Indian thinking on foreign policy

Published : Jan 06, 2001 00:00 IST

India needs a major intellectual exercise that will give its policymakers a realistic understanding of history, an essential prerequisite for the evolution of an effective foreign policy.

A COUNTRY'S foreign policy is shaped by its self-perception, its image of the world and some major inarticulate premises it has formed over the years. For centuries, British foreign policy was based on the principle of balance of power in Europe and supr emacy at sea while the United States enforced its Monroe Doctrine in Latin America and cherished its isolation. The Second World War and the Cold War that followed changed all that.

However, the U.S. involvement in the affairs of the world was accompanied by a remarkable surge of intellectual effort in the realm of foreign affairs which went a long way to mould informed opinion. Every nation has its myths and legends. There is the i nherent complexity of the subject, besides. Dean Acheson has written of "the cliches, the moralism, the emotionalism, the bad history, faulty analysis and just plain ignorance which suffocate most discussion of foreign affairs".

But, beginning with Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau's Scientific Man versus Power Politics (1946) a series of theoretical studies appeared in the U.S., soon after the Second World War ended, which helped the serious student to find his way "through that lush, tangled, and dangerous jungle which is our times".

Morgenthau propounded and developed the criterion of the national interests as a guide to foreign policy, not only of one's own national interests but those of other countries as well. Kennan deplored "the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems" which "runs like a red skein through our foreign policy of the last fifty years". Louis J. Halle sought to develop "an applicable body of theory" of world politics. Charles Burton Marshall stressed the limits of foreign policy and Henry A. Kiss inger expounded upon the necessity for choice when the country had "reached a turning point in its relations with the rest of the world. The patterns of action of a secure past no longer work (vide, Kennan's American Diplomacy 1900-1950 (1951); Ha lle's The Nature of Power, Civilisation & Foreign Policy (1955); Marshall's Limits of Foreign Policy (1954); and Kissinger's Necessity for Choice (1960)).

These writers produced a change in the American intellectual climate. A comparable effort in India has not even begun. India's image of the world order was fashioned by the Gandhian and the Nehruvian legacies. As Dr. Paul F. Power has written in his stud y Gandhi on World Affairs, Gandhi "did not consider outstanding political, economic and legal forces operating in the international community. Because of his intellectual make-up and the political and social activities he stressed, he did not, per haps could not, extend his ideas to master complex questions involving power, wealth and law that underlie both struggle and cooperation in world affairs."

It was Nehru who influenced Indian intellectuals more. For over 40 years he spoke and wrote ceaselessly on world affairs, in 17 of which he played an active part himself. It would be worth the while of any scholar to study the Nehruvian image of the worl d and his understanding of the conditions of foreign policy - first as the country's leading expert and next as the architect of its foreign policy.

Truth to tell, Nehru was not learned in the discipline of international relations or diplomacy. His was the world of an ardent nationalist who saw "these pacts and alliances and treaties... made in a desperate attempt to steady a quarrelsome and collapsi ng world". He hated sin.

Professionalism suffered under him. K.P.S. Menon, who served as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) wrote in his autobiography Many Worlds (Oxford; page 271) in sheer bliss: "A Foreign Office is essentially a custodian of precedent s. We had no precedents to fall back upon, because India had no foreign policy of her own until she became independent. We did not even have a section for historical research until I created one... Our policy therefore necessarily rested on the intuit ion of one man, who was Foreign Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Fortunately his intuition was based on knowledge...." (emphasis added, throughout).

How could the civilian head of a Foreign Office offer frank advice to the political head when he himself regards the organisation as no more than a research bureau? Nehru himself had scant use for expertise in a field he regarded exclusively his own.

After interviewing former members of the Indian Foreign Service, Waner F. Ilchman of the University of California, Berkeley, noted a "tendency for men in the field to write what the Prime Minister wished to hear" (Journal of Commonwealth Political Stu dies, November 1966, Leicester University Press).

