India’s great power burdens


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THAT India – riding on back of its recent high annual economic growth rates of close to nine per cent – might soon join the ranks of the great powers has become axiomatic in the domestic popular discourse as well as the chancelleries of major world capitals. A recent survey across nine major countries by the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany reports that nearly 79 per cent of the Indian public believes the nation will rise to become a great power by 2020. In a series of reports over the last few years, the U.S. establishment has mapped the changing geometry of power in the international system and suggested that the rise of India is at once inevitable and consequential. The Bush Administration’s decision to befriend India by offering it an entry into the nuclear club, many analysts believe, is rooted in this assumption.

This popular enthusiasm within India and the strategic expectations of the international community stand in marked contrast to the entrenched scepticism and even fear among the nation’s political and chattering classes with the proposition that India is emerging as a great power. Three generations of Indians, having grown up with a pessimistic view of the nation’s prospect at home and abroad, are utterly incredulous at the optimism regarding India’s strategic future.

The conflation of the discourse on India’s rise with the debate on changing Indo-U.S. relations has blurred the distinction between cause and effect in the discussion on the civil nuclear initiative. It has become virtually impossible for most analysts to see that the U.S. decision to let India into the nuclear club, after decades of imposing high technology sanctions, is a result of the new assessment in Washington that India’s rise is now unstoppable. If India’s rise must be seen as an independent variable, part of a larger structural change in the international distribution of power, it will have lasting consequences for the nature and conduct of the nation’s foreign policy, irrespective of the fate of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the direction of Indo-U.S. engagement.

New Delhi’s inability to come to terms with its own elevated position in the world is neither unusual nor surprising. A lag between a nation’s altered weight in the international system and the capacity of its power elites to adapt to it is indeed natural and reflects the inertia of most institutions. This lag tends to be a bit longer in the case of democracies, where the forging of a new foreign policy consensus tends to be divisive and bitter. This probably explains the difference between the Chinese Communist Party which has consciously encouraged an internal and external debate on ‘China’s peaceful rise’ and the refusal of the Indian establishment to even consider the possible challenges that could emanate from the nation’s recent gains in the global power structure.


That there is no explicit debate on India’s rise does not mean India’s foreign policy has remained static. The increase in India’s relative and absolute weight in the international system has already begun to produce some major changes in India’s international behaviour. Much like the Indian economic reforms, the recasting of India’s foreign and security policies has taken place in stealth and by increments without widespread public deliberation. This style adopted by a succession of weak governments, of course, has its costs, visible in the difficulties of the UPA government in getting political support for a nuclear deal that is so patently in India’s favour.

If the assumption that India’s power position will continue to improve amidst its rapid economic growth is right, the nation’s foreign policy will be dragged kicking and screaming into a political orientation that is significantly different from the one we have been familiar with. In time, a new national consensus on foreign policy is bound to emerge. And that new consensus would necessarily involve a wrenching redefinition of some of the core ideas that had animated India’s foreign policy over the last six decades. Below is an examination of some of those ideas.


Strategic autonomy is widely considered the central tenet of independent India’s foreign policy. Despite the weighty tradition and emotion attached to the notion of ‘autonomy’, one could legitimately ask whether the emphasis on autonomy is a self-evident and enduring principle of Indian foreign policy or the product of a specific historic circumstance.

Great powers, defined as those who enjoy global economic, political and military reach, do not talk about autonomy. In the absence of world government, it is the function of great powers to construct and sustain a measure of order in international affairs. Put another way, great powers define rules for the rest. Most states tend to accept the rules, given the knowledge that a rule-based order serves their interests better than anarchy. It is only states with national ambition to improve their relative power position which insist that they will not let the international system constrain their freedom of action and pay the cost for defiance.

The emphasis on strategic autonomy was natural for an India that emerged out of colonial rule in the middle of the last century. Yet the nation’s founding fathers had a vision for India’s decisive future role in world affairs. As a weak post-colonial state, India had a strong desire to prevent other powers from limiting its own room for manoeuvre. It therefore refused to abide by rules it considered discriminatory or unequal. Six decades later, as India inches towards becoming the world’s third largest economy, should or would autonomy remain the principal focus of India’s foreign policy? If India ineluctably acquires great power capabilities, it will increasingly be called upon to shape the international system and share the costs of managing it rather than merely avoiding the discipline of an existing set of rules.


