Back to Basics?

September 14, 2009

Drought, a burgeoning demand for energy and a global recession affect foreign policy.


Yesterday, the Indian Express carried an article by Dr. C. Raja Mohan on India’s relationship with Mongolia, arguing that it needed to go beyond uranium diplomacy.

On reflection, one might say that many of India’s recent foreign policy positions or debates have to do with its perception that it will need to augment its domestic energy resources. (It’s another matter and another debate whether these are also related to its military plans.) The India-US nuclear deal was defended in terms of the power shortages across the country. The Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline becomes a factor in balancing every link in the tripartite relationship between these states. Oil, though not as significant a factor in India’s security calculus as it is for the US, is still significant. To this, drought is already adding the need to import food for the first time in decades. Sugar is already being imported and so likely, will be rice, staple grain to millions of Indians. The global recession’s direct impact on the Indian economy may have been less than it was on the economies of Europe and the US; nevertheless the indirect impact of returning Indian workers, diminished profits in the globalized sectors of the economy, a drop in investments and sales and Indian expats sending home less money will no doubt be real.

In a sense, these are the sorts of issues that have mattered longest in international relations: resources, providing for the needs of your population, safeguarding wealth. They also however point to the salience of good governance to foreign policy. The most ‘domestic’ matters—managing and conserving energy, assuring food supply and providing a safety net to citizens in distress—affect a state’s ability to interact with the outside world, and not just in terms of credibility and reputation. Undoubtedly, sometimes good governance does lie in the leveraging of its external relationships to meet basic needs. Equally, sometimes the most lasting foreign policy credits come from helping out in times of distress. The PL 480 libraries in the US are my favourite example; wheat sales to India in the 1960s were paid for through the creation of repository collections of Indian publications in the US, many of which have now fostered globally significant centres of South Asian Studies.

It’s a time to go back to basics in many ways, but it’s also a time to think about how today’s distress can become an investment that pays dividends in better times. And of course, it’s a time to think about governance that diminishes the prospects of scarcity and distress.

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