Palpable realism

India has recognised that morality in foreign policy lies in the pursuit of the national interest

The notion of “national interest”—the basis of the realist school of international relations—is a flawed one, argues Achin Vanaik, in an article that purports to critique Indian foreign policy since 1991. It cannot be objectively defined, he contends, making it a convenient tool employed by the state to pass off any foreign policy as being in the national interest. And the state, in Vanaik’s off-the-shelf Marxist interpretation, is in thrall of the capitalistic elite, and therefore only represents their class interests.

What really drives foreign policy is “the political (and therefore moral) character of the leadership strata that shapes and makes foreign policy decisions”, including the “dominant classes and their middle class support base”. On the basis of this interpretation of international relations and Indian foreign policy, he goes on to his real targets—American imperialism and free-market economics, but more of that later.

Although Vanaik cites Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz he shows little understanding of their key arguments. Morgenthau, for example, clearly defines the core of the national interest to be survival—of territory, institution and culture. In India’s case, this implies a realist foreign policy would call for, at the minimum, the safeguarding of India’s territorial integrity, its constitution and its secular democratic society. Beyond this, the definition of national interest can be broadened—without diluting its objectivity—to encompass security of its economy and of its people. The suggestion that national interest cannot be objectively defined is not true. [Related Post: How this translates into specific foreign policy objectives]

In the Marxist interpretation, the state is a tool in the hands of the capitalist class, which uses it to pursue its ends—profit at the expense of the labour. In the Indian context, this translates into a narrative that holds that the ruling classes—defined both in economic and social terms—use the state to exploit the suppressed classes. There are two main problems with this interpretation when it is brought to bear in explaining policy behaviour of states. First, it mistakes correlation for causation—because states follow capitalist-friendly policies, it does not necessarily follow that this is because capitalists that control the levers. Second, it does not account for policies that are actually unfriendly to capitalists.

Vanaik may be right when he points out that India’s foreign policy is the preserve of a section of the ruling class as well as the foreign policy establishment (as it is in most countries). But it does not follow that the policies themselves serve the narrow interests of the ‘class’ that shapes them. He does not offer any concrete examples in support of his argument. On the contrary, it is possible to make a reasonable case that on the most significant issues—the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, closer ties with the United States and even the ongoing détente with Pakistan—India’s foreign policy is consistent with general public opinion.

Nor is Vanaik breaking any fresh ground when he contends that it is the moral character of the leadership determines foreign policy decisions. Indeed, the role of moral values has been recognised by the very Realists that Vanaik seeks to refute. While arguing that political morality lies in the pursuit of the national interest, Morgenthau maintained that moral values ‘set the contours of practical political action’ .

Although Vanaik’s subtitle promises an analysis of India’s foreign policy since the end of the cold war the article does nothing of that sort. Instead it is essentially a polemic directed against the 1991 economic reforms, that, according to Vanaik, have accelerated the ‘inequality in income, wealth and power’ between ‘classes and social groups’. The beneficiaries of these reforms, he argues, have a vested interest in embracing closer ties with the United States. And as a result, beyond lip service, India will be unable to ‘secure justice’ for Iraqis, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and Iranians.

Obviously, Vanaik’s conclusions rest on his interpretation of the impact of the opening of the Indian economy since 1991. But even if one believes that the economic reforms left some people better off at the expense of others (despite evidence to the contrary) it still is a gigantic leap of faith to conclude that this should result in anything beyond economic engagement with the United States. If it were the case, then China’s economic reforms, for example, should have led to a strategic partnership with the United States. Instead, we have it attempting to balance the United States in classic balance of power fashion. The United States, on its part, sees in India the potential to balance China in Asia. There is a body of opinion that holds that much of India’s major foreign policy has, for the most part, been driven by realism—even during the cold war. For example, despite non-alignment, India entered the Soviet corner in the early 1970s in response to the US-China-Pakistan alignment. Similarly, despite being couched in the rhetoric of being ‘natural allies’, the strategic relationship between India and the United States is driven by convergence of interests in the geopolitics of the current age.

Beyond implicit but unsubstantiated moral principles, Vanaik does not offer any explanation as to why India should be concerned with ‘securing justice’ for Iraqis, Palestinians and others in West Asia. Why should India not, for example, fight to secure justice for Tibetans, Taiwanese, Myanmarese, Darfuris, White Zimbabweans, Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority or Europe’s Muslims? It turns out that India’s reluctance to fight for the rights of the world’s oppressed people is not limited to conflicts that involve America or its allies. Indeed, it is clear that India’s policy towards these conflicts is driven not by moral principles but by an astute determination of, well, its own national interest.

The Realist shift in India’s foreign policy is palpable: from the recognition and engagement with Israel, to breaking the ice with the Myanmarese junta, to the ‘Look East’ policy, to the new maritime doctrine, to the investment in anti-ballistic missile technology, besides, of course, the strategic partnership with the United States. There have, of course, been deviations from the Realist prescription. Such deviations, while unfortunate and expensive, are in the order of things in a democracy. By and large though, a dispassionate observer of India’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War arrives at the inescapable conclusion that its underlying rationale is the one offered by Realism.

13 thoughts on “Palpable realism”

  1. When I see anybody preaching from the pulpit that India should “secure justice” for “Iraqis, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and Iranians” etc, I feel like reaching for a gun. Why not put our own house in order first, by securing justice for Kashmiri exiles living in refugee camps for a decade and half now?

  2. Nitin – Dont even waste time on these idiots, you lend them far more credibility by dignifying their rantings with a response, nobody pays much attention to them anyway. In their perverse value system it is all about appearing globally politically correct to impress somebody, god knows who, my guess is their white skinned peers in the liberal west going by the frequency with which Arundhati Roy appeared on Air America which btw went bankrupt. The Hindu, Achin Vanaik, Arundhati Roy are all symptoms of the same malaise. Even a breath pronouncing their names is a breath wasted.

  3. A very interesting analysis and discussion of realism. I see many similarities with the use of straw-men realists in U.S. discourse about foreign policy.

    What is also interesting from the Washington vantage point is the sense–which I think a number of people here lack–that there are overarching principles guiding Indian foreign policy–and that they are based on concrete interests, not vague sentiments about shared values.

  4. I hope and pray that india’s ‘marxists’ will one day just drop dead , Basu, bhattacharya , freakin politburos ,the hindu newspaper et al.

  5. Achin and fellow Trotskyite Prafool Bidwai have been making asses of themselves for over 20 years now. They have trained a bunch of jackasses such Sid Varadarajan (who thinks India shd be wary of Japan for its territorial ambitions!) and caught the fancy of a whole lot of otherwise well read folk such as ‘Locana’ Anand, Dcubed, and TA Abinandanan. Now jumping into this moron’s revel is the Master of All Subjects “economst”, “philosopher”, self-anointed “sanskritist” Amartya Sen. Thanks to an utterly opportunistic and dishonest Congress that has decided to compromise every principle and give up every national right in order to build internal political alliances to sustain a permanent sinecure for the 1st family, nonsense is peddled as wisdom. The last 2.5 years have seen India gradually turning into a banana republic; with assorted carpetbaggers (the few, the stupid, the “intellectuals”) push crackpot theories and cook up ruinous public policy (NREG etc.)

  6. While I do appreciate the fact that our foreign policy should be dictated primarily by “national interests”, it should still not be totally against certain things we stand for like in the case of Tibet. If we can balance the national interest perspective with our belief in values(though a chism is unavoidable), it would hold us in good steed.

    But while all this is debatable, I really deplore the kind of vitriolic language we seem to spill over each other when there are differences of opinion. The Right and the Left, understandably, have differences of opinion but isn’t it possible to appreciate each other’s opinions instead of slamming each other. Democracy does not merely mean expressing each other’s opinion but also respecting the other person’s right to opinion. After all, the means may be different but are’nt we looking towards a common objective?

  7. Pradeep

    The Right and the Left, understandably, have differences of opinion but isn’t it possible to appreciate each other’s opinions instead of slamming each other. Democracy does not merely mean expressing each other’s opinion but also respecting the other person’s right to opinion. After all, the means may be different but are’nt we looking towards a common objective?

    I appreciate your sentiment to find common ground. But your question is appropriate: it is possible to debate and compromise with people who agree on the ends. But it is impossible to agree with Marxists which not just sees the world in terms of a class struggle, but believes that upturning the state through revolution. We’ve seen how that played out in the twentieth century.

    Btw, I slam the Leftist worldview because I appreciate it. I see no reason to respect it. But yes, I would respect anyone’s right to hold the opinion. But that’s not the same as insisting that it should become policy.

