Thinking like us


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AT some point we all expect it to happen. India has developed the comparative advantage of keeping the world in anticipation of its advent as a great power. Having been called both a rising superpower and a third rate power, India’s foreign policy-makers have a hard time explaining away this contradiction. When analyses on India conclude that ‘what is true, the opposite is also true’, it proves the cynics right but also encourages fatuity in others. Nevertheless, ever since the metaphor of the ‘golden bird’ first made the transition from mythology to myth and then to apocryphal ‘fact’, we have internalised a mawkish sentimentality and belief in a civilisational destiny which seems to persist despite a more subdued reality.

Unfortunately, foreign policy cannot remain immune to the contradictions. It cannot have the comfort of expressing itself only through annual General Assembly speeches or biennial exhortations of developing country unity at WTO ministerial conferences. To formulate a foreign policy independent of domestic politics is a vision for the elites and a mirage for the masses. To demand that the country speak with one voice is a chimera; public debate remains central to a democracy. But the debate must not centre around specific issues alone; rather, it has to account for our transforming environment and how we want to project ourselves in that milieu. What follows is a discussion of some of these dimensions to encourage a debate on the role we seek for ourselves.

There are three new dimensions to the global environment that we reside in. These dimensions are not necessarily post Cold War or post September 11. While these dynamics do not always overlap, our simultaneous engagement with them has implications for our perceived role in the world. First, the world is now characterised by an American preponderance. I avoid the term hegemony because it raises a separate debate about benign versus coercive hegemony. Nevertheless, in terms of material resources – the world’s largest economy by far and the only military machine with a global reach – the American colossus is preponderant over the world order. Further, its participation or even non-participation in international regimes (whether the Anti-Landmine Treaty or the Kyoto Protocol) certainly affects the efficacy of attempts at international cooperation.

Second, the degree to which globalisation and the information revolution transform our economic, cultural and political participation in the world depends on our attitudes towards them. American political scientist James Rosenau describes the process as fragmegration to highlight that integration into larger global identities runs simultaneously with fragmentation into smaller communities – the two can in fact reinforce each other. The reassertion of local identities by the Zapatistas in Mexico became possible when they also considered themselves part of a global community which would be sympathetic to their cause.



A mistaken belief in this regard is that the US controls globalisation. There is no doubt that globalisation, by depending on technological advances (in which the US enjoys the lead) as well as policies to support a more integrating world, has reinforced American power but this does not imply that the US can have its cake and eat it too. No country is completely immune to the shocks of financial crises, environmental changes or non-conventional security challenges.

Globalisation is influenced by networks – whether for financial flows, trade in goods and services, supply chains for transnational manufacturing, governance of international organisations, contacts between international and sub-national NGOs, and most importantly, networks for information flows. The actor that controls the flows of information will more often than not gain policy outcomes most favourable to its preferences. In a world with non-hierarchical networks of governance, the critical question is how can we control or influence these networks of governance and what strategies can we develop to frame issues of international concern.



Third, geography has not become history. Instead, the world has become our home. The geostrategic importance of South Asia will vary over time and we cannot rely on dramatic events to get the world’s attention. After September 11 the French liberal news paper Le Monde announced, ‘We are all Americans.’ India feels frustrated that the international community has remained unsympathetic to its suffering from terrorism and even the attention it has received in the past year is through American lenses. But to insist in prime ministerial speeches and MEA briefs that South Asia is the epicentre of global terrorism is to only highlight the geostrategic aspect.

As Stephen Cohen and Richard Park noted in India: Emergent Power? (Crane Russak, 1978), geostrategically India stands between ‘pygmies and giants’. Such a perspective would then make us look both hegemonic and weak – a bully no one listens to. The challenge for India is not to gain international sympathy but an international sense of community. Can we get the Guardian to proclaim, ‘We are all Indians now?’ In some quarters such a proclamation may be regarded as yet another dose of patronising that we loathe. Yet, the power of ideas is strong. It is not the region we inhabit that is critical but whether others think like us and whether we think like them.



If our wider environment is indeed as described, is it that we accept outcomes as inevitable or unchallengeable? In other words, are we disinterested in foreign policy? Elections in India do sometimes focus on issues that have international ramifications, whether it is the desire for nuclear power status or targeting ‘Mian Musharraf’. Similarly, protests against the WTO are responses to our, sometimes legitimate, economic fears. Having to react and respond to external shocks, pressures and obligations is not irrelevant to the discourse, but it is not sufficient for the formulation of long-term policies.

If we show a lack of interest in this larger debate then public opinion will hang precariously between triumphalism and despondency. This is characteristic of the way we react to nuclear weapons one day and IC-184 the next. An exaggerated sense of national pride is illusory but so is carping at the failures of the state in projecting India’s ‘deserved’ power. Hopefully by appreciating the importance of the three global dimensions discussed above, we may realise that our view of the world has to be dynamic, not merely passive or reactive.

In failing to do so we run the risk that policy would be hijacked by special interest groups. Governments across the world face pressures from specific constituencies whose policy preferences need not be in the ‘national interest’ at all times. But if governments believe that by restricting information they can retain autonomy over policy they risk losing the support of the larger polity which can help to counter the influence of interest groups.

In The Paradox of American Power (OUP 2002), Joseph Nye argues that there has developed an ‘optimism gap’ in the US. Since an average citizen does not come into direct contact with national issues her/his opinion on such issues is shaped by the tone of the national print and electronic media. So even if one’s personal socio-economic condition is satisfactory, she/he can still be pessimistic about the national situation.



In a similar vein, I would argue that in India we suffer from a perception gap. We are politically conscious about the problems we encounter in dealing with the local administration. We even have opinions about national issues, whether it is caste politics or communalism. These are issues that affect our lives at the local and the national level. However, despite having opinions on international issues we are unable to perceive them as intimately as we could and then shape local politics. This results in extreme views on the country’s world status depending on our interpretation of newspaper or television reports.

Our perceptions, having been formed by reports on discrete events, have gaps in them which cannot be filled unless we have participated in a public debate that has produced some yardstick for Indian foreign policy. Disagreements with Washington or Brussels, Beijing or Islamabad cannot be the sum total of an Indian foreign policy.

Our interest, as a polity, in foreign policy has to develop around two themes: first, our view of ourselves; second, our view of the world. These two themes should combine to set the broad agenda of Indian foreign policy in the future. The articulation of national interests is ultimately the function of expediency and specific policies might have to compromise on our goals. Yet, such an endeavour will help to fill the perceptual gaps in comprehending why certain policy initiatives were successful and why extraneous circumstances led to the failure of others. As the systemic pressures of the Cold War and geostrategy have given way to those of globalisation and geoeconomics, we have to draw on our resources to enunciate a worldview that situates us not as passive respondents to change but as aggressive drivers of global transformation.

What are the sources of Indian power? First, the existence of democratic institutions remains the one beacon that inspires commentators on India. Institutions are no doubt challenged and administrative failures manifest themselves in ways that often exacerbate the suffering of people. In a survey of students from premier educational institutions in four cities, The Times of India on 22 December 2002 reported that 19% of the respondents (the third highest number) wanted Hitler to lead the country (ironically the highest number had wanted Mahatma Gandhi). The nature of the response clearly reveals a perceptual gap.



Assuming that the respondents cherish their freedoms (possibly even castigate China for the lack of them or mock Pakistan for its democratic failings), how can they also wish for dictators who could rule the country with a strong hand? Our democratic institutions have ensured civilian control over the military, separation of the judiciary, and legislative oversight over executive actions. To impugn our record of democratic performance is part of the democratic process. But to conclude that democracy per se is responsible for a weak and ineffectual state is a non sequitur. The more democracy finds roots in countries proximate to us the better are our chances of cooperating on economic, social and territorial issues.



Second, India’s economy will demand attention in the global economy by its sheer size (fourth largest in purchasing power parity terms). On the flip side, if we continue to grow at 6% and the US at 3%, it would take till 2077 to match the American economy and till 2133 to be at par with its per capita income. Numbers can only take us so far; they are not enough for us to develop a sense of our position in the global economic order. It is imperative that we begin to think of the positive role we must play. Economic growth, even if it occurs without hitches, does not translate into power unless a country is willing to use its economy as a source of growth and stability for the entire world economy.

Despite their current recessionary trends, Japan and Germany will remain major economic players in the foreseeable future. But their economic power will be undermined by the unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility of the world economy. Germany was at the vanguard of the Growth and Stability Pact that informs fiscal policy in the Euro-zone. Now it not only suffers from excessive constraints on its policy autonomy but also fails to serve as a locomotive to bring the world out of its recession.

Similarly, it is not enough for India to present the second or third fastest growth rates in the world. That is indeed impressive but not power enhancing. India’s economic power will gain currency when we play a constructive role in international institutions. The control of networks of governance will not accrue to us if we only view international economic institutions as robbers of our sovereignty. Similarly, a huge trade surplus against Bangladesh is not nearly as impressive as some credible signs to the Bangladeshis that we are willing to let them piggyback on the performance of the Indian economy.



Third, India’s military potential has to be measured against its objectives. Nuclear weapons, intermediate range missiles, 1.2 million military personnel are impressive in their own right but pale against China’s (according to a RAND study of 2000 titled Asian Economic Trends and their Security Implications, India’s military stock was 48% of China’s and would rise to 62% by 2015) or even a moderately-sized West European country in terms of technological sophistication.