It would be a mistake to ignore the pre-Nehru legacy which was ably recorded by Dr. N.V. Rajkumar, Foreign Secretary, Indian National Congress, in a compilation prefaced by his essay (The Background of India's Foreign Policy, All India Congress Co mmittee, New Delhi, 1952). The Congress adopted resolutions on foreign affairs no sooner than it was born. It was opposed to increased expenditure for "military activity going on beyond the natural lines of the defence of the country, in pursuance of the Imperial Policy of Great Britain in its relations with some of the Great Powers of Europe". It should be borne by the British, not Indian, Treasury (1892). In 1897, it denounced "the present Frontier Policy of the Government of India" as being "a ggressive".

The expedition to Tibet in 1904 was criticised as it "threatens to involve India in foreign entanglements". Just as the Soviet Union published and denounced the secret treaties the Tsar had concluded in 1921, the Congress declared "most treaties e ntered into with the Imperial Government by neighbouring States as mainly designed by the latter to perpetuate the exploitation of India by the Imperial Power."

At the time of Independence, the Expert Committee (No. IX) on Foreign Relations, comprising representatives of India and Pakistan, drew up (Annexure V) a list of 627 treaties and agreements to which India was then party. The Anglo-Tibetan Treaty of 1904, and "the Indo-Tibetan Boundary Agreement of 1914" (defining the Mc-Mahon Line) were among them. By an agreed order made under the Indian Independence Act, 1947, (the Indian Independence (Inter-national Arrange-ments) Order, 1947), membership of internat ional organisations devolved solely on India but "rights and obligations under international agreements having an exclusive territorial obligations applicable to an area" devolved on the state to which the area came to belong (Partition Proceedings, Expert Committees Nos. III-IX, pages 202-294).

While Nehru, the Curzon-democratic, ardently owned up accords the British had concluded with Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and, of course, China, the intellectual baggage he had collected before Independence suffered the impact of power and responsibility. It wa s battered, but not destroyed. From the late 1920s and increasingly in the next decade, Nehru emerged as the Congress' main expert on foreign affairs, challenged only by Subhas Chandra Bose. Indian studies were few and limited. Even in 1944 Dr. Lanka Sun daram's India in World Politics covered no more than the British Commonwealth, the League of Nations, the International Labour Organisation, foreign trade, Indians overseas and Indian representation at the peace conference to come.

Britain's appeasement of Nazi Germany justifiably invited Indian censures. But there was little understanding of the forces at play. In a brilliant article in The Times Of India (February 28, 1982) Nirad C. Choudhuri analysed at length "the ignora nce of international politics among the new rulers of India". He added: "The most unexpected aspect of the ignorance was its extent in the two Cambridge men in the Indian nationalist movement, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose, who were always talking abo ut the international situation. They were also regarded by their political colleagues as expert authorities on international politics. In spite of all that, not only their knowledge but also their approaches were wholly unreal. Both of them saw it in the light of their personal predilections, which were shaped by their temperaments and feelings. And their predominant feeling was hatred of British rule in India. In short, their ideas on international politics were only a projection of their nationalism, which prevented their seeing any international situation for what it was."

In the first major test which the Congress leaders faced, all of them failed, especially Gandhi; so did Nehru, who knew better. Only three weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War on September 1, 1939, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) adopte d a resolution opposing "all attempts to impose (sic.) a war on India", and asking the Congress governments in the provinces "to assist in no way the war preparations but rather resign from office". The leaders simply did not expect Britain to keep it s word to Poland and go to war with Hitler if he invaded that country. In 1942, very many expected Japan to win. The Quit India resolution was not intended to be a call for revolt as it is made out to be. It was in truth a warning to the Viceroy to h eed - by inviting Gandhi to talks. He did not expect to be arrested (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad; India Wins Freedom (1988), page 88). Nehru's Prison Diary reflects his bitterness at the misjudgment to which he was privy, despite his reservations. His comments on Gandhi were severe to the point of rejection.

Shortly after Independence, Girja Shankar Bajpai, the first Secretary in the MEA and by far the finest Indian intellect on foreign policy, made a valiant effort, in an atmosphere suffused with "high morality" to educate the new elite about some enduring verities of the world order in an essay entitled "India and the Balance of Power" (The Indian Year Book of International Affairs, 1952; published by the Indian Study Group of International Affairs, University of Madras; pages 1-87). He pointed out that "power exerted without regard to moral standards and moral ends is a crime against humanity. But to ignore fact that, over the greater part of the world, politics remains a quest after power, is to do justice neither to the ideals nor to realities. " He pleaded that "armed power supported by adequate industrial power, constitutes the only safeguard against a threat to a country's independence... The warning is necessary because, in certain circles, the opinion prevails that the present level of exp enditure on India's defence forces is excessive and this is an even more dangerous assumption - that the only military threat to India comes from Pakistan."

