2:00 pm EDT - 3:30 pm EDT

Past Event

Prospects for Indian Internationalism

Thursday, October 25, 2012

2:00 pm - 3:30 pm EDT

The Brookings Institution

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

On October 25, the India Project held an event with C. Raja Mohan, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, moderated by Teresita Schaffer, nonresident senior fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative, on prospects for Indian internationalism. His remarks and a summary of the following question and answer session can be found below.

1. Expansive Internationalism:

India’s heritage of internationalism contributed to the Indian independence movement. The Bengali literary giant Rabindranath Tagore expressed a vision broader than nationalism, with a spiritual emphasis that, far from being anti-Western, included Western spiritual movements and found echoes there. Socialism and Communism were at their height as international movements during this time. Wendell Willkie’s One World, which built on the shattering disillusion after World War I, had influence in India.

When India became independent, one of the first big events was an Asian unity conference. This showed both the dimensions of Nehru’s international vision and its limitations. Nehru called for observance of universal human rights, and expounded an interventionist approach to the United Nations declaration on human rights. India’s opposition to racism and specifically to apartheid was one of the leading features of the internationalism of this period. India broke diplomatic relations with South Africa as early as 1948.

But even in this early period, Nehru’s expansive vision was tempered. The Kashmir crisis made clear the need to defend Indian sovereignty. India’s policy toward intervention was inevitably inconsistent. India opposed the UK/French/Israeli Suez operation but not the Russian invasion of Hungary. India itself used force in Goa, despite Nehru’s peace policy and rhetoric.

2. Dysfunctional multilateralism (the post-Nehru period, into the 1980s):

During this phase, India’s internationalism became less idealistic and more ideological. The Non-Aligned Movement became more radical, and this influenced India’s positions. This was the period of the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism, which India supported. This coincided with a period of populism at home, with Indira Gandhi’s “abolish poverty” efforts.

India’s engagement with the world diminished during this period. Its economy became less international; its economic engagement with its neighbors also dropped. The memories of the 1970s still live on in some of the sensibilities on the Indian scene and, importantly, in the image of India’s policies held by non-Indians.

3. Defensive internationalism and regionalism (late 1980s through 1990s):

During the initial post-Cold War decade, India’s policies on international engagement were largely negative. India resisted international urgings to use “preventive diplomacy” to resolve Kashmir. Its response to assertive nonproliferation was hostile. It was largely negative toward the new United Nations agenda. All these initiatives were seen as threats to India’s sovereignty.

At the same time, the groundwork was being laid for a new and more dynamic phase of international engagement. India became more deeply involved in regionalism during this time. Its relaunch of closer relations with East and Southeast Asia was especially significant, along with its having joined some of the ASEAN-linked groups.

4. Responsible multilateralism (since 2000):

Between 1980 and 2011, India’s two-way goods trade grew from $22 billion to $750 billion. The growth would be even more striking if one included services. Imports and exports grew to about 45 percent of India’s GDP.

This increased economic engagement with the world paralleled increased political engagement. Relations with the United States were transformed; this decreased Indian fears that the United States would try to “roll back” its nuclear assets, and India in turn softened its opposition to international nonproliferation, seeking to join the nonproliferation-related export control groups. The United States also muted its “activism” on Kashmir.

At the regional level, India’s outreach in East Asia strengthened. India also deepened its involvement in selective international groupings, such as BRICS and IBSA. It continues to participate actively in the Non-Aligned Movement, but Dr. Mohan regarded this as an inconsequential ritual.

Globally, India somewhat softened its position on climate change. It continued to seek a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, this time with United States support. India’s term in a non-permanent seat, however, had turned out to be a big disappointment for the United States, largely because of problems the Council faced in the Middle East.

India is changing from a rule-defier or rule-taker on the international scene to a rule-maker. As it does so, it is insisting on some level of accommodation.

5. The problem of the Middle East:

The Middle East poses a particular problem for Indian foreign policy, one which constrains India’s engagement with the international community. The large Indian Muslim population has been a matter of great sensitivity for India’s rulers even during the time of the Raj. Post-Independence, Pakistan has further constrained India’s policy. India’s goals are to protect India’s secularism and to ensure that Pakistan is not accepted as the spokesman for Muslims in opposition to India.

On the international scene, on issues that are framed between the West and Islam, India will tilt toward Islam or remain on the sidelines. Issues that are framed between Sunni and Shia-majority Muslim countries give India more space, hence India’s ability to support the Arab League mission in Syria.


During the discussion period, the following key points came up:

• India has massive economic interests in the Middle East, including dependence on that region for 70 percent of its energy imports and the presence of some 6 million Indians in the Gulf and elsewhere. It also has an active relationship with Israel. Saudi Arabia has become a more important economic partner than Iran.

• Why was India’s position on Libya at the UN so anti-Western? This was a case of delayed Indian adaptation to changed circumstances.

• India’s interest in permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council reflects its longstanding view that India should “be a member of any club that exists.” It may not happen soon; if India gains in strength, that will transform the situation.

• India has had difficulty finding the right style for engaging in Asean. Economic engagement in East Asia is important. India has free trade areas with Japan, Korea and Asean, but Indian politics are not yet ready to handle the Trans Pacific Partnership.

• India wants the United States to remain engaged in East Asia, and has supported the U.S. agenda on freedom of navigation.

• India and the U.S. have come a long way in their security relationship. The 2005 Defense Cooperation Agreement is an important milestone, as are service-to-service cooperation, defense industrial cooperation, and now shared missions. Trilateral and regional security cooperation in Asia are expanding. India has urged the IORARC to admit the United States and included the U.S. as observer in the Indian Ocean Naval Summit. This is still a subject of internal disagreement in India. India under the Raj was a “security provider”; it may move back to that position.

• India may be starting to move away from its classic insistence of a UNSC mandate for military operations. (“do you want to get Chinese permission every time you use Indian forces?”)

• India is skeptical of international disarmament negotiations. The international community needs to take on new issues: use of space, and how to create new rules of the road.

• India is a trading power and now emphasized keeping sea lanes of communications open. China has not yet shifted to giving priority to this issue in the South China Sea.

• Institutions and interests shape India’s policy more than personalities. There are few Indian internationalists on the right side of the political spectrum. We need to build up the realist discourse on foreign policy.

• Nonalignment 2.0 does not constrain government policy. If India doesn’t have “a US game,” it can’t have a “China game.” It can’t hang back indefinitely.