die. During the Cold War, socialist India purported to stand aloof of the U.S.-USSR divide, while in fact tilting toward the Soviet Union and against the West. The end of the Cold War should have ended this approach to foreign policy. Unfortunately, it hasn't.
Last month, with Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's trigger-happy troops besieging rebel strongholds, India joined China, Russia, Brazil and Germany in abstaining from the Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone to protect civilians. Two weeks later, New Delhi went along with unanimous sanctions against rogue Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, but not before its ambassador to the United Nations griped about "the tendency to hurry the process of adopting resolutions." And last week in Hainan, China, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh joined other leaders of the so-called BRICS—Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa—in a call for a new global monetary order that would diminish the role of the U.S. dollar.
These positions together signal a pattern that raises a tricky question for India as it reaches for a place at the high table of global affairs. Last year Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy separately endorsed India's long-standing bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. But can the once pro-Soviet nation maintain this relatively new closeness to the West, while retaining a foreign policy stance essentially mistrustful of Western power?
Thus far, a mix of clever diplomacy, smooth public relations and dumb luck has prevented this question from coming to the fore. But emerging India faces a new level of international scrutiny. Mr. Singh's government can stay true to India's non-aligned past and undercut the argument it put forth while lobbying Washington for the 2008 civilian nuclear deal—that the rise of a large, pluralistic, English-speaking democracy in Asia is fundamentally in the West's interest. Or it can discard a shopworn habit of equating independence with reflexive opposition to Washington and London and lay itself open to charges of selling out its Cold War-era nonalignment.
These choices spring from two very different conceptions of India's national interest and America's place in the world. For India's unreconstructed Cold Warriors, the nation's proper role is as permanent high priest in the temple of Third Worldism.
India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the 1955 conference in Bandung, Indonesia that started the Non-Aligned Movement.
In this view, Julian Assange is a modern saint fighting the good fight against the evil Yankee. China's intentions are benign; never mind that little business about disputed borders. Getting Pakistan's generals to end their love affair with jihad is largely a question of mustering enough peace-loving folks with candles at the border. Japan, South Korea and Singapore are to be pitied as Western lackeys. And American gift horses—whether the nuclear deal or intelligence sharing on radical Islamist plots—exist only to be looked in the mouth.
The contrasting view, no longer marginal but less dominant than Indian pundits on the international conference circuit like to suggest, sees Indian interests in more sober terms. By this reckoning, America underpins the stable and open international order that India needs to fulfill its economic potential and carve out a greater role for itself in the world.
China may not be an enemy, but India can hardly afford to be sanguine about the rise on its borders of a powerful one-party ethno-state with a history of trying to resolve disputes by force. Islamist terrorism radiating outward from Pakistan has deep roots and threatens India's quest to remain an open, pluralistic society.
Japan, South Korea and Singapore evoke admiration as sophisticated societies that immeasurably bettered the lives of their own citizens in part by maintaining close ties with the world's foremost power. The English language, close educational links, and successful immigrant populations in the United States and the United Kingdom give India a special affinity toward the Anglosphere.
Until now, India has not really had to choose between these contrasting worldviews, except on a few occasions, like the fraught debate that erupted at home over the U.S.-India nuclear deal. But with power comes both responsibility and scrutiny. Odds are that Libya was only the first of many tough choices India will be called upon to make between now and the expiration of its current term on the Security Council at the end of next year.
Will New Delhi back tougher sanctions, and possible military action, against Iran should the Islamic republic refuse to abandon its rogue nuclear program? Will it publicly stand by Israel, a stalwart friend and close defense partner? Will it prop up the ridiculous BRICS grouping, or see it for what it is, the figment of a Goldman Sachs analyst's imagination that serves as a vehicle for China's anti-American drive for power? Are India's core interests—the eradication of poverty and the maintenance of a multireligious democracy and open society—best pursued in opposition to the West or, despite occasional differences, under the rubric of a liberal international order underwritten by American power?
In the real world, these choices may not always present themselves starkly, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist. Whether America and the West will remain committed to India's rise, or begin to view it in more lukewarm terms, will depend in large part on what choice New Delhi makes.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01
The Wall Street Journal