Business Standard, 24th Apr 07
Last week, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) meeting in South Africa, India and the US moved a step closer to civil nuclear cooperation. Regardless of the eventual outcome of that nuclear deal, India’s domestic debate on its pros and cons has surely been one of the most passionately argued. The battle lines have been framed as a strategic choice between joining the global power elite on the one hand and retaining sovereignty over decision-making on the other. Ignored in this debate has been the unsexy dimension of strategic morality, except through the Left’s customary flagellation of Western imperialism. The use of morality as a strategic tool has been ignored altogether.
This is unsurprising in a rising power like India; adolescents often find moral issues inconvenient in exercising their empowerment. Many of India’s new-generation strategic thinkers deride morality as a determinant of foreign policy, arguing that only inconsequential nations can afford the luxury of sitting on the high moral ground. Great Powers, goes their argument, act on an international stage that is fraught with contradiction and so they must inevitably behave hypocritical, paying lip service to principle while acting on practicality. Bismarck, long ago, thundered that the great questions of the time would not be settled by resolutions and majority votes, but by blood and iron.
India, however, has a half-century of experience in the strategic mobilisation of morality. The early Indian foreign policy of non-alignment and rejection of nuclear weaponry, flowing logically from the moral norms of Mahatma Gandhi, had generated for a fledgling India far greater power and influence than its reality commanded. Nehru’s voice, as the leader of a poverty-stricken and militarily weak country, echoed across the globe; it was amplified by moral force. An Indian motion in the UN General Assembly was often endorsed by others simply because it was Indian. While many of Nehru’s policies have been justifiably discredited, his strategic use of morality remains a stunning success.
The use of moral force to leverage a nation’s international position is not a quaint notion from an idealistic era. Contemporary realist strategy recognises it as a usable instrument in a nuclear environment, where the sword can only remain in the scabbard. French strategist Andre Beaufre, one of the most incisive thinkers of the nuclear age, likened the use of psychological tools, such as morality and humanism, to opening a new front on the psychological plane. In India’s propagation of non-violence, and later non-alignment and universal nuclear disarmament, and in the Soviet Union’s use of the moral levers of anti-colonialism and Marxism, Beaufre saw it “possible to take over abstract positions, and…deny them to the other side.”
In the case of a fledgling India, this was an exquisitely tailored strategy: turning its weakness into strength, creating the fetters with which “the Lilliputians tied up Gulliver”. And today a debate over whether India should embrace the United States or negotiate for the same benefits as the nuclear club is a false one. Instead the search for a strategy must centre on how India can sit in the boardroom of World Inc without casting aside the levers that served her so well for half a century.
The question, it must be remembered, is not about idealism, but realism. It is only the very powerful who can afford to cast aside morality. Andre Beaufre postulates three variables in a country’s options: material force, moral force and time. If material force available to a country is overwhelming, moral force will be unnecessary; goals can be achieved in a relatively short time. (It will be argued that Iraq disproves this, but the counter-argument is that the US is only failing because it has failed to apply adequate force.) When material force is small, however, as is still the case with India, moral force must necessarily supplement it and the effects felt only over a period of time. What New Delhi must consider is ways to build closer relationships with the US while retaining India’s traditional ability to marshal moral force.
In the history of every country come moments when it must trim its sails according to the winds and riptides of global changes, and reposition itself favourably in a new strategic framework. In the aftermath of World War II, a weakened and diminished Great Britain, even while shedding its aspirations of global superpower, retained international influence by creating a troika of diplomatic levers: a nuclear deterrent, its NATO membership and its unquestioning special relationship with the United States. Morality did not figure in this calculation, a mistake that has put Britain in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the popular lexicon as the 51st state of the USA.
India is poised today at a defining moment in its history, but as an ascending power, far better positioned to make calibrated and nuanced decisions. It would be a pity if India steps onto the world stage entirely abandoning a remarkable history of Gandhian morality that could provide a unique brand identity to its foreign policy.