SPEAKING FREELY Indian foreign policy at a crossroads
By Zorawar Daulet Singh
Western political science has yet to offer an analytical template to study foreign policy change. Conceptually, there are two approaches to analyzing foreign policy. One is an "outside-in" approach where opportunities and constraints in the external environment shape foreign policy. The other is an "inside-out" approach where domestic factors are seen as the key drivers for foreign policy.
In practice, both these levels are inter-connected, and, changes in the international environment and domestic perceptions together shape foreign policy. Relying on such a framework, we can
anticipate some of the broad contours of newly sworn in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy.
A multipolar world
In 2009, the then new, but currently outgoing National Security Adviser (NSA) Shivshankar Menon summarized India's perception of the post-Cold War era:
In many ways, the period after 1991 has been the most favorable to our quest to develop India. The post-Cold War external environment of a globalizing world, without rival political alliances, gave India the opportunity to improve relations with all the major powers.
The risk of a direct conflict between two or more major powers had also diminished due to the interdependence created by globalization. And the strength of capital and trade flows was directly beneficial to emerging economies.
Since 2009, however, statements by senior policymakers underscore changing perceptions of the global order. A recurring theme in several speeches is an "uncertainty" of likely scenarios, but also a recognition that the environment is changing towards a new balance of power.
There is also a realization that the economic and security benefits from a unipolar-globalized world are unlikely to be available to India beyond the near-term.
In a February speech, the then outgoing NSA Shivshankar Menon stated a widely shared belief: "Since 2008, the post-Cold War world that we had got used to is metamorphosing into something very different, as different from the previous two decades as those two decades were from the four decades of the Cold War."
He further observed that, the "unipolar moment ... came to an end with the global economic crisis of 2008".
Such changing perceptions are not unique to India and also resonate in the national discourse in several rising powers. It is now uncontested that there is a global power transition underway, and, material power is being diffused away from the West.
This is further reinforced by a discernible trend among leading Western states, including the United States, that show a declining capacity and will to assume global roles in managing security in different regions or in governing the international economy in a prudent and fair fashion.
Although the consequences of these trends are still being debated, it is plausible to argue that emerging powers will need to re-define and re-prioritize their foreign policy roles to fill the space of a receding superpower. This poses both an ideational and resource challenge because rising powers such as India and China still have formidable internal challenges that will keep policymakers occupied for several decades.
Perhaps, this is what analysts implied when they extolled the virtues of unipolarity - that states could focus on development and leave the management of the international system to a superpower. Nevertheless, the era of free riding is nearly over.
What does multipolarity mean for globalization?
While the power transition is occurring in a context of high economic interdependence, the key change that multipolarity is bringing is states are viewing interdependence in a more strategic fashion. In other words, states are more concerned about relative gains and national advantage in their global economic engagement than they were in the pre-global economic crisis period.
Most evidence suggests that the richer economies, while continuing to remain plugged into the world economy, are increasingly focusing on the domestic effects of their global trade and investment. This is primarily the result of the 2008 global economic crisis, and, persisting unemployment in the West. But there is also a growing anxiety in the advanced economies on losing some of their innovation advantages. Consequently, rising powers too are being compelled to adapt their own economic and trade policies to focus on relative gains. India is likely to emulate this trend.
Indian identity and nationalism
Indian intellectuals often claim that the age of "isms" is over and India has become de-ideologized. To argue this would be to claim that India's has no international identity and is a tabula rasa upon which new epistemic preferences can be easily scripted.
The post-Cold War era itself is testimony to the fact that even in an environment of a dominant superpower diffusing its ensemble of norms for every sphere of political activity - norms for the ideal management of a political economy, norms for domestic governance, and, norms for responsible foreign policies - these ideas were not internalized uncritically by the Indian state.
