Book Review: How Far Do Values Determine Foreign Policy?

Economic self-interest has defined the foreign policy of more nations than larger considerations of culture and civilisation.

Values are a pretence in the realm of foreign affairs, not to speak of foreign policy.

Values, stated or implicit, may be seen to shape foreign policy, even claimed to do so, but rarely do values determine foreign policy. So it is not surprising that the editors of Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests conclude in their introductory chapter that “values give way to contingencies and circumstances, and above all, interests, and no government is able to chart a course by the compass of professed values alone.” (p.16)

Despite that sobering conclusion the three editors and fourteen other contributors have tilled the field of international relations to explore the role of values in shaping national foreign policy. Apart from the Chinese scholar Zhang Lihua, few others make any bold claims for values.

“Once one understands the values of traditional Chinese culture,” says Zhang, “one can truly understand Chinese diplomacy because the political system and foreign policy of a country is rooted in its history and culture.” (p.193).

Culture may be the basis of values, but history need not be and in China’s case is not. If China’s relations with the world were to be defined by history and culture rather than political and economic interests or indeed egalitarian values derived from the Communist Manifesto then one could argue that these may well be shaped by the ‘Middle Kingdom syndrome’. That legacy of ‘history and culture’ has little to do with values and more to do with extant power.

‘Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests’ by Krishnan Srinivasan, James Mayall and Sanjay Pulipaka, Rowman & Littlefield, London, 2019

The fact is, as Robert Kaplan says in his brief foreword, China seeks to tell the world that it brings its own version of universal values to the global table just as the United States has done, especially in the post-War period.

If western powers assert that their foreign policy is aimed at promoting the values of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, China believes it has a civilisational message rooted in the Confucian idea of ‘harmony’. Zhang goes to the extent of claiming that Confucius believed that the even the pursuit of self-interest should be “reasonable and legal, should not harm others and should not deceive others.”

Which country would admit its pursuit of self-interest is motivated by any other consideration?    

So, while the effort to explore the role of values in foreign policy seems fraught, the editors of this volume have succeeded in getting many scholars to devote time and effort to reflect on the question. There are chapters devoted to the major powers – United States, China, Russia, Germany, Japan and India.

A couple of intermediate powers – South Korea and Indonesia, and an odd one out – Myanmar (perhaps because the West assumed Aung San Suu Kyi would bring ‘liberal’ values to bear more on Myanmar’s foreign policy rather than Buddhist attitude towards Muslim minorities).

The editors regard religion as an important source of values and so have commissioned an essay on Islamic values, as in Iran’s case, as opposed to secular values of a bygone Turkey. But at the heart of the national divide within Islam between sunni Saudi Arabia and shia Iran is economic self-interest and the geopolitics of West Asia.

It would have been interesting to see how Christian values are reshaping foreign policy in the West and whether ‘Hindu’ values are defining India’s. The subject of religious values deserved deeper treatment. Left out of that post-War power settlement, barring its membership of the United Nations Security Council, Russia in its earlier avatar of the Soviet Union pursued national interest in the garb of communist ideology.

Today it seeks to use the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of its political outreach to the Christian world.

Neither in Europe nor in Asia are there any convincing examples of value-based foreign policy.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew spoke about ‘Asian values’ but as Ravi Velloor says in his essay on ASEAN, “…economic links to China have put paid to any Asian values in diplomacy”.

Velloor concludes, “It is the rare nation that allows moral considerations to override the pragmatic pursuit of national interest.” (p.266) The democracies of the West erected an international order, through the United Nations and various other multilateral institutions, which were themselves not based on the most important democratic principle of equality. As Bruno Macaes says in his consideration of values in the foreign policies of the West, the global system of rules and institutions erected by the West were all based on western, mainly US, dominance over them. The structure of voting in the UN and affiliated institutions is based on the power differentials established at the end of the Second World War.

Also read: What India Can Learn From China

In many ways India offers an interesting case study of a country that has sought to further its interests in the garb of values seeking to punch above its weight in the post-Independence period. But as its power, especially economic power, increased India has been less interesting in sporting the garb of values and has more readily spoken the language of interests and power.

This interesting transition is hardly explored in Krishnan Srinivasan’s essay that devotes far too much space to the long gone Nehruvian era and hardly focuses attention on the way in which both P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought realism to the fore in Indian foreign policy. Both Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi have only walked the path laid out by these two important ‘post-Nehruvian’ architects of Indian foreign policy.

Indeed, Nehru had a split personality talking the language of values on the one hand and pursuing interests with equal felicity. One the one hand he would say, as Srinivasan quotes, “India’s voice is somewhat different; it is the voice of an ancient civilisation, distinctive, vital”, and on the other hand he would urge the members of the Constituent Assembly to understand the fact that India’s foreign policy would ultimately be shaped by its economic policy!

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Srinivasan does concede that “Nehru clothed realism in the rhetoric of idealism” but imagines he was unaware of this distinction! Here is what Nehru told the Constituent Assembly on December 4, 1947:

“Talking about foreign policies the House must remember that these are not just empty struggles on a chessboard. Behind them lie all manner of things. Ultimately foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy…it is well for us to say that we stand for peace and freedom and yet that does not convey much to anybody, except a pious hope…Undoubtedly it has some substance, but a vague statement that we stand for peace and freedom by itself has no particular meaning, because every country is prepared to say the same thing…What do we stand for? Well, you have to develop this argument in the economic field.”

Also read: What the Age of Narendra Modi Means for Indian Foreign Policy

From Nehru, Srinivasan takes a surprising leap to quote President Kovind on the idea of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” as defining India’s view of the world. It was Indira Gandhi who first deployed that concept, prodded by her speech writer H.Y. Sharada Prasad, but soon abandoned it.

Both Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi repeatedly referred to the concept of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” in many of their speeches. But the Prime Minister who deserved greater attention in an essay on Indian foreign policy is Narasimha Rao, who undermined the Nehruvian foundations of Indian foreign policy, quoting Nehru all the time, to launch a new phase of post-Cold War, post-Non-Alignment foreign policy that explicitly centred Indian foreign policy around its economic interests.

Economic self-interest has defined the foreign policy of more nations than larger considerations of culture and civilisation. If power is the defining element in international relations, the one way in which values can enter the realm of foreign policy would be through the power of values.

Thus, it is the ‘power’ of ‘western’ values rather than the inherent value of such values that may have a bearing on foreign policy and foreign relations.

The international community comes around to accepting the ideas espoused by the powerful and in so doing gives currency to these values in shaping relations between states. Power, in its many manifestations, rather than values per se continue to define foreign relations and, therefore, policy.

Sanjaya Baru is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analysis, New Delhi.