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Tenets of Indian Foreign Policy and Indo-US Partnership

Mehmet Ozkan is Visiting International Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 22, 2010

    For quite sometime now, there have been ongoing Indo-US strategic partnership meetings between Indian and American diplomats and academics. With neither side having a clear strategy or a blueprint about the future of the relations, these talks seem to be going nowhere. What is interesting is not only the lack of strategic perspectives on both sides, but also the timing of this effort.

    In retrospect, Indian foreign policy preferences always seem to be going in contradiction to the way that the world goes. It is quite interesting that it consistently follows a very clear line in that path. During the 1950s and 1960s when countries across the world were taking sides to exert their influence through alliances, India, along with some others, devised and led the non-alignment movement which, in essence, was not more than a withdrawal from global politics. When the world was in a period of so-called `cold peace` in the Cold-War era, India waged wars with its neighbours China and Pakistan. When the world was talking about controlling nuclear arms, India conducted nuclear tests which opened the way for it to become a nuclear weapon power.

    This trend has continued subsequently as well. In the early 1990s when the world had no idea about the coming world order and tried to participate in discussions, India kept a quite low profile in international politics. However, India’s response came in the early 2000s in a surprising and strong way by establishing a tri-lateral grouping with Brazil and South Africa - the IBSA. This came about when almost all countries were supportive of the US and the West in their endeavour to battle against terrorism rather than focusing on systemic change, while the IBSA hoped and worked for some structural changes in global system. At a time when security is seen as a principal issue, it is highly unlikely that any global power would give up its privileges and make some structural changes in the system. The best illustration of this was the rebuff of the UN Security Council enlargement attempts in 2005.

    Interestingly enough, in the last few years almost all American allies are trying to distance themselves from the US and formulate independent foreign policies. This includes especially Germany in Europe, Brazil in Latin America, Turkey in the Middle East, South Africa in Africa, and even Pakistan. However, in spite of all these systemic changes across the world, India is trying to be much closer to the US than ever. What is wrong with India? If foreign policy is based on power policy calculations and rational choice, one expects that India will follow international changes and adapt itself to the newly emerging situation. Today, there is no doubt that the US needs India more than India needs the US. But what we see is a contrary trend to the expectations from India. Why is that so?

    This can be explained in two ways. One is the much-discussed but less understood lack of Indian strategic framework in foreign affairs. It has its origins in the Indian psyche, which has an embedded characteristic of letting others live while India is being let to live with its own. This culturally and religiously shaped historical legacy of India indicates that India has never deeply thought about dealing with others, especially those who are located beyond its immediate region. Indian thinking has a very strong regional character, again, this comes from the philosophy of Hinduism, self-righteousness and poor self esteem due to the colonial imprint. That partially may explain why India does not have a code for engagement with the US. What is happening today is that both international developments and India’s entry into the global economic club are forcing it to tackle with its own psyche to change or at least to adjust it. Seen from this perspective, Indo-US talks will be for quite sometime not more than a case-based partnership ranging from terrorism to nuclear issues. Therefore, it is difficult to name them as part of a foreign policy framework but at best may be called as damage-control policies to deal with current developments.

    Second is the widespread dominance of a highly calculative and disciplined thinking in the mindsets of Indian policy makers and academics. They tend to take fewer risks in their endeavour to integrate with the world. As the Indian economy and its international standing grow, India is keen on not upsetting anyone especially the rule-makers. One may expect that the more India grows the more effective and demanding would it become. It is not more than an analysis based on western power politics terminologies, rather than representing the realities on the ground. Though, it is not surprising that such a discourse has been especially used more frequently by the rule-makers to satisfy Indian pride at home, while wishing India to keep a low profile abroad.

    In short, the ongoing Indo-US partnership talks are interesting considering the international systemic developments, and seen from the outside is an odd development happening at the heart of rising powers in global politics. Nevertheless, it is closely followed by others with interest and curiosity, while teaching them again that India is both too easy and too complicated to understand at first sight.