Prem Shankar Jha

What Should be India’s Role in the Age of Global Chaos?

File picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter. Credit: PTI

File picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter. Credit: PTI

Modi government’s last minute decision to postpone the signature of a Logistics Supply Agreement with the US during the visit of US Defence secretary Ashton Carter to India last week is the most recent manifestation of the confusion that grips India’s foreign policy today .

The government has given no explanation for its sudden turnabout, so most analysts have concluded that it got cold feet because the agreement would have made India a party, even if passively, to all of the US’ future military operations in the region. This had aroused serious misgivings in the country and invited a vigorous attack by the Congress party.

But the fact that Defence minister Manohar Parrikar visited China only days after Carter’s visit to reassure Beijing that India would not let relations with ‘third countries’ affect its relations with China, suggests that it was a Chinese reminder that India could not run with the hare and hunt with the hounds indefinitely that may have provoked its second thoughts on signing the agreement.

It is doubtful whether the Chinese will be reassured though, for this is only the latest of a succession of about turns that Modi has made in the 22 months that he has been prime minister. In August 2014, he reversed a decade of steady improvement in relations with Pakistan by rejecting all the understandings that the UPA had reached with it and the Hurriyat over the future of Kashmir. Today, he is trying to rebuild those relations once again.

Six months ago, Modi reversed five decades of Indian support for Nepal’s evolution into a modern nation state by imposing, or at least doing nothing to prevent, an oil blockade of that landlocked state. Nepal’s riposte was to repudiate Indian bilateralism, formally welcome China into Nepal and join its One Belt One Road initiative.

But nothing is likely to prove more costly than its ambivalence towards China. Modi has spared no effort to deepen India’s relations with China. But he has simultaneously deepened India’s military cooperation with the US, Japan and Australia whose stated purpose is to contain China’s rise, militarily if necessary.

To Indian policy makers this may look like a clever balancing act but, coming on top of the UPA government’s gradual distancing of India from its old allies, such as Russia and secular nations in the Arab world, in favour of the US, the gulf sheikhdoms and Israel, it is giving the rest of the world the impression that India does not understand where its long term national interest lies, and is therefore a country that no one can rely upon.

China has already signaled its distrust of India’s moves by moving swiftly to Nepal’s aid, and blocking the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UN. It seems also to have lost interest in getting India to join its One Belt, One Road initiative.

Two epic developments are responsible for these power shifts. The first is Globalization – the migration of manufacturing from the high wage economies of Europe and North America to Asia — that began in the 1970s. The second is the victory of the transatlantic alliance in the Cold war and breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.


Over four decades, gradual de-industrialisation has hollowed out the economic base of the West’s military power by shrinking its revenue base just when its social security expenditure has been pushed through the roof by longer life spans and rising unemployment.

In Asia the hectic industrial development triggered by globalisation has done the opposite. First Taiwan, then Singapore, Hongkong, South Korea and Malaysia , and finally and most spectacularly China, have run budget and foreign trade surpluses, and accumulated massive reserves of Capital that have become the base of huge economic power. China has been able to leverage these into growing military power and hegemonic influence.

Had the resulting power shift been gradual the world could have adjusted to it peacefully. But the economic weakening of the West virtually coincided with its victory in the Cold War. This created a sense of entitlement to the fruits of victory, that enabled the US to launch, or support, a succession of attacks on so called ‘rogue nations’, with scant regard for the UN charter or the sanction of the Security Council.

Goes back to Kosovo

Beginning with Kosovo in 1999, it has launched, or supported, a succession of assaults on nations that posed no threat to it or any of its allies–Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen. Not one of these has created a democracy, protected human rights or promoted freedom. What they have done is to destroy the tenuous system of international law that upheld the Westphalian state system that the UN charter had underpinned.

American, and several Indian, analysts have made light of the destruction of the Westphalian state system. “The West’s victory in the cold war”, they say, “has created a unipolar world. We therefore need a new paradigm of international relations“.

This seemingly profound observation relies upon ignorance of history, to gain its spurious credibility. For the Westphalian system was created to put a check on precisely the propensity for conflict between nation states that has dragged the world into chaos today.

This propensity springs from fact that the modern European state was born in war and territorial conquest. Since the boundaries created by conquest did not coincide with ethnic fault lines they had to be continually defended. This was done by creating standing armies to defend them and erasing pre-existing ethnic loyalties to create a new loyalty to “the Nation”. The constant need for coercion to maintain it gave the nascent Nation-State System a built in propensity for war .

Like the League of Nations and the United Nations three centuries later, the Treaty of Westphalia, which was signed in 1648 after the ruinous Thirty Year War, was designed to prevent this from ever happening again. To this end the signatories agreed to respect each others’ sovereignty, not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs and to resort to war only as a weapon of last resort.

The Westphalian precepts were still taking root when the rise of industrial capitalism in the 18th century gave a fillip to the propensity for war by giving inter-State rivalry an economic dimension that it had lacked until then. Competitive industrialisation behind tariff barriers further hardened frontiers, and set off a race to colonize large parts of the world to ensure access to raw materials and create new markets for their products.

Despite this, peace was maintained for a hundred years after the Napoleonic wars by a tacit acceptance of British hegemony, backed by an international network of bankers who were perfectly willing to finance colonial expansion but demanded peace within Europe in return. Karl Polanyi collectively labelled them Haute Finance.

Unstable peace

But the peace these created was an unstable one. By the end of the 19th century Britain’s hegemony had begun to be challenged by Germany and the US. When the space for further expansion of nation-based capitalist systems was exhausted, competition boiled over again into not one but two world wars in a space of 31 years that claimed at least 70 million lives. Peace did not return till 1945 when hegemony within the capitalist system passed to the USA.

US hegemony was based upon the reputation it gained during the second world war as a defender of freedom , democracy and human rights, and cemented by its lead role in the framing of the UN Charter. But till 1991 its exercise of hegemony was constrained by the challenge of Communism and non-alignment. By the time these failed and the US was able to resume its quest for global hegemony, the Vietnam war and Globalization had sapped much of its economic strength.

Victory in the Cold War nevertheless re-awakened the US’ hegemonic ambitions just when, as Paul Wolfowitz noted in a Defence Policy Planning paper as early as 1987, the economic base needed to sustain them was shrinking. Wolfowitz’s solution, which soon became the mantra for both political parties in the US and was enshrined as a new security doctrine by President George W Bush in 2002, was to use military power pre-emptively to destroy potential rivals before they developed the capacity to challenge its supremacy.

This is the true genesis of the US’ cavalier disregard for the UN charter and its determination to build a hegemonic world order. What US policy makers, other than President Obama, have still not realized is that hegemony is not the same thing as military dominance, and the resort to the second inevitably destroys the first by making the lives of peoples and nations less and less secure.

A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that the effort to re-establish western hegemony has created not a new world order but chaos. Both the Westphalian and the unipolar world order are history. What has survived is the mindset, of constant suspicion and barely restrained aggression that characterizes relations between nation-states. This mindset views any improvement in a neighbour’s capabilities as a potential threat to itself, and therefore reduces international relations to a zero sum game in which if you gain anything I must necessarily be losing something, even if I cannot identify what it is.

This is the mindset that must change if humanity is to survive and rebuild a peaceful, livable world. Today when the merest whiff of trouble makes foreign investors rush out of a country,  starting a war with, or intervening clandestinely to secure regime change in, another country is an act of suicide.

The first requirement therefore must be to banish unilateral war and return to negotiation as the way to settle disputes. As Iran’s foreign minister Husain Jawad Zarif reminded an invited audience in Delhi in January 2015, this will only happen when negotiators eschew win-lose outcomes and start exploring bottom lines to find compromise solutions that leave both parties better off than before.

In his speech to West Point graduates in 2014 and, more concretely, in his dogged determination to push the Iran-EU nuclear deal through, President Obama has shown that he wants the US to eschew Bush’s pre-emptive first strike security doctrine and to abandon the pursuit of a unipolar world order in favour of a multi-polar order. But his term is ending and, as of now, even Hilary Clinton has said nothing that suggests that she understands the need for a radical change of direction. Until that happens, India will do well to steer clear of a closer involvement with it or its allies in the Middle East.

What the world needs now is not a new paradigm of international relations, but a powerful reaffirmation of the Westphalian paradigm with modifications to make it meet the needs of a culturally integrated world.   So long as the West resists this, or tries only to broad-base its quest for uni-polarity by forming ‘coalitions of the willing’, it and its friends will remain on the wrong side of history.

Russia, Iran committed to multipolar world

By the same token today it is Russia, China and Iran that are on the right side of history, for it is they who are most committed to building a multipolar world. This is apparent from the popularity Russia and Iran have gained by going decisively to the assistance of Syria and Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State. For no fault of its own India found itself on the wrong side of history during the Cold War. It must not make the same mistake again.

But this does not mean that it should simply switch sides. The role that it is best fitted to play is that of a mediator that can moderate conflict and bring warring nations back to sanity. This is a leadership role of a different kind from what India aspires to today, but it is one that it is ideally situated to play. This is not only because it is vast, democratic and unthreatening even to its immediate neighbours, but because it is the only modern state that has not been built through conquest and ethnic homogenization, but through negotiation and accommodation of differences. It is therefore comfortable with compromise and does not have to overcome the zero-sum mentality embedded in European nation states by their history and circumstances of birth, before initiating the quest for peace.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and the author of Twilight of the Nation state: Globalisation, Chaos and War, published in 2006.)

No related content found.
Submit comment