Indians haven’t learnt to think strategically in terms of foreign policy

The late K Subrahmanyam, celebrated defence analyst, said the Indian government seemed incapable of strategic thinking. Perhaps intellectuals outside the government are no better. This has to be the verdict on an ambitious attempt by some of India’s finest thinkers, backed by the National Defence College and Centre for Policy Research , to enunciate a new foreign and strategic policy in the 21st century. Their policy paper is titled Nonalignment 2.0. This is a classic case of a title being an epitaph. The title shows, sadly, that the Cold War is over but the Cold War mentality is not. The authors include Sunil Khilnani , Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Lt Gen Prakash Menon , Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran and Siddharth Varadarajan.

They are among India’s best and brightest, and have eminently sensible things to say in various chapters: engagement with neighbours, the international order, internal strength, promoting internal democracy. Yet, the policy paper fails to bring these individual themes together into a strategic whole. It says the aim of foreign policy must be to maximise autonomy of action. Sorry, but this is plain wrong. A country refusing to have any relations at all with any other country has maximised its freedom of action, but has opted to become a pariah. Pariahs have total autonomy, but also total misery. Successful states seek to maximise their interests, not autonomy. They cultivate multiple relationships to maximise economic, political and social aims. This is multiple alignment, not non-alignment.

Every time India signs a multilateral agreement – be it with the WTO, Unicef or Basle Convention – it gives up autonomy for rule-bound membership of an association. Every time India signs a bilateral deal (like free trade agreements with Thailand or Sri Lanka), it gives up trade autonomy for the advantages of rule-bound association. In all these cases, the aim is not maximisation of autonomy but agreement on rules that curb autonomy but maximise welfare. It emphasises interdependence over autonomy. The document’s chapter, India and the International Order, recognises the need for India to globalise and promote an open world order. But globalisation implies multilateral and bilateral agreements to replace untrammelled national autonomy. The authors are unable to see that, in strategic terms, they are really talking of the merits of multiple alignments, not non-alignment at all. Multiple alignments provide plenty of room for freedom even while agreeing to be bound by rules. The document’s repeated emphasis on maximising autonomy sounds like a throwback to the days of Nehruvian self-sufficiency.

Nehru saw self-sufficiency as economic independence, as important as political independence. He saw free trade as a colonial device to keep developing countries as exporters of commodities and importers of manufactures. He and his Congress brethren saw the ghost of the East India Co in every foreign investor. Many other developing countries ignored these neo-imperialist fears, and went for interdependence rather than selfsufficiency . The four most successful ones – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong – were soon called Asian Tigers. They were followed by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. For generating GDP growth of 7% per year – double the rate of the Nehru-Indira era, and the highest in history – these countries were called miracle economies. Their economic strength gave them more true freedom of action than India, which remained heavily dependent on food aid and foreign aid, notwithstanding aspirations and claims to be self-sufficient . The Big Three of the non-aligned movement – Nehru, Tito and Nasser – produced economic systems that lagged way behind the best.

Votaries of self-sufficiency sneered that these Asian Tigers would become imperial puppets, doomed to domination and poverty. In fact, supposed puppets like Singapore and Hong Kong soon became richer than their former imperial master, Britain. India, of course, remained steeped in poverty and aid dependence. The self-sufficiency crowd changed its argument: it now claimed that small countries like Singapore could globalise successfully but not large ones like India. This myth was finally buried when China, the biggest country, successfully adopted globalisation as its route to become world number one. Even during the Cold War, non-alignment was more farce than strategy. Almost every developing nation joined it. But intellectually, the movement was a failure, since it ended up including the entire ideological spectrum from Cuba to Singapore.

In pursuit of sheer numbers, the Non-Aligned Movement opted to become conceptually vacuous. Instead of deriding that farce, the title Nonalignment 2.0 displays nostalgia for that nonsense. Over 150 years ago, Lord Palmerston defined good foreign policy: we have no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests. He was clear that every country should have alignments, along with the understanding that every alignment was temporary, depending on changing circumstances. The 20th century showed that shifting alignment was not the only way to promote national interests. Multiple alignments could do so too.

These could be at the neighbourhood, regional or global level. Every alignment replaced autonomy with rules, yet retained some space for independent action. All countries aim for wiggle room within international agreements. Obviously, India must play this game too. But this tactic must not be confused with grand strategy. That requires multiple alignments that maximise interests rather than autonomy, and promote interdependence over self-reliance.

What do you think?