Rarely a month goes by where the liberal international order has not been declared in crises. These declarations have increased in frequency and intensity since the beginning of the Trump administration in 2016; and indeed, with, for example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s expanding and often illiberal influence in international organizations, the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the international landscape is definitely undergoing profound structural shifts. Domestically, rising (Western) nationalism and a general tendency to look inward potentially transforms the international environment in terms of its diminishing capacity for mobilizing cooperation around shared global challenges. Thus, with global cooperation in universal institutions under threat, other forms of partnerships become more important, such as smaller minilateral fora, but also, among others strategic bilateral relations around which flexible coalitions could and probably need to be built. This, I believe, is the realistic scenario within which Indo-German relations will be set for the foreseeable future and why, also from a governmental perspective, they have already received more attention over the past couple of years. It indeed has almost become commonplace that Indo-German relations seem to have taken off in the last two to three years, we could point to the Intergovernmental Consultation that have just recently taken place for the fifth time in New Delhi and build a – at least in theory – strong foundation of state-to-state cooperation. These consultations are comprehensive in terms of the issue-areas covered and the particular actors targeted. There are further about 30 different bilateral consultation and dialog formats in place that should help to build trust and a stability of expectations, for example the German-Indian Symposium on Energy Efficiency and India’s and Germany close cooperation in the G4 where both states cooperate closely with the goal of strengthening the multilateral system and bringing about a reform of the United Nations including an expansion of the UN Security Council. 14 new agreements have been signed on 1 November in Delhi including an agreement about the first India-Germany Consular Dialogue, a regular dialogue between the Defence Ministers of the two countries, but also on many much “softer” issues such as cooperation between the two national football associations. Earlier in 2019, India has joined Germany’s initiative on the Alliance for Multilateralism. Economic relations with India have intensified and the opening of the Indian market has led to a steady increase of German exports and foreign investments, which then established Germany as India’s primary trading partner in Europe and I could go on.
Yet, despite the best intentions of both sides Indo-German and, by extension, Indo-EU relations come to an abrupt halt at the identification of potential rather than the implementation of it. One might even say, that both the relation between Germany and India and relations between the EU as a whole and India are somewhat dysfunctional and unable to move forward. Core documents overtly focus on close economic relations; cooperation in other fields offer little more than a forum for the exchange of ideas and best practices rather than focussing on substance. One of the well-known reasons for this is that India has “flown” under the radar of many German politics and the public alike, despite it becoming an essential geostrategic heavy weight and China has always played a much more important role. What is mostly amiss is a continuous strategic interaction at various levels, states, civil society, parliamentarians. While it is, for instance, laudable that the German Bundestag has just a few days before the Intergovernmental Consultations of 2019 supported with a vast majority the motion to strengthen Indo-German relations, these kinds of activities seem to peek around this particular type of occasion and forgotten most of the rest of the year. This is puzzling and dissatisfying for many reasons, one among them, is that two states share democratic traditions, a joint desire for a rule-based multilateral order, shared interests on important issues such as climate change and cybersecurity and thus – in the words of the Indo-German Agenda for the 21st century established by the two governments in the year 2000 –should be “natural partners”.
Why is this? Where are the roadblocks between two partners that both seem ready and committed? When we look – albeit superficially – at the conventional explanations that the relevant scholarly discipline, International Relations, offers for the presence of absence of cooperation, we do not find much that is very convincing in terms of explaining the peculiar state of Indo-German relations. Both states would seem to gain from cooperation across issue-areas both in absolute, but also in relative terms (in particular in relation to China). They are both democracies (though increasingly of different types and scopes). And, as said above, both have across a wide array of issues similar interest and shared values. So I argue here that, maybe we need to point at something else, for which we, as scholars, also might be to blame at least in parts.
When scholars look at Indo-German (which they rarely do in the first place!), they often almost by reflex resort to some stereotypical tropes that, I think, no longer fit the complex reality of international relations in which we find ourselves. This refers both to the characterization of each of the partners, but also to the issues and policy fields on which we mostly focus. Let me start with the latter: Research on Indo-German relations almost exclusively analyses and makes suggestions regarding cooperation on renewable energy. Research is often framed in terms of the internationalization of the German “Energiewende” and, in doing so, relies on the stereotype of Germany as an economically dominant civilian power that actively promotes international cooperation, promotes international institutions and pursues a nebulously defined global public good, in this case, the expansion of clean energy. When we look at the reality of German foreign policy however, this is no longer necessarily helpful in thinking about the Indo-German relationship. Hanns Maull who is among those who has coined the idea of Germany as a civilian power in the first place, argues that Germany, in the past few years, has rather slipped into a kind of “autistic” or “domesticized” foreign policy with a more inward-looking trajectory. Others diagnosed, for instance, that there is no vision of any well-defined German foreign policy within a transatlantic community that is increasingly drifting apart. This commentary will necessarily not go into much detail, but one of the indicators that Maull offers is that the that budget and other resources allocated to foreign policy are nowhere in sync with Germany’s growing European and global roles. Germany is, in this sense, a sleepwalking giant, and there are rising concerns about its lack of vision and strategy behind its foreign policy; not something that would be necessarily aligned with a typical civilian power. The neglect of the German armed forces is only but one example. So, while Germany has been pushed into a central role in European and global affairs, it continues to lack ambition and fails to put sufficient energy behind new initiatives, and it seems as if bilateral relations with India have also fallen victim to this phenomenon, idling at the level of the “low hanging fruits” of diplomacy.
