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India's foreign policy comes of age

By Harsh V Pant
January 12, 2010 15:53 IST
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If the decade gone by was one that redefined the contours of global politics in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, it was also a decade that witnessed Indian foreign policy coming into its own, writes Harsh V Pant

India's delicate balancing act at the recently concluded Copenhagen summit is reflective of India trying to come to grips with its larger profile in the international system. If the decade gone by was one that redefined the contours of global politics in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, it was also a decade that witnessed Indian foreign policy coming into its own.

For long, India had the luxury of being on the periphery of global politics from where it was relatively easy to substitute 'sloganeering' for any real foreign policy. India, with some skill, used issues like 'third world solidarity' and 'general and complete nuclear disarmament' to make its presence germane on the international stage.

But international politics is an arena where outcomes are largely determined by the behaviour of major powers. It is the actions and decisions of great powers that, more than anything else that determine the trajectory of international politics. And being a minor power without any real leverage in the international system, India could do little of import except criticise the major powers for their 'hegemonistic' attitudes. As India moved to the centre of global politics during the past decade with an accretion in its economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities, it was asked to become a stakeholder in a system that it has long viewed with suspicion.

The end of the Cold War came as a blessing in disguise as it forced Indian policy-makers to adapt to the new global political and economic realities and was a much needed shock. Many of the central assumptions of Indian foreign policy had to be reviewed in light of changed circumstances.

The shape of the world changed, signalling the possibility of a new Indian foreign and national security strategy. Rapidly shifting geo-strategic landscape confronted India as it made its way up in the inter-state hierarchy. As a new decade dawned at the beginning of a new millennium, India seemed poised on the threshold of achieving the status of a major global power, emerging as an indispensable, albeit reluctant, element of the new global order exemplified not only by its growing economic and military might but also the attraction of its political and cultural values.

By any objective measure of material capability, India is a rising power in the international system and the consequences of an India that is rising are very visible in the international system. India's rising wealth and large population are its latent power that India is using to build up its military and diplomatic might.

This decade saw India playing the balance of power game more effectively by courting the US to ward off an impending clash with the other Asian giant, China. It also started engaging other east and south-east Asian countries to balance China's predominance in its vicinity. It is projecting its power more forcefully by sending its defence forces to train with other regional states as well as dispatching its navy to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

The high point of India's diplomatic achievement during the last decade was its civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with the US. Though first proposed by the US, the way in which India negotiated the highly contentious deal epitomised the new confidence in India about its ability to shape global trends. The US-India pact is as remarkable for the way it signals a revolutionary transformation in US-India relations as it is for the manner in which it transforms the global nuclear discourse.

As part of its broader goals of promoting nuclear power and achieving nuclear security, the George W Bush Administration agreed to "seek agreement from the US Congress to adjust US laws and policies, and to work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India, including but not limited to expeditious consideration of fuel supplies for safeguarded nuclear reactors at Tarapur." India, on its part, promised "to assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages of other leading countries with advances nuclear technology."

The Indo-US nuclear pact has virtually rewritten the rules of the global nuclear regime by underlining India's credentials as responsible nuclear state that should be integrated into the global nuclear order. It creates a major exception to the US prohibition of nuclear assistance to any country that doesn't accept international monitoring of all its nuclear facilities. And yet it took India more than three years to conclude this pact, underlining the political divide in the nation on fundamental foreign policy choices facing the nation.

India is a rising power in an international system that is in flux, and it will have to make certain choices that probably will define the contours of Indian foreign policy for years to come. The stakes are too high for India as well as the international community.

There is clearly an appreciation in the Indian policy-making circles of India's rising capabilities. It is reflected in a gradual expansion of Indian foreign policy activity in recent years, in India's attempt to reshape its defence forces, in its desire to seek greater global influence. But all this is happening in an intellectual vacuum with the result that micro issues dominate the foreign policy discourse in the absence of an overarching framework.

Since foreign policy issues do not tend to win votes, there is little incentive for political parties to devote serious attention to them and the result is ad hoc responses to various crises as they emerge. However much Indians like to be argumentative, a major power's foreign policy cannot be effective in the absence of a guiding framework of underlying principles that is a function of both the nation's geopolitical requirements and its values.

India today, more than any other time in its history, needs a view of its role in the world quite removed from the shibboleths of the past. Hopefully, the new decade will help India sort this out.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College London and is presently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Harsh V Pant