We'll miss Fidel

Flashback: Non-alignment 2.0

This article first appeared in Issue 8 – November 2007. Republished in the context of a new debate on foreign policy and “non-alignment 2.0”

Regrounding India’s foreign policy

Over the past two years, the tumultuous India-US nuclear saga has consumed the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi. And it has, at its apogee, disintegrated almost as dramatically as it entered the Indian national consciousness in July 2005. The strategic community should use this interlude to dispassionately appraise the fundamental tenets of Indian foreign policy and whether they continue to serve Indian security interests.

Beneath the nuclear veneer, the ideological discord is principally over the relevance of non-alignment as the guiding doctrine for Indian foreign policy. Leading members of the American security establishment have disparaged India’s reluctance to abandon this “outdated concept”. Recent critiques coming from Condoleezza Rice are reminiscent of an earlier era, when another Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, found Indian neutrality “immoral” and “short-sighted”. American disdain for the ideational foundations of Indian foreign policy should hardly be a cause for concern. What is disturbing is that occasional domestic exhortations readily echo these external critiques. Such revisionists are often ill-informed about the very essence of non-alignment and of its abiding relevance in contemporary international life.

At the outset, the logic of non-alignment as envisaged by the founding fathers needs to be reiterated. Nehru’s conception of non-alignment stemmed from the geopolitical situation – India as a newly independent state was in no position to participate in the tight bipolar contest. Rather, India chose to leverage the superpower rivalry to gain flexibility in foreign policy and augment her development goals. Indeed, during the 1950s and 1960s, India was one of the largest recipients of US and Soviet aid! K Subrahmanyam has been one of the eminent expositors to state it bluntly: non-alignment was always the practice of realpolitik cloaked in idealism. That the ideological veil got confused as an end in itself, manifesting in moral outbursts, was as much a reflection of India’s relative material weakness in the international system as it was of strategic naiveté.

Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, New Delhi came to recognise that incremental engagement with the US was beneficial. This was a structural response to the new power reality, where US primacy was unchallenged. Yet, by the early 2000s international politics took another seminal turn. Ironically, as New Delhi was reconciling itself to a place in a US-led system, the very foundations of that order were being withered away.

By 2005, it had become clear in Washington that the fantasy of reshaping the security structure of the Middle East had reached an impasse. The US debacle in Iraq, however, coincided with equally dramatic developments in Eurasia. Russia, after more than a decade of internal upheavals, was displaying signs of breaking out of the shell that Washington’s cold warriors had confined it to since 1991. It will also be recalled that China had gained from the strategic surprise of September 11, which had diverted US strategic attention to the West Asian theatre, from President Bush’s pre-September 11 national-security goal of expanding the scope of its East Asian containment strategy.

By 2006, with the US bogged down in West Asia, and, Russia and China, rapidly accelerating their geoeconomic profiles and influence, American triumphalism appeared all but over. Russia’s geopolitical arbitration over the Iran issue has been the watershed event.

Thus, India today faces its most propitious global environment, after almost 15 years of “unipolarity”. Given a range of options hitherto unavailable, it would be extremely costly if New Delhi’s external conduct was unable to exploit the altogether new diplomatic revolution. Drawing lessons from the Cold War, however, will not suffice.

The discord and collaboration amongst the great powers over the past few years can easily be misinterpreted and produce narrow policy choices.

An example may be instructive. Strategic coordination between Russia and China as it manifested itself over the Iran issue and in Central Asia, while not an insignificant development, led to predictions of new blocs emerging to contain the US, with the corollary that India would need to choose between the US and its allies or Russia-China. The emergence of multilateral “blocs” such as the Russia-China-India trilateral format and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has lent currency to such views.

This is a false choice! While Russia and China have enunciated their desire to coordinate their actions on several issues, first expressed in their strategic partnership agreement of 2001, and have done so subsequently, they have simultaneously sought to deepen their interaction with the actors they seek to balance.

This stems from contemporary geoeconomic patterns. Today, China is a $1 trillion exporter (37% of GDP) that is deeply immersed into the global economy and by 2008 is projected to become the world’s largest exporter. Investment linkages are even deeper. The economic realism underlying Russia’s energy strategy in particular and the expansion of its natural-resource complex in general implies, it too, is seeking to integrate into economic globalisation. In sum, neither state is seeking to cultivate exclusive partnerships.

Multilateral endeavours, manifested in the trilateral format and the SCO, are but pragmatic attempts at collective diplomacy to manage regional interaction in a common geopolitical space and more importantly to exploit geoeconomic opportunities: given the dearth of effective pan-Asian institutions, hardly an unwelcome development.

To appreciate this phenomenon, it is vital to distinguish today’s multi-polar system with its bipolar predecessor. The bipolar division of the Cold War was geopolitical and geoeconomic. Both blocs were self-sufficient and inter-bloc trade and investment was irrelevant.

Today, however, the erstwhile “blocs” are clearly more entwined at an economic and thus political level. This is not to suggest that geoeconomic competition has ceased and that states will pursue an international division of labour over relative national gains. In an anarchic world, they never will. But the zero-sum premise has been tempered where opportunities for mutual benefit exist. US-China relations epitomise this phenomenon: the mutual dependence of the US economy whereby it is the largest importer from China, which in turn finances one-third of the huge US current-account deficit. Importantly, the relationship has transformed from the “asymmetry” that existed in the 1990s when China was highly dependent on American markets and investment, toward the “common vulnerability” that currently prevails.

Energy linkages between Russia and the European Union (EU) – originally with and via Germany, but now extended to an array of bilateral gas deals between Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy firm, and EU member states – is another example of interdependence. This is because supply security for the EU is as vital as the demand security for Russian hydrocarbons, especially gas, where buyers-sellers are entwined by pipelines.

Consequently, traditional alliance-based relationships are being reshaped as states are adopting omnidirectional foreign policies. Of course, states that are already integrated within US-led alliances are finding it relatively harder to chart an autonomous course, given their military integration with the US – especially the EU and Japan. Yet, even for such states there is unlikely to be an inevitable consensus with the alliance leader. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has expressed it succinctly: “Any attempts to restore the bygone trans-Atlantic unity as an isolated aspect of international life can have only partial success”.

For New Delhi, the implications of contemporary interdependence must be clear. Bluntly put, neither Washington nor Beijing will upset their bilateral relationship over India, despite US efforts to cultivate India as a potential alliance partner. This, arguably, has more to do with enhancing US leverage on India rather than solely constraining China. Similarly, in China-Japan relations, the bilateral economic interaction is too high for Japan to seek exclusive relations with India. Thus, exploiting the cleavages in today’s system requires far more sophistication than in the bipolar world, where neither bloc had economic leverage over the other.

Thus, the overlapping bilateral linkages involving all the major centres of power imply that a “friend” or “foe” choice for India is simply inconceivable. Rather, India must adopt a multivector philosophy that will facilitate greater strategic flexibility within the dynamic web of international alignments. And this, surely is the kernel and essence of non-alignment!