December 25, 2006Foreign AffairsPublic PolicySecurity

Palpable realism

India has recognised that morality in foreign policy lies in the pursuit of the national interest

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The notion of “national interest”—the basis of the realist school of international relations—is a flawed one, argues Achin Vanaik, in an article that purports to critique Indian foreign policy since 1991. It cannot be objectively defined, he contends, making it a convenient tool employed by the state to pass off any foreign policy as being in the national interest. And the state, in Vanaik’s off-the-shelf Marxist interpretation, is in thrall of the capitalistic elite, and therefore only represents their class interests.

What really drives foreign policy is “the political (and therefore moral) character of the leadership strata that shapes and makes foreign policy decisions”, including the “dominant classes and their middle class support base”. On the basis of this interpretation of international relations and Indian foreign policy, he goes on to his real targets—American imperialism and free-market economics, but more of that later.

Although Vanaik cites Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz he shows little understanding of their key arguments. Morgenthau, for example, clearly defines the core of the national interest to be survival—of territory, institution and culture. In India’s case, this implies a realist foreign policy would call for, at the minimum, the safeguarding of India’s territorial integrity, its constitution and its secular democratic society. Beyond this, the definition of national interest can be broadened—without diluting its objectivity—to encompass security of its economy and of its people. The suggestion that national interest cannot be objectively defined is not true. [Related Post: How this translates into specific foreign policy objectives]

In the Marxist interpretation, the state is a tool in the hands of the capitalist class, which uses it to pursue its ends—profit at the expense of the labour. In the Indian context, this translates into a narrative that holds that the ruling classes—defined both in economic and social terms—use the state to exploit the suppressed classes. There are two main problems with this interpretation when it is brought to bear in explaining policy behaviour of states. First, it mistakes correlation for causation—because states follow capitalist-friendly policies, it does not necessarily follow that this is because capitalists that control the levers. Second, it does not account for policies that are actually unfriendly to capitalists.

Vanaik may be right when he points out that India’s foreign policy is the preserve of a section of the ruling class as well as the foreign policy establishment (as it is in most countries). But it does not follow that the policies themselves serve the narrow interests of the ‘class’ that shapes them. He does not offer any concrete examples in support of his argument. On the contrary, it is possible to make a reasonable case that on the most significant issues—the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, closer ties with the United States and even the ongoing détente with Pakistan—India’s foreign policy is consistent with general public opinion.

Nor is Vanaik breaking any fresh ground when he contends that it is the moral character of the leadership determines foreign policy decisions. Indeed, the role of moral values has been recognised by the very Realists that Vanaik seeks to refute. While arguing that political morality lies in the pursuit of the national interest, Morgenthau maintained that moral values ‘set the contours of practical political action’ .

Although Vanaik’s subtitle promises an analysis of India’s foreign policy since the end of the cold war the article does nothing of that sort. Instead it is essentially a polemic directed against the 1991 economic reforms, that, according to Vanaik, have accelerated the ‘inequality in income, wealth and power’ between ‘classes and social groups’. The beneficiaries of these reforms, he argues, have a vested interest in embracing closer ties with the United States. And as a result, beyond lip service, India will be unable to ‘secure justice’ for Iraqis, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and Iranians.

Obviously, Vanaik’s conclusions rest on his interpretation of the impact of the opening of the Indian economy since 1991. But even if one believes that the economic reforms left some people better off at the expense of others (despite evidence to the contrary) it still is a gigantic leap of faith to conclude that this should result in anything beyond economic engagement with the United States. If it were the case, then China’s economic reforms, for example, should have led to a strategic partnership with the United States. Instead, we have it attempting to balance the United States in classic balance of power fashion. The United States, on its part, sees in India the potential to balance China in Asia. There is a body of opinion that holds that much of India’s major foreign policy has, for the most part, been driven by realism—even during the cold war. For example, despite non-alignment, India entered the Soviet corner in the early 1970s in response to the US-China-Pakistan alignment. Similarly, despite being couched in the rhetoric of being ‘natural allies’, the strategic relationship between India and the United States is driven by convergence of interests in the geopolitics of the current age.

Beyond implicit but unsubstantiated moral principles, Vanaik does not offer any explanation as to why India should be concerned with ‘securing justice’ for Iraqis, Palestinians and others in West Asia. Why should India not, for example, fight to secure justice for Tibetans, Taiwanese, Myanmarese, Darfuris, White Zimbabweans, Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority or Europe’s Muslims? It turns out that India’s reluctance to fight for the rights of the world’s oppressed people is not limited to conflicts that involve America or its allies. Indeed, it is clear that India’s policy towards these conflicts is driven not by moral principles but by an astute determination of, well, its own national interest.

The Realist shift in India’s foreign policy is palpable: from the recognition and engagement with Israel, to breaking the ice with the Myanmarese junta, to the Look East’ policy, to the new maritime doctrine, to the investment in anti-ballistic missile technology, besides, of course, the strategic partnership with the United States. There have, of course, been deviations from the Realist prescription. Such deviations, while unfortunate and expensive, are in the order of things in a democracy. By and large though, a dispassionate observer of India’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War arrives at the inescapable conclusion that its underlying rationale is the one offered by Realism.

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