When it comes to India, at least from a German perspective, there a significant tendency of thinking in stereotypical terms and I feel we (and by ‘we’ I mean the German public and politicians) alike so far have failed to adapt our view on India to 21st century realities. While India, during the Cold War, argued for its non-alignment as a policy to maximize flexibility and strategic autonomy, non-alignment often is cited as one of the reasons that India had previously acted very cautiously in global affairs and passed on a lot of diplomatic opportunities to be perceived as nay-sayer. Yet, changes in the international system and India’s rise within it have changed India and its outlook on the world. It has shown increased willingness to play important regional and global roles, and one could even argue that India’s lack of inherited alliances, for instances with the US, is an advantage, for instance, in comparison to states such as Australia, but also Germany, for whom the increasingly erratic behaviour of its “old friend” under Trump is a much more difficult phenomenon to deal with than for India. India thus shares with Germany the expansion of its regional and global political roles, yet, has been much more eager to actually take on a bigger role in international relations. This acknowledgement needs to replace the perspective of India as lacking strategy and vision (if this has even been true).
So what do these changes mean for the Indo-German relationship and what developments should and would we like to foresee?
We need to develop reasonable expectations and not expect too much too soon. While it is important that, for instance, Prime Minister Modi and Chancellor Merkel have met five times in the past year, the more important numerical comparison is that this is Merkel’s visit on occasion of the recent Intergovernmental Consultation was her fourth in India while she has been 13 times in China. While India is of eight states with which Germany has a strategic partnership, it seems that Germany, but also the EU as a key partner in fields of exclusive EU competencies such as trade and aspects of global environmental politics, have been slow to recognize the political importance of India within Asian and global affairs. This has marginalized European actors as political actors in Asia, which is something that should be turned around as soon as possible, not only in action but also in thinking and researching.
We also need to avoid the routinization of the relationship and clearly need to go much more comprehensively beyond an economic, one-way relationship in which India is mainly seen as destiny for German know-how and technical capacity-building. In an increasingly complex world, where contradictions and conflicts between issue-areas and actors are a given (what I mean by this is visible in climate change politics where the achievement of environmental goals is frequently pitched against job losses in some of the traditional industries), we need to identify intersections for cooperation. I understand intersections as those areas in which both actors are willing and able to contribute, for instance, to global public good provision.Intersections are zones of agreement, in which actors share interests and values but still continue to be able to pursue their own interests without becoming the footsoldier for the other partner. Focusing on intersections for cooperation avoids blame games in which expectations about who is supposed to contribute what are not matched. Partners should not be utilized in the pursuit of each other’s goals, which appears to be one of the main issues in US-India relations, for instance, when it comes to interactions with China.
Areas in which these intersections can lie are manifold, the most obvious ones lie within areas of climate change and energy. But there are other issues, such as governance of plastic broadly said, talks about cooperating with or on China. While many US officials and experts now argue in favour of restricting contact with China in research, science and technology, and other sectors, Germany does not view China through a military lens, and the majority view is to recognise the necessity of interdependence and to continue to engage with it across the board – albeit with eyes wide open. I think this largely corresponds to India’s view. This focus on the identification of intersections for cooperation does not mean that we need to uncritically accept all arguments by each other. This may sometime make the negotiation process more difficult, but will allow for more sustainable cooperation with less misunderstanding and more trust in the long run.
Finally, bilateral relations are not enough and we should workwith India to build broader coalitions around joint issues of core concern. New minilateral, informal and ad hoc arrangements are increasingly replacing universal, formal, legally binding commitments, which grant heightening flexibility and enable new constellations of like-minded actors on the one hand, but, on the other hand, also result in an increased fragmentation of the global order and instability of cooperation. This demands a lot of political leadership, and a leading duo from Europe and Asia, from industrialized to industrializing country, from Global South and Global North might be a team that could be easy to follow.
As said, above, however, these suggestions will be difficult to achieve, especially when it is difficult to even explain the faultiness of bilateral relations in the first place, especially with the tools of International Relations and/or Political Science, as both disciplines offer currently very little of promise in terms of its analysis of Indo-German relations. Watching Indo-German relations for a long time, I am more and more convinced that the two partners seem to be in a dysfunctional relationship, in which both really would like to improve their bond but somehow are unable to do so, something that is hard to grasp with, for instance, the concepts of absolute or relative gains. So I asked myself: what would one generally prescribe for improvinga dysfunctional relationship? Would we be talking about human beings, we would probably suggest couple’s therapy. And, with pinch of humour, I present in the following and to conclude a selection of top tips by therapists researchable in the internet, which, with some creativity albeit, mostly appear to be very promising for Indo-German relations:
There are, as always, notable exceptions to this general trend, but these are mostly limited to a few individual researchers at specialized research institutes hat have provided the majority of available, broader analyses of the subject, including Christian Wagner and colleagues from the Stiftung Wissenschaft and Politik on the German side, for example.
 E.g. Hanns Maull. “Germany and Japan: The New Civilian Powers”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 69, no. 5 (1990), pp. 91-106.
 Hanns Maull. “Reflective, Hegemonic, Geo-economic, Civilian …? The Puzzle of German Power”, German Politics, vol. 27, no. 4 (2018), pp. 460-478.
 Bernd Ulrich. “Bevor da was verdirbt“, Die Zeit, 7. November 2019, p. 7.
 Maull, op.cit.
 Amrita Narlikar. “Peculiar Chauvinism or Strategic Calculation? Explaining the Negotiation Strategy of a Rising India”, International Affairs, vol. 82, no. 1 (2006), pp. 59-76.
Amrita Narlikar and Johannes Plagemann. “Making the Most of Germany’s Strategic Partnerships: A Five-Point Proposal“, GIGA Focus Global, No. 6 (2016), GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg.