National Interest and Our Foreign Policy

M.L. Sondhi

Times, October 4, 1967

My recent contacts with Indian embassies abroad reveal that our chief adversary from the point of view of national diplomacy is simply ignorance.  This unhappy state of affairs is the result not of depleted staff or lack of financial resources.  The atmosphere of a typical Indian embassy is something like the following.

An air of enforced idleness hangs over the place.  The diplomatic officers are usually willing to discuss the important issues of the day if you are prepared to refrain from any complaint against their condescending attitude regarding mere details of factual information.  Many of them will confess, if you know them intimately, that when they joined the service they had a passion for studying facts about political and economic developments, but they learnt it the hard way that Indian diplomacy does not require specialist knowledge (unlike the American and the Russian, both of whose representatives are crazy about facts in their own way) but is essentially dependent upon serving the national interests of India through the assumption of a general responsibility of lowering tensions in international life.

For this it is necessary only to bear in mind the principles laid down from time to time in the Prime Minister’s letters to the Chief Ministers, copies of which are received by every head of mission, and to set the example of good conduct chiefly towards the local foreign office and also to the diplomatic community as a whole.  It is, therefore, not at all necessary, and may even be harmful, to put the attitudes of the local government or other embassies to close and detailed examination whether they satisfy each and every particular vital interest of India.

Grave Risk

Some junior members of the Foreign Service may even have to be pulled up if they are over-enthusiastic in emulating the hyper-active diplomatic operational code of embassies like Yugoslavia.  The questioner will be finally told to put aside all his doubts and remember that the success to date of Indian foreign policy shows that it is preferable for Indian diplomacy to exercise a beneficent general influence rather than be used as an instrument of a cohesive and assertive national will to maintain our political, economic and strategic interests.

Several ingredients enter into this “non-alignment” with concrete political facts and issues inside the Indian embassies.  Indian diplomatic thought is clearly fixed in some mould of which the chief feature is to symbolize the “Indian interpretation of history.”  This has an undoubted validity in reference to issues like decolonization and the role of the UN.  Indeed, India shares “mankind’s conscience” and there is a relationship between India’s emergence as a free country and the development of positive trends towards the better organization of a world community.

But diplomacy is not an impersonal force, and in the attempt to constantly identify oneself with the “March of History” if one is representing the policies of government and not creating them in the political sense, then there is the grave risk of becoming a pedlar in well-worn clichés.

In analysing the complexity of today’s international politics, even to select the facts for detailed study requires a minimum of theoretical apparatus of sociological, military-strategic and ideological concepts.  By dwelling on broad topics, world peace, nuclear disarmament and the like, there is a tendency to avoid coming to grips with the technical aspects of contemporary problems like the Chinese interest in Africa, Soviet wheat imports, the political succession problem in Yugoslavia, Chinese strategy in Western Europe, the relations of the Common Market and the Comecon, to mention just a few.

The development of an internal discussion is necessary if our foreign policy is to develop dynamic responses to developments which will follow the US-Soviet détente.  Nor can it be accepted as an answer that expertise exists somewhere in the Foreign Service for each of these problems.  A great deal depends upon the ability to respond to a wide range of opportunities which arise with immediate and pressing issues.  These demand quick response and cannot wait for leisurely prognosis.

One wonders whether Indian diplomats put themselves the question: Where do India’s specific interests lie?  To take our relations with the Soviet Union, Indian diplomacy makes certain assumptions about the emergence of “national interest” and the reduction of “ideological compulsions” on the Soviet scene.  However, much we may sympathize with a particular interpretation of emerging trends in a country, at the operational level there should be a demonstration that commitments assumed by either side will not be dismantled as part of subsequent “tactical changes.”

