The standard narrative of the evolution of Indian foreign policy suggests that it has successfully transitioned from Cold War-era idealism to post-Cold War realism. According to this reading of recent history, India’s post-colonial concerns with legitimacy and state equality have gradually given way to the realisation that all states are not equal in the international system, and that the most powerful states are the ones who define global legitimacy. Developing-world blocs, such as the Non-Aligned Movement, have declined in relative importance to other multinational mechanisms and proactive bilateral dealings as a means of furthering India’s global interests. And where imperialism and superpower rivalry were once portrayed as the causes of all ills, New Delhi now considers the major powers as sources of stability.
Should you describe this broad transition in detail to a political scientist in a Western academic department, you would likely face immediate questions about whether contemporary Indian foreign policy is, in fact, realist. In Indian policy circles, realism is often treated as a synonymous with pragmatism, connoting an interest-based foreign policy as opposed to an ideologically-driven one. Realism as a theory of international relations is far more specific. It posits that states are sovereign, unitary actors operating in an anarchic international system, and are motivated by self-interest, insecurity and calculations of such concepts as the balance of power and polarity to attain more power and security for themselves. It also embraces an essentially pessimistic view of human nature.
A different text book
Indian realism—as a framework for policymaking—shares some of the characteristics of the academic school with which it also shares a name. It is focused on the national interest, sceptical of institutionalism, attuned to balances of power and polarity, and inclined to place a high priority on preserving sovereignty. On the specifics of nuclear strategy, India’s position aligns closely with those of realist scholars. Kenneth Waltz’s arguments that nuclear weapons can encourage strategic stability and that few weapons are required to achieve a credible deterrent, for example, would find widespread agreement within India’s strategic community.
But there are also several important elements that distinguish Indian realism from its academic counterpart. First, and perhaps most importantly, India’s foreign policy has assumed an economic dimension of which the academic school of realists retains a healthy scepticism. Indian officials of the past decade—whether prime ministers, foreign secretaries or service chiefs—have consistently spoken of India’s top foreign policy priority being an external environment conducive to rapid economic growth. To varying degrees, India’s engagement with nominal adversaries in its region, its warming relationships with the United States, Japan and Europe, and its Look East policy can all be attributed to this new found emphasis on economic growth as a critical element in India’s foreign policy calculus.
There are several implications of such an economically-oriented foreign policy. Engagement and interdependence are now seen as preferable, on the whole, to adversity and autarky. On the matter of benefits and disadvantages of economic autarky, realists in the West would, rather strangely, find greater agreement in India with the political Left—self-described “liberals”—while Indian realist views would more likely align with those of liberal theorists of international relations.
The increasingly positive Indian view of economic co-operation and interdependence inverts the pessimistic assumptions of human nature espoused by Western realists, for whom co-operation is seen as less preferential to forms of competition that might give India a relative advantage, including warfare and arms races. Moreover, while Indian realism may adopt some of the attributes of a competitive global outlook, it assumes that the means of competition have moved away from the primarily military and towards other realms.
Second, while the national interest may be cardinal in guiding foreign policy, Indian realists place a certain degree of importance on values and the nature of states. In this regard, there are considerable differences between Indian dealings in Asia on the one hand and, say, Britain’s dealings with continental Europe in the 19th century. India will continue to engage with non-democratic states—from China and Saudi Arabia to Iran and Burma—in accordance with its interests. But it also understands that liberal, democratic governments provide both stability and transparency. Secularism and pluralism play a prominent role in India’s own identity, and while India has been content using only its example as a means of promoting these values, it has so far been limited to a considerable degree by resources and its power projection capabilities in promoting these values more aggressively.
Third, India is now engaging in meaningful ways with an unprecedented number of actors in the international system. One of the under-appreciated implications of this is the shift in focus from relative gains, upon which realist theory tends to place emphasis, to absolute gains. A war might net India an advantage over its opponent in a purely bilateral competition, but India might still lose relative to a third player by initiating it. Because the numbers of actors that India engages with have multiplied exponentially, this increasingly translates into seeking maximum absolute gains for the country, regardless of the performance of competing powers.
What’s in a name?
Terminological confusion across historical periods and geographical space is not uncommon. The term liberalism, for example, has been adopted by or associated with figures as disparate as John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Franklin Roosevelt, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Ayn Rand. Depending on the context, it can be used to connote more or less government spending, and more or less state control.
The term realism is often used to promote a viewpoint, regardless of its similarity to realism as a theory of international relations. By invoking it in any context, one implicitly disparages competing viewpoints as “unrealistic”: naïve, impractical or confused. It might be tempting to dismiss Indian realists as jumbling together a set of conflicting goals and priorities whose only common feature is that they are representative of a break from the foreign policy of the early Cold War. This caricature is misleading. Indian realism may not adhere exactly to the theories of Carr, Morgenthau or Waltz. But this does not mean that a framework for how the Indian polity views its place in the world is completely absent.
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