Value-Driven Foreign Policy: An Unpractical Ideal or Contemporary Necessity?

Value-Driven Foreign Policy: An Unpractical Ideal or Contemporary Necessity?

Is value-based statecraft an oxymoron? Relations between countries have traditionally been predicated by self-interest. The current declaration by several countries echoing “America First”, has only reiterated this fundamental principle. At the same time, transnational agreements beginning with the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century, accepted the need for restraint in the undiluted pursuit of wealth and power by nation-states. This was initially relevant only to continental Europe. It took several more centuries for European powers to accept a similar world order for non-Western societies. In this interim, civilizations were destroyed in the Americas, Asia and Africa, genocide was unleashed and many millions enslaved. Unbridled looting of wealth of ancient cultures was justified as ‘spoils of war’ or ‘free trade’ and not considered an offence when directed against “inferior” races. Flag followed trade; ‘gunboat’ diplomacy by powerful Western empires forced non-white nations to accede to unfair concessions, exploitation of mineral resources, and even trade of pernicious substances like opium.

The Wilsonian doctrine of the early 20th century conveyed in Fourteen Points one of the first expressions of common values applying across societies. It was revolutionary in discarding the principles of “balance of power’ between Western empires, while espousing universal ideals such democracy, self-determination and free trade. It had also called for an “association of nations” to give small nations assurance of territorial integrity from more predatory powers. 40 years later, these ideals resonated in the ‘Panchsheel’ principles of peaceful coexistence, with newly independent countries in Africa and Asia  calling for respecting territorial integrity and non –interference in internal affairs of sovereign nations.

Global society remains imperfect despite the United Nations and other international bodies. Most countries still feel that international relations is a ‘zero-sum’ game – gains for one can only be at another’s expense. Some national leaders have asserted that values are local in context. Any effort to evolve a set of “golden rules”, ignores the diversity of human societies and is an exercise by dominant Western cultures to impose their own values. However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the more recent UN Global Compact are efforts to evolve ideals accepted by all cultures.

Early cultures of the West and China had dismissed others as “barbarians, and those of Islam had termed areas beyond their influence as dar-al—harb (territory of war). On the other hand the spiritual philosophy of ancient India had embraced the concept of universal humanity, millennia ago. Vasundhara Kutum – the world is one family; a phrase from the Upanishads is engraved at the entrance to modern India’s Parliament. At a time when powerful nations are withdrawing from global engagement, this reiterates an ideal doctrine. And this has been practiced by Independent India. Whether, the spiritual leader Dalai Lama, renowned author Taslima Nasreen or the millions of refugees who fled East Pakistan before the 1971 Liberation War, India has continued an age-old tradition of giving sanctuary to those fleeing oppression. India’s open borders with neighbours like Bhutan and Nepal continue, reinforcing a spirit of trust. There have been missteps, whether the incorporation of Sikkim, intervention in Sri Lanka or ambiguity in relationships with Myanmar There have also been periods when ‘muscular diplomacy’ was preferred leading to resentment, but by-and-large India’s social and economic development is an ideal for its neighbours, sans dictatorship and with democracy establishing strong roots.

Is a value-based foreign policy consistent with realpolitik when less friendly neighbours openly call for destruction of the Indian state, or take unilateral decisions on shared resources like river waters? Should internal affairs of neighbouring states be a cause of concern when there is a gross violation of accepted standards of human rights, when terrorists are given sanctuary or environmental degradation threatens the ecosystem of the region?

As we seek to find answers, a critical determinant in human affairs today is technology. Human existence was transformed, first by the Agricultural and later the Industrial Revolution. Advances in areas like AI, robotics and space exploration are harbingers of another quantum leap, both for socio-economic development, and also military capability of nations. Digitally-driven globalization has already impacted international relations. The spread of internet and social media has enabled instantaneous transmission of information faster than any government or commercial channel. Tastes of millennials connected via the cyber world tend to converge, not just in in music or clothes, but issues like conservation and sustainable development. Communication has never been easier, and youth today can remotely take up assignments thousands of miles away, linked by satellite and internet that make visa regimes or taxation redundant. Virtual currencies like bitcoin are challenging the exclusivity of nations to regulate currency. On the darker side, non-state actors are defying the state’s monopoly on the use of force, a phenomenon leveraged by easy availability of weapons and radicalization via the digital medium. There is the spectre of these forces acquiring WMD and unleashing lethality equivalent to the arsenals of nations.

In this transforming world order, is a ‘value-based’ foreign policy feasible for India? Is it in fact essential to reap the benefits of the “global village’? Or is this an impractical approach in a “dangerous neighbourhood” where religious extremism is still exploited by some nations as an instrument of state policy? Can “soft power” leveraged through ‘P2P’ connect people across national boundaries even if conventional diplomatic channels are stalemated? Before stable societies emerged millennia ago, an estimated 25% of male deaths were caused by human violence and people rarely travelled beyond their birthplace. The evolution of human society contained violence first within, later between societies and global movement of people and goods is now on a vast scale. Technology has now brought humankind to another crossroads- it is becoming possible to think global while following individual preferences. Lennon’s prophetic lyrics may become tomorrow’s reality:


“…Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
…..A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world




  1. Henry Kissinger, ‘World Order’
  2. Yuval Noah Harari, ‘Sapiens
  3. Steven Pinker, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *