A question of values and interests

Ashis Ray on a timely book of essays that offers important insights for a troubled, uncertain world

It’s a dangerous world if morals cease to be of consequence in international relations. When threats are employed to further a nation’s interests, as in the case of the American administration under Donald Trump; respect for transnational laws diminishes, as is the objective of Vladimir Putin, who is plotting to continue as president of Russia for life; and economic colonisation becomes covert practice, as is happening with China, ethics tend to evaporate with the wind.

Thus, the publication of Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests is a timely reminder of the principles upon which diplomacy has been founded. From the foreign policies of the West and Russia’s world view to Islamic values, the book is a broad sweep of the global scene. The attention on Asia includes a focus on China, Japan and India.

The contribution on China by Zhang Lihua is, however, slightly disappointing, singing from the hymn sheet of the People’s Republic without comment or criticism. Lihua is quick to pronounce, for example, that ‘China will never seek hegemony’.

More credibly, she states: ‘Although the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government officials claim to believe in Marxism and take Marxism as the guiding ideology, their lives have been steeped in Chinese culture and are or were deeply affected by traditional Chinese culture, values and methods of thinking.’ In other words, they express themselves by often quoting from Confucianism and Taoism, with traditional cultural values such as ‘harmony, benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom and faithfulness’ guiding formulation on foreign affairs.

China adopted ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ in 1950. But its doctrinaire opposition to imperialism and what it called revisionism and its pursuit of proletarian internationalism resulted in Beijing’s ‘two fists [China and the Soviet Union] to fight against others’ posture. Today, while it generally acts peacefully and responsibly and respects the United Nations, it nevertheless remains belligerent in its attitude to various territorial disputes.

Between 1868 and 1945, writes Tadashi Anno, the values that were supposed to weave Japan’s foreign policy were sovereignty and non-aggression, western and postmodern. Indeed, the country’s Meiji era (1868-1912) accepted the Eurocentric standard of civilisation and strove to join this ‘family of civilised nations’. After losing out in the game of power politics, indeed after its annihilation in the Second World War, Japan embraced pacifism as a path to regain ‘self-esteem and international standing’.

Post-war Japan has mostly espoused ‘peace, freedom, democracy and human rights’ to align itself with the United States and other friendly countries. These are now deep-rooted in the Japanese mindset. Besides, its benevolence of aid to other countries is remarkable. But the contributor concludes: ‘Depending on the future course of international relations, it is not impossible that more openly nationalistic undercurrents may come to the fore in Japan’s foreign policy rhetoric.’

One of the tenets of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Panchsheel to govern relations between two countries was ‘non-interference in each other’s internal affairs’. Therefore, the recent and overt endorsement by India of Donald Trump in the ongoing American presidential campaign was a sharp departure.

Referring to the Narendra Modi regime in the chapter on India, former Indian foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan – one of the book’s three editors – writes that ‘a new assertiveness is reflected in symbols of patriotism and respect for the military. In foreign affairs there is no reference to philosophical values other than  Hindutva, nor to Nehru and non-alignment as points of reference.’

The Nehruvian foreign policy of independent India was conceived on the basis of the country’s history, religious traditions and the legacy of non-violent struggle against imperialism and racialism. Righteousness derived from Buddhism and Hinduism was a guiding light.

Nehru authored the fundamental stance of non-alignment in a climate of post-Second World War hostility between capitalism and communism. But he emphasised, ‘It is sometimes said that our foreign policy is one of neutrality or impartiality; that is not correct. These words can be used only when two countries are at war and a third remains aloof…our policy is merely to do what we think is right and not give in to pressure…I shall merely call it an independent foreign policy.’

India’s presumption that it needs to be heard because its voice is one of an ‘ancient civilisation’ – this was even expounded by Nehru to the US Congress in 1949 – is unrealistic, while equating India with Hindutva contradicts the modern society India’s well-wishers would like it to be.

India’s avowed exceptionalism is also debatable. Srinivasan argues that ‘the nature of its [India’s] aspirations remains potentially adverse to its greater integration with the global system’.

I was a little surprised that Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao is overlooked in the book. After the collapse of its rock-like ally, the Soviet Union, when India was facing isolation, Rao’s adroit establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel neutralised western non-cooperation. The Peace and Tranquillity Treaty he concluded with China reduced the biggest threat to India’s territorial integrity, and one must not forget the economic gains from his Look East initiative.

A nation’s possession of a nuclear armoury may make the rest of the world wary of it, but that does not necessarily mean the nation is respected as a great power. This is lesson for all, particularly Pakistan, which doesn’t hesitate to use such weaponry for blackmail.

The publication attempts a wide-ranging analysis, although an inspection of the Sunni Arab world’s foreign policy would have been interesting.

Along with Krishnan Srinivasan, the book is edited by James Mayall, professor emeritus at Cambridge University, and Sanjay Pulipaka, a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum. In his essay on ‘Values in European Foreign Policies’, Mayall makes a thought-provoking point. In his view, ‘it is a sad fact that in present circumstances, European states are likely to find it more and more difficult to sustain liberalism abroad while pulling up the drawbridge against the outside world and fending off political and discriminatory pressure on minorities at home’.

Democratic authorities have to react to public sentiment. If the message from the European masses is that they feel swamped, it is better to heed such instruction and thereby perhaps keep alternative extremist governments at bay.


Ashis Ray has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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