Clearly, there was some constraining factor that did not allow dominant transnational ideas to be absorbed wholesale onto the Indian state and intelligentsia. In terms of foreign policy, the Indian worldview, albeit in a state of flux since 1991, has remained stubbornly attached to some form of an independent identity, which international and domestic observers have curiously left unexplained. Instead, by posing dichotomies such as non-alignment versus alignment, analysts have performed a disservice to India's strategic history and heritage.
Soon after the trauma of 1962, Girilal Jain traced the roots of India's core worldview in 1963: "Non-alignment was a natural corollary to the achievement of independence. It was an assertion of the right of equality on behalf of, if not by the people of India. The cold war had not even broken out into the open when this policy was first enunciated."
By breaking the linkage between world politics and non-alignment, Jain was emphasizing the ideational roots of India's place in the world. This ethos of independence was not contingent on a balance of power or a favorable international alignment; it ensued from India's nationalist struggle and was simply non-negotiable. While the precise contours of India's role have evolved significantly since 1947, the essence of an independent identity has remained resilient.
All but the most perceptive observers focus on nomenclature rather than the substance of India's ethos. For example, the term non-alignment is so contested and linked to the Cold War era, and, of the Congress Party's dominance during that period that mere semantic renovations often negate what is otherwise a bipartisan belief.
Indeed, the essence of Indian nationalism has not diminished. Modi's political success reflects its resurgence.
Modi's foreign policy: change and continuity
Both the above trends - multipolarity and a palpable quest for an independent and dignified role in the international order and its institutions - will shape and constrain the policy preferences that Modi's government pursues.
If bipolarity ensured that sustaining an Indian identity was feasible, unipolarity dramatically challenged the legitimacy and efficacy of adhering to such an identity. A multipolar balance of power enables Indian elites to preserve an independent identity.
Yet, simply seeking and acquiring the ability to maneuver between the more powerful states is not enough. India needs to carefully define its own security and developmental interests and preferences in different regions and issue areas, and then craft partnerships with the relevant powers to advance or secure these interests. It could be the US on one issue or region, Russia another, China another, and Iran another. This is where strategic pragmatism, political leadership, and, inter-agency cooperation matters. The Modi regime will inherit a national security system that needs strategic guidance, management, and, arbitration of bureaucratic interests at the apex level.
What of South Asia policy?
One of the paradoxical legacies of the unipolar-globalized era was that India in a sense retreated to its territorial shell and ceased to be an active shaper of its periphery. It is paradoxical because at another level, the post-Cold War phase was also about India engaging more deeply with the world and integrating with the global order.
But regionally, India's interests were re-defined to focus on economic growth perhaps not very different from Deng Xiaoping's strategy for China, which can be summarized as leave geopolitics aside and focus on the economy.
Thus, other than consistently affirming the need for a "peaceful periphery" India did not underwrite this by a clear geostrategy and policy. There has been no official articulation of what India's regional interests and role is other than to attract its neighbors to participate in India's economy. Astute observers have highlighted that since the 1990s, India's regional policy has been largely devoid of both norms and a sense of power.
A multipolar environment makes such an ambivalent regional role potentially costly because it leaves the door open for external powers and India's smaller neighbors to pursue their interests without much concern for India's regional position or for regional stability. Thus, the Modi regime will face the challenge of constructing a balanced regional role, which focuses on both economic and geopolitical issues.
An analogy from an early period of India's foreign policy can be made with the contemporary flux. It is often argued that Patel was the primary builder of the post-partitioned Indian state, which Nehru went on to leverage in an ambitious way in the 1950s. As the late J N Dixit aptly observed, "Nehru's vision was built on the foundations of stability and unity brought about by Sardar Patel."
The Modi regime is arguably placed at a similar crossroad where the imperative for deeper engagement with Asia and the world can only be sustained on a foundation of internal stability, institutional renewal, robust economic growth and development, and, of course a secure periphery.
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Zorawar Daulet Singh is a doctoral candidate at King's College, London and author of India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond, Delhi: Viva, 2009.