Foreign Policy and Values-An Individual Perspective

Foreign Policy and Values-An Individual Perspective

The choice between values and interests has been an eternal issue that has exercised our minds. We face this as an individual or a member of a family or group. We also encounter this as a citizen of a nation. It is between the ideals we espouse or chose to follow or what is doable or achievable. Values are normally associated with ethics or morality; while interests have to do with pragmatism.

Values are, relatively speaking, more long lasting, as these are embedded in the ethos of a society; while interests are more transient, as these respond to ever changing needs and requirements. This issue has come to the forefront, as we are witnessing undervaluation of values, at the level of individuals, societies or nations.

We start grappling with values as a child, when we are faced with a choice between right or wrong. This begs a question; whose values. Are there any universal values? If not, then are we talking National Values,  Asian Values,  ASEAN Values or  India Values. We now often hear of American, Australian or German Values, which they invoke when dealing with migrants. Who sets these values or determines the same?

How do these values impinge on Foreign Policy? Are we talking of the same set of values as are deeply ingrained in the social fabric of a society or a separate set of values that are relevant in the context of Foreign Policy? How do these values stand the pragmatic test of ‘National Interest’? Are values used as a veneer or ‘promo’ to promote Foreign Policy interests? What happens if there is a conflict between the two? What is jettisoned-‘Values’ or ‘Interests’? Could we cite some examples in support of our argument? In the international arena, commonly held ‘Universal Values’ are Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which get manifested in the form of Democracy and Human Rights. Should these values be imposed on others?

To start with, we need to have a glimpse at the contemporary world, as foreign policy operates in the global context.  The world is in a flux, witnessing a period of enormous changes in geo-politics, geo-economics and geo-culture. A world that is more connected in some ways, as modern ICT bridges the distance; but there is more dissonance. Mental gaps are increasing, as there is less toleration between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is not a peaceful and homogeneous world. There is an identity crisis at the level of individuals and nations; the peace dividend that was expected in the post-Cold War period has eluded us.

Forces of nationalism are emerging, as votaries of globalization are declining. World is becoming more multi-polar, with the loosening of tight regional structures. Countries also have to simultaneously grapple with bilateral relationships, which are both competitive and cooperative in nature, as there is no linear progression. Relationships are being viewed in transactional terms and as it is about ‘Deals’ that have to be won.

Trust Deficit is growing among individuals and nations, as we see an increase in terrorist activities, with some even being supported by state actors. The phenomenon of ‘Fake News’ is adding to mistrust, as media is losing its independence and is no more viewed as a reliable source of information; thus ceding its role as a genuine source for moulding public opinion and becoming a connectivity bridge.

‘Twiplomacy’ is providing a new kind of ‘Dynamics, in the foreign policy arena. Social Media instrumentalities, like Face book, Twitter and YouTube has resulted in quick responses, but the same has been at the cost of a well thought out and deliberated response. It has also added to uncertainties to the process, as changes are announced on a daily basis. Can we think of values, if we start viewing international relations in terms of ‘Deals’? Foreign Policy is not to be treated like a Rapid Action Force and has to rise above ‘Deals’.

How does India’s Foreign Policy respond to the above parameters? To understand these, it would be essential to look at the some of the basic parameters. India has arrived on the world stage; its opinions matter. Its strength lies in its economic clout, as the world’s third largest economy. It also lies in its civilizational strength and being viewed as a ‘Benign Power.’ It respects ‘Diversity’ and promotes ‘Pluralism’.

India aspires to be a global power and would like to be in the driver’s seat, as a member of the UN Security Council. It also has a huge demographic advantage, given its skilled young population. Its Diaspora is emerging as a connectivity bridge.  It is the world’s largest democracy, with a proven track record. Its strength lies in the values it holds, such as non-interference in other countries. It has adopted a participatory model that promotes joint development efforts, in keeping with local aspirations.

India’s above ideals are manifested through its policy pronouncements, which are being injected into the Foreign Policy arena. These are ‘Sab Ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas’ and ‘Challen Saath Saath”. Its pillars are; ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’; ‘Look/Act East Policy’ and keeping open its ‘Strategic Options’, while forging and managing relationships with Major Powers. It is to essentially retain the essence of ‘Nonaligned Policy’, even though this word has gone out of circulation. It believes in ‘Dialogue’ and peaceful resolution of disputes. India also sees its role in the wider Indo-Pacific Region, as a provider of maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

Let us look at a few scenarios in the present day context, which throw light on how values and interests operate in the international context. The interaction is greater in strategic and political issues; followed by economic, immigration and human rights and cultural matters. The following case studies throw light on different facets, where values have won or interests have scored or there is a stalemate and draw:

  • Visit of Iranian President to Europe: The visit of the Iranian President Rouhani to France and Italy in January 2016 provides an interesting illustration of clash between interests and values. The French President Hollande canceled his lunch for him, as Iranian request for ‘a halal, alcohol free’ was against ‘their Republican values’. Italians, on the other hand agreed to cover nude statues in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, keeping in view the cultural sensitivities of the delegation of the Iranian President.
  • India-USA Relations: India-USA relations provide another picture, where they were known as ‘Estranged Democracies’, as their interests did not coalesce, despite their sharing democratic values, It was now only when values and interests were working in tandem that they signed the Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008. At the present juncture the relationship is, however, moving from a ‘Transformational’ to ‘Transactional’ mould. The clouds of ‘Fair Trade’ are hovering over it; I dealt with it in mid-1980s and could not figure, ‘Fair’ to whom?
  • Change of Governments: Values becoming victim to the whims of new leaders after elections; even in the case of democratic countries. President Trump’s move to nuke ‘Nuclear Deal’ with Iran, despite pressure from European partners. This is a case of negating, both values and interests. It adds an element of uncertainty to the conduct of international relations and goes against the commonly held views on continuity of policies. How can we sell a similar deal with North Korea and ensure its survival after change of incumbency at the White House?
  • Human Rights and Immigration: There are cases, where values score victory. An Algerian woman married to a French citizen was denied French citizenship, as she refused to shake hands with the male officials at a naturalization ceremony in France in April 2018. It was on the grounds that such refusal was ‘symbolic’ and revealed ‘a lack of assimilation’. On the other hand, there is a positive story, showing respect to values, when the ashes of the legendary singer, David Bowie were scattered on the Indonesian Island of Bali, as per the Buddhist traditions, by honouring the will of the singer.
  • Stalemate or Draw: Let us look at another scenario, where values and national interests get united through subterfuge or a clever twist. Australia and New Zealand did not allow transit of nuclear-powered vessels. Foreign naval vessels were, however, allowed to sail, without making a declaration. It was the application of the Gandhian principle of ‘I see or hear no evil’, but on its head.

Where does India stand in this game of values? India prides itself of its civilizational moorings. India’s struggle for Independence was fought on principles of non-violence, based on ‘Satyagraha’. Under Nehru, India followed both domestic and international policies, based on ideals. It opted to adhere to principles, as enshrined in ‘Panch Sheel’. These were manifested through Non-aligned policies and got transformed into ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ etc. India was shaken from its idealistic pedestal in 1962, when it had boundary clashes with China. It started embracing ‘Realpolitic’ policies, which were seen in action at the time of Bangladesh’s Independence in 1971.

India has followed foreign policy, which is a mix of values and interests. It is based on its civilizational roots and aims at peace and friendship by treating the whole world as a family (‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’); while following its ‘Enlightened National Interest’.  These are manifested in ‘The Idea of India’, which is celebration of democracy, secularism, diversity and pluralism. These ideals also form the backbone of India’s Foreign Policy. It is the ideals that guide India, when it adopts a Partnership approach with Africa in its development projects, in keeping with their wishes. In this respect, we do not see any change from Manmohan Singh to Modi. However, there is change in optics; it looks more ‘Robust’, impregnated with strong ‘Cultural’ underpinnings.

India’s value-based policy has come under challenge from time to time. Let us look at some of the recent cases, where it jettisoned principles for interests. These include; downplaying official support to the celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of Dalai Lama’s entry into India; non-participation by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Commonwealth Summit in November 2013 in Sri Lanka and non-participation of Prime Minister Modi at the Non-aligned Summit in Venezuela in September 2016.

There is both continuity and change in India’s foreign policy, as it dynamically responds to the changes in the domestic and international scene. The consensus on foreign policy is, however, breaking. What is the future that holds for India? It is to emerge as a soft power, as it has inherent strengths that goes beyond Bollywood. It ably fulfils the criteria laid down by Joseph Nye Jr. who defines it as ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced’.

Where do we finally stand in this battle between values and interest in the Foreign Policy Arena? The balance is certainly tilted in favour of interests, as these are not amorphous like values. Nonetheless, values have entered the arena and they are gradually making space for themselves. At times values are imposed, rightly or wrongly, to prove that values do matter. India is no exception to this trend, as it would continue to pick and chose its options, between values and interests; but it is certainly against imposition of values on others.

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