M.L. Sondhi

Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi

Reprinted from ‘India Quarterly’, Vol. L111, Nos. 3&4

India is currently accomplishing a major programme of economic liberalisation and is well on the way to becoming a vibrant economy like several other growing and powerful Asian economies which have all come into a new focus in the post-Cold War World.  The significant changes in the international system that affect peace and security are in tune with the political-diplomatic approach of India ever since it became a member of the comity of nations after achieving independence.  When others were advocating the use of coercive power, India was addressing international problems in terms of consensual power.

The balance-of-power approach in international relations did not prove of much avail to the Soviet Union in the long run and is unlikely to help any other major power which would like to dominate the international system.  There is little doubt that India would have to contain the use of offensive power against her interests, but it must not be deflected from a sustained diplomatic effort for creating a more stable international environment in both regional and global terms.  It is therefore, extremely important for Indian policy makers to understand the significance of the broader United Nations framework which had developed after 1989 in order to develop Indian foreign policy in a comprehensive way.  India’s role in the UN system in the post-cold war era is too important to leave to routine decision-making in South Block.  The existing approach requires conceptual review at the highest level in the following respects:

First, India’s future agenda at the UN should move out of the paranoia syndrome into which it entered as a result of the US – Soviet antagonism which resulted in India having to grapple with some proxy challenges chiefly because of its closeness to Moscow’s positions.  As a consequence of the success of democratic forces all over the globe, there is no significant threat to India’s core values.  There may be a residue of political prejudice against India among individual cold-warriors who still survive, but on the whole New Delhi is well positioned for a new international political consensus for the world view which transcends bloc interests.

Second, India’s new UN orientation would generate a greater disposition to articulate humanitarian aims as a way of circumventing crisis-generated instabilities.  There is a felt need for a decisive leadership on the part of India on issues relating to the more intense forms of violence, like for example genocide.  There is no need for India to see these problems through the attitudinal prisms of nations or groups of nations which eulogise unabashed dictatorship and totalitarianism and are controlled by powerful and rapacious regimes.  India does not have to adopt an accommodative strategy towards regimes which violate pluralism and wish to legitimise spirals of violence.

Thirdly, India’s agenda should shift from general prescriptions for stabilisation of major power relations at the various UN fora to a greater use of management techniques to project its enlightened self-interest within the entire UN system.  A corrective emphasis is urgently needed which would challenge the conventional wisdom of the Cold War days under which India would automatically take a non-aligned stance even where the measures suggested did not enhance Indian “national interest”.  Our policy options should be developed in the light of new information on the post-cold war world instead of blindly following official briefs issued to the Indian delegation at the United Nations decades earlier.

There is an urgent need for India’s UN discourse to be henceforth embedded in positive concepts for the maintenance of international peace and security through which India’s democracy and internationalism will protect itself against hegemonial and coercive policies.  While working actively against inequality and dependence, India does not need to be apologetic about its geo-strategic salience.  Thus there is no need to accept a discourse which would utilise the felt need to reinterpret the principle of non-interference enshrined in Art. 2(7) of the Chapter as a pretext to release destabilising forces in the general international system or in any regional system.  In projecting its views on the changing role of the UN, there should be no conceptual ambiguity of New Delhi’s part in regard to national integration as a precondition for stable peace and universal harmonization. 

