Values and Foreign Policy

Values and Foreign Policy

If foreign policy is all about protecting and promoting a country’s interests abroad then it needs to be seen how these interests are themselves defined or based upon. In the nation-state configuration of the world the concept of the state and its evolution may vary from nation to nation though certain basic postulates such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, the primacy of its  constitution, the rights of its people etc are regarded  permanent and non-negotiable. What goes into national interest is also conditioned by the history, traditions, culture, the nature of polity, economic resources etc. The aspirations of the people also act as an important input in the national ideas about security and development and thereby on internal and external policies.

Where do values figure in the country’s foreign policy and whether they are indeed observed when they come in conflict with the hard-core national interests such as security and defence, trade and investment, competition over natural resources and so on. Values such as democracy, equality, independence, non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, human rights, compassion for the poor and underdeveloped, harmony with nature, environmental protection are universal and unexceptional. They also include the ideals of peaceful resolution of conflicts, disarmament including nuclear disarmament, cooperation on critical issues like global commons such as climate change, natural disasters or pandemics. Basically all societies would like its citizens to enjoy happiness and therefore foreign policy would also necessarily have to enable create an external environment from which the people of the country can derive happiness. These and  similar values are enshrined in the U.N. Charter, the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals( SDGs) and various documents of international  and bilateral cooperation .

While the above can be termed as universal values which the international community is broadly expected to adhere to in the interest of peace and harmony in the world, countries are also seen to follow in their foreign policies certain principles and ideals which are intrinsic to their own civilizational beliefs and traditions and which they regard sacrosanct for their security, stability and socio-economic progress. It will be instructive to see a few examples of the countries where besides observing globally accepted values they emphasize certain distinctive ideas and practices in their external outlook which is a part and parcel of their societal value structure.

South Korea

South Korea which is today much in the global limelight due to the inter-Korean dialogue and the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore is a classic case of a society which is in the process of constantly balancing itself between its traditional socio-cultural values and the demands of a rapidly industrializing and modernizing state. Some of the distinctive features of South Korea that can be identified are: A vibrant democracy in a traditional Confucian set-up, ethnic homogeneity of the people and strong affinity towards the kith and kin in North Korea. These seem to overshadow even other considerations including security alliance with major powers or close political or economic relations with a number of countries around the world. The urge to get closer and eventually reunite with North Korea arising out of ethnic affinity has been a continuing and central theme of South Korean foreign policy and is reflective of the nation-wide support for rapprochement with North Korea.

Interestingly the Koreans seem to believe that the societal value structure develops through education from primary school level onwards. The emphasis on education in Korea (as indeed in many East Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Vietnam etc) is a fundamental public policy of the country which has contributed immensely to the country’s overall development and through that to its foreign policy as well. It is seen to have enabled South Korea to substantially come out of perennial poverty, acquire better public health standards, and create greater awareness about environmental protection and energy efficiency. In other words, this value, namely the highest priority for education based on the centuries -long tradition has helped South Korea to become a developed nation in a short span of three decades.

The can-do spirit of the Koreans also appears to come out of the self-confidence evolved as a result of the strong socio-cultural values the society has nurtured over the years.


Indonesia, another Asian country has its own characteristics and priorities as far as the emphasis on values is concerned. One common feature which Indonesia and South Korea share is their recent emergence as full-fledged democracies from long autocratic military rule. The two, however, seem to differ in their foreign policy outlook possibly due to the differences in the physical size of the countries, the factor of geographical location, ethnic, religious or linguistic diversity or their historical experience. For Indonesia, Bhinneka Tunggal Ekka (Unity in Diversity) is their official motto.  The Indonesian Constitution fully accepts and recognises the multi-religious and multicultural character of the vast archipelagic nation. There has been a traditional belief in the principle of ‘Consultation and Consensus’ for the resolution of internal or external conflicts. Pluralism and syncretism were always looked upon as national strength and the practice of moderation or the attitude of tolerance as assets. The high value attached to the practice of religious accommodation and socio-cultural coexistence is today enabling the country to counter the growing trend towards religious extremism and jihadi terrorism. The latter appears as the major challenge before the country where deeper inter-religious and inter-cultural linkages among the people, (and not just multi-religious and multicultural nature of the society as exists today) may be necessary.

The foreign policy based on Indonesia’s guiding philosophy of Pancasila follows the approach of non-alignment with any power while working closely with the neighbours in the region and other countries of the world. It is interesting that the value of moderation and consensus that Indonesia upholds has prompted the country, the largest in area and population in Southeast Asia, to adopt a low profile position in ASEAN thereby helping the cause of regionalism.

India’s own value system has acted as a principal anchor for its internal as well as external policy. India’s non-alignment approach in foreign policy believed in freedom of expression and openness to judge any geopolitical issue on its merit. The age-old tradition of treating the whole world as its own family led India to accept people from all over the globe who were politically or economically in distress. Its commitment to the protection and preservation of human rights or the whole issue of immigration derives from the same consideration. This only broadened India’s concept of nationalism and helped the country to welcome globalisation.

Today all around the world there is a raging debate whether the values propounded by countries or even enshrined in their constitutions are being observed in actual performance or behavioural practices. Growing instances of intervention, military or economic in other countries’ affairs, violation of human rights, resort to totalitarianism or violence , disregard to the principle of sovereign equality –all these call in question if the relationship between values and foreign policy would be respected or be a casualty to the primacy of ‘national interest’ and realpolitik.

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