Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Selective Alignments, not Nonalignment.

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Nonalignment 2.0 was not born a year ago in the fertile minds of Khilnani, Kumar, Mehta, Menon, Nilekani, Raghavan, Saran and Varadarajan, the authors of a Centre for Policy Research (CPR) paper, but in a conference room in Accra, Ghana in 1991. At a Ministerial Conference of NAM there, the movement abandoned rejection of blocs as its central pillar and embraced development, human rights and environment as their testaments of faith. Politics, it was decided, would not be the preoccupation of NAM.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister AmreMoussa formally proposed that NAM be merged with G-77 as imperialism and colonialism were not the evils to fight against anymore. Finally, it was agreed that the new generation of nonalignment should focus on equity and justice in the economic order, human rights and the environment.

The reaction to the Accra rebirth of nonalignment was rather negative among Indian writers, including, perhaps, some of the authors of the present paper. The argument that NAM was still relevant even in a unipolar configuration and that it should remain the voice of the developing world had no takers, but it was allowed to remain dormant except when Cuba, Venezuela or Iran revived it for US bashing purposes. India’s own involvement with the NAM became ritualistic and we pursued our own interests with no ideological obsessions or historical loyalties. While keeping away from its rhetorical assertions on non-proliferation, we associated ourselves with its declarations of one summit after another. NAM summits became non-events in the Indian calendar. G-20, IBSA, BRICS and ASEAN took precedence over NAM and even SAARC. Nonalignment became part of our political heritage, partly glorious, partly embarrassing, not in play in our big game for global status.

Now, many years later, the Centre for Policy Research has christened their paper on search for strategic autonomy “Nonalignment 2.0”, much to the consternation of the rest of the strategic community. A thoughtful and important policy paper has, consequently, got embroiled in controversy over its title. How could India embrace the very word that the Americans have just used in describing India’s attitudes in the UN Security Council? A commentator called it Failure 2.0. The apparent blessings that the exercise received from Shiv Shankar Menon and his deputies added more mystery to the rebirth of nonalignment as the instrument of Indian foreign policy in the near term of ten to fifteen years, the report says, is the narrow window for India to succeed. The authors are hard at work to disown their own title and, therefore, it should be set aside. They assert that strategic autonomy was the defining value and continuous goal of Nonalignment and that they are merely renovating it.

The report is descriptive in its political sections and prescriptive, when it comes to economic issues. In politics, there is an eagerness to have continuity, but in the more successful area of economic policy, much remains to be done.The reason for this anomaly is not far to seek. The economic writers have been more distant from policy making than the contributors of the political sections. The former have asserted right from the beginning that India’s global goals are limitless if it can maintain high growth and maintain democratic institutions. Diplomacy is secondary in their calculations, but deficiencies in minor things too should be avoided. That the kingdom can be lost for want of a horseshoe nail is not just a nursery rhyme, it is a parable about the nature of power, they assert.

Surprisingly, the report concedes, for the first time in Indian strategic writing, that China is already a super power together with the US. When did the reality of G-2 hit our thinkers? When have we begun considering ourselves one of the “other centres and hubs of power that will be relevant, particularly in regional context”? It looks as though the quest for a multipolar world, in which India plays a global role that K. Subrahmanyam and others dreamt, has been abandoned. We should aspire only to achieve a situation where no other state is in a position to exercise undue influence on us. Is that the be-all and end-all of foreign policy?

Having thus scaled down our ambition for a role in the world, the report claims that India is not seen as a threatening power except in our neighbourhoodand that the rest of the world wants India to succeed. Indeed, Sweden, Argentina and Ghana are quite comfortable with us even if Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka are not. In the same breath, the writers tell us that India is viewed as passive. In other words, India can neither hurt nor help anyone, not a particularly happy situation for a potentially powerful nation.

The threat from China is covered in subdued terms, but its power differential with India, the unlikelihood of the border issue being resolved swiftly, the asymmetry of our capabilities and deployments on the border, the projection of Chinese power in the Indian Ocean, the complex and ambiguous economic relations, the growing trade surplus etc. figure prominently in the report, but with inadequate analysis of these developments.Characterising Sino-Indian relations as the single most important challenge for Indian strategy in the years ahead, the only suggestion made is that India’s China strategy should strike a balance between cooperation and competition, economic and political interests, bilateral and regional contexts. It is left to the imagination as to what can be done if such a balance cannot be achieved, a very likely scenario.

India’s challenges in South Asia are described in starker terms in the report. The nature of politics and perceptions of India in our immediate neighbourhood not only make it hard for the countries in the region to act on policies of mutual benefit, but also place fetters on India’s global ambitions. The report echoes the Gujral doctrine of giving unilateral concessions to its neighbours. Deepening economic engagement is the answer, even to counter the threat of Chinese engagement in the region. The Indian dilemmas in the neighbourhood cannot be resolved with any amount of strategic autonomy. Opportunities abound, but the challenges are equally formidable.

With Pakistan, the report rules out a historical breakthrough and expects incremental improvement as a result of constructive engagement. The US cannot persuade Pakistan to abandon terrorism and the Chinese shield to Pakistan is likely to be reinforced. A number of negative and positive levers have been suggested, but none of them is new and they can be applied only if opportunities present themselves. Restoring the strategic unity of South Asia remains a distant goal.

In West Asia, the suggestion is that India should engage with both the lawfully constituted authority and the democratic forces, with a view to finding a political settlement. This easier said than done. How much can strategic autonomy help India to prevent external intervention? Equally hard will be for India to avoid sharp choices, like steering clear of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The elaborate treatment in the report of the international institutions, hard power, internal security, non-conventional security issues, knowledge and information etc. must be studied separately. They are indeed weighty sections.The clarion call to India to rise with our clear values intact and not to fritter away India's enormous legitimacy, when seeking power. We should set new standards for what the most powerful must do.

The passion for strategic autonomy or a new generation of nonalignment, however, should not be the priority of the powerful. They hire and fire allies to suit their strategic objectives. India has already moved away from a pathological attachment to nonalignment and opted for selective alignments on the basis of mutual benefit, giving birth to alignments across geographical and ideological divides. To harp on the primacy of autonomy, to the exclusion of finding common cause with others is a sign of weakness and lack of self-confidence. The authors themselves have not been able to link every solution they suggest to strategic autonomy. Strategic autonomy comes automatically to the powerful. In the pursuit of power, selective alignments are more crucial than nonalignment.