The Sino-Soviet conflict offers an opportunity for India, but before we can profit from it we must distinguish between “tactical” and “strategic” shifts in Soviet attitudes towards India.  Real success for India would lie in securing precedence for Indian vital interests from the Soviet Union at the present time in the form of an absolute commitment to respect our territorial integrity.  (Even now Soviet maps continue to show the Chinese alignment The difficulties faced by the Soviets are real.  They find it hard to extricate themselves completely from the ideological context of their quarrel with China, which they would like because the Soviet Union has everything to gain if the quarrel can be reduced to a simple interstate confrontation.  (It is China which stands to gain from an “ideological” quarrel).

Soviet Difficulties

The growing challenge from the Common market which has adverse repercussions especially on the economic prospects of the East European member countries of the Comecon has added to Soviet difficulties.  The failure on the agricultural front has further lowered the Soviet bargaining position.  It is, therefore, hardly an exaggeration to say that it is especially at the present time in Soviet self-interest to maintain and strengthen its friendship with India.  The inclination of some Indian diplomats to publicly interpret the Soviet attitude as an outstanding success for our diplomacy is somewhat juvenile.  If our diplomats continue to brag in this manner it could well ruin the chances of wielding a most conspicuous influence on the future of Soviet policy in the direction of specific commitments to enhance our national security aims. 

An area where our diplomacy seems to be wearing blinkers is Eastern Europe.  We seem to make no effort to distinguish the objectives of the newly emerging forces in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania or Bulgaria, out of what would seem is a strange sense of loyalty to the Soviet Union.  We forget that East European Communists, while opposing Western objectives, desire to achieve a new sort of Communist Inter-State system.  The elites in these countries are really moving towards a sort of flexible political thinking to which the term “revolutionary verbalism” may be correctly applied.  They are coming near to making a very realistic appraisal of forces and events on the world arena.  For instance, party leaders, foreign office officials and journalists do not hesitate to discuss precepts and suggestions which could lead to the restoration of a pluralistic world as against the monolithic units favoured by their political writing not long ago.

A visitor is quite surprised to find that their present level of sophistication permits some of them to suggest quite openly that India should take all possible steps to safeguard her territorial integrity against China.  Their comments on US military assistance to India are not at all negative.

According to some “radical views” I heard in Poland and Czechoslovakia among members of the establishment were: India should take a determined stand in favour of Tibet and force China to accept decolonization.  There were some who had evidently done their research and quoted Lattimore (the well-known American authority on China, who is now teaching at Leeds) who advanced the view that Tibet would always yield diminishing returns to any imperialism.     

 Ideological Conflict

Such points of view among East European Communists are intriguing.  It is evident that politics in Eastern Europe are now fluid.  There is no possibility of a repetition of 1956, but the ideological content continues to suffer dilution all round.  Political survival and advancement are now related more to the particular national interests than to the subservience to Moscow which characterized the Stalinist phase and continued in some form right up to the violent Sino-Soviet exchanges this year.  The typical East European response, while condemning China on humanitarian grounds, is from the purely party point of view “Plague on both houses.”

Has India really sought to help the advent of the East European nations to their post-Stalinist or rather post-colonialist role in world affairs?  A greater Indian initiative in this area would be a contribution on the grounds of “national interests.”  It is necessary that China should not be able to project the hostility towards India with a magnified effect by obtaining the alignment of East European Communist governments like she has already succeeded with Albania.lbania.

A study of detailed facts would easily show that our leverage with the Soviet Union does not depend upon an Indian commitment to support the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe.  As a matter of fact, some observers feel that if countries like India demanded a Soviet withdrawal from this area, the Soviet Union might consider this helpful as a face-saying device.  A Western demand would almost certainly be rejected by the Soviet Union as reminiscent of the crusade to “roll back” Communism.

Indian foreign policy, to sum up, is confronted with issues where it is no longer possible to allow “inner emigration” from matters impinging upon our vital national interests.  During the intense bipolar cold war struggle, it was perhaps possible to argue in favour of proclaiming foreign policy from a high pedestal that it was the only way to get one’s voice heard above the din of battle.  Today such an attitude is clearly outmoded both from the point of view of world conditions and from the realistic appreciation of the threat to our national security.
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