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Interests over values

Values are important to individuals and communities, but are they relevant to nations in the conduct of their external relations? If international politics is shaped by the relentless pursuit of interests by countries — big and small — do values and principles play any role here? Values in Foreign Policy attempts to answer such questions. It also tackles two other themes: whether there is something called ‘Asian’ values, and if congruence or competition exists between them and Western concepts, to the extent that universal consensus on values for foreign policy is feasible.

An edited volume, it contains 14 essays by well-known scholars, each dealing with a specific country or region, which assesses the role of values in the formulation of foreign policy. Besides, the Introduction, composed by the three editors, brings out the theoretical aspects, drawing general conclusions from the findings of the contributors. It is an excellently designed framework to discuss a rather complex subject.

Policy and action

The editors, Krishnan Srinivasan, James Mayall and Sanjay Pulipaka, maintain that, to them, “values” are not ethical principles but “principles that influence political beliefs and action.” States pursue their interests, but the definition of interests is determined by their identity — who they are and what they seek. Hence, as Robert D. Kaplan puts it in the Foreword, “A state’s values are not just part of its foreign policy, but they are paramount to it.” He points out that as values are often advanced through power projection, “understanding a world of competing powers requires a discussion of values.”

All essays illuminate various dimensions, but three deserve special mention for Indian readers. Writing about the U.S. foreign policy, William J. Antholis highlights the distance that has developed between a set of values backed by bipartisan consensus in the past seven decades, and the ‘America First’ doctrine propounded by Donald Trump. While the former favours engagement, multilateralism, and trade liberalisation, the current U.S. president champions isolationism, unilateralism, protectionism and non-intervention. Trump’s foreign policy has swung towards “the farthest end away from universalism across all strands of values and interests.” As a result, the President continues to face considerable resistance from the U.S. establishment, a fact that has not gone unnoticed abroad.

The author aptly underlines that the real issue today is whether the pro-democracy establishment would be decisively supported by people at home. In other words, the 2020 elections will indicate if the American public likes or disapproves of Trump’s approach on major international issues.

The China angle

Zhang Lihua’s endeavour to examine Chinese foreign policy and diplomacy through the lens of traditional cultural values is quite interesting. What are these values? He lists them all: harmony, benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom, and faithfulness. China adheres to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, coined by the Chinese leadership. He asserts, “In the Chinese context, hegemony is a negative word.” The trouble is that the author, in his uni-dimensional treatment, fails to spell out perceptions of outsiders about China’s policy and action. He claims that, despite being a big country, China “does not domineer.” Has he consulted experts in Vietnam, the Maldives, Japan and the Philippines?

In an incisive analysis, Krishnan Srinivasan argues that the evolution of Indian foreign policy since independence shows how lofty ideas have given way to parochial pragmatism. A strong streak of realism marks New Delhi’s decisions today. The tone of moral superiority of yore has disappeared. But a striking commonality between Nehru and his successors persists — the idea of “universality and exceptionalism.” Nehru had said that India’s dreams were “also for the world.” In his address at the U.N. in September, PM Modi echoed it in asserting that “…the very core of our approach is public welfare through public participation and this public welfare is not just for India but for the entire world.”

What lies ahead

Offering a macro view, the editors point to the future direction of world politics. The West is losing its ability to set the rules of global order, whereas the global South is gaining new strength in this age of “decentralization and atomization of power.” What clearly matters to nations is the dominance of interests over “proffered values.”

By covering only three continents — North America, Europe, and Asia — but by excluding Africa and Latin America, the editors may have limited their vision. Had they dropped the essays on South Korea and Myanmar and added chapters on the foreign policy of Nigeria or South Africa and Brazil or Mexico, the book would have presented a truly global perspective. Nonetheless, this work is invaluable. It explores the philosophy of international politics in contemporary times. It should immensely interest everyone who is curious about what really drives a nation’s foreign policy. It may inspire others to produce volumes that are even broader in scope.

Values in Foreign Policy; Edited by Krishnan Srinivasan & others (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019)

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House, and a former Ambassador

This book review was originally published by The Hindu