Indian FOreign Policy, Jaishankar,

The recent debate between former Indian foreign service officials is a good illustration of how Indian officialdom thinks of foreign policy and what is wrong with it. What is being ‘debated’ has less to do with the principles of foreign policy than with domestic politics. On foreign policy itself, sadly, there is quite a bit of common ground between the two sides. Most fundamentally, both sides in the debate appear to accept that ideas matter more than material power. The endless debate about what kind of idea India should stand for masks the more fundamental question of whether we should focus on ideas or on externally-focused material capacity.

The endless debate about what kind of idea India should stand for masks the more fundamental question of whether we should focus on ideas or on externally-focused material capacity.

Both sides in the debate are pushing different versions of the ideas that they think should guide Indian foreign policy, taking for granted that ideas have some kind of autonomous role in foreign policy while ignoring material factors. To the extent that they refer to material power at all, it is only as a critique of the failure of their opponents to match material capacity with ideas. This is quickly abandoned, of course, when the discussion turns to other ideas— their own—that India should stand for. Thus, the criticism of the lack of material power to push the idea of India as a ‘Vishwa Guru’ is perfectly valid. Unfortunately, it is then something of a contradiction to push the idea that India is a different kind of power, and that India’s power is the ‘power of example’. On the other side, the defenders of the Modi government’s foreign policy are equally beholden to the belief that ideas matter more than material power. Why else would they promote India’s cultural soft power as if it is of any practical consequence in international politics?

Ideas do matter. Ideas by themselves rarely do. Ideas, important as they are, will not go anywhere unless these ideas have material power backing them. If India’s foreign policy experience should have taught us anything at all, it is that ideas cannot substitute for the lack of material power. The key question to debate is not what ideas matter but when ideas matter.

If India’s foreign policy experience should have taught us anything at all, it is that ideas cannot substitute for the lack of material power. The key question to debate is not what ideas matter but when ideas matter

The interplay between ideas and material power

Unfortunately, neither side in the debate reveal much understanding of the relationship of material power to ideas or norms. In international politics, ideas usually do not have much power on their own. It is not the most beautiful idea, or the most sensible one, or even the one that is supported by the most of world or the states of the world that matter. If this were so, the international community would have chosen to deal with the threat of nuclear weapons by abolishing them. This is what most of the world wanted (though, full disclosure, I do not think this was or is a good idea). But the great powers, all armed with nuclear weapons, decided a better way was to control the spread of these weapons. Not surprisingly, non-proliferation, not nuclear disarmament, was the norm that came to be. Non-proliferation was backed by the great powers while nuclear disarmament by those who did not have much material power. The result should not have been much of a surprise.

Equally at issue in this debate is the relationship between national power and domestic economic development. In other words, whether India should aim to be a great power at all. Is the game worth the candle? It is somewhat schizophrenic to be both seeking a UN Security Council seat, a long-standing Indian ambition pursued across multiple administrations, and decrying the pursuit of great power-ness. There is little doubt that very often Indian ambitions do not appear to be moored to any practical national requirements: The goals become ends in themselves. A country that has done little to push investigation of the COVID virus origins despite being the head of the WHO Executive Board does not inspire much confidence that it will do much with a permanent seat in the UNSC.

That said, it is unlikely that India will become a great power if it simply pays attention to domestic economic and social development. India, and every other state, lives in an international arena in which every state has to take care of itself. This means that the primary purpose of states is to ensure that they are safe from foreign threats. If a state fails at this first basic purpose, then it puts at risk not only its own security but also its own economic and social development. We don’t have to look far to find evidence of this: India in the 1950s will suffice. Nehru’s inattention to the threat posed by China led not only to the 1962 defeat but also had second order consequences for India’s economic development. It forced India to make massive investment in its security in the 1960s, a significant factor in derailing India’s economic development plans in the 1960s.

