Determinants of Foreign Policy

Indian foreign policy (IFP) is guided by historical, domestic and external determinants. These elements affect the institutions of policy making and continuity and change in the Foreign Policy. To study the determinants. We can divide them into three categories – historical, domestic, and international environment.

Historical Determinants of Foreign Policy

Historical determinants can be traced back to ancient times. Different sources and modern periods have impacted the Foreign Policy in multiple ways. This has helped us to evolve a worldview and a strategic culture.

The different sources are Vedas, Manusmriti, Parashar, Dharmashastra, Buddhist and Jain text. Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Puranas, ancient legends, Chronicles of national events, manuals of foreign policy and works of Tagore, Nehru, Vivekananda, Tilak, Gandhi and Ambedkar.

An analysis of the basic sources helps us to understand that the Indian worldview has five core values which originate from historical determinants. The five values with application to Foreign Policy are given as follows:

  1. Preference for the middle way
  2. Value of tolerance
  3. A blend of idealism and realism
  4. Absence of imperialistic traditions
  5. Express positive ideas through negative terms

1. Preference for the middle way

This is based on the Sanskrit saying at sarvatra varjaye which means let us eschew excess at all times’. This is based on the Indian philosophical idea that we should not look things as extremes and should not have a tendency to look at stuff as black and white. It advocates a focus on the middle part which is reflected in the synthesis of Dharma, Artha, Karma and Moksha. Even Bhagavadgita favours a middle path be followed and also advocates for divine sanctions for desires which are against model order. Michael Brecher says that the Indian philosophy of golden middle path of compromise and tolerance of opposites is reflected in IFP.

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2. Value of tolerance

The value of tolerance is based on the ancient idea of vade, vade, jayte tattava siddhih, which means enlightenment is achieved through debate. All throughout ancient times, there has been focus on paramountcy of reason. Even Mahabharat episodes that Dharma has to be judged on the basis of expression and reason.

The value of tolerance is based on the idea that the human mind has limited range and power and it cannot comprehend the nature of reality in totality. This is clearly visible even in Upanishads that assert that all different parts lead to same goals, i.e. cows of different colour yield the same milk.

Tolerance in India is not just seen in philosophy, but is a social reality. In 47 AD, Christians came to Kerala, and in 70 AD Jews came. Both were allowed to preach, practice and propagate their religions. The Akbar’s policy of universal harmony, i.e. sulh-i-kul and the Dara Shikoh or Shah Jahan translation of Upanishad in Persian are a testimony to historical tolerance.

3. Blend of idealism and realism

The Buddhist/Jain texts clearly assert non-violence. Ashoka, post Kalinga battle, preached non-violence, so did Gandhi. The ancient royal policy from Arthashastra, Bhardwaja in Manusmriti, two teachings of Panchatantra advocated for realist thinking, but the royal policy has always been of the idea that there should be peace in the beginning and war in the end.

The entire thought has been that war is just, not immoral, but be used as a last resort because what is expensive, troublesome and victory is not certain. Application of the value to IFP: The mix of idealism and realism find clear assertion in the 1962, 1971, 1999 conflicts with our neighbours where war was the last resort, and immediately after the war came de-escalation mechanism and negotiations.

4. Absence of imperialistic traditions

India has neither been imperialist nor culturally imperialist. Historically, there has been an assertion of the value of not being imperialist. Mahabharat episode states that Indian Empire should not extend beyond its geographical limits. Even Kautilya, Boudhayan and Manusmriti assorted against the extension of Empire of India beyond the geographical boundary of Bharat, i.e., from the Himalayas to south sea and west sea to east.

The Buddhists and Hindus who went to South East Asia went as traders for business and not as warriors to conquer. The Mughals also unified India-Akbar had a policy of tolerance conciliation and diplomacy. No attempt towards imperialism was ever visible.

Thus, when the British came to India as imperialists, Indians developing anti-imperialism was a natural manifestation. The entire national movement of India was anti-imperialistic in tone and tenor.

5. Express positive ideas through negative terms

K. P. Mishra says that the Indian language at the foreign policy level is to use negative terms to express positive ideas of profound importance. For example, India will not use the word ‘peace’ but you will use ‘non-violence’. In the same way, it will not use the word defeat but ‘non-victory, non-idleness against exertion and non-grudge against tolerance.

Domestic Determinants of Foreign Policy

The domestic determinants of IFP are further divided into many different categories:

  1. Geographical location
  2. Economic structure
  3. Political structure
  4. Social structure

1. Geographical location

Geographically, the location of India is impacted by its foreign policy behaviour. History tells us that most of the invaders have invaded India from the north and in modern times the British are from the sea. This is the reason why most of the foreign policy thrust in the neighbourhood is towards northern neighbours, namely Pakistan and China. At the maritime level, India has always felt that the presence of any external power in the Indian Ocean is detrimental to the security of India.

So, the IFP has ensured the development of positive relationships across the spectrum of the Indian Ocean to keep a check up on the dominance of any foreign power antithetical to the security of India. At the geographical level, the availability of resources in a state also affects its foreign policy. India has been a resource-rich country, and at the time of independence, it had adequate technology for domestic development.

This is the reason why India, under non-alignment favoured development as a state policy for interaction with the world. Another crucial factor of non-alignment was to seek disarmament, and arms race of the superpowers was based on secrecy and was a tool during the Cold War to deny technology to less developed states.

Indian Foreign Policy

Self-sufficiency and non-alignment were policies aligned with India’s de- Development strategy. At the geographical level, India’s engagement at the neighbourhood level for security, engagement with South East Asia under Act East Policy for development, Connect Central Asia Policy and Look West policy for energy security stand to be key determinants of India’s engagement abroad.

2. Economic structure

The economic structure of a state is an important determinant of foreign policy. During the Cold War, India followed the policy of non-alignment. Under this policy, the focus of India was to engage with both the US and the USSR as per India’s national interests. The most important national interest was domestic development. Because of India resorted to import substitution industrialisation strategy it engaged with the US and the USSR to seek development support as per her own priorities.

At the end of the Cold War, India has taken up a new economic In diplomacy strategy for the new economic order. It has decided to engage with states on the basis of mutual benefit while maintaining strategic autonomy in the interconnected liberal world order. It has, at times, stood up against the big powers, whenever they have acted antithetical to Indian celt national interest. For example, India standing up in the WTO to resist big powers’ pressure on food security is a testimony.

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3. Political structure

India is a democracy but has never officially promoted democracy as a tool of foreign policy. Whenever people in other states have fought for democracy, India has often provided assistance to other states from its own experience like the US, which has sought to impose democracy. As the Bhutan Monarch made the transition in favour of democracy, India decided to assist Bhutan in institutionalising democracy.

We always believe that democracy is a better alternative because the leaders are publicly accountable for their actions. For example, declaring war on Pakistan, despite public rhetoric and sentiment, may not be easy as the leaders would be held accountable by the public in case any uncertainty emerges in the war. Thus, the political structures affect foreign policy.

4. Social structure

When we talk about the role of social structure, there are multiple dimensions to explore in this determinant. Firstly, the heterogeneity or homogeneity of the society plays a crucial role here. A homogeneous society will never accept plurality, and its conduct will impact its decision-making policy.

For example, in Pakistan, there is a homogeneous society where the government has often displayed high-handedness towards the minorities of the state. The Sunni majority state has not assimilated well with Shia minorities like Ahmediyas and Sikhs and Hindus of Pakistan. On the contrary, India is a heterogeneous society.

Historically, India has been a nation of diversity and always has progressed and prospered. The value of tolerance, respect for multiculturalism plural society and harmonisation of diverse ideologies have been the hallmarks of India. This is even reflected in the foreign policy of India where it conducts relations in a diverse manner, on the basis of mutual benefit, to different states of the world.

This is visible in India’s beautiful relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. Another important dimension of social structure is the role of public opinion in foreign policy. In a democratic state, public opinion is a key driver of foreign policy. In 2007-08, when the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed, the political parties were divided upon its potential for India in the world order.

four people watching on white MacBook on top of glass-top table

In 2009, public opinion was shot on the nuclear deal during the general elections in the country as the UPA made the nuclear deal part of its election manifesto. The fact that the UPA government was voted back to power proves that public opinion over the Indo-US nuclear deal was indeed positive. This is a clear example of the impact of social structure as a determinant of foreign policy.

For that matter, in 2014, when the manifesto of NDA mentioned the need to revisit the nuclear doctrine of India in light of contemporary challenges was proposed, the public opinion was positive towards the same, thereby leading to a thumping victory of the alliance to the Parliament. The social structure impacts foreign policy through culture.

The BJP is a party that is positive towards overt cultural nationalism. It has a focus on Indian identity as a global value. This is visible in the deep tilt in foreign policy of India towards affairs of the diaspora abroad. The belief in getting India a right full place in the community of nations through soft power as a tool of power politics in contrast to subtle use of soft power in foreign policy deflects the word cultural nationalism.

This is visible in the government support to focus on popularising yoga internationally as a tool of foreign policy. Thus, the social structure does impact the foreign policy in multiple ways as explained above. The democratic liberal order and its willingness to have a commercial diplomatic relationship with West is also an example here.

The rule of vote bank politics has been raised as a factor in foreign policy. For example, India not extending a full diplomatic relationship with Israel to appease minorities in India is a classical case of vote bank politics and foreign policy.

The fear of affecting the farming community due to inadequate availability of water has halted Teesta’s agreement on water sharing between India and Bangladesh. The high-octane campaign of political parties in south India to show solidarity with Tamils in Sri Lanka is an example of the same.

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