Look back to look ahead: A foreign policy rethink
As the world order begins to change due to Russia’s war on Ukraine, India should work in its national interest and shift its arms purchases from Russia to the West
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a good occasion to contextualise foreign policy and its practice over time. It is also a good time to recognise the changing imperatives for India in navigating its choices.
In the years before the 1800s, the term foreign policy could easily be confused with conquest. Leaders created strong armies and navies to impose their suzerainty on other kingdoms and used the royalties they collected to strengthen their armies and navies, build monuments, fill their coffers and spend conspicuously, thereby obtaining glory.
Some wrinkles were added to the maxim of “power for pillage” in the conduct of foreign policy, with the rise of liberal democracies and capitalism around the 1800s. In the reign of King George III, substantial powers moved from the monarch to parliament, including the selection of the prime minister. In the same period, America became a constitutional democracy.
However, this did not prevent the continued colonisation of many parts of Asia and Africa. Military power was still key, but extraction was aided by more legalistic means such as taxation, and forced exports and imports from the colonies. The rents extracted were also used for other purposes, beyond just strengthening the military. The economy benefited and modernised, and there was a widening per capita gap between the rulers and the ruled.
The wrinkle, as it were, was still important. Democracy brought with it a new vocabulary, the cry in the French Revolution of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite was tough to restrict only to the citizens of that country. To counter such “seditious aspirations”, Rudyard Kipling articulated the colonist’s most forceful justification in his poem, The White Man’s Burden — which was a “duty” asserted by white people to manage the affairs of non-white people, as they were believed to be less developed. It was the ultimate hegemony of the superpower, where the interests of the hegemon were argued to be the interests of the whole world. The narrative was owned by the hegemon and its powerful media, which gave convincing airtime to this commentary.
Mahatma Gandhi cleverly used this narrative against the British in crafting India’s freedom struggle. He highlighted the immorality of British rule by exposing its egregious excesses that deprived Indians of their fundamental economic freedom and right to livelihood. He weaponised the narrative of democracy to make a case for freedom and independence, at great personal cost to himself and fellow freedom fighters who would also face imprisonment and beatings for over three decades. After a while, even parts of western media were forced to recognise the injustices and cruelty of British rule. Despite that, India achieved Independence only after World War II (WWII), with a shift in global power from Britain to the United States (US).
Interestingly, after Independence, China and India agreed on, and adopted, the Panchsheel Principles of mutual respect and non-aggression, which, in some sense, led to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). China violated these principles when it attacked India in 1962, but the latter remained a leader of NAM, supporting the oppressed, be they in Palestine or South Africa.
Post-WWII, NAM tried to stay outside of the two major blocks — the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Over time, the US moved closer to Pakistan due to its need to find a buffer against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
India’s stance on Palestine (against Israel), Soviet support for India in the 1971 war with Pakistan (creating Bangladesh), India’s nuclear explosion in 1974, and its refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, India’s purchase of armaments from the Soviet Union, and Richard Nixon’s dislike of Indira Gandhi, all took India closer to the Soviets.
India’s foreign policy was shaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and India’s horrible balance of payments crisis in 1991. This forced a reset. Fortuitously, the crisis led to India undertaking economic reforms, with support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which led to the opening up of the economy and a consistent growth period thereafter.
In 1998, India conducted a set of underground nuclear explosions, resulting in international criticism and moderate US sanctions to exercise strategic autonomy. At the time, the US was championing the integration of China into the global trading system, including the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The 2000-2010 decade gave the Chinese economy a $5 trillion-fillip, putting it on its path to superpower-dom; then 9/11 created an opportunity for India to foster closer ties with the US, as the latter’s views on Pakistan altered (even more so after Osama bin Laden was found in a Pakistani military cantonment). This was strengthened by the power and wealth of the Indian diaspora in the US. Their presence in politics, business, technology, medicine, and academia led to a softening of US perceptions of India.
Post-2014, US views on China changed. President Donald Trump called out China as the US’s biggest threat, a view that now has full bipartisan support and continues under Joe Biden. In this superpower rivalry, Pakistan has now thrown its lot with China and Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine, has made Russia follow suit.
The US now sees India as a counter-balance to China. Likewise, India cannot ally with China and Pakistan, its key rivals, and its technology needs are much closer aligned with the US. Unfortunately, India’s dependence on arms purchases from Russia has complicated its current options, even making it abstain from voting in the United Nations with Pakistan and China. This is not in its interest. Going forward, as Russia becomes a subaltern partner to China, dependence on Russian arms will be very risky.
India must shift its arms purchases away from Russia to the West. Simultaneously, the government must provide predictability and reliability in defence demand, so that the private sector enters defence production in a big way.
This is where our future lies.
Janmejaya Sinha is chairman, BCG India
The views expressed are personal