Non-alignment to confrontation: Indian Prime Minister Nehru with Egypt’s Nasser and Yugoslavia’s Tito at the Belgrade Conference in 1961 (top); Chinese and Indian soldiers at the Himalayan border in 1962
BLOOMINGTON: If the purpose of a book cover is to draw readers’ attention, the recent document on Indian foreign policy was a huge success. Entitled NonAlignment 2.0 – a principle during the early Cold War that most sensible commentators deemed moribund – has shaken up observers of Indian diplomacy.
The concept obviously remains a critical part of the Indian diplomatic lexicon otherwise influential, thoughtful analysts of India’s foreign and domestic policies would not title a major document like this. The great merit of the study – choice of title notwithstanding – is its highlighting of a distressing feature of the current discussions of Indian foreign and security policies: the tendency to deal with pressing issues in broad generalities.
Written by former officials, scholars and analysts, the report was presented by the Centre for Policy Research. Through the use of a popular buzzword, “strategic autonomy,” the authors seek to infuse new life into this corpus. But in practical terms, such a policy may not prove beneficial to India. Has the putative lack of such autonomy hurt key American allies such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia or South Korea? The UK and Japan may well face structural economic woes, largely of their own making, yet their close ties with the United States certainly have not diminished their global standing.
The authors provide no clear-cut explanation on the great value that can be attributed to this quest for “strategic autonomy.” Instead they take refuge in such shibboleths that India “not define its national interest to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere” and that it retain “maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its own developmental goals.” Sadly, neither of these two propositions offers much concrete guidance to policymakers: They are, in effect, counsels of perfection.
NonAlignment 2.0 offers no explanation
Other elements of the document depict a degree of self-absorption and self-congratulation. For example, the authors argue that, “The world recognizes that it needs India to succeed. This is an asset that we have rather taken for granted, and it behoves (sic) us now to leverage that global consensus as effectively as we can.” Despite this bald and bold assertion, little effort is expended to explain why the present global order deems India to be of such value or significance.
Yet it would be churlish and unjust to dismiss the significance of this document in its entirety. Despite its odd and inexplicable adherence to an archaic concept and its anodyne characterizations of India’s desired role in global affairs, it contains viable ideas and policy options. Interestingly, in its discussion of India’s bilateral relations with the People’s Republic of China, the authors display remarkable verve and imagination. Unlike much political commentary in India, which either lurches toward hysterical fear-mongering or comes laden with ideological baggage, the authors display a remarkable perspicacity in their discussion of India’s relationship with this emerging Asian behemoth. It suggests that India display firmness on its disputed northern border with China while steadily enhancing its extant maritime capabilities in the south where it currently enjoys a slight edge.
This strategy, while sensible, is not the most imaginative policy option that the report has sketched out. Instead in a later section dealing with external threats, the authors spell out a possible strategy to tie down PRC forces in India’s northeast through the use of a pre-planned guerilla war strategy in the event of a Chinese incursion and possible efforts at occupation. Given the past sensitivity, and even pusillanimity of Indian policy analyses when dealing with the longstanding border dispute, this boldness in discussing an asymmetric war strategy is certainly welcome.
The analysis displays remarkable honesty when it comes to discussing India’s governance deficits.
The analysis also displays remarkable honesty when it comes to a discussion of India’s governance deficits and infirmities and their consequences for domestic political order. In this section the authors are to be commended for their forthright discussions. They correctly underscore that the abdication of responsibilities on the part of the state, its occasionally predatory behavior and its lack of neutrality when dealing with minority populations, has precipitated a range of internal conflicts. Unless India can firmly tackle these shortcomings, its grand hopes of transcending the region and emerging as a global player will be curtailed.
Additionally, the document shows a welcome honesty in candidly addressing India’s institutional limits in coping with a host of new challenges and demands which it confronts as it steps out into the global order. To that end, the document bluntly states that faced with the proliferation of global institutions in a host of issue areas India’s capabilities are seriously lagging behind its commitments.
The document also takes cognizance of the paucity of individuals within India’s diplomatic and foreign policy communities who possess adequate training to negotiate a pathway through the complex thicket of internal legal norms and frameworks. Such a frank recognition of the country’s critical shortcomings is clearly desirable. However, once again, the authors fall short in proposing possible concrete strategies for India to carve out the leadership role that it seeks. Their formulation that the country will need to “demonstrate a leadership capacity to propose solutions to and artfully handle some of the difficult challenges facing the world” does not amount to meaningful policy guidance.
This failure to proffer more specific forms of policy-relevant advice also dogs other vital segments of this report laden with significance for the global arena. The discussion of India’s nuclear strategy, for example, evinces a tendency to hark back to the hoary days of India’s intoxication with nonalignment as its grand strategy. Among other matters it exhorts the country to seek a global “no first use” treaty. Apart from the sheer impracticality of such an endeavor, it’s disturbing that sober foreign and security policy analysts would actually place any stock in the utility of such a treaty. Worse still, it explicitly suggests that India boost the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for global disarmament from 1988. They authors seem oblivious of the fact that, when proposed, the time-bound plan for nuclear disarmament attracted little serious discussion in global forums and was allowed to die a quiet death.
The authors fall short
These tiresome features aside, the document has its merits. However, it does not succeed in outlining a coherent grand strategy for a country that has the potential for emerging as a global power and one with a keen interest in shaping the evolving global order.
Instead thanks to its unevenness, its odd policy prescriptions and its sweeping exhortations, the document falls short in its attempt to provide a novel and practical blueprint for India’s policymakers as they seek to navigate new shoals and currents in the international arena. Their failure to provide a more cogent and feasible set of policy prescriptions for the challenges confronting the country represents a lost opportunity. Indeed the report’s proclivity in many areas to resurrect tired and tiresome ideas, such as the compelling need for global nuclear disarmament, is a disturbing commentary of how unready India’s foreign and security policy communities remain in dealing with the vital challenges of a state that seeks to claim what it deems to be its rightful place in the global order.