March 21, 2009balance of powerForeign Affairsforeign policyIndiainternational relationsmediaRealismrealpolitik

It’s not Spider-man

With great power comes a Great Power

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

It warms the cockles of The Acorn’s cotyledons when people say things like India’s unflinching defence of its narrow interest is cause for deep frustration among its interlocutors in the corridors of international power” and that it must embrace a sharing of the burdens as well as the rewards of collective security.” So when Anantha Nageswaran of The Gold Standard drew attention (via email) to Philip Stephens’ piece in FT, it felt like a good time to inject some, well, realism into the proceedings.

But first—let there be no doubt: The Acorn and many of its fellows on INI strongly advocate that India needs to get on the front foot in its foreign policy. But this is because it is in India’s interests and not out of some heartwarming but fuzzy notion of shouldering burdens of collective security. By the way, what collective security? Surely Mr Stephens can’t be referring to NATOs half-hearted, caveat-filled and now one-step-out-of-the-door presence in Afghanistan? The kind that rests on the implicit belief that the Taliban can be tolerated as long as they don’t target Europe. Or the kind that sabotaged international efforts to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s or in East Pakistan in 1971? Or the kind that came to India’s assistance after terrorists went on a shooting spree in Mumbai last November?

Mr Stephens makes two main arguments in his piece. Of these he gets two wrong. First, he claims that admission to the club of great powers requires a state to adopt a foreign policy that goes beyond narrow definitions of national interest” and provides public goods. The other part of the admission fee, he contends, is that others claim a say in your internal affairs”. Second, he argues that the fact that being a democracy exposes India to less international criticism as compared to China. Both these arguments are flawed in their premise. But even if we were to accept the premise, the facts don’t bear out Mr Stephens’ conclusions.

Firstly, what makes a power great is power. China’s rise proves this and invalidates Mr Stephens’ premise: for China’s ascent to greatness was despite its undermining of the ideal of collective security: from nuclear proliferation, to arms sales to odious regimes, to the use of its UN Security Council veto to shield some of the world’s most nasty regimes. China’s rise has got narrow definitions of national interest” written all over it. As has been the case with the world’s other great powers, past and present. Indeed, the public good of international security arises not from proactive provisioning, but from a stable geopolitical balance-of-power. Balance of power is the invisible hand of geopolitics. (If this notion is centuries old, so is the notion of free markets. So what?)

Mr Stephens’s other claim—that great powers have to suffer international scrutiny of their internal affairs—should surprise anyone who reads the news everyday. Visibility and coercion are two different things. The internal affairs of a great power might be more visible, but also less susceptible to international coercion. Those who disagree can attempt placing sanctions on China or Saudi Arabia, or attempt to indict a Western leader at the International Criminal Court.

Clearly, Mr Stephens’ criteria for being a great power are mistaken. But even if we are to accept them at face value, his arguments ignores the fact that India has been doing exactly what he says it ought to do. From being the largest contributor of troops for UN peacekeeping, to being one of the first to deliver humanitarian assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami, to securing the world’s maritime trade in the Indian Ocean, to fighting pirates off Somalia to making a major contribution to Afghan reconstruction India is sharing the burdens, sometimes even, as this blog has complained, with no regard to its interests. As for bearing the costs of external scrutiny into internal affairs, those have been borne many times over.

This brings us to the second argument: that democracy gives India a pass. Even if it did, to the extent that democracy results in greater transparency, public accountability, protection of individual rights and representative government, the pass is well deserved. In any case, foreign intervention in democracies is at its roots undemocratic. The reason authoritarian states warrant greater scrutiny and criticism is because they are incapable of them on their own. This being so, let’s not forget that foreign intervention and international scrutiny are driven by great power interests than by moral principles. In any case, when Mr Stephens contends that the idea of inviolable sovereignty has been left behind by interdependence and by acceptance that some human rights transcend those of governments” you wonder where it says that this is the norm and the practice?

Let’s look at the examples Mr Stephens brings up. He drags in the obligatory reference to Kashmir, the resolution of which is a panacea for Pakistan’s myriad problems. This myth has been exposed far too many times to merit a repetition here. But he also implies that India:Kashmir is equivalent to China:Tibet. Sure, if you ignore forceful annexation, demographic engineering through trans-migration and proxy war.

Mr Stephens pins the failure of the Doha round of world trade negotiations on India. Sure, if you ignore the West’s reluctance to remove agricultural subsidies.

And then comes a surprise: apparently at the UN, India has obstructed efforts to elevate basic human rights above those of states”. Sure, if you were not outraged when the UN Human Rights Council made free speech an offence against human rights (yes, you heard it right).

He has a point when he suggests that India has been reluctant to squeeze the junta in Burma. But he fails to mention that the rest of the powers didn’t quite embrace sharing the burden when India tried squeezing.

And finally, there’s the other obligatory reference. Though Mr Stephens concedes that India’s stance on not signing the NPT has some merit, he alleges that is also a convenient one. Sure, if you ignore that it was only when principle turned out to be fruitless that convenience came in. And if you ignore that the entire edifice of the NPT today rests on the convenience of the great powers. Eschewing principle for convenience, therefore, arguably puts India in league with the rest.

Despite presenting flawed arguments Mr Stephens does ask the right question: does India want to be a big power or a great power? He is also right, although in a different sense, that if it wants a lead role in a concert of the great powers it cannot stand aloof from the rules”. The rules, however, are those of realpolitik, not of some misplaced faith in responsibilities or sharing of burdens. They involve the unflinching promotion of national interests, deep frustration of its international interlocutors notwithstanding. (If you are an international interlocutor, you will know that deep frustration comes with the job)

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My op-ed in Mint: Who wants to be good Taliban?
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