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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > June 02, 2007 > Foreign Policy : Going back to Thucydides

Mainstream, Vol XLV No 24

Foreign Policy : Going back to Thucydides

by Rakesh Gupta

Saturday 2 June 2007



India’s Foreign Policy Since Independence by V.P. Dutt; National Book Trust, India; 2007; Paperback Price: Rs 80.

Veteran and eminent academician, scholar and writer Professor V.P. Dutt, has done it again on India’s Foreign Policy. He has written in a style at once simple, historical and analytical for the educated layman as he says in the Preface. It is simple for it does not rely heavily on academic idiom-like unit level analysis, security dilemma or defence dilemma or the like. One is reminded of the feeling that one got when the reviewer read Thucydides’ History on the Pelopponesian Wars. The classic begins with attributing wars to human nature and the present work begins with focusing on geopolitics as determining foreign policy. It is historical for it covers a period of sixty years of turbulence in the Cold War and post-Cold War phases of international relations. If the classic dealt with Pericles’ age and formation of his policy to domestic factors, Dutt refers foreign policy to domestic and geopolitical factors. If in Pericles’ age there was the patron-client relation among the dominant powers and colonies, Dutt also suggests that the colonies attempt to alter these. Thucydides points out how the dominant powers even interfered with their own colonies in terms of those wars, Dutt mentions how military alliances attempted to draw newly free countries into military power blocs against which Nehru and his successors had to struggle given their domestic compulsion of making the life of the nation happy in pursuit of happiness as Jefferson would say. Dutt’s work is a classic in the sense that any moment in history is historical. The ancient wars were fought for a long period but over a small geopolitical area. The current work focuses on the larger geographical canvas and longer historical period. It is analytical, for see what he says on page 180. To quote him, he says in relation to India, Russia, China’s current relations the following:

We have used the words geopolitical partnership deliberately, for these relationships did not constitute, and were not intended to constitute, a military alliance, or in fact any kind of alliance, against the United States or any other country. Each of the three countries had their separate relationship with the United States.

He says of the same relationship more elaborately referring to the Chinese sources on page 160 the following:
…a Foreign ministry think-tank commented, the close ties between China, Russia and India meant more clout for developing countries when they cooperated with rich countries on the international stage. That about assumes up; clout, yes, confrontation, no.

The multipolarity at the economic level finds expression in Dutt’s analysis of India’s emerging relations in the world and its joint projects with all countries. Of course this is happening during the period of unipolarity. The attempt to forge these relations can be traced back to the vision of Pandit Nehru, the practitioner of the art of the possible. Dutt considers him to be a realist. I would add, he was as much a realist as Jefferson or Lenin was. Jefferson refused to join the European balance of power and made the US inward looking. Lenin faced sanctions and so adopted a diplomacy to have trade relations with the neighbourhood that expanded ultimately by the 1930s. Nehru was confronted by a hostile fire- spitting Pakistan supported by the UK and the US and potential threat from China and the Western powers. He attempted to forge alliances for development and create a vision of an alternative one world order of peace and prosperity. Both the NAM and Afro-Asian solidarity at Bandung began with humble origins in the Asian Relations Conference that he called for. Dutt posits in the Indian foreign policy realism and pragmatism as the watch-word of the vision of the leaders since Independence. The vision of Buddha for peace was combined by the vision of Chanakya’s state- craft, perhaps. Dutt says it very beautifully thus:
As Jawaharlal Nehru himself said, India’s foreign policy was rooted in India’s civilisation and traditions, India’s struggle for freedom, India’s geographical position, and India’s quest for peace, security, development and a place in the sun.
He quotes Nehru who said:
I have not originated it. It is a policy inherent in the circumstances of India, inherent in the past thinking of India, inherent in the old mental outlook of India, inherent in the conditioning of the Indian mind during the struggle for freedom and inherent in the circumstances of the world today. (p. 2)
That foreign policy has to be located in the dynamics of power struggle as the conditioning factor is undeniable. Foreign policy responds to the structure of power and changes therein. This is true of all relations of India with other countries. In the present context the Indo-US relations entered a new and unprecedented phase of changed environment in the post-Cold War period. If earlier the PL-480 was written off, Russians gave foodgrains to India to be paid when able which has also not happened so far. Both powers then showed their diplomacy’s colours whichever way one interprets them.