  8. Hi Nitin,

    I had no idea that unabashed Marxists still existed. I always thought that Bidwai, Vanaik, et al were leftists in the center-left sense (perhaps I should have read more) but oh well…

    That said, the only way of refuting Vanaik’s point — and redeem Realism, which you clearly seem to believe in — is to actually mark out how our “national interest” does result in gains to most (if not all) social groups in India. Your post on specific foreign policy objectives for India seems to have exactly the fault Vanaik talks about in his essay: it talks in terms of state actors and their actions. To rebut Vanaik (no hurry), you need to list how these specific objectives (and their fulfillment) will result in some kind of advantage for all (or most) of India’s groups (class, communities…).

    I’ve no doubt that this can be done though. Of course Vanaik wouldn’t agree since he seems to despise the “global capitalistic order” and almost all of neoclassical economics. That said, both Marxists and neoclassical economists do have the same ends — some kind of over-all “welfare” for everyone. They just differ (and how!) about the means: we think the market and some state reglation should do it, they don’t and I don’t think there can ever be any commmon ground, short of ridding the world of all its evils.

    Finally, there’s the question of how far can we go in pursuing our “national interest”. We need some kind of hard limit. Just as domestically, we do not pursue certain means even if they lead to goals that are desirable (for instance, forcibly sterilizing all Indian men, to take an extreme example). Internationally, what are the actions we will simply not consider even if objectively they do tend to work out in our interests? (This doesn’t mean that India jump into the fray to resolve every problem in the world but just that we try our best, not to exacerbate them or even create them).

  9. Shreeharsh,

    Finally, there’s the question of how far can we go in pursuing our “national interest”. We need some kind of hard limit. Just as domestically, we do not pursue certain means even if they lead to goals that are desirable (for instance, forcibly sterilizing all Indian men, to take an extreme example). Internationally, what are the actions we will simply not consider even if objectively they do tend to work out in our interests?

    That’s a fair point. Morgenthau’s response is that the domestic political process will place those limits intrinsically; ethics, norms and mores of the nation will act as “restraints” that will “tame” the naked pursuit of national interest. To that, I would add the natural give and take of the parliamentary system (not to speak of coalition governments). In India’s case, we need not worry so much about placing “hard” limits. Indeed, there are restraints that constrain the pursuit of power even before reaching the point where we think the “hard limits” can be. Natwar Singh and the Congress party took money from Saddam Hussein and opposed sending troops to Iraq in 2003. The emotions of families were sensationalised in 2000 forcing Vajpayee to cave in to Pakistani hijackers. And what about Sri Lanka today? Etc.

  10. If the “national interest” that Achin and his flock of fools hate so much has to be put through the public good sieve; why shd Achin’s policy of “securing justice” not be put through the same sieve. After all how much ever he tries to pomp up his rhetoric, “securing justice” is simply another national interest. I am sure even Achin isn’t so stupid as to think that we are about to believe that India’s disastrous Nehruvian foreign policy was backed by the people. Although independent India calls its Diplomatic Enclave Chanakyapuri the great man after who it is named would guffaw at the pretensions of the ignoramuses of our khichdi cabinet running foreign policy. Chanakya recognised that national interest would have to be derived from individual and family interests where continuing in classical Indian tradition left it simply at artha, and kama, leaving it to the King to maintain dharma within which these two ends would be met peacefully. Order at all times is meant to prevent the emergence of matsya nyaya – or big fish eats small fish – which is what according to Chanakya any unchecked system will descend into. foreign policy is meant entirely to let the king maintain dharma and not compromise it, which any foreign threat invariably will necessitate. In the Arthashastra everyone has the unquestioned right to make a living and get by without undue interference from the state. The police state was supposed to be invisible to the lay person and its ferocious side was meant to be seen by the bureaucrats. Not very complicated but profound considering when it was written.

  11. Shiva,

    Thanks for that reference to Kautilya’s works. For the sake of brevity (in an already long essay) I left out references to the Arthashastra. Indeed, accounting for the social context, Kautilya anticipated Morgenthau by over two millenia. The fact about morality in international relations being the national interest is almost straight out of Kautilya’s book.

    For those interested in reading the actual work, the 1915 Shama Shastry edition is available online. It informs, educates and entertains!

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