The tortuous domestic debate on the civil nuclear initiative with the United States over the last two years reflects the domestic political difficulties of coping with the prospect of India becoming part of the global nuclear order. India’s opposition to the global nuclear order made sense, so long as it was denied the right to have a nuclear weapons programme as well as access to international cooperation in peaceful uses of atomic energy.

When India seems to have finally won the right to have both under the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, the resistance can only be explained in terms of the inertia of the old thinking and fear of changing course. The bitter contestation, which began as a technical debate over the specific terms of the nuclear rapprochement between India and the United States, has transformed into one about the nature of India’s foreign policy and its relationship with the international system.

It is interesting to note that both the right and left of the Indian political spectrum today argue against New Delhi accepting even minimal constraints on its nuclear programme or any commitments in support of the global efforts on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries. For decades, India was serious in its campaign for such absolutist goals of total nuclear disarmament and quick to offer free advice to other powers on undertaking such steps as Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty.

So long as it was not pursuing a nuclear weapon programme, it was easy for India to preach the virtues of a normative approach to global nuclear issues and revel in its own sense of moral superiority. Today, there is comprehensive political opposition in India to accepting the very same measures of restraint on testing and production of nuclear material – either in the name of national security or of anti-imperialism. Even the simplest measure of external commitment – the acceptance of international safeguards on the peaceful nuclear facilities – is now questioned with great political intensity.


The official policy has accepted, rightly, some constraints on its own nuclear programme and undertaken new commitments to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. This was necessary not merely as an entry price into the nuclear club, but also to underline India’s position as a responsible nuclear weapon power. With its own nuclear deterrent secure, New Delhi had every reason to graduate from a habitual protester against the global nuclear order to demonstrating its will to contribute to the management of that order.

While the transition from autonomy to responsibility remains politically contested in the nuclear domain, the debate has not even been joined in other areas such as global warming and international trade. On global warming, India will find it increasingly hard to sustain the argument that it will not accept any limits on carbon emissions and those who made the mess have the sole responsibility to clean it up. While the question of equitable sharing of the cost of coping with global warming is an inherently difficult one, an obdurate focus on per capita emissions is no substitute for India eventually demonstrating leadership.

On world trade too, as a major beneficiary of the current wave of globalization, India will be under greater compulsion to take the lead in developing compromise solutions in its negotiations with other major powers. Even more fundamentally, India will need to go beyond posturing in trade negotiations to articulating its own interest in liberal and open trading regimes and generating pragmatic ideas for their advancement.


Championing the causes of the Third World nations and the leadership of the developing world have long been a hallmark of India’s self-perception. This was manifest in India’s early diplomatic mobilisation in favour of Asian unity, Afro-Asian solidarity and the construction of the non-aligned movement and the G-77 in the United Nations. As Indian foreign policy began to adapt to the post Cold War situation, many have accused both the NDA and the UPA governments for abandoning the traditional devotion to NAM and Third World causes. Successive prime ministers, in turn, have insisted that there is no dilution in those commitments.

Facts, however, demand a closer look at the potential for a fundamental change in India’s relationship with the developing countries. As India’s global weight increases, New Delhi’s relationships with the developing world are not likely to remain simply fraternal; they might even acquire a new paternalism. Although India’s per capita income will be way behind many of those in the Third World, the size and character of the Indian economy is likely to bring an entirely different perspective to New Delhi’s attitudes to the developing world.


Take for example, India’s growing requirements for energy and other raw materials and its increasing reliance on natural resources beyond its own borders. As the food habits of a newly prosperous India begin to evolve, it is not entirely unlikely that it could begin to import food, much like China. If an assured supply of these vital resources becomes an important national security objective for India, the nature of India’s political ties with the resource rich developing nations is bound to alter. As India, like China, embarks on an intense quest for equity oil and mineral assets in lands far from its own shores, it will begin to confront charges of ‘neo-imperialism’.

For the moment, Beijing is a larger target of criticism than New Delhi since China has been far more aggressive than India in pursuing its economic interests in Africa and Latin America. Western liberals and donor communities, not entirely accurately, argue that the hunger for resources in China and India and their incipient political rivalry is akin to the scramble for Africa among rival European colonial powers in the 19th century. Irrespective of the analogy, India is certainly competing with China for oil and mineral resources in Africa. New Delhi might be way behind Beijing; but it is on the same road.

