Saturday, November 10, 2007

Re-Crossing the Rubicon-III

The third and concluding part in series of articles on "Independent Foreign Policy" published in The Post.

In the preceding sections, we had established the debate on foreign policy vis-à-vis the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was made clear that the context of India’s new paradigm shift in foreign policy toward a more pro-unipolar world is what has raised hassles in the culmination of the nuclear deal. The third edition of the series shall focus on the vision of ‘independent foreign policy’, for the Indian nation.

As such, this vision is only an updated continuation of what Jawaharlal Nehru had envisaged for India after its independence, the policy of ‘non-alignment’. Non-alignment as a term was significant in the bipolar world, and some may question its relevance today. But indeed, as a unipolar hegemon (the US) sets about protecting its interests such as energy security and geo-strategic control of vital regions across the world, non-alignment still has a resonant significance. It is another matter that India abides by non-alignment today only as a symbolic gesture for an avowed policy of the past and there has been a near unbridled thrust toward ‘bandwagoning’ – a term in international relations theory that suggests getting into coalition with a stronger power to realise benefits of such a subordinate relationship.

What would therefore be the alternative? There are two ways to look at them. One way would be to reject the whole concept of recognising the division of the world into powers and work toward a moral imperative, i.e. affirmation toward disarmament, supporting humanitarian positions across the world with respect to conflicts, etc. The other way is to recognise that no amount of unilateral moral imperative can reap dividends in a hard world that dances to the tunes of the logic of power alone. In other words, where the world is organised into units of self-interest, each trying to maximise its benefits (power or security) in an unorderly organisation of power, it is better to mimic such impulses and base foreign policy on a cost-benefit analysis. The latter way would mean that India’s interests as a nation are not rewarding if bandwagoning alone is considered a policy and that there are limits to the same. The former approach would conversely suggest that India’s core capacities as a normative democratic unit can be used for salutary benefits across the world. This writer argues that India’s historical foreign policy was a combination of both these approaches and that this mix should be reaffirmed. This would mean turning back to the paradigm shift made in the late 1990s and updating the historical approach with capabilities acquired lately.

Once we have established the contours, it is not quite difficult to formulate policy within this broad approach. This means that India should be bold enough to articulate its renewed support for progressive movements of self-determination against neo-imperialism. And there must be as much commitment to raising confidence in the neighbourhood and across the world of India’s normative philosophy. Support for the Palestine movement and a peaceful resolution to the conflict in this region must not be confined to verbal statements alone, but broader diplomatic relations with the Palestinian authority has to be established. In the neighbourhood, political differences such as border problems should be given primacy of attention and their resolution must be hastened by both a commitment to give-and-take, as also by privileging economic ties to mitigate these irritants. Thus better cross-border trade with China and intensive border talks are the need of hour, while innovative solutions to the vexed Kashmir problem by involving the people themselves must be contemplated. A hands-off policy on internal issues that are being resolved through various sections of society in countries such as Nepal (where moves are afoot to establish a constitutional republic) while at the same time, positively intervening in areas torn by environmental disasters (the post-Tsunami relief operations in Sri Lanka or the perennial flood-related problems in Bangladesh) through humanitarian aid are other sanguine steps. At the same time, where the nations in the neighbourhood are suffering because of internecine conflict, India must act positively to ensure not only humanitarian relief, but also supporting progressive steps that ensure a democratic environment for addressing grievances at various levels within that nation. For example, in Sri Lanka, India would be better off not to meddle in the ethnic conflict whose resolution must be decided by the ethnic communities involved, yet whenever approached for facilitation of dialogue or peace building, India should not shirk its responsibilities. In essence, a nuanced policy of non-interference, yet progressive assistance must guide India’s policies in the neighbourhood.

Internationally, the emphasis on disarmament must be renewed and this cannot be done by trying to cohabit in the same institutions that create a caste system of differentiation of power such as the UN Security Council (UNSC) or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the unofficial Nuclear Weapons club. On issues that determine immediate ‘national interest’, such as energy security and scouring for energy resources across the world, India would do fine without indulging in debilitating competition, but mutual cooperation. The Chinese-Indian joint cooperation in energy in countries such as Syria and Sudan is one such example. The creation of a pan-Asian energy grid through the ‘peace pipeline’ and cooperative energy sharing based on mutual benefits is another necessary step.

For being able to achieve all the above, India would have to break off the shackles imposed by the binding relationship with the US. India’s neo-liberal model of growth has helped itself become a outsourcing and service providing partner to several American corporates and this closeness of business ties is forcing elites in the country to accept that a strategic bond with the US is a necessity. Unfortunately, India’s vital interests in regions such as West Asia will be drastically undercut because of the strategic bond and India would be well off not trying to reduce its options of energy ties with Iran or moral support to the Palestine cause, both of which are problematic for the US and its chief strategic ally, Israel.

At the same time, the liberal institutions of the US, its universities, its technology laboratories and its new economy companies offer very progressive avenues for India’s ambitions to become a ‘knowledge power’ and therefore, a growing relationship with such institutions should not be discouraged. In essence a line should be drawn between a strategic bond and a mutually cooperative progressive relationship. Too many strategic commentators and obsequious media pundits have not been able to distinguish between a bond and a relationship, which pretty much explains the gung-ho reaction to the nuclear deal despite the strategic caveats in contrast to the near non-enthusiasm to the even more fecund energy tie up through the ‘peace pipeline’.

India can play an even more vital role in humanitarian and civil society building moves across the world. India’s experience in conducting a stable democratic and civic order in its environs can be leveraged in other areas around the world, where such exemplars could be emulated. Recently for example, the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took inputs on local institutions and governance from the experience of Panchayati Raj in the Left-ruled Indian state of West Bengal. The splendid efforts of the Election Commission in India, which has played a yeoman role in ensuring free and fair elections in inhospitable terrains, can be used in countries in Latin America and Africa where democracy has been a hesitant starter because of the underdevelopment of impartial institutions. Innovative policy should govern bilateral relationships with the countries in the Latin American and African regions, without recourse to narrow national interests.

The above is not quite a blueprint, but it establishes in an ad hoc manner, the broad contours of the meaning of ‘independent foreign policy’. It would, however, require to be seen how much the policymakers in India will divorce themselves from being attached to elite interests alone and adhere to the vision that came about after independence.


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