Dynamics of India’s Changing Foreign Policy – Challenges & Prospects – I

Part I

A general Theory and practice of foreign policy of Nation. .

India is a modern nation state is a loaded statement covering the ideas of a modern state and a nation which are not coterminous. It is thus necessary to understand these two concepts, first, because the contours of foreign policy of a nation state are determined as much by the domestic compulsions as by external factors. These include core values and institutions of a ‘political society’ and the preservation, enrichment and defence of these are the objects of the state. Foreign policy which also encompasses the defence policy is one of the means likes the economic policy to attain these objectives.

Benedict Anderson famously said, “A nation is an imagined idea”. That is if a group of people in a given well defined territory believe that they constitute a distinct political entity sharing some commonalities like ethnicity, language, religion and social ethical value system, and faith in some basic institutions of governance, a national identity is said to have been formed. ‘Territoriality’ is thus crucial for nation state formation as a scattered nation as the Jews were known before creation of Israel is a contradiction in terms though the idea of the ‘nation’ based on a distinct identity could exist in the realm of mind.

India is at once a nation state and a ‘ civilizational state’ because behind its huge diversities, lies the bond of an ancient ‘ syncretic’ civilisation and the value systems associated with it which constitute a common heritage of all Indians regardless of differences in language,  religion and ethnicity.

Nation State

The ‘concept of a nation state’ emerged in Europe in the late 18th & 19th century after the French revolution in 1789 and the Industrial revolution in England soon after. Though its genesis was the European state systems that emerged after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 founded on ‘ hard power ‘, meaning military power backed by economic, industrial and technological strength of a nation state which could adopt a form of government that it considered suitable. Note here that ‘a nation state’ has a choice in this regard and there is no requirement to adopt an uniform political and administrative system by  a nation state. Thus, 193 member nation-states of the United Nations now have widely varying forms of government from monarchy in Saudi Arabia to limited democracy in Myanmar and so on. These systemic differences create distinct ‘domestic compulsions’ and approaches to neighbours and global institutions like the World trade organization (WTO) and The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) designed to lay down parameters of interaction between states on matters like international trade, intellectual property rights, water sharing of rivers – “ International Water Courses “ which originate in one country but pass through one or more nation states.

The most redeeming feature of a nation state is its Sovereignty and its legal implication is that The State enjoy an unfettered, exclusive right to decide what constitutes its ‘National Interest’ and the unrestrained right to wage war against other nations  in pursuance of its national interest. And this necessitates maintenance of standing armed forces and its technological, scientific, industrial and social infrastructural backup. The roots of ‘arms race’ among nations and the rise of military-industrial complex in major powers can be traced to this feature of a Nation State. The international relations are therefore always conducted in the shadow of war and armed conflict, and thus joint military exercises among nations, border clashes, movement of war-ships in open seas are seen as power projections and factored into foreign policy, which becomes a ‘power game’ played on regular basis. Its success or failure is determined by the degree of attainment of national Interest. Thus War or any armed action in any form like ‘the Surgical Strike‘ that our Army had carried out on 29th Sep 2016 by crossing the LoC in J&K to destroy terror ‘Launch pads’ in PoK is therefore a case of application of force to attain a political objective. Clausewitz, the great German Strategic thinker therefore defined “ War as a continuation of policy by other means”.

If the primary objective of foreign policy is to protect preserve and promote “national Interest”, it is necessary to define what constitutes ‘national interest’ which naturally changes depending on the objective situation and the global power game. Thus it is a widely accepted view that defending “the core values and institutions” is the goal of a nations defence policy and this is factored into the foreign policy formulation. In regard to India, this could be interpreted to mean preservation of democracy, rule of Law, secularism, social justice, separation of powers between executive, legislative and judiciary and all round ‘capability enhancement of the citizens’ regardless of religion, race, sex, caste, ethnicity or language. It is interesting to note that on September 2011, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) officially defined china’s core national interest in dealing with its external relations in terms of three imperatives:


Sovereignty is non-negotiable and thus covers territorial integrity; Security implies stability – internal and external as lack of either of the two produces an impact on the state power; and development means “internal and external sustainability of economic, scientific, technological interaction of the Chinese people resulting in further progress”. And hence the emphasis on comprehensive sustainability in all peaceful interface of the people at all levels with the static and external partners encompassing bilateral and multilateral exchanges at international forces. The Chinese definition has the merit of being sharp and comprehensive and may be taken as a ‘Common Standard ‘for defining and understanding national interest of a nation state.  

Lord Palmerston statement that in “International relations there are no permanent friends but only permanent interests” holds good as by ‘interest’ he meant national interest. However, one must note that the perception of what constitutes national interest is not derived mechanically that would apply to all states but is really conditioned by the

  • Character of the state – authoritarian or democracy or ‘extractive’.
  • Its geo-political and geo-strategic location
  • Its geo-economic interests

The operation and relative importance or weightage of these factors shapes the foreign policy of a nation. This will be discernible if one gives a close look at the foreign policies of Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

While these three factors are interconnected, the character of a State that is, if it is a “modern State” or not determines to a great extent its foreign policy imperatives, strategies and alliances.

The characteristics of a modern state are as follows:

  • Sovereignty of the people and a democratic form of government, constituted through periodic elections on the basis of universal adult franchise.
  • Rule of Law equality before law and equal protection of law.
  • Secularism
  • Separation of powers between Executive, Legislative and Judiciary and provision for ‘judge made laws’ and adherence to procedural rights.
  • Independent judiciary.
  • Fundamental rights of all citizens ensuring that fundamental rights are not violated by making them justiciable and also listing of Fundamental Duties of the citizens in the constitution.
  • ‘Effective Citizen Participation’ in governance through elected local self governing institutions eg municipalities, urban local bodies or village panchayats etc.
  • Rights based development policy in economic and social fields with emphasis on human development.
  • An enlightened concept of public interest and public service that broadens over time as the idea of what constitutes public interest gets refined and expanded as the society progresses as for instance the growing concerns for clean air, water, animal rights and conservation of environment led to demands for ‘climate justice’ in the wake of climate change and now a major foreign policy issue.
  • An apolitical civil service capable of delivering justice, administering laws, civic and other development services and accountable to the legislature and the public.
  • Civil Supremacy and effective “insulation” of the armed forces from politics.

It may be seen that unlike some of our neighbours like Myanmar or Pakistan, India meets the conditions of ‘modern state’ in good measure. India’s legal system ensures that all treaties that India might have signed with other nations have the force of Law and that the state abides by the verdict of international tribunals and obligations under the UN conventions to which India is a signatory. A modern state is thus a ‘responsible state’, and its conduct of international relations is tempered by respect for international laws, conventions and diplomatic norms.

The objective of this brief introduction to the theory and practice of conduct of international relations is to sensitize you to the interplay between the internal and external environment for appreciation of the changing contours of India’s foreign policy.

Next article in the Series would Focus on

Dynamics of India’s Foreign Policy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.