International financial institutions and major aid donors for Africa have been critical of Chinese and Indian economic policies towards Africa. They insist that Beijing and New Delhi should not repeat the mistakes of the US and the West in bankrolling for decades such unsavoury regimes as that of Mobutu Seseseko in Zaire. While their aid policies are completely tied to national interest, India and China insist that they are just are liberating the Third World from western dominance. After decades of seeing themselves as victims of imperialism, China and India now find the tag of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism shocking if not distasteful. Yet New Delhi, like Beijing, must confront a new reality. The greater their economic and political capacity to influence outcomes elsewhere in the world, the stronger will be international scrutiny of their policies.

Equally important is the need to acknowledge that the foreign policies of China and India towards the developing world – whose resources and markets the two rising powers badly need – are undergoing a profound transformation. As high growth rates propel China and India, the two Asian giants are being compelled to design foreign policies for large economies that no longer are self-sufficient. Their rhetoric might be that of the Third World, but Chinese and Indian foreign policies could increasingly look like those of great powers, especially in the defence of the new economic interests beyond their borders.


While their foreign policy traditionalists recoil at the charges of neo-colonialism, realists in Beijing and New Delhi must come to terms with some important factors. One is a historically proven trend: existing great powers attack rising powers for not respecting the old rules. Although there has been a lot of talk about the implications of global balance of power amidst the rise of China and India, Africa is perhaps the first place the new reality is being manifest.

As China and India transform the geopolitical balance in Africa and threaten to push Europe and America from their privileged positions in the developing world, they are bound to face inevitable reaction from the major powers and liberal activists in the West. The criticism of China and India is sharpest for supporting the government in Sudan, which is facing flak on the human rights front. Beijing and New Delhi, with their huge investments in Sudan’s oil fields, have no desire to sacrifice their energy interests to compel Khartoum to change its behaviour. Support from China and India has undoubtedly emboldened Sudan to defy the international system. The same is true in Burma, where both countries are competing for influence.


To be sure, these are not the only instances where major powers have ‘elevated’ interests above a presumed ‘principle’. India can always point to the contradictions of US policy towards the military rule in Pakistan. But India cannot have it both ways – of pretending injured innocence at accusations of neo-colonialism on the one hand and asserting that other powers do the same.

As its dependence on imported oil and mineral resources expands rapidly in the coming years, India, much like China, will be under pressure to defend these interests through the time-tested means employed by great powers. These include large volumes of economic assistance, subsidising domestic capital in capturing export markets, supporting friendly governments, and selling arms to such regimes which might use them against their internal and regional adversaries. In extremis, hold your breath, this might even involve sending troops to preserve order and stability to defend ‘vital’ national interests.

For India the challenge is two-fold. One is to immediately review the current policies towards Africa and devise a strategy that treats other developing nations as partners in the march towards shared prosperity rather than as mere sources of raw materials. The other and more difficult task is to shed the old rhetoric that pretends India is a weak Third World country and start debating the consequences of India’s rising power.


As India pursues its expanding economic and political interests around the world, it is merely a matter of time before other great powers will want to know whether India is a ‘stakeholder’ in the international system that plays by accepted rules or a ‘free rider’ who simply takes advantage of the international system without paying for its construction or maintenance. In the last few years, China has been under some pressure to demonstrate its commitment to being a ‘stakeholder’. It has responded by effectively arguing a worldview of its own – the so-called Beijing Consensus that emphasises collective security, non-intervention in the internal affairs, and support to growth-oriented policies in other developing countries.

Although the West rejects many of Chinese precepts such as ‘non-intervention’, there is some satisfaction in the U.S. that China is beginning to address, at least at the diplomatic level, many western concerns, for example in using its leverage with Sudan and Burma to generate some concessions. India, which does not attract the same level of either scrutiny or hostility, is a long way from bringing clarity to its own approach to the great debates in the international system today.

For example, one of the central questions about the world order today is when, where and under what terms should great powers individually or collectively use force to secure larger good. India’s approach seems similar to that of China in emphasizing a strong commitment to non-intervention. While the Chinese and Indian multilateralists do sound the same when defending the notion of ‘absolute sovereignty’, India’s diplomatic practice tells a very different story.

Within the subcontinent and its environs, which is India’s presumed sphere of influence, New Delhi has a record of using force. Long before ‘humanitarian intervention’ became the international fashion, India chose to intervene in East Pakistan to end a genocide there by the Pakistani Army. India’s successful creation of Bangladesh occurred in the face of opposition to the U.S. but also the United Nations Security Council and the UN General Assembly. India also used force, unsuccessfully, in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s to defend the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka as well as protect the rights of the Tamil minority there.