India’s security challenges are immense – we have to stand up to nuclear threats, disputes over nearly 7000 of our 16500 km of land borders, terrorism, defence of over 6000 km of coastline, and also force projection in the Indian Ocean rim. When the USS Enterprise was despatched to the Bay of Bengal during the Bangladesh War, it was treated as an insult and a strategic threat. By 1972, defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam had conceptualised the need for ‘raising the cost of intervention’ in Our National Security (Economic and Scientific Research Foundation, London) to ensure that India’s strategic space was not compromised. Most recently, Bharat Karnad argues that India must reinstate the British 19th century doctrine of ‘distant defence’ for India and create a strategic zone of influence that stretches from East Africa to the Caspian to Tibet down to Australia (Seminar 519).

Our influence across the Indian Ocean will come into conflict with American, British, Australian and Chinese interests. Given India’s material deficiencies, the conversion of its military might into effective power can occur only by two simultaneous processes. First, the modernisation of our conventional and strategic forces. The debate should not be over increases or decreases in defence expenditures but whether we are acquiring the appropriate capabilities to secure our defence needs.

Second, and more significantly, undertaking the burden of responsibility for policing the waters against terrorism, countering clandestine weapons proliferation, and keeping sea lanes open. Great power status does not follow from military might alone. Our force projection has to come packaged with the assertion that we are bearing the costs of providing global public goods in this region. As argued earlier, geography remains important but we have to make others think like us and prove that we can address their concerns.



Even the power that accrues from material capabilities ultimately relies on the principles that underlie it. A country’s influence in world affairs depends on two dimensions of power. The more obvious one is the ability to use material capabilities to force outcomes. Even if it were couched in the language of legitimacy and ‘soft power’, ‘soft coercion’ does not make international relations any less coercive. India is no exception to countries following this rule. However, a less explored dimension of power is the attractiveness of values in its own right. Herein lies the difference between a mission civilatrice and an appeal to what is called in Sanskrit vishwajaninatâ, i.e. universal acceptability.

The former is an aspiration to actively convert others (using hard or soft power) to one’s way of thinking. This strategy is manifest as much in the scramble for Africa in the 1890s as in the Washington Consensus on economic reforms in the 1980s. The latter succeeds when a particular value which can be credited to a certain country or people is invoked by others as worth emulating. Thus, South Korea’s economic model or Malaysia’s policies of building social capital through inter-ethnic integration could potentially prove as attractive as the model of European integration.



The debate on defining our role in the world is important for this reason. We will not have the material capabilities to compete with more advanced countries in the near future. Neither will we have so-called ‘soft power’ resources like McDonald’s restaurants or Japanese animation features to effectively ‘impose’ our way of life upon others. In 1945, French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, acknowledging France’s material deficiencies at the end of the war, argued that the only way for France to regain any international prominence would be to reaffirm its cultural and social values and aesthetics.

Our foreign policy will have to fundamentally base itself on the models of economic, educational, social and political development that we adopt. If successful, these models will significantly augment the acceptability of our growing military and economic strength. Even Gandhi’s non-absolute pacifism and use of ahimsa as a dynamic political tool are suggestive of his concern for national security and welfare for a materially vulnerable country.

India’s unique ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity and its experiments with multiple identities is one such source of vishwajaninatâ. The American melting pot thesis, erstwhile Soviet attempts at Russian linguistic and cultural hegemony, or recent European experiments with multiculturalism have all been strategies to come to terms with varied populations. India’s history is its best advantage because despite the political turmoil that has always plagued this land multiple identities have co-existed much more naturally than in other regions.



Cambridge historian C.A. Bayly finds traditions of patriotism and ideas of good governance existing alongside recognition of ethnic identities in India prior to the onset of a British-engineered nation state in the sub-continent. Thus he writes in Origins of Nationality in South Asia (OUP 1998), ‘If the twenty-first century sees the emergence of the "Europe of the regions", it may also see the emergence of an "India of all the patriotisms".’ Religion and community are not redundant but efforts will have to continue to retain those multiple identities.

Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman appreciates that India’s democracy is one reason why Muslims in India have not been radicalised as elsewhere because they still hope to use democratic processes to redress their grievances and fulfil their aspirations (New York Times, 14 August 2002). Yet, our claims of communal harmony sound hollow, especially since the Gujarat riots. Every time our social order breaks down due to politico-religious manipulations, the attractiveness of our model loses its appeal. This matters because a successful model gives direction to countries as varied as Indonesia, Nigeria or even a post-Saddam democratic Iraq.

Similarly, the power of ‘culture’, though a highly contested term, can yet be important. When the ‘American way of life’ competes with ‘European post-modernism’, when ‘Scandinavian pacifism’ makes political impact just as ‘Asian values’ and Confucian ethics engender economic transformation, what does India’s ‘composite culture’ hold out for the rest of the world? Surely, such characterisations are constructed labels but it cannot be denied that there have been significant power-enhancing benefits of the English language or the Alliance Francaise. The Indian film industry with about $60 million of exports has a strong impact on how the rest of the world perceives us. Again, the 20 million members of the Indian diaspora do build some bridges on foreign investment and chicken tikka masala.



Such dynamics can aid Indian foreign policy but also have the potential of creating distorted imaginations about the country. If we seek international prominence through the strength of universal acceptability, we have to become much more conscious of such existing and incipient distortions. Our foreign policy will then have to be geared not only towards using these additional resources but also to damage limitation exercises. A more instrumental strategy is the funding of India related academic and policy study in major universities around the world while also establishing more scholarships and exchange programmes for foreign students to visit and work in India. There is no better way to open the minds of future policy-makers about India, its maladies and its extraordinary strengths.

A final dimension is our leadership of the developing world. Critical analysis of non-alignment, the G-77, or the NIEO are apt only to the extent that they re-examine policies for their current usefulness. If we dismiss these strategies outright as naïve we commit the fallacy of viewing the past through the lenses of the present. The articulation of policy initiatives that might have had beneficial spillovers for other countries cannot be dismissed as mere altruism.

In a speech to the Constituent Assembly on 4 December 1947 Nehru said, ‘We may talk about international goodwill… about peace and freedom… [b]ut, in the ultimate analysis, a government functions for the good of the country…’ In the process if we have developed close relations with other countries we cannot pay scant attention to them now. It is often asked if India is friendless.



Even in the 1950s it was argued that our moral grandstanding on colonialism or nuclear weapons denied us the support of western countries on Kashmir or exposed us when we invaded Goa. Friendly relations are maintained less through pacts of brotherhood than through mutual interests. India’s leadership was accepted for reasons of state, whether its contribution to resolving the Korean conflict, its technological support to African economies or its aid programmes for the Himalayan kingdoms. India would commit a grave error if it relinquishes the status it holds amongst other nations simply because institutions and policies developed in the 1950s and 1960s are no longer considered relevant or effective enough. India has to find new issues that build on these past relationships, which again emphasises the networks of international governance.

Human rights, humanitarian intervention, global environmental changes and protection of the global commons are some of the issues that the developing world has been traditionally reticent to negotiate upon. No doubt the developed West, and especially the US, has repeatedly adhered to double standards on these issues. However, we cannot refuse to acknowledge these concerns behind a firewall of state sovereignty. The first step is to recognise that these issues are part of our national interests. The second is to ally with developing and developed countries to actively participate in setting standards and developing institutions.

We are worse off when we sign treaties pledging to uphold norms only as a fait accompli. In addition, our relations with the developing world will benefit us in evolving newer strategies for economic integration and identifying areas of positive negotiations. The more recent examples of seeking out issue-based alliances at the WTO are indicative of a trend in a desirable direction.



An oft-repeated shortcoming in our analysis is highlighted when we interpret our values to be inconsistent with our interests. We engage in academic debates on who is a ‘realist’ or lament at the naïveté of some policy or on labelling India as a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ state. Surely, diplomats and experts will profess their wisdom but the polity is often trapped in the perceptual gaps between their personal experiences and their indirect awareness of foreign policies. We cannot demand the ‘realism’ brand of foreign policy of a ‘strong’ state and then excoriate it when it cannot deliver.

The Arthashastra is not the only source of statecraft in our classical tradition. Even then it emphasises interests based on a state’s position in the system of states and what it seeks to attain using its available resources. Whether it is Manu’s Dharmashastra, the Tamil Book of Kural, Ashokan Buddhist edicts, or Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari, they have all been informed by ideas of ethical government. Even the champion of realist thought in western political philosophy, Machiavelli, advised that the prince must ‘not depart from good, when possible.’

In 1959 the late A. Appadurai, doyen of Indian international relations scholarship, in an essay titled Indian Diplomacy argued that classical Indian thought laid equal emphasis on the means as on the ends. Though these are the values that we adhere to, we cannot be oblivious to the demands of expediency. Private morality and public ethics cannot always be equated. Our worldviews, as argued, will depend on material capabilities and the ideas and principles that we believe define us. Therefore, having an interest-based approach is not incompatible or even distinct from a value-based approach since one is the cause of the other. It is when we label ourselves as one or the other, realist or peace loving, that we misinterpret our worldviews and encounter frustrations in foreign policy.



The future of India in world affairs is not preordained. Our economic might or a Security Council seat cannot by themselves transmute into power and influence. In order to fill our perception gaps it matters more that we develop worldviews with a world role in mind, not hegemonic but engaging and responsible. Economic leadership in international organisations, setting standards for changing international norms, assuming military responsibilities to guarantee global public goods, and the attraction of our values, institutions and cultural resources will be more successful in gaining us the power and prestige we desire than mourning our perceived weakness. To make others think like us, we have to begin thinking like them.