India, Israel, and America’s Double Standard

India is hailed as the world’s biggest democracy, and Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. Yet both are led by authoritarian rulers who are far more interested in crushing opponents than in promoting democracy.

This reality should be sobering for US presidents who, whether Democrats or Republicans, have consistently given both countries full support: India, as a bulwark against China, and Israel, as a deterrent against Iran. But the challenge comes when democracy is receding in India and Israel, and human rights are under attack. The US has failed to meet the challenge, instead finding ways to justify what cannot be justified.

Speaking of aid to Israel recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was classically disingenuous: “As we’re looking at human rights and the condition of human rights around the world, we apply the same standard to everyone. That doesn’t change whether the country in question is an adversary or competitor, a friend or an ally.” He also said we can count on Israel to investigate its own violations: “This is what separates democracies from other countries — the ability, the willingness, the determination to look at themselves,” he said.

To state the obvious: First, the US doesn’t apply the same standard to everyone, and second, Israel (and India and many others as well) doesn’t investigate its violations of human rights. If Blinken were honest—which might not be possible in his job—he would acknowledge the longstanding US double standard when it comes to repression of human rights and other liberties in other countries.

No mystery here: The US condemns repression in countries with which it has an adversarial relationship, such as China, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba. And it ignores repression in friendly countries such as India and Israel which have value in the conduct of US foreign policy. When governments change from adversary to friend, the US lifts its concerns about their behavior—for example, when the Philippines leadership went from Roderigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs and friendliness to China to Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s reaffirmation of the alliance with the US. And when governments do the opposite, moving from friendly to unfriendly, the US suddenly becomes very critical of their repressive politics, as has happened with Turkey, Chile, and Vietnam among others.

Moreover, the notion that friendly democracies such as India and Israel have self-regulating mechanisms to correct violations of human rights and democratic politics is rather laughable. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India is doing the reverse: His intelligence service has assassinated two Sikh activists in the US and Canada; in upcoming elections, he expects to maintain if not widen the huge lead his Hindu nationalist party has in parliament; and he’s doubling down on repression of Muslims.

Modi faces a disorganized opposition, partly his doing. As the New York Times reports: “Mr. Modi has been relentless in trying to split the [opposing] coalition, luring some members with incentives and bogging down others with investigations and jail sentences.” Likewise in Israel, let’s recall the so-called judicial reform that Benjamin Netanyahu and the far right were pushing before the Hamas attack—a reform that would have emasculated judicial independence and created a true crisis of democracy.

That matter, as well as Netanyahu’s personal corruption, remains to be settled—a situation that he is trying to delay by embracing war over negotiations. He and his far-right cabinet show no respect for the human rights of Palestinians, instead rejecting any plan that might offer people in the occupied territories hope for reconstruction and a country of their own.

It should come as no surprise that a “bromance” has developed between Modi and Netanyahu since last October. “India no longer keeps its friendship with Israel out of view and instead trumpets Israeli-style aspirations for muscular foreign and security policies,” the Washington Post reports. Muscular indeed.

So let’s not talk about how democracies regulate themselves. Instead, we need to talk about what, if anything, the US government might do when faced with a choice between supporting an illiberal partner and being faithful to democracy and human rights.

Doing the right thing has to mean a lot more than hoping one’s friend will reform. The US provides all kinds of important assistance to Israel and India—billions of dollars in direct military and economic aid, military intelligence sharing, extensive trade and commercial relationships, and political support in international forums (such as not aligning with those countries now charging Israel with genocide in Gaza).

Any one of these supports can become leverage if an administration chooses to use it. The horrific situation in Gaza clearly poses the challenge immediately; it has galvanized increasing numbers of Congress members to consider limiting or withholding military aid to Israel.

Yet President Biden and Congress just keep supplying Israel with weapons unconditionally, not only contributing to continuation of the war and undercutting negotiations for a cease-fire, but also failing to adhere to US and international humanitarian law governing deployment of weapons against civilian populations. Thus, instead of seeing democratic Israel correct its violations of human rights, as Secretary Blinken would have it, it’s another democracy, the US, that is complicit in the violations.

No self-correction here, just following tradition.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.