India is arguably the most important swing nation in global politics. It is influential enough to shift the balance of power, and its allegiances are neither obvious nor consistent.

India is both the world’s most populous country and the only country among the top 10 economies that has not clearly chosen a side in what President Biden calls the struggle between democracy and autocracy. On the one hand, India is skeptical of a Western-led world and has helped to finance Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by continuing to buy Russian oil. On the other hand, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, arrived in Washington yesterday trumpeting his nation’s closeness to the U.S.

Modi’s visit, complete with an address to Congress and a state dinner at the White House yesterday, has caused understandable discomfort among some Americans. (Several liberal Democrats refused to attend his speech to Congress.) In addition to working with Putin, Modi is a Hindu nationalist whose party has cracked down on political opponents and inflamed anti-Muslim bigotry. At a White House news conference with Biden yesterday, Modi brushed aside reporters’ questions about these issues.

Were the Biden administration to choose its international friends based only on their commitment to freedom and democracy, Modi’s India would be a strange nation to celebrate with White House pomp. But the reality is that the U.S. can’t have everything that it wants in foreign policy. It faces unavoidable trade-offs.

If the U.S. embraced only those countries with purer democratic records, it would not be able to create a very powerful global alliance. The U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea are not strong enough to dominate the world as they once could. They need allies in the global South and the Middle East. And India isn’t merely the biggest of these countries; it is also among the most democratic, despite Modi’s flirtation with autocratic methods and India’s historical closeness with Russia.

There is an irony to the situation, but it’s one that Biden and other U.S. leaders can’t simply wish away with lofty rhetoric. An alliance made up only of liberal democracies would probably weaken global democracy: It would alienate many countries in Asia and Africa and lead them to establish stronger ties with China and Russia.

“Primly rejecting cooperation with India because its ideology and democracy do not conform to Western ideals would only empower China,” the editors of The Economist recently wrote. “It would also show that America has failed to adapt to the multipolar world that lies ahead.”

Finding the balance between effectiveness and morality in foreign policy is not easy. Modi’s critics are smart to use his Washington visit as an opportunity to highlight his dangerous Hindu supremacy. In the long run, the cause of democracy would benefit from a less xenophobic, less authoritarian India, just as the cause would also benefit from a U.S. where the Republican Party was fully committed to democracy and pluralism.

(The Times editorial board has urged the Biden administration to push Modi on these issues during this week’s meetings. And Maya Jasanoff, a historian, writes in an Opinion essay: “Modi has presided over the nation’s broadest assault on democracy, civil society and minority rights in at least 40 years.”)

However much the U.S. does push Modi, it has never been powerful enough to build an effective global alliance while also insisting that all of its members be American-style democracies. In today’s multipolar world, the U.S. certainly cannot do so. The trade-offs can often be unpleasant, but they are inescapable.

Democracy is much more likely to thrive in the coming decades if India and the U.S. are imperfect allies rather than antagonists.

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