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Palpable Realism

Palpable Realism NITIN PAI The notion of


Palpable Realism


he notion of “national interest” – the basis of the realist school of international relations – is a flawed one, arguesAchin Vanaik, in an article1 that purportsto critique Indian foreign policy since 1991.It cannot be objectively defined, he contends, making it a convenient tool employed by the state to pass off any foreignpolicy as being in the national interest.And the state, in Vanaik’s off-the-shelf Marxist interpretation, is in thrall of thecapitalistic elite, and therefore only represents their class interests.

What really drives foreign policy is “thepolitical (and therefore moral) characterof the leadership strata that shapes andmakes foreign policy decisions”, including the “dominant classes and their middleclass support base”. On the basis of thisinterpretation of international relations andIndian foreign policy, he goes on to his realtargets – American imperialism and freemarket economics, but more of that later.

Although Vanaik cites Hans Morgenthauand Kenneth Waltz he shows little understanding of their key arguments.Morgenthau, for example, clearly defines thecore of the national interest to be survival – of territory, institution and culture.2 In India’s case, this implies a realist foreignpolicy would call for, at the minimum, thesafeguarding of India’s territorial integrity,its constitution and its secular democratic society. Beyond this, the definition ofnational interest can be broadened – without diluting its objectivity – to encompasssecurity of its economy and of its people.The suggestion that national interestcannot be objectively defined is not true.

In the Marxist interpretation, the stateis a tool in the hands of the capitalist class,which uses it to pursue its ends – profitat the expense of the labour. In the Indiancontext, this translates into a narrative that holds that the ruling classes – defined bothin economic and social terms – use the state to exploit the suppressed classes. There aretwo main problems with this interpretationwhen it is brought to bear in explaining policybehaviour of states.3 First, it mistakes correlation for causation – because states follow capitalist-friendly policies, it doesnot necessarily follow that this is becausecapitalists that control the levers. Second,it does not account for policies that are actually unfriendly to capitalists.

Vanaik may be right when he points outthat India’s foreign policy is the preserveof a section of the ruling class as well as theforeign policy establishment (as it is inmost countries). But it does not follow thatthe policies themselves serve the narrowinterests of the “class” that shapes them.He does not offer any concrete examplesin support of his argument. On the contrary, it is possible to make a reasonablecase that on the most significant issues –the Pokhran II nuclear tests, closer ties with the US and even the ongoing détentewith Pakistan – India’s foreign policy isconsistent with general public opinion.

Nor is Vanaik breaking any fresh groundwhen he contends that it is the moral character of the leadership that determines foreign policy decisions. Indeed, the role ofmoral values has been recognised by the veryrealists that Vanaik seeks to refute. While arguing that political morality lies in thepursuit of the national interest, Morgenthaumaintained that moral values “set the contours of practical political action”.4

Although Vanaik’s subtitle promises ananalysis of India’s foreign policy since theend of the cold war the article does nothingof that sort. Instead it is essentially a polemicdirected against the 1991 economicreforms,which, according to Vanaik, have acceleratedthe “inequality in income, wealth andpower” between “classes and social groups”.The beneficiaries of these reforms, he argues, have a vested interest in embracingcloser ties with the US. And as a result, beyond lip service, India will be unableto “secure justice” for Iraqis, Palestinians,Syrians, Lebanese and Iranians.

Obviously, Vanaik’s conclusions reston his interpretation of the impact of theopening of the Indian economy since 1991.But even if one believes that the economic reforms left some people better off at theexpense of others (despite evidence to thecontrary) it still is a gigantic leap of faith toconclude that this should result in anythingbeyond economic engagement with the US.If it were the case, then China’s economic reforms, for example, should have led to astrategic partnership with the US. Instead,we have it attempting to balance the US in aclassic balance of power fashion. The US, onits part, sees in India the potential to balanceChina in Asia. There is a body of opinion thatholds that much of India’s major foreign policy has, for the most part, been drivenby realism – even during the cold war. Forexample, despite non-alignment, Indiaentered the Soviet corner in the early 1970sin response to the US-China-Pakistan alignment.5Similarly, despite being couched inthe rhetoric of being “natural allies”, thestrategic relationship between India andthe US is driven by convergence of interestsin the geopolitics of the current age.

Beyond implicit but unsubstantiatedmoral principles, Vanaik does not offerany explanation as to why India shouldbe concerned with “securing justice”for Iraqis, Palestinians and others in westAsia. Why should India not, for example,fight to secure justice for Tibetans,Taiwanese, Myanmarese, Darfuris, WhiteZimbabweans, Saudi Arabia’s shia minority or Europe’s Muslims? It turns outthat India’s reluctance to fight for the rightsof the world’s oppressed people is notlimited to conflicts that involve America or its allies. Indeed, it is clear that India’s policytowards these conflicts is driven notby moral principles but by an astute determination of, well, its own national interest.

The realist shift in India’s foreign policy ispalpable: from the recognition and engagement with Israel, to breaking the ice withthe Myanmarese junta, to the “Look East”policy, to the new maritime doctrine, to theinvestment in anti-ballistic missile technology, besides, of course, the strategic partnership with the US. There have, of course, beendeviations from the realist prescription. Suchdeviations, while unfortunate and expensive, are in the order of things in a democracy. By and large though, a dispassionateobserver of India’s foreign policy sincetheend of the cold war arrives at the inescapableconclusion that its underlying rationale isthe one offered by realism.




1 Achin Vanaik, ‘National Interest: A Flawed

Notion, Indian Foreign Policy since 1991’,

Economic and Political Weekly, December 9,

2006, pp 5045-49.2 K W Thompson, W D Clinton, Foreword to

Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations: The

Struggle for Power and Peace, (seventh ed),

McGraw Hill, New York, p xxv3 M Howlett, M Ramesh, Studying Public Policy:

Policy Cycles and Policy Subsystems (second

ed), Oxford University Press, Canada, p 27.4 Hans Morgenthau, Politics among Nations –

The Struggle for Power and Peace (seventh

ed), McGraw Hill, New York, pp xxiii-xxviii5 C Raja Mohan, ‘India and the Balance of Power’,

Foreign Affairs, July-August 2006, pp 17-32

Economic and Political Weekly January 20, 2007

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