This does not mean, of course, that India should focus on its external environment to the detriment of its domestic needs. There are plenty of examples of such imbalance also. The Soviet Union collapsed because its leaders spent far more on competing with the US than their economic base could sustain. Closer home, Pakistan’s example is also useful: Foolishly trying to keep up with a much larger India has had all kinds of negative domestic effects on the country. These examples point to the need for balance, which is missing in simplistic claims that if India took care of itself domestically, its international condition would follow.

India has enjoyed the luxury of great relative security in the many decades since independence. That happy condition has changed. India does need a serious foreign policy debate about how to proceed. Unfortunately, this is not it.

What is also missing in such assertions is the relative aspect of domestic economic development. Doing well domestically cannot provide a favourable external condition if other countries, especially those like China with which India has security concerns, are doing even better. It would be nice if international competition were limited to comparing relative prosperity and well-being. Unfortunately, it is not. The relatively greater wealth quickly translates into power, and power into threats that one would be foolish to ignore. Moreover, people’s well-being does not always translate into national capacities. Just think of New Zealand, or even Australia, whose far better domestic condition does not make them immune to threats from China.

India has enjoyed the luxury of great relative security in the many decades since independence. That happy condition has changed. India does need a serious foreign policy debate about how to proceed. Unfortunately, this is not it.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Rajesh Rajagopalan


Covid-19: What US, China data tell us about children’s risk profile

Covid-19: Impact on Africa

Covid-19 pandemic-pandemonium: Need for a more holistic idea of disaster management

Nigeria must not forget its poor in the Covid-19 world

No, China isn’t winning the virus propaganda battle

Mauritius: Old and new challenges in a post-pandemic world

A global comparison of COVID-19 deaths: How is India doing in counting its sick and dead?

How China overcame the Covid-19 pandemic

Amid Covid-19 crisis, its politics as usual in Slovenia

Redefining the development narrative during Covid-19: The private sector perspective

A global pandemic and globalisation

Technology and business order post COVID-19

France facing Covid-19: growing pressure on the public health system

COVID19: What we’ve learnt from New York’s deadliest week

The circuit breaker: Singapore’s next move in its fight against COVID-19

American bioweapon or the ‘China Virus’? The war of words over COVID-19

Coexisting with #Covid19: Saving lives and the economy

The wrong diagnosis

Covid-19: China’s donation diplomacy towards Africa turns into a public relations disaster

COVID19: The Chinese military is busy exploiting the pandemic

Mitigating risks and adjusting to isolation: How Argentina is dealing With Covid19

Covid-19: The perfect storm for deep reform

#Covid19: For now, lives over livelihoods

How a changing global order will emerge in the post-Covid world

The Caribbean region must come together to fight Covid19

Politics of pandemic: Public health can no longer wait

Georgia goes all out in fight against Covid19

COVID19: A boost for Indian labour in the global market

Armed Forces and the Covid19 pandemic

Bhutan’s preparedness and response to COVID19

Economic recovery and recurring lockdown in China after Covid19 crisis

Public transit in post COVID19 India: where do we go from here

Critiquing Amartya Sen’s contention of post-lockdown society

Post pandemic city planning

Could third world countries seek a new world order in Covid19 aftermath?

Economic vulnerabilities and power shifts in a post-Covid19 world

Opportunity in Crisis: Will a pandemic lead to peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan? 

Health Policy belongs to the national security domain and different stakeholders must engage

Can the global economy survive COVID19 shocks?

The COVID19 reality of Afghanistan

Changing the script

Leadership in the time of Corona

PM’s India shutdown is an unprecedented gamble

COVID19: Tamil Nadu’s demand for fiscal grant can put centre in a fix

COVID19 brings Australia to the crossroads

The battle to set oil prices

Luxembourg faces the same dilemma as the EU: become a bridge or a fortress

Peace during a pandemic: The US fumbles on in Afghanistan

Crisis communication and the Coronavirus contagion

COVID-19 and maritime operations

How PM Modi scored with COVIDiplomacy

Covid-19: The crisis will strengthen anti-globalisation voices

An old scourge in a new, uncertain age

To what extent will coronavirus outbreak rewire global trade dynamics?

