It’s not Spider-man

With great power comes a Great Power

It warms the cockles of The Acorn’s cotyledons when people say things like “India’s unflinching defence of its narrow interest is cause for deep frustration among its interlocutors in the corridors of international power” and that it must “embrace a sharing of the burdens as well as the rewards of collective security.” So when Anantha Nageswaran of The Gold Standard drew attention (via email) to Philip Stephens’ piece in FT, it felt like a good time to inject some, well, realism into the proceedings.

But first—let there be no doubt: The Acorn and many of its fellows on INI strongly advocate that India needs to get on the front foot in its foreign policy. But this is because it is in India’s interests and not out of some heartwarming but fuzzy notion of shouldering burdens of collective security. By the way, what collective security? Surely Mr Stephens can’t be referring to NATO’s half-hearted, caveat-filled and now one-step-out-of-the-door presence in Afghanistan? The kind that rests on the implicit belief that the Taliban can be tolerated as long as they don’t target Europe. Or the kind that sabotaged international efforts to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s or in East Pakistan in 1971? Or the kind that came to India’s assistance after terrorists went on a shooting spree in Mumbai last November?

Mr Stephens makes two main arguments in his piece. Of these he gets two wrong. First, he claims that admission to the club of great powers requires a state to adopt a foreign policy that goes beyond “narrow definitions of national interest” and provides public goods. The other part of the admission fee, he contends, is that “others claim a say in your internal affairs”. Second, he argues that the fact that being a democracy exposes India to less international criticism as compared to China. Both these arguments are flawed in their premise. But even if we were to accept the premise, the facts don’t bear out Mr Stephens’ conclusions.

Firstly, what makes a power great is power. China’s rise proves this and invalidates Mr Stephens’ premise: for China’s ascent to greatness was despite its undermining of the ideal of collective security: from nuclear proliferation, to arms sales to odious regimes, to the use of its UN Security Council veto to shield some of the world’s most nasty regimes. China’s rise has got “narrow definitions of national interest” written all over it. As has been the case with the world’s other great powers, past and present. Indeed, the public good of international security arises not from proactive provisioning, but from a stable geopolitical balance-of-power. Balance of power is the invisible hand of geopolitics. (If this notion is centuries old, so is the notion of free markets. So what?)

Mr Stephens’s other claim—that great powers have to suffer international scrutiny of their internal affairs—should surprise anyone who reads the news everyday. Visibility and coercion are two different things. The internal affairs of a great power might be more visible, but also less susceptible to international coercion. Those who disagree can attempt placing sanctions on China or Saudi Arabia, or attempt to indict a Western leader at the International Criminal Court.

Clearly, Mr Stephens’ criteria for being a great power are mistaken. But even if we are to accept them at face value, his arguments ignores the fact that India has been doing exactly what he says it ought to do. From being the largest contributor of troops for UN peacekeeping, to being one of the first to deliver humanitarian assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami, to securing the world’s maritime trade in the Indian Ocean, to fighting pirates off Somalia to making a major contribution to Afghan reconstruction India is sharing the burdens, sometimes even, as this blog has complained, with no regard to its interests. As for bearing the costs of external scrutiny into internal affairs, those have been borne many times over.

This brings us to the second argument: that democracy gives India a pass. Even if it did, to the extent that democracy results in greater transparency, public accountability, protection of individual rights and representative government, the pass is well deserved. In any case, foreign intervention in democracies is at its roots undemocratic. The reason authoritarian states warrant greater scrutiny and criticism is because they are incapable of them on their own. This being so, let’s not forget that foreign intervention and international scrutiny are driven by great power interests than by moral principles. In any case, when Mr Stephens contends “that the idea of inviolable sovereignty has been left behind by interdependence and by acceptance that some human rights transcend those of governments” you wonder where it says that this is the norm and the practice?

Let’s look at the examples Mr Stephens brings up. He drags in the obligatory reference to Kashmir, the resolution of which is a panacea for Pakistan’s myriad problems. This myth has been exposed far too many times to merit a repetition here. But he also implies that India:Kashmir is equivalent to China:Tibet. Sure, if you ignore forceful annexation, demographic engineering through trans-migration and proxy war.

