Sentiment should not dictate strategy

The world is changing. India needs to take a hard look at how it approached ties with other countries
Last Updated 19 November 2020, 19:00 IST

Indian strategic thinking has been dominated by sentiment rather than cold forecasting of possible events and relationships with countries. This is in contrast to China, which is at the other extreme. China uses sentiment as strategy and changes its attitudes depending on its assessment of situations.

We can trace this back to the charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru. He was strongly influenced by the success of the Soviet government in improving the conditions of life for its people and wanted to do the same for India. He was strongly against the wealth-owning rich and was all for sharply reducing inequalities. He saw that the US and Europe were exploitative in relation to poor countries like India and that they were responsible for the situation that developed in Africa and their support for the rulers in the Middle East.

Nehru was the first leader in the world to accept and recognise the suzerainty of China over Tibet. The decision displayed a lack of vision in terms of what China’s control over Tibet could mean, for India would now be sharing the border with China from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. The consequences have become more and more visible since. I still recall Nehru at the Ram Lila Grounds in Delhi in 1956, holding Chou en-Lai’s hand and raising it in front of the hundreds of thousands who had come to hear them speak, and shouting together “Hindi Chini bhai bhai.” Around the same time, the Chinese premier must have been carefully planning to cross the border with his troops.

This sentimentality, which was a result of Nehru seeing China as an old civilisation and neighbour of India and therefore not a threat, influenced his defence strategy. It was not tailor-made to deal with possible and unanticipated threats. It did not take account the very mountainous border with China and the need for Indian soldiers to be equipped to protect those borders. When China struck, India was thoroughly unprepared.

Sadly, this sentimental approach to foreign policy and defence strategy continued in subsequent Indian governments led by Indira Gandhi and others. Even the present BJP government under Narendra Modi, which boasts of a muscular approach, did not do much to strengthen these muscles till more than four years after coming to power.

As it happens, changes in the world and a less sentimental approach have begun to transform Indian strategies both in external affairs and defence. This began with the fall of Communism and the decline of Russian power, and the increasingly visible desire of China to be among the most powerful countries in the world. The recognition of these events and the consequent changes in American foreign policy, all of which have influenced India, can be seen in the last two years or so.

A change is also visible in America’s approach and strategy. There is great criticism, both in the US and elsewhere, of President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy. His strategies have been overshadowed by his unfortunate personal characteristics. But what he has started doing is obviously a very significant change in direction for the US.

Trump’s insistence that Europe should bear a great deal more of the expense of European defence has resulted in a demotion of NATO’s significance. His approach only recognises that Communism is dead and that Russia is desperately struggling to bring its economy up to match with its military capability. He saw the huge impact of China on the American economy. China was quietly using its government resources to subsidise its exports, which led to many products that had for long been made in the US now being imported from China.

Trump has also been criticised for his hard line against immigration from Latin America. His attempt to stop Latin American children from being exported to the US to ensure a better future for them is against the American interest. Even in domestic economic policy, he has demonstrated a lack of sentiment. He has sharply reduced taxes for the wealthy and the better off and thus substantially increased inequality of income in the country. One can find other examples of his policies, but the essential point is that he has no sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, whether in the US or elsewhere. It has even been alleged that some of his economy policies were intended to help his own and his family’s personal situation.

The important thing to note is not the personal character of Trump but that his policies have had much more selfishness than sentiment behind them. The selfishness reflects not only in the personal dimension but in his approach to America’s relationships around the world. Of course, Trump will be replaced by a new president. But what he has done is to change the mindset and approach of millions of Americans, as was seen in the numbers voting for him this election. We can expect many of the changes Trump brought about to outlast him. This would almost certainly apply to the US’ willingness to spend money on the defence of other rich countries. It would also be seen in America’s support for countries that could hold back the imperialist desires of China.

(The writer is a former director of National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi)

(Published 19 November 2020, 18:39 IST)

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