The Chinese model is under stress

A sneeze, a global cold and testing times for China

Corona: The case for taking China to ICJ

Covid-19, India and crisis communication

How Is COVID-19 reshaping China-India relations?

France must confront the grim realities of its war against COVID 19

Covid19: G20 leaders reclaim power from bureaucrats – and China

The United Nations Security Council and securitization of COVID-19

Mexico can teach us COVID 19 management

Covid-19 and European solidarity: The fight for who we are

Dr WHO and Mr Hyde

Certified Corona-Immunity as a resource and a way back to normality

Coronavirus derails Glasgow

Food security and the Corona Virus

The Polish example: Defending the castle in the European East

COVID19: Americans brace for brutal week against grim backdrop of chaotic policymaking

SOS for the road transport sector at the time of CoVid19 pandemic

Despite Coronavirus outbreak, India-Israel friendship continue to shine

COVID-19 and international collaboration in a leaderless world

Covid-19: A report from Nigeria

As Dubai EXPO 2020 is postponed, a tough time for NRIs

The virtual space uptick during Covid-19

OECD, BRICS Countries must mitigate Covid-19 fallout through targeted measures

A new human being will emerge in the post-Covid-19 world

Ravaged by war, Cameroon’s Southwests region turns attention to Covid-19 fight

What India needs on 14 April

Covid-19 crisis and a probable role for the Indian Military

COVID-19 and the gameplay of West Asia’s geopolitics

Covid19 has sharpened great power politics

Liechtenstein’s national and international response to COVID19

Why China and Pakistan need each other in the Covid19 crisis

Diplomacy is another victim of the virus

Gated globalisation and fragmented supply chains

West Asia is staring at an economic crisis. India has to be prepared

Fishing in troubled waters during a pandemic

Xi’s moves seem to be backfiring

Iran’s grim fight against coronavirus

Why is the Covid 19 situation so grim in MP?

Hacking the pandemic : Lessons from the Silicon valley of India

Between firmness and hesitation: How Russia is responding to the COVID19 challenge

World after Covid19 pandemic

Israel must bring its diverse communities together in Covid19 fight

China tightens grip over the South China Sea – should India worry?

Nod, Nudge, (K)nock out: Ways for RBI to prompt banks to lend

Will Covid19 crisis hasten the end of PM Abe’s regime?

Covid19: China-Russia make strategic geopolitical moves in Italy

Leadership accountability for Covid19 and the reasons for WHO’s apathy

Maldives: Amidst worsening Covid19 crisis, ISIS ‘claims maiden attack’

The impact COVID19 pandemic is exerting on e-commerce

COVID19 and competition for influence in South Asia

Examining India’s employment landscape amidst the COVID19 disruptions

Will COVID19 crisis rejuvenate the coalition of SAARC nations

The future of international cooperation in times of existentialist crises

Rebooting Ramadan for COVID19 times: With tech but without Iftar parties

COVID19’s impact on India’s solar industry

Reset in EU-China relations tougher in a post Covid19 world

India fires a salvo at China

Bend it like Kerala: How an Indian state is holding its own against COVID19

Post covid stimulus for clean energy: Govt must focus on developing an EV ecosystem

Women leaders and alpha males up against Covid19

East Africa and Kenya under the COVID19 emergency

Can ‘Advance manufacturing’ change the game in India-Australia relationship

International trade and environment sustainability: The two must tango

Fiscal prudence still matters

Maldives: Evacuation, yet another-milestone in bilateral ties

2020 could be to Narendra Modi what 1991 was to P.V. Narasimha Rao: a lasting legacy

China’s salami slicing overdrive

Rolling up the welcome mat for Chinese investors

China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea and the implications for India

Xi Jinping: A matter of state security

How growth and equity get a boost in Finance Minister’s economic stimulus package

Why is China building its nuclear arsenal as world fights COVID?

