We live in a complicated world. That’s what makes it all the more interesting to discuss, as the participants of the Asian Forum on Global Governance, which concluded this week in New Delhi, discovered during nine days of deliberation and debate in the Indian capital.
The 48 participants from 27 countries — all young leaders under 35 — gathered here under the auspices of the Observer Research Foundation and Germany’s Zeit-Stiftung (and under my chairmanship as dean of the Forum) to thrash out weighty questions of politics and strategy, poverty, development and sustainability. They leave with a deeper understanding of the issues and a greater appreciation of India than they had when they got here, both of which made the exercise most worthwhile.
But this column is not a seminar report. Being with these young people got me thinking weighty thoughts myself. And while the overall thrust of the Forum was global, it struck me that as an Indian I have had to rethink, in recent years, many of my own old assumptions about the world and about my own country’s place in it.
The limitations of self-reliance are apparent, the temptations of isolationism non-existent, and the impact of foreigners on our national security profound. We live in a neighbourhood, after all, where the failures of small states on our own borders can damage us more than our own, and where our successes can be dwarfed by the violent resentments of our rivals (think of 26/11).
We can seek no comfort in familiar hostilities, either, for geopolitics is not a zero-sum game. We face a reality where the implosion of an enemy, Pakistan, can undermine our national aspirations more than its rise would.
Opportunities for the pursuit of peace are few and far between, but they are no longer limited to diplomats in spin-striped suits brandishing cliché-laden communiques. On our subcontinent, the most effective diplomacy between us and Pakistan this year was conducted not by the trained and skilled diplomats of either country but by businessmen exchanging visits under the auspices of their Chambers of Commerce.
The formal appurtenances of policy-making no longer enjoy a monopoly on world affairs, or even national ones. Ours is a country where distorted photos going viral on the Internet and threatening SMSes to bewildered citizens have caused more panic than actual atrocities and violence, prompting lakhs to abandon their livelihoods and flee their homes.
And, of course, the familiar trappings of power — military strength, economic might, a globe-straddling projection of authority — are no longer enough, or even the most valuable assets for a country. We thrive in a world where our soft power — the example set by our democracy, our culture, our values and institutions — may win us more admiration around the planet than a seat on the UN Security Council.
So if we must question all the basic assumptions that we took for granted in previous decades, what are we left with, amidst all the uncertainty? Today, there is little doubt that India’s leadership since 1991, and particularly under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh since 2004, has shrewdly played its international cards well in the midst of the changing global environment. A foreign policy that ensures friendly relations with countries that are sources of investment, of technology, of energy or (potentially) of food security has been put in place, and a number of previously problematic relationships, from the US to Israel, have been improved dramatically. Problems on India’s borders have been dealt with reasonably effectively and sources of serious trouble adroitly kept at bay.
The question remains, however, of whether all this is taking place within the framework of a credible “grand strategy” to replace the be-all and end-all carapace of non-alignment that had previously dominated India’s strategic approach to the world. To conceive of a grand strategy one needs a vision of the kind of world that could best secure and promote India’s national interests. Should India work, for instance, for a multi-polar world order, as repeatedly advocated by Russia and China? How can we convert our old obsession with strategic autonomy into a springboard rather than a straitjacket? How should New Delhi balance its energy needs and its political values in its dealings with, say, Burma or Iran, where one set of interests (the need for energy security) contends with another (the upholding of democratic values in the former case and the maintenance of partnerships with major countries like the US, in the latter)? Should the essential internal priority of doing whatever it takes to eliminate acute poverty at home prevail over all other considerations?
A sweeping “yes” is in fact not enough to cover all possible situations, because a nation, by definition, has more than one way of placing itself in the world and more than one point of interface with other major powers.
As I have argued in earlier columns, the distinction between domestic and international is less and less meaningful in today’s world; when we think of foreign policy we must also think of its domestic implications. The ultimate purpose of any country’s foreign policy is to promote the security and well-being of its own citizens. We want a world that gives us the conditions of peace and security that will permit us to grow and flourish, safe from foreign depredations but open to external opportunities. Much of what we are in the process of accomplishing at home — to pull our people out of poverty and to develop our nation — enables us to contribute to a better world. This is of value in itself, and it is also in our fundamental national interest. A world that is peaceful and prosperous, where trade is freer and universally agreed principles are observed, and in which democracy, the coexistence of civilisations and respect for human rights flourish, is a world of opportunity for India and for Indians to thrive.
Right now many of us would suggest that there is a global governance deficit. Reversing it would require strong leadership in the international community by a number of powers, including the emerging ones. India is an obvious contender to provide some of that leadership.
Instinctive approaches formulated at a time when India was a major recipient of foreign aid, and saw itself as a developing country needing to assert itself in the face of the hegemony of the former imperial powers, are no longer entirely relevant when India gives as much aid as its receives, makes more foreign direct investments than it gets and is seen by other countries as a source of assistance, guidance and even security. The time has come for India to move beyond issues of status and entitlement to a diplomacy of pragmatism and performance in helping guide a world that it is now unchallengeably qualified, together with others, to lead.
The writer is the member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram