One of the most significant problems that India has faced in its foreign policy is the lack of adequate debate about the underlying premises on which it is based. Now, for the first time ever, a group, which includes scholars as well as former officials, has attempted “to identify the basic principles that should guide India’s foreign and strategic policy” in a Report titled Nonalignment 2.0. This, by itself, is an important exercise. While the Report has garnered its share of both praise and criticism, it has also generated a significant debate around the core principles of India’s foreign policy.
The Report provides a Nehruvian/Liberal perspective on foreign policy, which is, by and large, the establishment perspective on foreign policy issues. Thus there are no great departures from what current Indian foreign policy is, though it sets out in somewhat greater detail an intellectual logic for policy. In the interest of continuing this debate, I outline a Realist critique of this perspective and its consequences for policy.
From a Realist perspective, the key problem with a Nehruvian/Liberal approach to foreign policy is that it misunderstands power and ignores the centrality of balance of power politics in interstate relations. This, in turn, leads to questionable analysis and doubtful policy prescriptions.
The misunderstanding of power is evident in the Report from the very beginning. The report declares in Paragraph 2 that “the fundamental source of India’s power in the world is going to be the power of its example”. This suggests that India’s influence is ideational and moral rather than material. The problem is that while ideas matter, it is less important than material power and usually its servant. Morality, “the power of example”, is even more problematic because it is inconsequential in international politics. The see-sawing Indian position in global affairs itself should be a good example: India’s influence went from a high in the 1950s to the lows of the 1960s and resurgence over the last decade. This correlates nicely with power—India was courted and listened to in the 1950s not because of India’s moral power but because it was seen as a potential great power. The 1962 border war exposed the hollowness of India’s potential, dismissing it from the global stakes for the next three decades. If India is back in the limelight today it is not because the world has suddenly recognised India’s righteousness but because its growth trajectory has rekindled its power potential.
This misunderstanding of the sources of power leads to the setting of utopian and self-defeating goals in foreign policy. The Report calls for India to “create a new and alternative universality” rather than succumb “to imperatives of power” (Paragraph 307). It is utopian because what it seeks is nothing less than a fundamental transformation of how states behave in the international realm; it is self-defeating because it feeds India’s long-held tendency of treating foreign policy as a ‘moralist running commentary’ as Shashi Tharoor once accurately characterised it. Such moralism is ineffectual both because it is impossible to live up to and because the moralism of the strong is always—understandably—suspicious. All great powers come up with their versions of morality— ‘the white man’s burden’, ‘mission civilisatrice’, ‘manifest destiny’, ‘the middle kingdom’ and so on—and they even internalise such myths, but that does not make such ideas any less a mask for power.
The misunderstanding of power is evident yet again when the authors argue that though norms often serve to mask raw power (Paragraph 157), norms are also responses to certain ‘moral imperatives’ (Paragraph 158) and these are mediated through formal international institutions as well as informal associations and networks. This is a common Liberal notion: the idea that norms somehow evolve in response to demands and that all that is required for ‘good norms’ to succeed is that we have good ideas. In other words, norm creation is almost a neutral exercise in which ideas battle it out until the best idea wins. Unfortunately, almost all norms in inter-state relations are determined by power. If nuclear non-proliferation or liberal trade have become the norm rather than nuclear disarmament or managed trade, it is not because the former were better norms but because they were backed by greater power than their competitors. Thus, India can develop and promote the ‘best’ possible norms but it will matter little if India does not have the power to promote it.
This does not mean that norms, ideas and morality are unnecessary: India does have to come up with some version of its own moral vision to promote its interests, but this needs to be somewhat credible and practical. Utopianism is easily dismissed because the loftier our rhetoric, the starker the difference between our preaching and our practice. Refusing to recognise this, and misidentifying the real source of India’s power, cannot but lead foreign policymaking astray, just as it did in the 1950s. Seeing foreign policy as a moral crusade for rights rather than as a pragmatic pursuit of interests is a self-defeating habit that we need to discard.
This self-righteousness also leads us to misunderstand how others see us, illustrated by how the Report characterises our neighbours. The Report suggests that our neighbours, unlike the rest of the world, do not recognise our non-threatening nature (Paragraph 20), that India is the ‘Other’ that they use “to secure their sense of self and identity” (Paragraph 45). Such blame-shifting leads to bad policy: we need to recognise that the disparity of power in the region is a source of suspicion and fear and that this cannot entirely be removed. Our problems cannot be resolved by blaming our neighbours for not recognising our greatness; it will only accentuate their insecurities.
The Report indicates that the Indian establishment’s discomfort with balance of power politics remains strong. Playing such power politics requires, most basically, accepting that some powers are more powerful and therefore more important either because they are a greater threat to be guarded against or a greater opportunity to be taken advantage of. Even the structure of the Report indicates that the authors refuse to acknowledge this disparity. Beginning with sections on China, Pakistan and India’s neighbourhood may be understandable, but what is not is that the US does not even merit a separate section, being dismissed in a couple of paragraphs within a section on ‘global engagements’. America’s relative decline is a fact but it still remains the world’s most powerful and influential state and it is not inevitable that it will be replaced. And as long as it maintains its position, dismissing its importance is strategically short-sighted.
In addition, the Report only briefly covers India’s position on probably the most important balance of power issue over the next decade: India’s options in the emerging US-China competition. The assumption appears to be that if a new bipolar order were to be created with the US and China as the two polar powers, India could do what it did in the Cold War—take the middle path and play one off against the other. The fact that India and China are rivals with active border disputes is dismissed. India and the US are better off being friends than allies, we are told. This is a red-herring because no Indian or American strategist or leader has suggested a US-India military alliance.
On the other hand, India and the US have common strategic interests regarding China that could lead to much closer US-India strategic cooperation short of a formal alliance. And there are good examples to base this on—Indo-Soviet ties in the 1970s and 1980s against the US and China, or the Sino-American partnership of the same period against Moscow. Indeed, even the Sino-Pakistan partnership is not a military alliance but serves the strategic interest of both countries in balancing India. These are the models that US-India relations should aim at, not a military alliance. The Report does a disservice by creating a straw man called ‘alliance’ to knock down without seriously considering India’s choices.
In addition to these conceptual problems, many of the policy recommendations are simply unhelpful. One example will suffice: India is advised to ‘adopt a pro-active stance against nuclear proliferation’ but the very next sentence refers to the ‘underlying drivers of insecurity’ that propel states towards nuclear weapons (Paragraph 239), a formulation that could justify nuclear weapons for every state in the world, including all of India’s neighbours. This is hardly the ringing endorsement of non-proliferation that is expected from a country seeking a new relationship with the non-proliferation regime and entry into key institutions such as the Nuclear Supplier’s Group.
Ultimately, this is a Report that fits well within the establishmentarian perspective, reflecting its strength (the dominant consensus) as well as its many weaknesses, only some of which are described above. But the Report has set a framework for debate and that makes it a valuable and necessary effort.