Mr Stephens pins the failure of the Doha round of world trade negotiations on India. Sure, if you ignore the West’s reluctance to remove agricultural subsidies.

And then comes a surprise: apparently “at the UN, India has obstructed efforts to elevate basic human rights above those of states”. Sure, if you were not outraged when the UN Human Rights Council made free speech an offence against human rights (yes, you heard it right).

He has a point when he suggests that India has been reluctant to squeeze the junta in Burma. But he fails to mention that the rest of the powers didn’t quite embrace sharing the burden when India tried squeezing.

And finally, there’s the other obligatory reference. Though Mr Stephens concedes that India’s stance on not signing the NPT has some merit, he alleges that is also a convenient one. Sure, if you ignore that it was only when principle turned out to be fruitless that convenience came in. And if you ignore that the entire edifice of the NPT today rests on the convenience of the great powers. Eschewing principle for convenience, therefore, arguably puts India in league with the rest.

Despite presenting flawed arguments Mr Stephens does ask the right question: does India want to be a big power or a great power? He is also right, although in a different sense, that if it “wants a lead role in a concert of the great powers it cannot stand aloof from the rules”. The rules, however, are those of realpolitik, not of some misplaced faith in responsibilities or sharing of burdens. They involve the unflinching promotion of national interests, deep frustration of its international interlocutors notwithstanding. (If you are an international interlocutor, you will know that deep frustration comes with the job)

14 thoughts on “It’s not Spider-man”

  1. “India’s unflinching defence of its narrow interest is cause for deep frustration among its interlocutors in the corridors of international power.”

    I guess the Indian Foreign Secretary can put that in his Annual Performance Review for bonus points.

  2. Here’s the truly frightening part – there are lots and lots of intellectuals,diplomats, “experts on international issues”, who agree 1000% percent with this ass clown Philip Stephens and his even more clownish arguments.

    And this nonsense gets published in the Financial Times. Sigh.

  3. I am happy the author is comparing India and China, instead of comparing Indian and Pakistan!!!

    I don’t completely agree with him, but I agree to the basic point he is trying to make. For example, there is severe malnutrition in India [50% of world’s mal-nutritious children live in India] IN SPITE of 60+ years of democracy. In MDG and HDI, India is far behind, even Sri Lanka or Bangladesh in some parameters. India is hiding behind the mask called democracy but has problems worse than authoritarian states. For example, I felt safer, say in Dubai [a police state] than in our cities [I was in Hyderabad last week and these was so much security and search even in temples that I was wondering if I was in Pakistan’s Hyderabad!!!]

    I don’t know the author’s ideological standpoint or what he represents, but if you scrutinise his points, you would conclude India hasn’t behaved much like a democratic nation.

  4. @Venkat,

    You are sitting in the wrong class dude. This discussion is about power, not whether democracy delivers education, security and other wonderful things. I don’t even think that this is about democracy in particular.

  5. Very well written and argued.

    I am all for realism in foreign policy (and in domestic policy too, BTW) but do not subscribe to the dictum of the so-called ‘realist’ school that moral principles do not apply to states and can (should?) be discarded in foreign relations.

    The bureucratic GoI (our permanent establishment, steel frame and all that) is sober, sharp and alive to changing geopolity, seems like. We are in good hands.

  6. I am not a realist or an advocate of Great powerdom but Stephen’s articles were appalling. He doesn’t cite any real evidence for his claim that Indian is somehow behind every major global diplomatic impasse. It is unclear as to what he actually wants to say; we don’t even need to talk about China; if you look at past Great Powers like the US or the UK; they never tolerated any internal scrutiny of their affairs (Monroe Doctrine – anyone?) and certainly rewrote international rules for their convenience. In fact, there is an excellent arguement that to be a Great Power, you have to do the exact reverse of what Stephens says.

