Is a values-based foreign policy feasible in the real world?

Is a values-based foreign policy feasible in the real world?

This question is relevant only in the case of major powers. No matter what the answer is, it will always be subjective and controversial.

Normatively a country’s foreign policy is the framework of objectives, principles and values which govern the conduct of its relations with other countries, regions, international entities, etc. with a view to promoting its national interests and protecting its national security and territorial integrity.

Till President Trump came along, the United States stands out as the one country that has explicitly claimed to follow a high-principle values-based foreign policy. In practice, however, the United States has carried out more unilateral military interventions around the world than any other major power with horrendous consequences and patronised a very considerably larger number of dictators, and authoritarian regimes than the Soviet Union and China put together. Therefore, I find the assertion in the first sentence difficult to reconcile with the factual position outlined in the second sentence.

Indian foreign policy in the Nehruvian era provides a particularly interesting case study.

Former Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra, who had joined the Foreign Service in 1949 has written in his book ‘A Life in Diplomacy’ that after India became independent India got “a foreign policy which he (Nehru) spelt out in a steady stream of hitherto unheard-of ideas about the nature of external relations and a series of actions which he launched in the pursuit of that policy and its goals.” Nehru passionately believed that India would be one of the world’s major powers and was destined to play a leading role in international diplomacy, which I believe it certainly did in the decade of the 1950s. Nehru was the unchallengeable architect of independent India’s foreign policy with his views invariably prevailing over dissenting/skeptical voices of his political peers and senior officials.

Nehru was a dreamer, an idealist, a visionary who enunciated a foreign policy that had an overarching moral dimension centred on principled internationalism unconstrained by conventional understanding of promoting and protecting national interests.

On September 7, 1946, in a radio broadcast to the nation, Nehru laid out the overarching principles and objectives of what fully independent India’s foreign policy would be. He said that: “We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups aligned against one another …far too long have we of Asia been petitioners in Western courts and chancelleries …. We do not intend to be the playthings of others,” introducing a completely new concept in international relations – Non-Alignment between the US-led Western bloc and the USSR led Communist bloc. This was not about passive neutrality between the two blocs but an emphatic assertion that India will conduct its external relations according to its own free will without outside influence, pressure or intervention. In that speech Nehru also accorded particular importance to decolonization, the struggle against apartheid and the desirability of nuclear disarmament. Strong support for the newly established United Nations to ensure equity, peace and stability in international relations through peaceful resolution of disputes became another cardinal principle. Nehru asserted innumerable times that “the preservation of (world) peace forms the central aim of India’s foreign policy.” He said in his address to the Asian Relations Conference in March-April 1947 in New Delhi that “We have no designs against anybody; ours is the great design of promoting peace and progress all over the world…..We seek no narrow nationalism.”

Beyond all this Nehru substantively attached the highest priority to bringing about an Asian renaissance rooted in his conviction that India and China, newly politically liberated but richly accomplished ancient civilisations, sharing an understandable distrust of the West and its imperial ways, could together lead a post-colonial Asian renaissance. Thus, developing a strong relationship with China became the cornerstone and the single most important element of the first decade of Indian foreign policy. In fact, Nehru became the world’s most zealous advocate of China being on the high table of the international comity of nations; indeed, at the cost of India’s own seat at the table.

Other broad foreign policy guidelines were: the famous five principles of peaceful coexistence, Panchsheel, proposed by India and only very reluctantly accepted by China which first appeared in the Preamble to a Trade Agreement the two countries signed in 1954. These are: respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; relations to be based on equality and mutual benefit; and, peaceful co-existence. India was against military alliances; against military solutions to political disputes; against taking sides in conflicts particularly between developing countries; and, intuitively allergic to Western interventions in Third World countries, etc.

The overwhelmingly predominant source of these foreign policy principles were Nehru’s personal strongly held beliefs and convictions rather than usual normative sources, and indigenous traditions, civilisational ethos and legacy, etc.

I believe that India under Nehru is the only example where idealism was consciously allowed to prevail at the cost of national security and territorial integrity – I will provide two examples; these continue to adversely affect India 70 years later, even today.

Nehru was utterly dismissive of reports being submitted by officials dealing with Tibet from 1946 onwards warning about China’s designs against Tibet and also of apprehensions and reservations of his senior Cabinet colleagues regarding his China policy. Due to space constraints, I cannot elaborate but my article – ‘Tibet: The Sad Saga of India’s Craven Diplomacy’ Ranjit Gupta in AGNI, Volume XI, Number II, April-June 2008, provides details which would be illuminating.

Pakistan invaded Kashmir on October 22, 1947. Instead of first trying to throw out the invaders from all Kashmiri territory, Nehru, again unilaterally, decided to take the issue to the newly created United Nations and justified this on the grounds that United Nations had to be very strongly supported as a matter of principle. India was fully aware of the anti-Indian composition of Security Council and yet he did so. Even though the Pakistani invasion was an accepted fact, ultimately an anti-Indian Resolution was adopted which has remained a millstone around India’s neck till today.

Conventionally understood values shared by all genuine democracies continue to be the basis of Indian foreign policy but particularly after the end of the Cold War there is far greater pragmatism and realism in its implementation, finally accepting, like all other countries do, that promotion of national interest and protection of national security and territorial integrity must have overriding priority over all other considerations.


-Amb. Ranjit Gupta