Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

International relations and India’s foreign policy

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) R Viswanathan
    Venue: Sikkim University
    Date: April 29, 2019

Summary of Distinguished lecture by Ambassador (retired) R. Viswanathan at the Sikkim University, Gangtok on 29 July 2019

When I joined the IFS in 1977, India was not considered a significant player in international relations. Howevever, when I became ambassador in 2000, there was a paradigm shift. The twenty first century India was seen as an emerging power. The fast growing large market of India and the new mindset of Indians had changed the global perception. When some of the members of the audience of the Sikkim University get selected in IFS and become ambassadors by 2040, India would have arrived as a global power. The reason for this optimism is the new confidence, can do attitude, tech empowered smartness and ambition of the Indian millennials. Countries such Japan and Germany are likely to become less important in the future due to the decline of their population, decrease in skilful youth and increase in senior citizens. On the other hand, India will benefit from the Demographic Dividend which will strengthen the global importance of India. The rise of Sunder Pichai and Satya Nadella as CEOs of Google and Microsoft have become emblematic of the new youth power of India.

International Relations are driven and shaped by several factors such as culture, religion, ideology, resources, finance and unrestrained power. 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.

Argentina had declared the world’s largest debt default of 90 billion dollars in 2002. The reason for the accumulation of debt was the surplus petrodollars which were deposited in US banks which pushed these funds into Argentina for higher yields. Since much of the credit was not used for productive purposes, the country was not able to replay and had to declare default. However, President Nestor Kirchner managed to restructure the debt by giving an ultimatum to the creditors to agree to receive 30 cents to a dollar. He did the restructuring by going against IMF advice. The vulture funds who had less than seven percent of the credit refused to accept this and harassed the Argentine government through all kinds of brutal pressures. They got an Argentine naval flagship confiscated and also threatened to do the same to the Argentine president’s plane. Because of this threat, the Argentine president had to travel by charter flights for the trips to US and Europe. The wall street mafia isolated Argentina from western financial markets and ensured that the country was banned from western financial sources. So Argentina had to go to China for credit. Many other Latin American and African countries had such humiliations by the western financiers and banks.

China has become the new global financial power, overshadowing the western banks. It has given credit of over 150 billion dollars to Latin America and around 140 billion to Africa. It has also invested aggressively in acquisition of companies, assets, mines and oil fields across the world.

International relations have been impacted by the unilateral declaration and pursuit of many wars by the US since the end of the second world war. The first was Cold war in which the US fought against Communism across the world. In the name of this anti-communist war, US had intervened in many countries, destabilising democracies and supporting dictatorships. Latin America suffered the worst in this ideological war of US.

The US has waged wars for regime change in some countries such as Iraq and Libya with disastrous consequences. The US is now pursuing regime changes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.The US has been intervening in Latin America in the name of drug wars. But the truth is that the drug business is purely consumer driven. Millions of US citizens continue to consume drugs and are paying top dollars for their enjoyment. Out of 100 dollars paid by the consumers about 80% remain within US while 20% goes to the external traffickers and producers. If the US stops/minimises drug consumption of its citizens, the trafficking from outside will dry up. Spraying of destructive chemicals in the agricultural fields of Colombia or Bolivia is the wrong way to fight the drug war. The war has to be fought within US. One of the solutions is to legalise consumption as done in Uruguay and some states in US itself.

The war on terrorism has opened a new opportunity for US to intervene in other countries. But the truth is that US itself is responsible for creating monsters such as Taliban in Afghanistan and encouraging and supporting many fundamentalist groups in Syria.

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.