    From being the largest contributor of troops for UN peacekeeping, to being one of the first to deliver humanitarian assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami, to securing the world’s maritime trade in the Indian Ocean, to fighting pirates off Somalia to making a major contribution to Afghan reconstruction India is sharing the burdens,

    I don’t think we need to get too excited about this. Like most other Third World countries the reason why so many troops go on UN missions is because of the compensation involved; the declining renumeration and conditions in the Indian army make this an attractive outlet – you won’t get many Chinese troops on such missions. We made a poor job over handling our own aid crisis in the wake of the Tsunami imo and couldn’t offer anything more than small amounts to other countries financially and in Afghanistan – I am sorry to say that most of our aid efforts there are just being recycled into fat pay packages and administrative expenditure (my mother and sister are a consultant and doctor in Afghanistan currently, they like most aid workers there have a poor opinion of international aid flows and how it is spent there.)

    Otherwise I think you are correct. There are cogent criticisms to be made of Indian foreign policy but Stephens doesn’t make any of them. I wouldn’t even argue with him that India has been particularly good in promoting its own narrow self-interest but there you go. What he really seems to be after is a more pliable India, that will fall in behind the Anglo-American consensus on Doha, Climate Change, internationalise Kashmir and bascially act like a subordinate ally in Asia. Hopefully this won’t happen; though both the Congress and BJP seem overly willing to abase themselves before the US when given the chance.

  7. Applying his criteria, there would be no rising powers in the world today.
    Further assuming that a great power has at least as much responsibility as a rising power, there would be no great powers either.

    Also find this interesting:

    To those outside India it is self-evident that Islamist extremism in the region draws succour from the conflict over a divided Kashmir. Many see resolution of the Kashmir problem as vital to stable democratic government in Pakistan and, ultimately, to permanent peace in Afghanistan. For a foreign politician to say as much is to invite bitter denunciation for interference in India’s internal affairs.

    In light of recent events, I’m wondering Phil Stephens was encouraged by Whitehall, or even Foggy Bottom.

  8. @Conrad: “and in Afghanistan – I am sorry to say that most of our aid efforts there are just being recycled into fat pay packages and administrative expenditure (my mother and sister are a consultant and doctor in Afghanistan currently, they like most aid workers there have a poor opinion of international aid flows and how it is spent there.)”

    Do they have a poor opinion of international aid flows in general, or that of Indian aid in particular?

    It would be interesting to know because I would expect Indian administrative costs to be much lower than western ones (lower salaries, lower cost of travel to Afghanistan, building schools, dams, roads, power transmission lines etc. which have long-term benefits and short-term costs)

  9. Udayan

    I may be wrong in mixing of issues, but don’t tell me power comes only through a muscular foreign policy or strategic victory in some international debate etc. I see each empowered citizen, with proper education and health contributing to greater power of the nation. If we had such educated and healthy citizens, Leaders won’t take empowered citizens for a ride by conducting mockery of debates in parliaments on issues like Nuclear deal, economic policies and issues that affect India in an international arena.

  10. @Venkat,

    Sure. No arguments there. But that is not necessarily an argument for democracy. China has managed to deliver human development without democracy so, what you say is an argument for power, not for democracy.

  11. @Conrad,

    The question is whether or not India is playing a role. It is an entirely different story of how well it is playing the role.

    No great power has intervened in foreign theatres and satisfied everyone. Or even most people.

    We can all agree that the Stephens dude is wrong. Mr Barwa raises separate issues. Come to think of it, from the length of your posts, Conrad you should start your own blog.

  12. Very well put Nitin, a devastating rejoinder…Phil Stephens needs to re-read his history books and remove his fluorescent pink glasses. And, maybe, stop pontificating in the “pink” papers about stuff that he either doesn’t know, or that he dissembles greatly…

  13. Conrad is right about what the West is after – a more pliable India. And Nitin, you say as much without really calling out the hyprocrisy that goes on in the name of international politics – I am somewhat perplexed by your reluctance to take the ‘great powers’ to task time and again on ALL issues that really matter – non-proliferation (yeah, right! That’s worth a chuckle), terrorism (not really funny in the context of Iraq), trade (obvious to anyone what is being sought).

    Anyway, what does one expect from the establishment media in the West? They toe the line because one suspects they’re not stupid enough to bite the hand that feeds.

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