CURRENTLY, after initial groping in the dark in the 1990s that V.P. Dutt noted in his earlier work, Indo-US relations entered the phase of strategic partnership and these have developed both under the NDA and UPA governments. He says:
India and the US continued and expanded their cooperative activities between the militaries of their two countries. They kept the negotiations ongoing during the second phase of the Next Step in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). (p. 182)

If nuclear energy is perceived to be the need of India then the Manmohan Singh-Bush meet has to be understood for civilian nuclear cooperation. Oil, gas and nuclear energy are three issues around which most of the countries are formulating their foreign policy. Dutt shows his preference for cooperation among all countries and hails all those agreements that India has forged for this. In that context be upholds the present Indo-US agreement under discussion more in our media and in the US Congress. Both countries are engaged in sorting out issues so that the deal can be clinched for the future of India’s energy needs and geopolitical security. After the collapse of the Cold War all countries ceased to see any enemy anywhere. In that context one can understand Dutt’s praise of the Gujral doctrine, his softness towards China practising the statecraft of Gandhi’s three monkeys-—see, hear and speak no evil. Everybody is pursuing national interest—the US, China, Russia, the European powers, Japan et al.

The reviewer feels that there may be clash of interest. This clash may express itself in post- modern wars that bedevilled many third world countries and have reached the Twin Towers. It also expresses itself in the persistence of the issue of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. On the latter Dutt says poetically:

Kashmir is an important issue but firstly to find a solution acceptable to both countries may not be asking for the moon, but is not a cake walk either. (p. 146)
On China’s foreign policy orientations be holds that it has gone back to its pre-Confucian origins’…lauding the ancient world order that the Chinese historically believe in’. (p. 147) This being harmony. The Chinese perspective is also within its nationalist framework and that could be to assert its sovereign rights over the territories that it claims to be its own, as and when it can do so. Currently the solution of the Indo-Chinese boundary dispute will add to that harmony, shall we say, or, its failure detract from it. Arunachal Pradesh may well join Taiwan.

I have a feeling that Dutt’s present book will be re-read under different circumstances. For example, he says of the Chinese harmony: ‘But harmony cannot be imposed with a fist.’ (p. 241)

In conclusion he says of foreign policy:
It is a business of engagement, engagement with neighbours, engagement with world powers, engagement with as many countries of the world as possible…and now engagement for energy considerations. (p. 246)

Why is there a need for engagement? It is not just only for accommodation and compromises but also for managing rivalries. Both the Cold War and détente between the USA and the USSR were engagement. Our dialogue with Pakistan and Pakistan’s unchanging position on Kashmir is engagement. So if one were to deconstruct the word it could mean many things. Perhaps for this reason Professor Dutt has used the word eight times in a single sentence. One will tend to agree with him. It is not a book to be read on a train journey or a flight from here to Lahore. It is a book that needs to be read with considerable thought and attention. One last example of what I intend to tell the reader. The book appears to be easy read but by no means a simple one. It deals with a complex subject and in a complex way. For example, we have quoted the word harmony in the context of the Chinese roots of their foreign policy. That harmony, as Dutt says, was in the context of the middle kingdom. Once we adopt that perspective one would have a re-look at this book. The author being a China expert knows all this. In traditional China, one scholar points out, there was no relationship of friendship for it was a highly hierarchical society that Confucius theorised about. And it is here that the richness of this book remains. In that context one profits immensely by going back to Thucydides.

The author is a Professor, Political Science, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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