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Jaishankar’s foreign policy audit sits uneasy with his reading of current global situation

We need Jaishankar’s frank appraisal. But it should go even further, which suggests that the dogmas of Delhi are not that easy to shake.

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In his brilliant and breathtakingly candid speech at the Fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture in New Delhi Thursday, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar offered an “unsentimental audit of Indian foreign policy”. He blamed misguided consistency and a lack of hard-headedness for the past failures of India’s foreign policy. This was indeed a rare speech for any government functionary to make in any country.  Jaishankar called for greater realism in India’s foreign policy, junking the “dogmas of Delhi”.

It is difficult to disagree with his audit. The problem is that the lessons he draws from history sit uneasily with his analysis of the current international situation and his prescription for Indian foreign policy. At its core, there is greater continuity than Jaishankar is willing to acknowledge and an unfortunately persistent refusal to acknowledge some of the consequences of power.

The continuity first: India has thought, since its pre-independence days, that it somehow had a special mission in world affairs, an unfortunate tendency that shows little signs of ebbing. Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his many followers thought that India was uniquely moral: even now, many want Indian power to be the ‘power of its example’. And it continues: the only difference is that India is now the ‘vishwaguru’, and yoga has replaced disarmament as the new Indian solution to the world’s problems. Realism would acknowledge a simple truth: India is not a gift to the world (nor is any other country, of course) and there is little to be gained through such fruitless pursuits.

Also read: What IFS Jaishankar’s speeches reveal about Minister Jaishankar’s roadmap for India

The unipolar world order

Another continuity that is difficult to understand is India’s relations with Russia.  This is as weak today as it was in 1962, when Moscow essentially abandoned New Delhi during the crucial weeks of the India-China war. Deepening Indian dependence on country that is deepening its dependence on China is hardly a sign of unsentimental realism.

Next, the consequences of power.  It is difficult to square Jaishankar’s emphasis on power with his mischaracterisation of the current international order, which is based on the distribution of power among countries.  That the world is becoming multipolar, or is already one, has been an obsessive but grossly mistaken belief with Indian officialdom for some time, and Jaishankar bases a good part of his analysis on this unfortunate error.  Multipolarity exists only when there are several roughly equal great powers.  That is hardly the condition that we witness today.  The world is still arguably unipolar: the US continues to straddle the world in a way unmatched by any other country.  Despite its spectacular growth, militarily, China is only able to challenge the US in waters close to the Chinese territory.  No other nation can do even that. American influence over global institutions and norms remains overwhelming. Americans are indeed tiring of the onerous burdens of hegemony, but even this may be exaggerated.

Also read: Jaishankar defines India’s place in new world: Open for business, but conditions apply

India’s strategy in US-China dominated world

Even more importantly, what is most likely to replace unipolarity, whenever that happens, may not be multipolarity but bipolarity, with China joining the US at the top.  China is, currently and for the foreseeable future, so much wealthier than India and other countries that it is meaningless to talk of all of them as comparable powers.  Jaishankar acknowledges the disparity in power between China and India but it seems to play no part in his analysis of the current international order or India’s options in foreign policy.

This is not a pedantic distinction.  Indian strategy must differ depending on what type of international order we inhabit for, as Jaishankar points out, “a misreading of the larger landscape can prove costly.”  A strategy that makes sense in a multipolar order will not be appropriate for a bipolar one.  But that is exactly what Jaishankar appears to be suggesting.  A belief in a “growing multipolarity” and “greater space for regional powers” can indeed lead to a strategy of “hedging”. There are more options in a multipolar world, a greater chance to build support through “multiple engagements.”  But how can this be done when the two key powers, the US and China, are so much stronger than everyone else?  Is a Brazil or even a France a match for China?  Since they are clearly not, how can engagements with them help to balance the far stronger China?  If it was indeed a multipolar world and these were all equally powerful poles, the logic may be understandable.  But the disparity between China and other countries is so stark that this makes no sense in the current circumstance.

Also read: 5 key highlights of India’s foreign policy that Jaishankar amplified in the US

Jaishankar’s audit frank, but needs to go further

Even worse, hedging is particularly dangerous when one of the powers is your neighbour, one with which you have significant conflicts. India could hedge during the Cold War because it faced no military threat from either the US or the Soviet Union, and it was far from both, a situation very different from what India faces today. Moreover, India’s position has become relatively weaker in the last two decades vis-à-vis China, a glaring fact that no realist should ignore, and one that has to be the foundation for strategy making.

Jaishankar’s frank appraisal and clear thinking is something we need more of considering the challenges India faces. But it should go even further, which suggests that the dogmas of Delhi are not that easy to shake.

The author is professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. The author seems to have either not understood or misread the Foreign Minister’s speech. The importance of ‘reading of the global tea leaves’ is already underscored by the Minister. So, then it is my read vs your read, perhaps. And seemingly, China’s rise and its weight put paid to the ostensible multi-polarity. But Jaishankar also notes that what defines power and national standing is also very different in today’s world. This is one of the most important observations – the US has not been able to win the war in Iraq despite all the calculations going in. The ‘vishwaguru’ point is frivolous and totally lost me. Indeed we would always benefit from a more trenchant analysis 🙂 but Jaishankar’s speech is a brilliant sweep of 70 years of foreign policy.

  2. China is undoubtedly the second most important power in the world today after USA but there is a big gap in the capabilities of USA and China and further, big gaps between China on one hand and the other powers such as Russia, France,UK, Germany, India, Brazil etc. However, China is also India’s neighbor with whom we have unresolved boundary dispute and is a thick friend of Pakistan, our arch enemy. In the past, we, as a non-aligned country who belonged to neither camp, relied mainly on USSR to manage our strategic interests but after break up of USSR, we had to develop defense relations with USA, Russia, France, Israel etc to get required technology and equipment to balance China and Pakistan. This posture is likely to continue in future as well as our indigenous defense production is not adequate and our dependence of Russia is much deeper so that we cannot entirely rely on USA, which is also an unreliable and transactional partner. However, at the same time, we have carefully cultivated USA for hedging against China in Indo Pacific and with Russia, France, Isreal etc otherwise. There cannot be any change in this policy until we settle our border dispute with China which as of now, seems to be a difficult proposition in immediate future. So we have to manage the border and yet grow trade and investment with China at the same time to benefit from the Chinese economic power. In view of this, India’s current trajectory in foreign policy can be said to be practically the best. With Art 370 out of the way, we can now look forward to settle the border dispute with both China and Pakistan on as is conditions in J&K and later with China, on the Himalyan side, on the already agreed principles and parameters. This can happen in next decade and then the contours of our foreign can change. Jai Shankar’s analysis is brilliant and forthright and he is the right man at right place in Modi years.

  3. I have a lot of respect for the intellect of this author to have put together this article, but this is a classic case of negligible insight or inference coming through for the user. Sorry, but the whole point of the article seems to be an attempt at providing a sophisticated critique of the speech by Mr.Jaishankar, and even that doesn’t come out because there is hardly any new opinion for the reader to chew on.

    So the world is not multipolar but more bipolar. So what about it, would you have us not engage with someone, or accelerate engagements with a certain country? Which of the larger blocs – North/South America, Europe, Middle east, Asia uniquely serve India’s interests in the short/mid/long term horizon. How should India tactically rebalance it’s approach to the big two in the bipolar world? None of these facets were covered.

    • Russia is mentioned AT THE RIGHT SPOT in the column, under “The unipolar world order”, 4th paragraph. What is unfortunately not mentioned is that, it is not a country India should associate itself so closely!Russia is a rogue state, having no regard for other countries and their sovereignties.

  4. The candour / forensic analysis ought not to have concluded in mid 2014. To be perfectly fair, a person in this position cannot be objective. It would have been better not to exhume the ghosts of the past. No bold departures are visible in foreign policy, any more than they are in economic orthodoxy, for all the putting down of predecessors. 2. If one starts with the immediate neighbourhood and works outwards, difficult to identify a single significant bilateral relationship that is in the pink of health, in any way on improvement over the past. If international relations is a game of poker, the pile of counters we have to play with is not growing, and it is looking increasingly modest in relation to our foremost adversary’s.

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