With the Cold War over, compatible views can be shaped among nations of the world by allowing greater scope for the application of the principles of international law.  In the new international setting, India has a special advantage because its constitutional system is supportive of an international legal order which would confront the threat of terrorism, strengthen economic inter-dependence and deal effectively with environmentally related problems.  Although in some areas of international law India may take a sceptical view of traditional concepts and interpretations and would deplore the slowness in accepting cross-cultural influences.  India has unique record in the Third World of eschewing militarism and fundamentalism and upholding the rule of the law.  India has never avoided its responsibilities under international law and it does not threaten the interests of other countries by arbitrary actions.  When Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous speech on “international cooperation” in the UN General Assembly’s Sixteenth Session in 1961, it was difficult to achieve and sustain cooperative behaviour on account of the antagonism and confrontation between the two blocs.  Today, however, India can help to create a set of general rules to develop new roles that different bodies in the UN system can play in facilitating cooperation and containing conflict.  It is desirable to broaden the Indian contribution to international peacekeeping by creating purposeful strategies which go beyond the concept of military security activities as authorised under Chapter VII of the UN charter.  There is undoubtedly an increased range of choice for India as a “humanitarian peacekeeper” consistent with a clear vision of its future interests and role given the new dimensions of conflict and cooperation.  India should seize the opportunity offered by the new phase into which international relations have entered to develop policy activism at the United Nations in the economic, security and human rights realms and utilise the end of the bipolar juxtaposition to realise for itself potential gains in the area of conflict management.  There are political and economic uncertainties facing New Delhi in the new multi-centric milieu, especially as India had become over-dependent on the Marxist-globalist model of the Soviet Union.  The strengthening of Indian democracy and the economic liberalisation programme are clearly positive developments which are helping the strengthening of relationships with the most dynamic players in the world community.

There is, however, a school of thought in the foreign policy community in India which believes that it is luxury for the country to think of an active role at the United Nations especially as indications are that it will be problematic for India to obtain positive support for its vital national interests within the UN framework.  Those who subscribe to this view advocate the use of other diplomatic tools and instruments and use the UN diplomatic techniques only in low risk areas.  This pessimism about India’s role in the UN is not grounded in any real view of the future and is based on the fallacy that Indian negotiators do not have much elbow room in international fora.

While India must exercise caution when sensitive issues are brought up merely to embarrass it on central issues of vital importance, New Delhi can create a new basis for active participatory experience in the UN system which will yield increasing returns, if it asserts its interests regionally and internationally through “non-appeasement” and at the same time enhances its functionalism in international conflict management.  

Five main changes appear to be needed in order to achieve a “paradigm shift” in the Indian prospective on the UN system in order to create a cooperative network for economic, political, cultural and social tasks:

First, India is now a major player in the global scenario, and the Indian ethos is not burdened by the legacies of Stalin, Mao, Hitler or of Japanese militarism, but is naturally tuned into global citizenship in the best sense of the term.  Both the Indian free market and democracy are dynamic forces which can help to harmonize state sovereignty and interdependence in a sui generic manner.  India, therefore, has an indispensable role in setting the pace for evolving global norms as a member of the UN and more so if it becomes a permanent member of the Security Council.  Indian diplomacy at the UN should not hesitate in institutionalising norms by a creative synthesis of different civilizational and cultural points of view.  Every xenophobiac attitude will be counterproductive at this juncture which is unfolding dynamics of change in line with the Indian tradition of holistic thinking.

Second, India should give top priority to the pursuit of stable peace in Asia, which includes South Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia, and utilise its full potential as an Asian power.  The most marked political development of the contemporary world is the rising position of Asia, and India can play an adequate international role if Indian diplomacy effectively projects itself as an Asian power.  The great Indian democratic experiment is especially relevant to conflict and peacemaking in all multiethnic societies.  There is no need for any country to play the role of world policeman, but the United Nations should deal with ethnic tensions with the help of new concepts which lead to consensual agreements by encouraging political and cultural pluralism without undermining the territorial state structure.  Existing UN conflict-resolution procedures have only led to subterranean struggles and the peace on the surface has not lasted very long.  India’s capacity to deal effectively with ethnic violence and secessionist movements has been demonstrated, and it is in a position to help the United Nations to deal with many possible contingencies especially through political change which promotes management of ethnic conflict.  India should help the UN shift its agenda from just mechanically controlling ethnic violence to long term processes and institutional capacity on the lines of the constitutional approaches envisaged by the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution.  In the past Indian diplomacy was inhibited in attacking rationalisations of coercive and undemocratic policy like the Brezhnev Doctrine, but today Indians should use their diplomatic skills at the United Nations unhesitatingly to identify and overcome all types of hegemonial rationalisations which impede stable peace in Asia or elsewhere in the world.

Third, India has so far not taken advantage of its “development model” for promoting its diplomacy at the United Nations.  South Block and other Ministries which take a leading part in India’s external economic relations have so far been engaged in empirical thinking and have not come together along with NGOs to develop a new doctrine or conceptual framework which could take into account: (a) India’s capacity to extend political democracy into the sphere of economic democracy; (b) India’s progress despite problems in linking economic progress and political stability; and (c) The inadequacies of both communist and capitalist economic thinking in the twentieth century and India’s ideological orientation in favour of demilitarisation and non-violence as pre-conditions for economic development and human survival.

Indian expertise in industrial, technological and financial sectors can be employed to open up a vista for viewing the global economy as an integrated system and orienting it towards new goals which are not shackled by the dehumanizing mechanism which we have inherited from the Cold War days.  There is no going back on the more “open economy” which India has begun to create; at the same time India has the capacity to avoid social disruption which centrally controlled economies are facing elsewhere in the process of shifting their earlier economic development strategies.  There is some truth in the statement that India is a tiger which has got out of the cage but still imagines that it is inside and hence refusing to be a first runner.  India will soon begin to realise its strength in negotiation of global agreements if it frees itself from old dogmas.

Fourth, India has an opportunity to redefine the nuclear issue at the UN by boldly asking the world body to make a fundamental reassessment of the goals and directions of all nuclear and near-nuclear powers.  The fact that India does not favour the NPT is no reason for thinking that India is out in the cold.  India has an admirable record and this backed by political creativity should help it to take advantage of the contradictions in the pious declarations of the five nuclear weapon powers and their failure to achieve real global nuclear arms control.  It is not only France and China which are likely to produce chaotic situations for global security on account of the power games they are playing; the other nuclear powers also are not mentally prepared for either a nuclear-free phase of the post-Cold War system, or for a multidimensional nuclear world.  India which played a leading role in the fifties in making the world acutely aware of the threat of nuclear annihilation should take the initiative in developing a new forum for multilateral nuclear arms reduction talks which should involve a conceptual departure from the whole NPT philosophy which is quite outdated since it was developed in the context of the US-Soviet confrontational parameters.  India could start with low key practical measures like raising serious questions about Chinese nuclear testing and Pyongyang’s nuclear threats and go on to bringing the duplicity about nuclear weapons practiced by other nuclear powers under UN scrutiny.  An Indian blueprint for world nuclear security is the need of the hour.

Fifth and finally, the reshaping of India’s agenda in the UN system cannot be a mere bureaucratic exercise, nor can it only be done by those timid minds which are obsessed by the so-called insecurity and vulnerability of India to external pressures.  The parochialisation of Indian foreign policy after 1962 was a desperate attempt to shore up the control of those forces on the domestic scene which had lost their momentum. In 1971, India revived its interest in South Asia but failed in the follow up its success in the emergence of Bangladesh by developing a pan-Asian role.  This was largely the result of the “entangling alliance” with the Soviet Union which turned out to be an “inchoate” Superpower badly encumbered by its overextension.  In the new situation India has some difficult choices but also a remarkable opportunity to achieve an optimum global posture.  There is an opinion growing among serious minded observers at the international level that it is not so much the rise of China as the rise of India which is the major secular trend for the future.  The challenges ahead are not uni-dimensional but multi-dimensional.  If the domestic and international sources of Indian foreign policy are considered from the perspectives together with important thematic issues like “civilizational harmony”, “gender equality” and “non-violent social change”, India alone is of relevance to a future post-industrial world after the replacement of Western (occidental) domination by a consensual global arrangement.  India must utilise its best minds, scholars, scientists, business and political leaders and professionals in the private sector and in government to design the new agenda for the UN system.
<< Back