Opinion: India's Foreign Policy Today Is A Fine Blend Of Idealism And Realism

In foreign policy, idealism can take you only so far. The dichotomy between idealism and realism can be traced back to the contrasting views of thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes. Kant, an archetypal idealist, believed in the inherent goodness of human nature and the possibility of achieving perpetual peace through democratic governance and international cooperation. His vision aligns with the notion that moral principles and collective security should solely guide foreign policy.

On the other hand, Hobbes, with his realist outlook, posited a more cynical view of human nature, encapsulated in his famous description of life in a state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Hobbes's concept of realism, later developed by scholars like Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, argues that in an anarchic international system, states must primarily seek power and security to survive. This school of thought suggests that while ideals and ethics are commendable, they can be perilously naïve in international relations, where power politics dominate.

A Pragmatic Approach

India has adopted a third approach in its foreign policy, i.e., a pragmatic one, which balances realism and idealism. Such a pragmatic approach was advocated by the American political scientist Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued for a middle ground. Niebuhr recognised the moral imperatives of idealism and the practical limitations of real-world politics. He believed that moral absolutes are not always practical in a world where good and evil are intricately mixed. While Niebuhr wrote this in the context of religion ethics and politics, this also has implications for international relations. He would have argued that moral principles must be applied within the context of the power dynamics and complexities in international relations.

Over the last 10 years, India has seen its foreign policy evolve from the idealistic echoes of its past to embrace a gritty realism. Shedding the skin of Nehruvian idealism, India now strides the global stage with a clear-eyed pursuit of power and material interests. It's a stance of hardened pragmatism, where moral platitudes bow to the cold calculus of national interest, reflecting a world where alliances are fluid and the only constant is the relentless pursuit of the nation's own strategic goals. It is a high-stakes game of global positioning, where India has chosen to play with a keen understanding of the rules of realpolitik.

Balancing US and Russia

Despite the undeniable tilt towards the United States in recent years, India has maintained strong ties with Russia, a historical ally and a crucial source of military equipment and energy. Increased economic ties, defence cooperation, and shared concerns about terrorism and China have drawn India and the US closer. The Indo-US strategic partnership has blossomed, encompassing joint military exercises, knowledge sharing, and collaboration in areas like space and clean energy. The collaboration of the two countries on the Quad and I2U2 groupings, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), etc., show that this relationship has further strengthened in the last few years.

At the same time, Russia remains a vital source of military hardware, accounting for over 60% of India's defence imports. It's also a key partner in energy security, and India has relied on discounted Russian energy in the last few months.

At multilateral fora, India has become the megaphone for the Global South, amplifying the concerns of developing nations on issues like climate change and economic inequality. This moral leadership has earned India respect and allies, proving that pragmatism can wear a compassionate mask too.

National Interest Above All

This pragmatism extends to the economic sphere as well. India has been on a tear, signing free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries like the UAE and Australia. These deals, driven by a clear understanding of its economic needs, open new markets and attract investments, propelling India towards its ambitious growth goals.

Over the last decade, India's strategic engagement with the Middle East, particularly with the UAE, has deepened markedly, reflected in the frequent high-level interactions and substantial bilateral agreements. Prime Minister Modi's numerous visits and the establishment of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership underscore this robust relationship, with bilateral trade reaching $85 billion in 2022, making the UAE India's third-largest trading partner. Significant economic collaborations include the UAE's substantial investments in India, amounting to over $9 billion, and strategic initiatives like the India-UAE Food Corridor, promising $5 billion in investments. The landmark establishment of IIT Delhi in Abu Dhabi symbolises the countries' shared commitment to education and innovation. Moreover, joint defence exercises and dialogues enhance regional security, while mutual efforts in combating extremism and promoting multilateralism highlight a shared vision for global stability. These multifaceted partnerships not only signify the Middle East's growing prominence in India's foreign policy but also position the UAE as a pivotal ally in India's pursuit of regional and global prosperity. Additionally, it's noteworthy to mention India's diplomatic success in securing the return of eight navy veterans from Qatar who were facing the death penalty, showcasing a remarkable feat in diplomatic negotiations.

The G20 is another stage where India's pragmatism shines. The country doesn't shy away from pushing for reforms in multilateral development banks (MDBs) and advocating for fairer representation for developing nations. This isn't just about principles; it's about ensuring a level playing field for India's economic ascent.

Why The World Needs India Too

A fundamental rationale for India to adopt a strategic and pragmatic approach to foreign policy is the robust support provided by its resilient economy. As one of the largest and most rapidly expanding economies globally, India represents an attractive and dynamic market with which nations are eager to align. A recent Goldman Sachs research projected that India would be the world's second-largest economy by 2075. Recognising the mutual benefits inherent in strengthening diplomatic and economic relationships, countries worldwide acknowledge that it is in their paramount interest to foster and enhance ties with India.

India, assertively and with great pride, adheres to a pragmatic foreign policy framework. In response to the sceptics questioning India's aspirations for superpower status and its benefits, the answer is unequivocally clear: India prioritises the welfare and aspirations of its citizens above all.

Critics who are quick to impart moral sermons would do well to reflect on  George Orwell's seminal work, 1984. The unsettling reality of Oceania in the novel, where those in power distort truth and morality to maintain their grip, mirrors the hypocrisy often observed in many Western nations. These countries, while outwardly promoting the virtues of liberty and moral integrity, frequently fall prey to the same pragmatism and self-interest they admonish, especially when their own interests are at stake. They might vocally champion ethical conduct and urge nations like India to adhere to a noble path. Yet, when their own national interests are threatened, their actions often betray a pursuit of self-interest, shrouded in the pretence of lofty idealism. The discrepancy between their professed values and their actual behaviour reveals a double standard, underscoring the necessity for India to maintain its pragmatic approach to safeguard its autonomy and the welfare of its citizens.

(Bibek Debroy is Chairman & Aditya Sinha is OSD, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.