Print This Post
13 September 2018, Foreign Policy

Do values matter in international relations?

Should the conduct of diplomacy lay emphasis on values over national self-interest? This is an undying subject of debate and calls for wisdom to be drawn from both camps for the world is not strictly black-and-white

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

post image

Every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs.[1]

The debate between idealists and realists in the practice of diplomacy and the study of international affairs is neither new nor is it about to end. The former stress the indispensability of values, ideas and principles that must govern relations among nations, whereas the latter are convinced that national interest alone is and should be the driver for a state’s policy and behaviour towards the rest of the world.

A more plausible view, however, may suggest that, neither camp has a monopoly on wisdom. Life and the world are not binary. Nothing is absolute here; everything is relative. Hence a path paved solely by values or by naked self-interest is often not feasible to walk on. Nor it may even exist.

A nation-state has several attributes, but the most important of them is its people. What applies to an individual applies to a multitude of human beings grouped together as citizens of a state.

An individual needs both values and the capacity to define, identify and pursue his or her interests within the framework of social norms, laws and imperatives of community interest – in order to secure happiness and harness his/her potential. That is also what states too are supposed to do in the comity of nations.

The Mahabharata, that ultimate treatise of tranquility, competition, war, peace and reconciliation, lays stress on dharma as a key requirement for people. Bhishma wisely interprets dharma as actions that nurture, cherish, enrich, increase, amplify and enhance all living beings. Politicians handling foreign affairs, armed even with a touch of ambition to become statesmen, would be well advised to study and follow dharma. Most of them will no doubt fumble, stumble and end up making compromises, but “even this becomes a lesson for us that self-control and overcoming weakness is a constant endeavour.”[2]

The true value of ideals and principles lies in their serving as the yardstick by which to measure human actions or even state policies. Mahatma Gandhi’s legendary ‘talisman’ may not be followed in practice by all, but everyone knows that it exists as the desirable goalpost, stirring our conscience.[3]

Moving now from the theory to real landscape in world affairs, it is easy to see how a blend of values and a down-to-earth approach is essential to deal with two of the critical issues facing us today.

First, the future of regionalism in South Asia.

If SAARC was dismissed by critics in the past as ‘a glass half-full’, surely the level of water in it has gone down in recent years. Its achievements in regional cooperation and integration are modest and its future is uncertain. On the other hand, BIMSTEC[4], which brings five South Asian and two Southeast Asian nations together, seems to be marching ahead with greater confidence than before. Its summit in Kathmandu in end August 2018 testified to it.

This regional grouping can succeed reasonably if it contributes to the welfare of all through greater connectivity and enhanced cooperation in economy, energy, counter-terrorism, disaster management and people-to-people exchanges. But, a fundamental prerequisite is that the leadership style of India, the biggest member-state, should be intensely inclusive and consistently sensitive to the needs of all other members, and, in turn, they too should reciprocate optimally. Besides, the gap between declarations and delivery should be minimized. Or else, BIMSTEC may remain an unfulfilled dream, much like SAARC.

Second, the strategic and diplomatic dilemmas pertaining to the South China Sea.

The continuing crisis centered around the vexed issue illustrates well the conflict between norms, rules and international law on the one hand, and the unreasonable insistence of one state on pursuing its own interest at the expense of others in the region. Freedom of navigation, peaceful settlement of disputes, and avoidance of coercion, force or threat of use of force are fundamental cannons that must govern international behaviour. A powerful state such as China may get away with its unreasonable and unlawful approach for a while, but sooner or later the comity of nations will assert itself in order to restore and preserve order and balance.

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj observed aptly: “We have to commit to the ideas of a rules-based order, equality under international law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and equitable distribution of the benefits of globalization.”[5]

Hence our conclusion is: an objective reading of history guides us to follow not the Hobbesian model but one based on enlightened self-interest that is imbued with the spirit of universal values and ideals.

Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were on the wrong side of history. Buddha, Gandhi, Nehru and Mandela were the ones who got it right.

Finally, therefore, my answer to the question in the title is: yes, they do!

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and former Ambassador to Myanmar

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy. Click here to view the original article.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI.

[2] Kavita A. Sharma and Indu Ramchandani, Life is as Is: Teachings from the Mahabharata, (Wisdom Tree, 2018) P.28.

[3] “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

– One of the last notes left behind by Gandhi in 1948, expressing his deepest social thought.

Source: Mahatma Gandhi [Last Phase, Vol. II (1958), P. 65]

[4] The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional organisation, comprises the following seven Member-States: India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand. Details at: