The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The changing international face of India and its unchanged self

Crossing the Rubicon The Shaping of India’s New Foreign Policy By C. Raja Mohan, Viking, Rs 450

The collapse of the Soviet Union opened a new period of diplomatic history. It brought down the curtain on the traditional system of the Balance of Power. For several centuries, the politics of Balance of Power had operated to prevent any country from dominating the European and, later, the global state system. A powerful state aspiring to domination would find its way barred by a counterbalancing combination of states. During the Cold War years, two opposing alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact, mutually ensured that neither could aspire to global domination.

This period of history came to an end when the Soviet Union imploded, leaving the United States of America the sole superpower. In terms of military power, the US today is immune to challenge by any other power or combination of powers. The Balance of Power system is temporarily inoperational.

From a third world perspective, each superpower served as a countervailing force against the other during the Cold War years. The collapse of the bipolar order offered new challenges — but also new opportunities — for a country like India. It meant the loss of a Soviet countervailing power but it also meant the end of the US-Pakistan military alliance that had been the main roadblock to closer Indo-US relations.

C. Raja Mohan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, offers a vivid and comprehensive account of the resultant transformation of India’s foreign policy in Crossing the Rubicon. His principal focus is on two themes — India’s new ties with the sole superpower, the US, and its new status as a declared nuclear-weapons power. The book also offers perceptive analyses of India’s relations with Russia, China, Pakistan, south Asia and India’s extended neighbourhood in west, central, southeast and eastern Asia.

Raja Mohan shows that the “reorientation of Indian foreign policy during the Nineties was a response to the structural changes in the international system and within the nation. The end of the Cold War and the economic imperatives of globalization demanded a recasting of India’s external relations…Although the Indian leadership did not consciously articulate a new foreign policy framework, incremental changes throughout the Nineties accumulated to produce a new approach to the world by the end of the decade.”

Though the two defining breakthroughs — the nuclear weapon tests and the forging of close ties with Washington — occurred during the stewardship of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, the groundwork for these developments had been laid during previous regimes. The foreign policy of the Vajpayee years, Raja Mohan writes, “must be seen as a more powerful implementation of the ideas that were initiated by Rajiv Gandhi and promoted by Narasimha Rao’s government.” He points out that it was Rajiv Gandhi who ordered the weaponization of India’s nuclear option in 1989. The search for closer ties with Washington after the 1971 set-back was begun by Indira Gandhi and the thaw in Indo-US ties was broken in her meeting with President Ronald Reagan in Cancun in 1981.

Crossing the Rubicon is an admirable work despite a couple of blemishes. First, its assertion that the “center of gravity of Indian foreign policy…shifted from idealism to realism in the 1990s” is open to question. Indira Gandhi was a far more accomplished practitioner of realpolitik than any of her successors. Second, it employs the term “alliance” somewhat loosely, thereby obscuring important policy nuances. Thus, India’s relations with the erstwhile Soviet Union are viewed as a “de facto alliance”, while its current policy towards the US is described as “throwing itself into a full-fledged military alliance” or, less recklessly, as “crafting an alliance-like relationship with the United States”. A chapter titled “Beyond Non-alignment” is devoted to the theme that though non-alignment has not been formally abandoned, Indian foreign policy today “bear[s] no resemblance to the idea of non-alignment.”

The essential feature of an alliance is that it involves long-term coordination of foreign and defence policy among its members — inevitably on terms reflecting the balance of power between them. If there is a vast disparity of power between members, the weaker countries risk losing the ability to shape their policies independently. This has always been the rationale of non-alignment. India’s appeal to the US for military assistance in 1962, or the conclusion of the Indo-Soviet Treaty in 1971, were responses to specific situations; they involved neither long-term policy coordination nor loss of independence in policy formulation.

The US today is not looking for new allies outside Europe. Its policy is to create, whenever necessary, a “coalition of the willing” to join it in a specific initiative. Each partner decides, in the light of its national interests, the extent and nature of its participation. There is no obligation to join in any other American venture. Participation in a temporary coalition, on the merits of a case, does not involve a departure from a non-aligned or independent foreign policy. This point must be understood in current policy debates.

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