Bajpai was not out to seek a confrontation with China. On the contrary, he strongly advised Nehru to take up the boundary issue with it in a straightforward manner and resolve it. Nehru preferred K.M. Panikkar's advice to declare India's position unilate rally. Having done that, he refused to negotiate when China raised the issue in January 1959. To Nehru, throughout, "our major possible enemy is Pakistan".

Nehru was alive to the need for armed strength and the principle of balance of power. Two decades before Independence, in a much neglected speech at the Kerala Provincial Conference on May 27, 1928, he asked: "But what external dangers will face us when the British leave India? We have an Indian army brave and efficient, well-tried in many continents. It is good enough to fight for the freedom of the Allies in the battlefields of Europe and it will be good enough to fight if necessary for the freedom of India. When freedom comes, we shall develop our army and strengthen it and make it more efficient than it is today. We have seen during the Great War how vast armies can grow up in time of need. The strength of the country depends not only on the defenc e force but even more so on the international situation and the balance of power."

He was certain, well before two blocs appeared on the scene in 1947, that "the other countries could not tolerate that the rich prize of India should fall again to another power." Ergo, India needed to be friends with all the major powers; after 1 947; that is, with both blocs. Hence, India's policy of non-alignment.

Whatever went wrong in the assessment of one who was aware of these truths? It is simply that he refused to learn and relied on outmoded concepts. He who had scoffed at the Kellog-Briond global no-war pact of 1928 spoke of its elaboration in the five pri nciples of Panch Sheel in 1954 as if they were a panacea or substitute for a boundary accord with China. In the 1930s, Britain imposed alliance treaties on Egypt, Iraq and Transjordan before granting them independence. In the 1950s, Nehru could not bring himself to accept that not all alliances diminished independence and a small ally retained freedom of choice if its vital interests were involved. Synghman Rhee defied the U.S.; Denmark could refuse to allow American troops on its soil; and Pakistan cou ld defy the U.S. for a whole decade (1961-71) and develop closest ties with the U.S.' Asian adversary, China. Nehru's intolerance led to the neglect of South-East Asia.

He had absolutely no concept of local wars, obsessed as he was with a world war. Initially enamoured of an "Asian Personality", he lost all interest in the concept. Nor had he any concept of dealing with the smaller neighbours on a footing of equality. B ut by far his greatest flaw was an intractable approach to conflict resolution. He counselled talks. But he would not deign to negotiate. The quest for regional ascendancy was coupled with the quest for great power status. Inconsistencies a bounded. It was bad enough to opt for confrontation with China. Worse still, thereafter to neglect the U.S. It was Sino-American understanding in mid-1962, blissfully overlooked by Nehru, which enabled Mao Zedong to withdraw his troops from the Taiwan se ctor and send them to action across the Himalayas in October 1962. In panic, Nehru sought aerial cover from President John F. Kennedy.

Has the nation learnt the lesson from its past? One doubts that. For it continues to be treated to nostrums and dogmas in aid of the same aspirations of old, aspirations to absolute security so eloquently expressed in the Draft Nuclear Security Doctrine.

What India really needs is an intellectual exercise of the kind Louis J. Halle attempted in his work. He "felt the lack of an applicable body of theory and concluded that "no practical and effective foreign policy can be developed merely by the ingenious improvisation of clever negotiators, brilliant tacticians, or master chess-players. Such a foreign policy has to be founded on a philosophy that represents a realistic understanding of history. An adequate philosophy is no less important to our statesma nship today than it was to the statesmanship of our founding fathers. If we are to have an effective foreign policy we need to base it on a conceptual scheme that reveals and explains the world in terms that bear the test of practical application. " Such an exercise cannot begin unless it is realised that the familiar dogmas are of no relevance or worth.

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