I feel honoured at being asked to speak today to such a distinguished audience on a subject that is of great interest to foreign policy practitioners and commentators alike. What are the challenges that Indian foreign policy faces in the future?
Let me make a few preliminary observations.
Indian foreign policy already faces many challenges. These challenges have not been met and will continue to confront us in the future. An understanding of what they are will help to devise future approaches. We must therefore identify what the existing challenges are.
The international scene has changed a great deal in the last two decades or so. India has needed to adjust its foreign policy accordingly.
There is a caveat. “Future” covers an indefinite time span. Are we looking at the near future, mid-term future or the long term perspective? Many exercises of identifying issues and challenges in the 20 and 30-year horizons are being done by governments and non-governmental institutions. They are useful in indicating trends. But it is impossible to predict the unpredictable.
No one could predict the collapse of the Soviet Union when it occurred though many wished for it.
The rapidity of China’s rise at the pace at which it has occurred and its impact on global affairs was not predicted with assurance.
The nature and timing of the financial crisis that has afflicted the US and its impact on its international role was not predicted by observers either, though many were warning that the US was living beyond its means.
So soon after the collapse of one superpower, the Soviet Union, we are talking about the decline of another, United States.
Many alarm bells are being rung that Chinese policies are unsustainable and that China is heading for a crisis. Many may wish that to happen so that muscle-flexing China is cut down to size and its neighbours feel more comfortable. But no one can predict with certainty what lies ahead.
The element of innovation and technology that can change global scenarios is unpredictable too. There is a line of thinking that many of the future challenges that are linked to energy and food security, for instance, could be met with technological breakthroughs. Even the success of nations in meeting a variety of challenges will be measured, it is believed, by their technological innovativeness.
Improved relations with US has given India more room for manoeuvre regionally and internationally.
The nature of conflicts may change with technological innovation, especially in cyberspace.
With all these caveats and uncertainties let me delve into the subject of this talk.
A big challenge for India is to maintain coherence and balance in its foreign policy. It is axiomatic that protecting and advancing the country’s national interest is the goal of foreign policy. This is all right as an enunciation of a general principle; the problem lies in the practical implementation of such principles.
Defining national interest is not as easy as it might seem. National polls are not conducted to define a country’s national interest. A broad consensus can be built over years on the essential parameters of such interest. But situations change and judgments have to be made. Often wrong and highly controversial ones are made. Vietnam, Iraq and unleashing Islamic fundamentalism against the Soviets are examples in the American case. India made an error of judgment, for instance, at Simla in 1972.
In reality, countries do not always act in their national interest. It is no country’s interest, for example, to have difficult relations with neighbours, but many countries do, either because they want to dominate them or are insensitive to their concerns. Smaller countries too overplay their hand and provoke their bigger and stronger neighbours.
The enlightened interest of any country is undermined by tensions and conflict. Yet, many countries willfully pursue policies that threaten peace.
If pride makes individuals obstinate and unwilling to compromise, nations too suffer from the “loss of face” syndrome.
India’s economic growth is changing its global profile, our economic ties with Russia have relatively shrunk.
Is the form of government relevant in properly defining what would be best in a country’s national interest? In other words, do democratic systems with public debate on policies enable leaders to form a better view of national interest, rather than dictatorial or authoritative systems where policy formulation is personalized and can be whimsical?
But we see that even the most democratic countries make huge mistakes in foreign policy choices and impose costs on themselves and others.
There is the issue of national power and national interest. A powerful country will expand the scope of its national interest in tune with its ambitions and the reach of its power. A weaker country will interpret its national interest more narrowly so as to avoid unnecessary problems.
Globalization and interdependence has also changed notions of national interest because countries know they do not have a free hand and have to give and take much more than before.
In some cases, like the European Union, national interest has been submerged in many ways within a larger community interest. Even sovereignty has been pooled in some key areas.
National interest is a fluid and uncertain concept. A big challenge for India is therefore to be able to define its national interest with discernment, realism, objectivity and foresight.
This is not easy as the backdrop against which analysis and choices are made keeps changing. A broad national consensus on what constitutes national interest is important.
I had earlier spoken of coherence and balance in foreign policy as a continuing challenge.
