Shri Kanwal Sibal, Member Advisory Board, VIF
We should be politically clear-sighted about our supposed “international obligations” as a rising global power. We are accused at times of being “free-loaders” who benefit from the global system without assuming sufficient responsibility for maintaining it. Now that India is rising as a global power we are expected to share the burden of maintaining a stable and peaceful international environment that allows global trade, investment and prosperity to spread accompanied by an expansion of human freedoms and democracy.
When President Obama perorated before Indian parliamentarians in November last year that with increased power comes increased responsibility, the allusion was to a vocal western complaint that countries like India are more comfortable being “fence-sitters” on vital international issues, letting the West bear the burden of addressing them, and profiting from the benefits that flow to the international community as a whole.
India is therefore expected to take costly decisions not immediately in India’s narrowly defined national interest, but necessary for upholding certain basic values that should govern the functioning of the international system, such as human rights, democracy, non-proliferation, open markets and the like.
The underlying thought is that India must demonstrate its commitment to uphold the existing international order developed by the West, with such improvements or changes as western countries would willingly or grudgingly concede to accommodate new realities, in return for a stronger global consensus around the core structures. We are expected to conduct ourselves as responsible “stake-holders” in the global enterprise whose board membership we have begun to claim.
The basis of such thinking is questionable. Too often adopting balanced positions that eschew partisanship can be viewed as “fence-sitting”. So can hesitation to violate the sovereignty of countries or support ouster of distasteful regimes through use of force by a coalition of the willing. A reluctance to endorse controversial doctrines such as those of “humanitarian intervention” or the “right to protection”, which become more controversial when applied selectively, can also be criticized as shirking of responsibility. Those wanting India to subscribe to their approach and policies may find its wish to make independent judgments as symptomatic of a tendency to play safe, choose low-cost options and escape “responsibility”.
Countries base their policies on an understanding of their own national interest or the larger interest of the alliance to which they belong, keeping also in mind the instruments at their disposal to achieve their ends. In the practical world of foreign relations policies are not governed by abstract principles, even if, for gaining greater international legitimacy, the pursuit of national interest is often cloaked in the garb of some higher principle or cause.
India need not feel overly pressed by external calls to demonstrate its eligibility for a higher international status by joining in advancing certain “principles” of global governance, as these “principles” are not observed uniformly and are discarded when they come into open conflict with national interest.
International law, treaty obligations or the UN Charter can, of course, provide the basis for countries to assume their individual “responsibility” for the functioning of the international order, but beyond that the guiding principle has to be congruence of national interest. Those who expect India to bear a higher burden for maintaining the existing international system with its distortions and new stresses because of novel doctrines espoused by dominant western powers, assume a degree of congruence that does not as yet exist.
India cannot overlook critical areas in which sufficient rapprochement of Indian and western interests is yet to occur. The existing international system, established in 1945, hasn’t given us a satisfactory place in it as yet in strategic terms, whether it is the UN Security Council or the international financial institutions. We have been subject to decades of sanctions in the areas of nuclear energy, space and dual technologies, and while nuclear restrictions have been eased meaningfully, and some forward movement is occurring in the other two, attitudes towards us in these fields remain ambivalent. The global non-proliferation regime has progressively acquired NPT-plus structures, making it difficult for us, as a non-NPT signatory, to align ourselves fully with all initiatives undertaken under its mantle.
Western policies in our neighbourhood remain seriously problematic for us. The US is unwilling or unable to deal firmly with Pakistan’s highly destabilizing conduct in the region. Despite historical experience and the all too clear state of disarray in a military dominated Pakistan, it continues to arm the country, contrary to the objective of encouraging democracy there, lessening the political role of the armed forces and reducing tensions with India.
Pakistan’s glaring complicity with terror is being treated as a negotiating chip in the western end-game in Afghanistan. Strengthening counter-terrorism cooperation with India is important, and concern about India’s reaction to another Mumbai- like attack with links to Pakistan may be understandable, but the solution lies elsewhere, that in reading the riot act to the Pakistan government not only on attacks from its soil against homeland USA but also against India.
Democratic India would, of course, welcome the spread of pluralism and democracy world wide. A more democratic global order should in principle be a more peaceful one. But for us democracy is a choice, not a prescription. We don’t feel any responsibility to impose it by force on others, or lecture them on its virtues. Why should we be expected to back intrusive policies to bring about democratic change in select countries that the West views with antagonism when those friendly to it are spared such pressure? If such distinctions are made in function of larger national interests, India should have the latitude to make them too.
If the West’s energy calculus requires some authoritarian Sunni states to be treated with tolerance, why should India’s energy interests not require it to protect its long term interests in a major Shia country? Why should the disruptive nuclear aspirations of this country hostile to the West be more reprehensible than the clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapon technology by a “major non-NATO ally” like Pakistan, and the continuing expansion of its nuclear capabilities with dubious external support against which western protests are muted? This is not to be polemical but to underline why with all the welcome improvement of our relations with the West, the cogs in the wheels of our respective foreign policies are not firmly interlocking as yet.
India’s position on anti-colonial struggles, apartheid, nuclear disarmament, the discriminatory NPT, the global development agenda, a balanced Doha Round outcome, an improved defence and security relationship with the US while protecting traditional ties, a dynamic Look East policy, improved relations with Japan, growing economic ties with China while hedging politically and militarily against its threatening rise, the combat against international terrorism, commitment to Afghanistan, handling Pakistan, absorbing pressure on Iran, deepening ties with the Gulf countries, expanding our footprint in Africa, participation in non-western groupings involving Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa, cannot be characterized as fence-sitting. The West should discard its prejudices against “nonalignment” when appraising the rationale of India’s policies.
We share the core value of democracy with the West, but democracy does not mean falling in line; it means making willing adjustments in pursuit of shared interests.
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary
No Reason For India To Align With West On Its Pet Causes