The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Foreign policy must be dictated by national self-interest

Nehruvian foreign policy’s cardinal principles were non-alignment, non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, neutrality and non-violent means for resolving disputes. It enabled India to survive and grow in a bipolar Cold War world. The American tilt towards Pakistan during the Cold War, the support to India given by the Soviet Union during the Bangladesh war and so on tilted the “dynamic neutrality” of Indian foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. India’s foreign policy, especially under Nehru, was related to high moral positions. It was not always consistent (for example, soft response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia). The world saw the invasion of Goa to evict the Portuguese as a blatant violation of the principle of non-violence. The world resented Nehru’s highly moralistic tone in commenting on world events.

The heyday for non-alignment was the Bandung Conference. The Chinese also embraced panchsheel, the five principles of co-existence. But not limited by similar moral scruples, China went to war with India on indeterminate borders. India and Nehru ate humble pie and sought American help. But reluctance to come close to the United States of America remained, later aggravated by Indira Gandhi’s anti-Americanism, “socialist” policies of nationalization, state control and high walls against foreign trade and investment flows. Non-alignment continues in the Indian foreign policy lexicon but the words have been hollow for years.

But no moral scruples prevented us from our alleged covert support till the Seventies to rebels in Tibet against the Chinese occupiers or to giving training and financial support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, while preaching non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Up front we accepted Chinese suzerainty over Tibet and supported the Sri Lankan nation’s territorial integrity. We remained committed in public to a moral approach to world affairs. The practice was different.

The sad state of the Indian economy made us timid as well. We could take the moral position that it was wrong to evict resident Palestinians from the land they had occupied for over 2,000 years to give Jews a homeland they had been evicted from 2,000 years ago. While we wanted Palestinians to have a right of return to their homeland we were not bothered about the Jewish people who had by then occupied it. It supported our dependence on west Asian labour markets and the remittances from our migrants there. The fact that Israel was seen as a client of the US increased our hostility to it. But our moral formulation did not lead us to ask for a similar right of return for Tibetans in India and displacing the imported Chinese who had taken their place.

The Nineties and the end of the Cold War brought the first halting realization that our foreign policies were not safeguarding our self-interest. We had supported Aung San Suu Kyi as a representative of her people against the wicked generals who had jailed her. So the generals would not help us against our rebels in the Northeast who set up bases within Myanmar from which to attack us. It began to dawn on us that a foreign policy that did what was “right” would not give us the right results. We went back to Kautilya, Machiavelli and Kissinger to realize that our foreign policy must always be rooted only in the strict and rigid interpretation of national interests, not in high moral principles.

Henry Kissinger’s “in your face” foreign polices have reached their culmination in the policies of President George W. Bush. Its essential principle is that what is right and good for the US is so for the world, that the US is entitled to take any actions and seek alliances with any regime, however brutal and dictatorial, if American self-interest required it.

Kissinger’s Nixon theatre propagated the erratic nature of the “mad” president. This was to force the Vietnamese to negotiate. Dishonesty and dissembling were legitimate foreign policy tools. Another strand was the paramountcy of the American perception of self-interest. This led to Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption whereby the US can attack any country that it feels constitutes a threat to it.

Machiavelli put it very well: “Where the deliberation is wholly touching the safety of the fatherland there ought to be no consideration of just or unjust, pitiful or cruel, honourable or dishonourable, but rather, all other respect being laid aside, that course ought to be taken which may preserve the life and maintain the life and liberty thereof.” He went on to say: “It is necessary for a prince who desires to preserve himself to be able to make use of honesty or to lay it aside as need shall require.” Moral principle had to be flexible for use in a country’s self-interest and not a super ordinate goal by itself.

The National Democratic Alliance government came to power with some very clear beliefs. They wanted India to be recognized as a major power in the world commensurate with its size and ancient history. This required it to have military power. That meant being armed with nuclear weapons. It required economic strength and that meant doing all the things that the West recommended — opening the economy to trade and investment, getting the government out of owning and managing enterprises, bringing down direct and indirect taxation, reducing bureaucratic delays, tightening the regulatory system and making it transparent, and generally abandoning the antediluvian economic philosophy of the conservative Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The third aspect was peace and friendship. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has travelled far and near and developed strong relationships with China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, South Africa and Brazil. But the most important of the rebuilt relations was the closeness to Israel, the US and the European Union. These friendly ties began to isolate Pakistan.

It also inevitably meant major efforts at peace with Pakistan. This was helped by September 11 and later developments. The exposure of the Pakistani links with the taliban and other Islamic fundamentalist terror groups, and its exporting of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and even North Korea put major international pressure on Pakistan for flexibility. Rising internal terrorism in Pakistan also helped.

The NDA’s policies were centred purely on India’s self-interest and not “moral” values. India did not go overboard (as it would have in earlier times) in condemning the American invasion of Iraq (though Iraq had been the only Islamic nation that was a friend to India) or the specious reason that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction”. India made friends with Israel to take advantage of its military technology, its expertise in dealing with terrorists and because friendship with Israel would help in the rapproachment with the US. In the event there was no hostile reaction from the Arab countries. Indeed, the Iraq invasion might lead to democratization of Arab countries and to their reining in their terrorist activities through fundamentalist groups, much to the relief of India.

Similarly, peace with Pakistan was very much in India’s interest. The terrorist infiltration supported by Pakistan had to stop. The massive deployment of Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir might be affordable but it diverted attention from the growing might of India in the world. The centrality of enmity with India in Pakistani foreign policy was not in the Indian interest. It made Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir the constant focus of world attention in relation to India and prevented the recognition of India as a power on the world stage.

The decline of civil society in Pakistan and the free availability of all kinds of military arms and equipment to terrorist and rogue military groups would ultimately affect India, which would have to deal with them as they infiltrated into India.

Moral principles are vital to individual and national life. But in foreign policy they must be replaced by the national self-interest. Their coincidence is an advantage but cannot determine foreign policy. As the only world superpower the US can try to impose its moral perception of its superior system. As a smaller power we must focus entirely on what will safeguard our borders, enhance our security and develop our nation.

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