India’s attitude to non-intervention has always had two distinctive elements to it. At the global level, it had sought to oppose interventions by the great powers which could set a precedent for potential interventions against itself. This was a weak nation fearful of other powers undermining its territorial integrity. Within its own neighbourhood, however, India’s policy mirrored those of great powers choosing to intervene when its interests or principles demanded so.

As a rising power, India will have to break this dichotomy and face up to the imperative of defining a framework for the use of force. Within its immediate neighbourhood, new threats arising from potential failed states brings to the fore the problem of defining the prospects and limits of potential Indian interventions. Beyond its own borders, India has contributed actively in the past to United Nations peacekeeping – a form of collective intervention by the international system. As an emerging power, India will soon have to ask itself, whether its deployment of troops will forever remain contingent on a UN sanction – which is subject to veto or approval by all the great powers– or whether there might be conditions under which India, either unilaterally or in coalition with other powers, could consider using force.


India’s muted response to the recent struggle for democratic reform in Burma has raised some fundamental questions. What kind of a great power will India be? Do values such as liberal democracy which the Indian elites cherish so deeply at home, have any relevance for the conduct of foreign policy? The traditional argument in New Delhi is that India is not in the business of exporting its liberal values abroad. That, of course, is not entirely true. After all, India recently intervened in Nepal to support the democratic movement against King Gyanendra. India continues to press for federalism in Sri Lanka and had overtly supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement for democracy in the late 1980s. In sum, despite the strong attachment to political pluralism at home, democracy has not figured prominently in India’s articulation of its foreign policy vision, except on occasion within the immediate neighbourhood.

Throughout the Cold War, India and the U.S. occasionally attempted to build a relationship on the basis of their common democratic values; it never really worked out. Instead, the call for cooperation between the most powerful democracy and the largest one often became a tiresome cliché. During the Cold War, the West found it more convenient to align with military dictatorships and unrepresentative regimes than work with democracies in the developing world. It is only after the end of the Cold War, when the imperatives of battling against the Soviet Union disappeared, that the U.S. began to factor in democracy as an important element of its foreign policy.


It has not always been easy in the post-Cold War period to balance the American interest in promoting democracy against its other competing foreign policy objectives. It has also not been possible for the U.S. to develop a consistent set of parameters in seeking to advance democracy world-wide. For India, the problem has been entirely different. Although it has begun to adapt itself to the changes in the world order since the end of the Cold War, New Delhi has remained unwilling to think of itself as a leading democracy or see that its political culture might have beneficial effects on others.

Since the end of the Cold War, the western world has celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy over authoritarian forms of governance. But in the largest democracy, there was little cheer at the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having developed a huge stake in the alliance with Moscow during the Cold War, New Delhi went into a deep mourning at the fall of Russian socialism. The loss of a reliable partner was indeed of greater immediate concern to New Delhi than thinking about the far-reaching systemic implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union or the great contest of ideas since the beginning of the Enlightenment project.

A second factor that prevented India from clapping for the triumph of liberal democracy was the so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ strain in its foreign policy. The founding fathers of the republic never saw India’s interests as being in a fundamental conflict with those of the West. But the imperatives of the Cold War and the impossibility of building political cooperation with the U.S. saw India steadily drifting away from the West. By the 1970s the articulation of India’s foreign policy began to acquire an increasingly stridently anti-western tone. As the Non-Aligned Movement became radicalised in the 1970s, the vision of a ‘declining capitalist West’ and ‘a rising socialist East’ gripped the imagination of the Third World leaders. Expectedly, as the North-South ideological battles dominated the United Nations fora, India saw itself leading the charge against the West in restructuring the global order.

During the Cold War it was not just the U.S. that dumped its democratic ideals. India too did not have much value for democracy as an organizing principle of international affairs. It attached more weight to the anti-western criterion than the internal democratic credentials of its eastern and Third World friends. It did not matter to India whether a Third World leader was brutal in his oppression of his own people. So long as he mouthed anti-imperialist slogans and Third World rhetoric, it was fine with New Delhi.

The time is now for India to begin to think about the value of its own democratic traditions for making the world a more secure place. This does not mean India should launch, a la George W. Bush, a global crusade for democracy. It neither has the power to do so nor is there a guarantee that such crusades will be effective. Yet, it also stands to reason that a democratic India cannot simply be a cynical state engaged in the maximisation of its power.

That the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, has found it difficult to strike a right balance between the pursuit of national interest and promotion of universal values, does not in any way let a rising India off the hook on the role of its internal political values in the conduct of its external relations.