Are relations between countries a zero sum game? Do countries engage with each other only in hard-nosed pursuit of their own interests? Or is it something more than this? Are there “universal values”? And what is their role, if any in international affairs? In the following paragraphs, these questions will be touched upon, though not in any great detail.
To seek development in a peaceful environment should be a desirable goal for all countries. And if their engagement with other countries is tempered by some notion of equity, fair play and “greater good”, do we get a “value system” for international affairs? And are these universal values and norms or do cultural and historical experiences of countries impact on how they perceive such values as also their adherence to it? The rights of refugees and asylum seekers, women’s and children’s rights, the right to sanitation, etc. are in themselves unexceptionable. But in different countries these rights are accepted in varying degrees owing to their history, their culture and their level of development.
The history of the developed western countries is marred by acts of wanton brutality, injustices inflicted on peoples through slavery, colonisation, apartheid, wars, etc. But it is these countries that have been at the forefront of global standard setting in the last 75 years or so. The developing countries are still seen as reluctantly and grudgingly agreeing to go along. While it is true that the basic rights of citizens in the developed world are better met, promoted and protected than elsewhere, these countries in their external relations often do not display the same high standards. All this notwithstanding, global standard setting is mostly a welcome development. Today, it can be no country’s case that what happens in my backyard is nobody else’s business. This is certainly to the good.
And where does India stand on such issues? Like other countries, India’s policy making has not remained uninfluenced by its historical experience and its cultural moorings. The architect of India’s Foreign Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru, did believe in India holding on to the “high moral ground”. Arguably, he was not a practitioner of realpolitik. India then spoke for the world, not just itself. Its credibility, especially among the developing countries was high. India’s was the leading voice against colonialism and apartheid. In fact, India championed the cause of freedom of all colonies even while it was fighting for its own. India’s aid and assistance programmes for capacity building in countries like China and Indonesia started before its Independence in 1947. A newly independent India was poor and had pressing domestic requirements, yet showed a certain generosity of spirit.
India’s substantial aid to Africa and other developing countries and our large peace keeping operations in Africa demonstrate India’s continuing commitment to a larger cause and to higher ideals. But things have changed. India has moved away a bit from the lofty ideals it upheld. India’s position on the Rohingya refugee issue is a case in point and a departure from its traditional openness to migrants of all hues irrespective of their provenance. And there are other examples.
Realists may be scornful of the idea of value based policies or the role of values in international affairs. But our history is replete with examples of the consequences that followed in the wake of unequal treaties, unjust wars and the use of coercive measures in international relations. Peace is indivisible and poverty anywhere can be a threat to prosperity elsewhere.
The Constitutions of most countries and their stated foreign policy objectives have their moorings in a “value system” even if these values are largely aspirational in nature. When countries engage with one another, national interest appears to trump all. But what we are witnessing today is a trifle alarming. Leaders of countries that count globally are jettisoning “values” altogether. They no longer even make a pretence of adhering to it. This does not portend well. International affairs should not be a zero sum game.