Those who had expected the Modi foreign policy doctrine to be defined by a new muscularity will probably be disappointed. Instead, it suggests a thoughtful understanding of smart power, an integrated approach that will best serve India in a complex, interdependent world
Power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others. In international relations, as the Harvard academic, Joseph Nye, reminds us, power can be exercised in three ways: by threatening or actually using military force, by offering economic incentives or imposing economic sanctions, or by building what Nye famously dubbed “soft power.” That is, the “soft power” of nations to persuade others based on the attractiveness of their technology, politics, culture, ideas or ideals.
Modi doctrine’s five elements
If President Pranab Mukherjee’s opening address to Parliament is anything to go by, the foreign policy of the new government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi will likely employ a nuanced combination of all three of Nye’s instruments of international influence. All those who had expected the Modi foreign policy doctrine to be defined by a new muscularity or even machtpolitik — the wielding of the conventional stick — will probably be disappointed. Instead, there will be a renewed emphasis on using the carrots of economic levers and soft power. This suggests a thoughtful understanding of the importance of what Nye terms “smart power”: a clever combination of the tools of conventional hard, or military and economic, power and soft power. It is this integrated approach that will best serve India in a complex, interdependent world, which is defined as much by conflict and competition as it is by cooperation and the need for greater coordination in confronting common global threats.
The incipient Modi doctrine has five key elements. First, and most important, is the idea that a strong, self-reliant and self-confident India will pursue a foreign policy of “enlightened national interest.” National interest is a contested term; enlightened national interest even more so. Often national interest is defined as raison d'état, or “reason of state,” and can be viewed as the selfish pursuit of national ambitions, mostly as defined by the government of the day. Enlightened national interest adds a moral prism to the policy. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his masterly, Democracy in America, in the early 19th century, he described enlightened self-interest as that which made the United States unique: the ability of its citizens to work for the common good because the pursuit of a better life for everyone serves the self-interest of all.
In international diplomacy, enlightened national interest is arguably the recognition that the narrow pursuit of self-interest in an interdependent world can lead to suboptimal policy outcomes. In Asia, Japan — a nation Mr. Modi clearly admires — has used the term enlightened national-interest to define many of its policies, including those steering its overseas development assistance. Through supporting other nations via giving and via attractive development funding and loans, Japan has greatly increased its regional influence. The concept opens up the possibilities of creating cooperative outcomes for many issues, even those traditionally seen as difficult, zero-sum conflicts by realists in the establishment.
An interlinked neighbourhood
Within the Indian tradition, this sense of enlightened national-interest is captured in this verse from the Mahopanishad, “... Ayam˙ bandhurayam˙ ne¯ti ganana¯ laghuce¯tasa¯m uda¯racharita¯nam˙ tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam” or “Only small men discriminate by saying ‘one is a relative, the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family’.” Its essence, it may be recalled, can be found in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto as well. And, while Mr. Modi may not be comfortable with this notion, his idea of enlightened national interest sits at ease with Nehruvian thinking. After all, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who believed that while foreign policy must be rooted in a spirit of realism, it should not be stymied by the narrow realism that lets you look only at the tip of the nose and little beyond.
Second is the idea that India will help to build and strengthen a democratic, peaceful, stable and economically interlinked neighbourhood. This, of course, is not particularly new thinking. In the past, the Gujral Doctrine was perhaps the strongest articulation of a policy of reaching out to the neighbourhood, even through gestures that did not demand reciprocity. What was both novel and encouraging, however, was the presence of heads of government or senior representatives from all the South Asian countries at the swearing-in of Mr. Modi and his cabinet, effectively turning the ceremony into a regional celebration of democracy. In the recent past, India has not been explicitly seen as a champion of democracy in the region. Whether or not the strong links in other parts of the world between mature democracies — and absence of conflict — are mirrored in South Asia, it is clear that the strengthening of democracy in the region is the first step toward building what the political scientist, Karl Deutsch, described as a security community. That is, a region in which the large-scale use of violence has become unthinkable!
That said, it must be recognised that only a strong and economically resurgent India can lead the process of South Asia integration and so much will now depend on how quickly India’s economy can be revived. Meanwhile, enlightened national interest will demand that India considers making unilateral gestures to serve longer-term self-interest. For instance, arriving at an accord on the sharing of the Teesta river with a stridently India-friendly regime in Bangladesh would clearly be an important step that should not be undermined by the capricious behaviour of one leader from West Bengal.
Third is Mr. Modi’s emphasis on soft power explained though yet another Modi alliteration of 5Ts: trade, tourism, talent, technology and tradition. For this to translate into reality will require real effort. For a start, the Ministry of External Affairs will need to be restructured and every major mission abroad would need to include a trade, scientific and cultural counsellor knowledgeable in the relevant domains. In addition, the role of the diaspora in the future development of India has been emphasised. One clear step that would ensure deeper engagement between India and the diaspora would be to allow non-resident Indians (NRI) to carry dual passports. For many Indians, continuing to hold an Indian passport is a badge of honour which they will not give up for any convenience, glory or money. Allowing dual citizenship for NRIs carries virtually no additional risk; and indeed most countries in the world allow their citizens this privilege.
A ‘multi-alignment’ policy
Fourth, the incipient Modi doctrine moves beyond the former delineation between “non-alignment,” “non-alignment 2.0,” and “alignment” to suggest that India could follow a policy of what Mr. Shashi Tharoor may describe as “multi-alignment” with all the great powers. This was emphasised in the President’s address that explicitly stated that the government will work with China to develop a strategic and cooperative partnership, work with Japan to build modern infrastructure, build on the firm foundations of the relations with Russia, pursue the relationship with the United States with renewed vigour and make concerted efforts to achieve progress in key areas with the European Union.
Finally, there were only about 50 words of the address devoted to what may have been seen, pre-election, as the most vital part of a future Modi government’s foreign policy: the willingness to raise issues of concern at a bilateral level (read Pakistan) and the uncontroversial claim that stability can be built in the region only if there is an end to the export of terrorism. Clearly, concerns about Pakistan have deliberately not been emphasised as this may still be a work in progress. Or perhaps the Modi government recognises that there is much merit in the adage: carry a big stick, but speak with a soft voice. For, in the past, as my colleague Ashok Guha once remarked, “India has carried a toothpick, and shouted from the roof top and from television studios.”
If the government can deliver on the promises within the President’s speech, Mr. Modi will make history. If he lets himself be distracted by divisive social issues or is provoked into adopting zealous nationalism, he will prove his critics right. As the election results were announced, I was interviewed by a Chinese Radio station. The first question they asked me was whether Mr. Modi would be India’s Deng Xiaoping. I replied tentatively that it was too early to tell and that, in any case, India was a messy democracy and not an authoritarian state. However, if Mr. Modi does want to be like an Indian Deng, it is well worth recalling the great Chinese leader’s “24-Character Strategy”: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” In other words, India requires stability within and peace in our neighbourhood and beyond for at least the next decade to emerge as a great power of some standing. During that period it is best not to get dragged into external conflicts, assume leadership or prominence on the international stage, or attract too much attention. That is Mr. Modi’s biggest challenge.