India’s growing economy are such that we cannot avoid doing business even with an adversary like China.
The international scene has changed a great deal in the last two decades or so. India has needed to adjust its foreign policy accordingly. During the Cold War India considered the Soviet Union a reliable strategic partner, even though the term strategic partner was not used then.
With a world divided into two blocs, India’s compass was nonalignment, with its political empathies more with the eastern bloc whose rhetoric was more friendly towards the third world.
India‘s relations with the western bloc were problematic because of the west’s non-proliferation injunctions, pro-Pakistani policies and economic philosophy.
The nature of our relations with US has been altered in the last few years. Our policies have become convergent in many ways. Improved relations with US has given India more room for manoeuvre regionally and internationally. Strategically, we are being pulled towards US. This means that our relations with US allies have become better too, as, for example, with Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Simultaneously, our relations with Russia have lost the centrality of the past. Even as India’s economic growth is changing its global profile, our economic ties with Russia have relatively shrunk.
Yet Russia is important for the balance of our foreign policy. A weak Russia is not good for the global system. In fact, the space vacated by Russia has been filled by China. US political lobbies still see Russia as a geopolitical threat, as Romney’s statements during the US presidential election showed.
India can do little to boost Russia, except by maintaining the regularity of summit meetings, nurturing the traditionally close defence ties that assure non-disruption of supplies at critical moments as well as access to sensitive technologies, and partnering it in political groupings such as the Russia-India-China dialogue and the BRICS where the west is absent.
India-US relations have certainly achieved a degree of balance and maturity, with rapid expansion of bilateral and multilateral engagement.
The challenge for us to expand our economic ties with Russia. Energy cooperation provides an opportunity so far insufficiently exploited.
India and Russia share the agenda of multipolarity, respect for sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, geo-political abuse of the human rights issues, regime change policies, the proclivity to use military means to find solutions to highly complex issues.
This agenda puts India at cross purposes with many policies of the west. The challenge for India is to maintain the basics of its position but avoid a direct clash with the west over these issues.
Yet, in terms of markets, investment needs- especially to develop our poor infrastructure, access to modern technologies in health, energy, agriculture, industry, building a knowledge economy, participating in global supply chains etc, India needs are much better served by the west. Our people to people relations with the west are strong.
In fact, the needs of India’s growing economy are such that we cannot avoid doing business even with an adversary like China. Not surprisingly, China has therefore emerged as India’s biggest trade partner in goods.
The challenge for India is to successfully play on all geo-political chess boards and optimize what it can extract from others for its own development. This means India should preserve it independence of judgment and action as much as possible even as it conducts itself as a good and reliable partner where partnerships have been formed.
US rhetoric about its relationship with India being a defining one in the 21st century is heady. India-US relations have certainly achieved a degree of balance and maturity, with rapid expansion of bilateral and multilateral engagement. Contentious issues between them have receded into the background.
US has interests spread all over the world by virtue of it being a global power. It cannot expect India to support its policies everywhere. US would want to fit India in the global architecture of its policies.
The US robustly affirms its strategic partnership with India, presenting India with the challenge of leveraging its new strategic ties with that country while maintaining its strategic autonomy.
It has to be borne in mind, however, that in maintaining its global supremacy, but with declining means, US needs to co-opt partners outside the Euro-Atlantic bloc, and India stands out as an obvious one because of its size, human resources, expanding economic base, reasonable military strength and democratic polity.
Even with regard to its new policy of rebalancing towards Asia, intended without being openly stated to put constraints on China’s ambitions, US sees India as a lynchpin. The assumption is that India alone is big enough in Asia to counter China and that India has concerns about China’s rise for its own security, given outstanding border differences and Chinese policies in India’s neighbourhood.
Some political elements in US find India’s ambivalence towards the west and its unwillingness to endorse western policies as the lingering malaise of nonalignment. They see India’s desire to preserve its strategic autonomy as a smokescreen for its nostalgia for nonalignment.
This is, to my mind, a misreading of reality. By strategic autonomy India means friendly ties and mutually beneficial relations with all countries, with its own legitimate- not purely selfish- interests primarily in mind.