Keep Hobbes at bay whilst Covid is at play

Nepal: Challenges of reviving economy, post-Covid

The pandemic and China are strengthening US-India relations, for now

The trends shaping the post-COVID19 world

How the pandemic is an opportunity to create a ‘more equal’ world

COVID19 and the middle power moment in global politics

Coronavirus is straining the concept of federalism

Infections, Islamophobia, and intensifying societal polarization

Government is being cautious, and that’s sensible

Covid19 and implications on global health governance

Community model from rural Maharashtra to combat Covid19

Covid19: The birth of a new power

Biological Weapons and Biosecurity – Lessons from the COVID19 war

What can we learn from the genomes of the novel coronavirus?

What India’s digital divide means for migrant workers in a COVID19 world and beyond

COVID19 has hit Africa’s amateur athletes

Exiting the ‘COVID chakravyuh’ through a bioethics prism

Guiding democracy through Covid19: Poland shows us what not to do

Rethink, Revive, Rescue: From the Pandemic to Multilateralism 2.0

Return of the migrants

Covid19 is reshaping Brazil’s politics

Vietnam emerges victorious in fight against Covid19

How Georgia tackled Covid19 bit by bit

The potential fallouts of EU’s collective response to COVID19

Covid19 has forced us to think about building a remote working culture

How Bangladesh is addressing the Covid19 pandemic

Covid reality: Cost of human lives and how to fund healthcare

Walled city dilemmas in the fight against COVID19: The case of Ahmedabad

Viral load matters: Frontline healthcare workers 11% of US COVID19 cases

Sustained shift to virtual classrooms may not be a good idea for India

Cooperation of consequence: Lessons from the 2004 tsunami response in the era of COVID19

COVID, oil collapse and economic contraction: Can the low carbon transition be salvaged?

Antibody tests not useful for back-to-work policy decisions: Expert

Risks of putting all eggs in China basket

Mumbai in numbers

Every policy change does not a reform make

Reviving the Indian economy- revisiting Mr. Keynes

India needs to win back the third world’s trust

Epidemic in China and the world: Public health, earth science and geopolitics

COVID-19: China’s ‘Health Silk Road’ diplomacy in Iran and Turkey

China’s footprint is growing within the United Nations

Russian response to Covid-19: The challenges ahead

Inter-species spillover of viruses: Understanding zoonosis and India’s future concern

Nature, politics and Covid-19

The real journey of Hydroxychloroquine

The economic cost of COVID19 is bigger than the great depression

To die hungry or die sick

US-India cooperation against COVID19

Towards a quad-plus arrangement

Will the coming monsoons result in a spike in COVID19 cases in India?

Covid19 and Conflict in Myanmar: No Truce for the Rohingya

Perspectives on SARS-CoV-2 strains

COVID19 and the acceleration of digital transformations in maritime logistics

  • May 22 2020

How the Visegrád group countries have managed the Corona crisis

Lockdown: uncertain gains, rising losses

Covid Corrections: How the Pandemic Reveals the Failures of India’s Growth Model

COVID19: Public health is a question of national security

Understanding the coming challenges to India’s pharma sector

Lockdowns, curfews and prayer: Exploring East African countries’ COVID19 response

WHO, the battleground for cold war 2.0

Covid-19 and emerging economies: What to expect in the short- and medium-term

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Germany’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Covid19-Indian political class needs to band, not to bicker

Understanding the risks posed by COVID-19: A Public Health perspective

No, India doesn’t need a bigger stimulus

Russia in the post-coronavirus world: New ideas for foreign policy

Building a new India after Covid19 amidst the fear

Global contest for medical equipment amidst the COVID19 pandemic

State of the States: Two months of the pandemic

Need to revisit Anganwadi workers

From SMART to sustainable cities: Is COVID19 an opportunity?

50 days of lockdown: Measuring India’s success in arresting COVID-19

Driving self-reliance while combating a pandemic

Post-Covid, nations will look inwards; India should look at neighbourhood: Ex-NSA

The migrant as economic hero and saviour

Atmanirbhar Bharat package concludes with a Rs 21 lakh crore climax

What does COVID19 tell us about democracy vs authoritarianism?

Poor sanitation in Mumbai’s slums is compounding the Covid19 threat

Central and Eastern Europeans in avant-garde of tackling the COVID19 pandemic