Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

International relations and India's Foreign Policy

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) R. Viswanathan
    Venue: NEHU, Shillong
    Date: December 14, 2018

International Relations are driven and shaped by several factors such as culture, religion, ideology, technology and economics. But the fundamental driver is Darwin’s theory: survival of the fittest, domination of the strongest, success of the smartest and suffering of the weakest.

International relations (IR) are about how countries and groups of countries deal with each other bilaterally and multilaterally. IR reflects the equation and equilibrium between the strong and weak; powerful and powerless; and the winners and losers. The strong, powerful and the winners write international law and enshrine their domination in international organisations as seen in the case of UN, IMF and World Bank.

In a bipolar world, the powers do not fight each other directly when there is possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction. They fight through proxies, try to coexist and divide the stakes. The Portuguese and the Spanish empires divided the world between themselves under the Treaty of Tordasillas in 1494, mediated by Pope. The British and French divided Africa into their zones of interest. The US and Soviet Union divided Europe into NATO-led democratic western Europe and the Warsaw Pact-led Communist Eastern Europe.

The weak countries join together in groups such as NAM and G-77 to defend and promote their interests. They use the UN General Assembly and other such democratic fora to pass resolutions and make their points.

The strong sometimes get away with murder as seen in the case of Jamal Kashoggi affair or the war in Yemen. The strong occupy the territories of other countries. Examples: Israeli occupation of the Palestine areas; Guantanomo base of US in Cuba; and British control of Gibralter in Spain. The strong try to prevent the weak from becoming strong by instituitional frameworks such as NPT. The strong do not abide by the rulings of ICJ and do not recognise the International Criminal Court which are used only to deal with those from weak countries. The strong impose unilateral sanctions (US sanctions on Cuba and Iran) and force the other countries to follow.

It may, therefore, appear that the moral of the story is that IR are unfair and unjust. But this is only the dark side of IR. There is a bright and positive side to inspire optimism.

Sometimes small countries beat mighty big ones. Vietnam has defeated the French, American and Chinese militarily and politically. Afghanistan has forced out occupying powers namely Britain, USSR and now US. Cuba and Nicaragua have survived the direct and indirect wars of attrition of US. Small countries play off big powers against each other and try to get the best out of both of them as seen in the promotion of Indo-China rivalry in Nepal, Srilanka and Maldives. Some small countries such as Singapore and Qatar punch above their weight and have disproportionately high influence in IR. A small country, Costa Rica, has set an inspiring example in IR by abolishing its armed forces in 1948 with a declared vow to spend the scarce resources on education and healthcare instead of arms and ammunition. It has remained as a role model of peaceful democracy in Central America while its neighbours have gone through devastating civil wars and military dictatorships. Costa Rica has a University of Peace to infuse the culture of peace in IR.

Despite its flaws, the UN has remained as a valuable meeting and talking forum for the strong and the weak, successfully stopping and preventing wars in many cases. The UN Peace Keeping missions have kept warring factions and countries apart facilitating peaceful resolution of conflicts. UN organisations such as UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR and UNESCO have done commendable job in their areas of operations.

The European Union has set an example to the world by removing border controls for free movement of goods, services, capital and people with Schengen Visa, common currency and passport. Even if it is not perfect, this is a civilisational advance and has inspired other regional integration groups such as Mercosur and Asean.

The powers have shelf lives. They rise and fall as seen in the case of the Greek, Roman, Mongolian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hapsburg, British and French empires. The weak gets chance to become strong. The Chinese, who went to work as coolies in the nineteenth century to Latin America have now become the patron and partner for the region as the largest creditor with 150 billion dollars and investment of 120 billion.

Culture has played an important role in IR. The different cultures of North and South America explains why the North is prosperous and advanced while the Latino culture has kept the region as poor and as the backyard of US from the days of Monroe Doctrine. The culture of obsession with the past glory is the reason for Brexit and the isolation and weakening of UK. India and China are future oriented cultures looking forward to prosperity and advancement.

All the religions preach peace, harmony and kindness among people but fanatics and powers misuse religion to divide societies and create conflicts and wars. The US created Taliban in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation. The US destroyed religious moderates like Saddam Hussain and Qaddafi and have divided these countries with sectarian extremists. The US has also used and supported religious extremists in Syria against the Assad government. These have now become Frankenstein monsters threatening the world.

Communism had a major impact on IR in the last century. It inspired intellectuals, youth and workers to dream of Utopia through the pure Marxist ideals. Soviet Union, China and Cuba became communist powers. This caused anticommunist reaction from US in the form of cold war. The collapse of Soviet Union was a fatal blow to those believed in Communism. But China has managed to find a new model of "Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Cuba and Vietnam are trying to copy the Chinese model in their own ways. Moderate Leftists such as Lula of Brazil created a Pink Tide in the first decade of this century in Latin America with a balanced and pragmatic mix of pro-poor and business-friendly policies.

Technologies such as gun powder, ocean navigation, steam engine, aircrafts and nuclear weapons had impacted IR in the past. Information technology, Communications, Social media and cyber wars are the latest technology tools used for domination and disruption in IR.

The developed countries had used the globalisation agenda to make the other countries to open their markets. But now they have become protectionist and are driving a different agenda against free trade and movement of people. The Wall Street, Washington DC and the Fund/Bank control and direct the capital movements causing sometimes, bankruptcies, bubbles and busts in the world. Thanks to the shale revolution, the US has become the largest producer of oil in the world. With this energy security confidence, the US has felt free to destabilise the middle east causing uncertainty and challenges for large oil importers like India.

India’s foreign policy in the last century was more protective given the insecurity and many challenges faced by the country after independence. There were problems of inadequate food production, foreign exchange, technologies and industries. India’s military weakness tempted China and Pakistan to wage wars against the peace-loving India.

But in the twenty first century there is a paradigm shift. India has become a strong country politically, economically and militarily. The fast growing large Indian market has become attractive for trade and investment for other countries. The world has started recognising and respecting India as an emerging power. The confident and ambitious India is reaching out to countries in Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world to which it did not pay attention in the past.

India is now practising smart diplomacy by taking independent stand on global issues aligning with countries and groups in a pragmatic manner. India is engaging, collaborating and working with China while being conscious of the Chinese competition, rivalry and threat.

While countries like Germany and Japan face declining population and shortage of skilled young workforce, India enjoys the demographic dividend of abundant youth with the hunger to succeed and technological aptitude to connect, collaborate and compete with the world. This next generation will transform India into a global power and player.