National Character, Traditions, and Foreign Policy

Values, and, in more recent times, ideologies, have played an important role in international affairs. The Holy Roman Empire, and the so called Free World of the Cold War era, are examples of supra-national entities or constructs which invoked values, rather than interests, as the primary impulse behind their conduct. More recently, powerful countries such as the US have routinely cited the defense or promotion of freedom and democracy in support of actions based plainly on national interest.  Increasingly, the real drivers are the advancement of economic or strategic advantage, no matter how the accompanying narrative is couched.  Conversely, in exceptional cases, values are so deeply held – for example Iran or Saudi Arabia’s adherence to Islam – that promoting or defending them becomes a vital national interest.

Much of the time an understanding of the national interest of countries is all that we may need to make sense of how and why they act in a certain way in the international arena. Values, as in ethical or moral principles, or ideologies, as in democracy or in communitarian systems of belief, are no longer central to foreign policy decisions of most major countries. Frequently, what is relevant and sometimes key, is the collective self-perceptions, enduring habits, precepts, and personality traits, even customary ways of doing business, derived from the history and culture of a people. This is possibly best understood as a mix of national character, and traditional security and foreign policy doctrines.  Studying these is sometimes more rewarding than understanding the underlying values – the motivation-of policy actions. This may be especially true of nations with long historical or civilisational traditions, such as India or China.

I would like to illustrate what I have in mind with some notable features of India’s conduct of its foreign policy.

India remains very sceptical of the efficacy of the use of force in the international arena.  The success of its non-violent struggle against British imperialism, under Gandhi’s inspiring leadership, provided practical vindication in modern times of an ancient tradition. When recourse to military force has been unavoidable, India’s conduct on the battlefield has been marked by restraint, eschewal of brutality, concern for collateral damage, and a readiness to accept suboptimal outcomes as a price for an early end to hostilities.

All India’s wars with Pakistan, with the possible exception of 1971 when the objective of the liberation of Bangladesh brooked no compromise, illustrate these traits.  It is debatable if this has  always served the national interest well. Conceivably, a less inhibited embrace of the necessity of military force may have deterred aggression from adversaries more effectively.  Conceivably, too, other countries, such as Iran or Iraq with their eight -year war, or the US with its celebrated doctrine of applying overwhelming force against an adversary, or Israel with its penchant for preemptive recourse to force, may have approached things differently, in identical circumstances, with radically different results.

As a heterogeneous and diverse society, India has also been sensitive to the shades of grey in international affairs.  With rare exceptions- India’s opposition to colonial domination and apartheid come to mind-  its approach to international issues is non- judgemental,  eschewing moral absolutes.  India has been a vocal opponent of the practice of name-calling in international fora. Reagan’s moniker of “an evil empire” for the Soviet Union, or Iran’s demonisation of the US as “ the Great Satan”, remain entirely alien to the Indian tradition. Indian diplomats do not shy away from speaking out. But, rooted in the infinite complexity of India, their pronouncements are so nuanced that partisans have occasionally been driven to accusing India, unjustly, of moral cowardice. This has had its highs-  India’s role in the Korean War, for example- and its lows, as in the Hungarian crisis, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

India has also been a proponent of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States as an essential condition of international peace and security. Again, it is India’s own diversity and the ingrained habits of tolerance of its people which inform the Indian outlook on the world. If India was to survive and prosper, its people had to learn to preserve the Indian mosaic and respect the autonomy of the constituent units of Indian society. India sees the world no differently, and has no use for an interventionist universalism. When there are departures- in Sri Lanka, or, more recently, Nepal- these have been in the nature of half-hearted responses to exigent circumstances, lacking conviction and long term purpose. They have also been abandoned before long for a prompt return to the norm. A recent instance of India’s reaffirmation of the principle of non interference in internal affairs of other states has been its response (or lack thereof) to the situation in the Maldives.

Some other Indian traits which are deep rooted and have had significant consequences for its national interests include its preference for balanced outcomes accommodating diverse interests and promising something for everyone, its belief in multilateralism, and its very Asian reticence over seeking clarity if ambiguity can help maintain cordiality.

National character and tradition remain important to foreign policy choices, and diplomatic styles of several countries. Their organic roots in the very fibre of society give them abiding strength. Almost by definition, they are seen to be helping sustain the national project over the long term, even when questions are raised over immediate gains or losses. The Indian experience in this regard is revealing, but, by no means, exceptional.

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