Values in Foreign Policy

Increasing geopolitical rivalries today assert that hard power matters more than anything else. Military capabilities, technological superiority and economic heft are the strongest instruments of international political influence.

What then is the relevance of values in foreign policy? Should nation-states still uphold values or focus instead, on strengthening their capabilities to deal with their external political, economic and military challenges? Are there indeed any permanent values or are there simply permanent interests in international politics? And what happens when these values come into conflict with a country’s interests? How do countries deal with this in formulating their foreign policies?

The publication of the book, Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests, is a refreshing reminder of the relevance of values in foreign policy, notwithstanding the imperatives of hard-core national interests.

The book has compiled diverse views on the relevance of these principles and the importance of core universal value systems that apply to all nation-states. This book is also a recapitulation of how the last century was governed by a clash of two major value systems of capitalism and communism, as borne out by the Cold War rivalries.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not legally binding, provided a broad framework for countries to abide by their commitments. It influenced the constitutions of several newly independent states, leading to the adoption of the two International Covenants, one on Civil and Political Rights and the other on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most countries signed on to these covenants. It testified that indeed it was possible to agree to common values, in spite of the divergence in the historical, civilizational and cultural ethos of countries in the West and the rest of the world. Subsequent codification of several other individual rights of women, of children, of people with disabilities, on torture, on rights of refugees, etc. were largely based on western value systems, but advocated as universal values. These values of the victors governed the evolution of international norms over the last 100 years.

This international order, led by the United States of America and Europe, had its fair share of double standards, when core principles espoused of liberalism, democracy, human rights and a rules-based order clashed with national interests.  The same countries that advocated these values, adjusted their strategies to prioritise self-serving national interests above all values in foreign policy.

In spite of this, drafting of international laws on international trade, on transport, communication, intellectual property rights, disarmament, environment and climate change etc, have served an extremely useful purpose in establishing basic international norms for a rules-based order. Nation-states undertook to accept and to conform to an agreed system, reconfirmed the willingness of countries to adhere to universally acceptable values. Respect for international laws itself became an important value in conducting foreign policy. In my work as a member of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, I find that it has indeed been possible for State Parties to adhere to a value-based system to ensure these rights to its citizens, in spite of inequities among states and irrespective of their levels of development, their size, their developmental challenges, differing political systems or national goals.

This established value system is now being challenged with the emergence of China as an alternative power source, with distinct Chinese characteristics. Its unilateral actions contradict its self-professed efforts of “building a community of shared future” as a “win-win” in international affairs. Its actions violate its self-avowed Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence: violation of human rights of its own people; weaponization of its economic might to settle scores; belligerence in settling territorial disputes in South China Sea; aggression in sharing space in global commons; debt trap diplomacy under its Belt and Road Initiative; operating projects in disputed territories while articulating its respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of others. These are some examples where clearly self-interest and realpolitik trumps over any values or principles it espouses.

Returning to the book under discussion, the diversity of views expressed by eminent scholars on values and ethical principles provides invaluable insights into a very complex subject. It cannot be denied that in a globalised world of today, it is important to adhere to a rules-based order and basic respect for established international laws for peace, harmony and coexistence. Such core international values must be given primacy over narrow, parochial national interests.

Juxtaposed with universally acknowledged value systems, what does India bring to the table? The Indian values of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is one family”), and the Gandhian philosophy of “ahimsa” (non-violence), which were deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, were the hallmark of our independence struggle. These inspired several other countries in Asia and Africa during their independence movements. Mr. Srinivasan’s essay on Values in Indian Foreign Policy in this book explores some important elements of India’s civilizational values, notably tolerance, peaceful existence, and respect for nature that remain as relevant today as before.

India’s pluralistic values militate against everything that Pakistan represents; whether it is in the context of its national identity based on one religion, or its patronage of violent extremism, radicalism and its use of cross border terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Two countries created out of a common historical, geographical and civilizational space have followed very divergent paths, in pursuit of foreign affairs, influenced by the very different values each chose to pursue.

During the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture, the External Affairs Minister articulated India’s diplomatic agenda, which he said, “…has broadened considerably, as indeed have its partners in those endeavours. We share with the international community the objective that a multi-polar world should have a multi-polar Asia at its core. And to ensure that, India needs to follow an approach of working with multiple partners on different agendas. Obviously, they would each have their importance and priority. But Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas is today as relevant in foreign policy. It is the nations who have an optimal mix of capabilities, relationships and positioning who can aspire to occupy the multiple poles of the emerging international order. And it is the confidence of being able to forge ahead in this looser architecture that can inspire us to emerge as a leading power in the future.”

An aspirational India expounds “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” and oneness of the universe, as guiding principles in its foreign policy. These values can be an exemplary counterpoint to the antithetical values of some others, in the interest of peace and stability in the region and in conducting world affairs.


Amb. Preeti Saran is a former Indian Diplomat and a member of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) of the United Nations.

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