Sovereign nation-states are not people like you and I, and discussing them as though they are leads to much confusion and heartburn.
This was my introductory Pax Indica column for Yahoo! (2010-2011)
Is the United States a ‘fickle friend’? Is India’s relationship with the US a ‘marriage’ or merely a ‘one-night stand’? For all its shenanigans, is Pakistan really just an ‘estranged sibling’ ever jealous of its elder brother? Questions like these pop up all the time in conversations over foreign affairs. It is all too common to discuss international relations as if they are similar to interpersonal ones, leading to some very lively cafeterias, drinking establishments and television programs. Sovereign nations, however, are not people like you and I, and discussing them as though they are leads to much confusion and heartburn.
You and I have to abide by the law enforced by a government, but the Republic of India and the United States of America do not have to unless they want to. Sure, there is international law, there are norms, there are treaties, there is the United Nations and countries by-and-large abide by them. But being sovereign entities they can decide not to if they don’t want to and if they can get away with it. No, it is not only North Korea and Iran that renege on their commitments. When they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France promised to get rid of their own nuclear weapons as their end of the deal. Four decades later, they still have them in their thousands. They might have their own good reasons for keeping their nuclear arsenals, but the fact remains that they didn’t keep their end of the deal.
That’s just one example. The underlying point is that countries operate in an anarchy, an environment where there is no overarching authority that can constrain their actions. Here, as the charismatic Vijay Dinanath Chauhan vividly explains to Commissioner Gaitonde in Agneepath, the law of the jungle operates. The strong survive by killing the weak. Similarly, when Lord Voldemort tries to entice the young Harry Potter to join him, he declares that “there is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to seek it.”
Both Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and Voldemort would have been astute geopolitical strategists, but went tragically wrong when they applied their logic of power to domestic affairs, where the law of the jungle does not apply. For sovereign states though, the message is clear: their very survival depends on having adequate power to ensure it. But how much power is adequate? That’s hard to say, so the prudent answer is “as much as possible”. Yet, when a state starts accumulating power it causes other states to worry about their own place in the pecking order. It doesn’t matter if China solemnly declares that its rise will be peaceful-the United States is concerned that its lead is eroding. Similarly, due to its own insecurities, you see Pakistan perennially engaged in attempts to limit the power differential between itself and India.
It is through this prism of power politics that the ancient Indians saw statecraft. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya holds that “the possession of power and happiness in a greater degree makes a king superior to another; in a less degree, inferior; and in an equal degree, equal. Hence a king shall always endeavor to augment his own power and elevate his happiness.” The most fundamental game in international relations is one of maximising one’s own power relative to everyone else’s. You won’t find any political leader admitting it, though. On the contrary, you are likely to find foreign policy cloaked in the need to redress historical grievances, to pursue high ideals, or, more often than not, to promote a certain ideology. “While all politics is necessarily pursuit of power,” wrote Hans Morgenthau, a twentieth-century political philosopher, “ideologies render involvement in that contest for power psychologically and morally acceptable to the actors and their audience… The nation that dispensed with ideologies and frankly stated that it wanted power would at once find itself at a great and perhaps decisive disadvantage in the struggle for power.”
Many nice people, though, are often uncomfortable with this Voldemort-like amoral worldview, not least because they confuse the morality of interpersonal relations with the morality of international relations. Greater economic interdependence, free-market capitalism, the spread of democracy, and the evolution of international institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organisations or the G-20, some argue, has transformed international politics. In this liberal internationalist perspective, countries might cooperate because there are so many “non-zero-sum games”, where all can win. Thomas Friedman famously declared that that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants went to war with each other. That was before the Kargil War.
A newer, more sophisticated ‘constructivist’ approach suggests that national interests and identities are impermanent and subject to change-and the dynamics of this change influences how they behave internationally. There is also an older, less sophisticated approach that blames capitalism as a problem and existence as a class struggle. Outdated and discredited it might be, but it remains popular in some quarters in India. And how can we have a discussion on “the different schools of thought in the field” without even mentioning that one of them believes that it’s all a Jewish conspiracy.
There are many more Pax Indica columns here
Pax Indica will seek to understand and explain international affairs from a realist perspective. It will argue that the purpose of India’s foreign policy should be to ensure that the international balance-of-power is always in its favour. This column invites you to participate in an ongoing discussion on how India could do that at a time when global politics is in a state of flux, and when the world might be entering into a new age.
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