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National Interest: A Flawed Notion

National interest, as this article contends, does not determine foreign policy. The belief that a state can, does and should pursue the national interest presupposes that the state in some way or the other represents all sections of the national society; after all, modern states are nation states legitimised in the name of peoples constituted, however, as separate nations. It is, in fact, the political and therefore moral character (which changes over time as well) of the leadership strata that makes and shapes foreign policy decisions. It is against this background that this article makes an analysis of Indian foreign policy and the shifts seen in policy since 1991.


National Interest: A Flawed Notion

Indian Foreign Policy since 1991

National interest, as this article contends, does not determine foreign policy. The belief that a state can, does and should pursue the national interest presupposes that the state in some way or the other represents all sections of the national society; after all, modern states are nation states legitimised in the name of peoples constituted, however, as separate nations. It is, in fact, the political and therefore moral character (which changes over time as well) of the leadership strata that makes and shapes foreign policy decisions. It is against this background that this article makes an analysis of Indian foreign policy and the shifts seen in policy since 1991.


he main reason why the notion of national interest is given such enormous, indeed decisive, weight in explaining the foreign policy behaviour of any country, including India, is because of the widespread belief that the Realism paradigm, even in its crudest form, accurately describes and explains the essential character and functioning of the world order.1 According to this paradigm the world is basically an interstate system where states are the primary, unitary and rational actors. Moreover, the state is perceived in a cartographic and not sociological sense, i e, as a “national-territorial totality” encompassing that whole space marked on any map as the country in question. This, of course, automatically makes the international order an interstate system where it is the external relations between states that essentially shapes and establishes the character of the world order. And given the uneven distribution of power it is, of course, the strongest states that determine this character which can then either be unipolar, bipolar or multipolar where the latter term only means a very few more than two states. It follows that it is the foreign policies of the most powerful states and of the aspiring major powers that become the key determinant of global politics. And what else determines the foreign policies of states if not the pursuit of their respective national interests?

Such an approach to understanding the world order must theoretically exclude from sufficiently serious analytical study the crucial distinctions between government, state and society as well as the multiple and complex permutations and combinations of relationships involving them and other factors, actors and processes, which of course operate within and across the domains of both the domestic and the international. The overall result of such an extraordinarily complex web and intermeshing of multiple relationships and processes is that all too often, in the medium and long term especially, what actually emerges are unintended consequences and unanticipated outcomes rather than the more reassuring assumptions of “stabilising” balances of power between states. Indeed, Realism compared to the efforts of other disciplines like political science and historical sociology, embarrassingly enough, provides much the weaker and more superficial understandings of the very term “power” that it claims to most highlight and prioritise. Since as a matter of theory and principle the domestic and the international cannot and should not be separated, foreign policy behaviour (and what is supposed to determine it – the national interest) cannot be given the kind of weight that is so casually and routinely given to it for the purposes of explaining the world order.

In fact, national interest does not even determine foreign policy! To understand why this is so we need to investigate its claims more carefully. Three crucial claims are made for this notion. That it is a principle of legitimation or justification of foreign policy and foreign policy behaviour. That it is a principle of explanation for why states behave as they do. That it is a principle of guidance for what states should do. The first of these claims is correct. Indeed, that is what it primarily is. The latter two claims are false precisely because, except in the rare cases when there is an obvious national-popular will (fighting for national liberation, against fascist occupation, and so on) there is really no such thing as an objectively grounded national interest that can routinely serve as the basis for making and following foreign policies.

The point is not to doubt or question the sincerity of those who shape and make foreign policy or shape and make opinions about it and therefore constantly make recourse to this benighted term. It is to point out that for the most part there is no such thing as an objective or shared national interest and therefore it is never simply a matter of insisting that there is always a national interest even if subjective perceptions about it invariably differ. States do not try to arrive at, or approximate to, the national interest. They do not search for the “true” national interest. States pursue state interests. And to dispute that state interests are routinely or regularly or even quite often the interests of the nation or its people as a whole, is to insist that the issue of what and who the state “represents” must be foregrounded for investigation and questioning. The cartographic understanding of the state that is so basic to Realism, of course, prevents any such consideration, indeed eliminates this issue altogether as a matter of concern.

That is to say, the belief that the state can, does, and should pursue the national interest presupposes that the state in some

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006 way or the other represents all sections of the national society. Within the liberal intellectual tradition there have generally been two ways of arguing and justifying this claim even as it recognises the fallacy of having a map rather than sociological understanding of the state as a “narrower” set of apparatuses not coterminous with the national society or with the whole territory of the country. The first is to believe that the state stands above society and is therefore socially neutral and impartial in the way that an umpire in a cricket match is. It is this aloofness that then supposedly enables the state to both perceive and follow what is or should be the interest of all – the national interest.

The second line of defence is to see the state not as aloof from society but embedded in it in a certain way so that the pulls and pushes of forces in the national society determine the flexibly changing character of the state. Here the state is seen essentially as the resultant of an array of interacting forces in society where these separate forces represent different groups and communities. What emerges then is some kind of balance reflecting the intersecting interests of different groupings. To the extent that the state is itself the “reflector” of this balance of social forces within, it too can be said to more or less fairly represent the overall collective interest.

Dissatisfaction with these two lines of argument even among liberals has led to a third line of argument. Here, it is recognised and conceded that states, even democratic ones, do represent the interests of specific groups and sections (even subsections) of society at the expense of others whose interests can never carry similar weight at that point of time. In this case, it becomes much more difficult to claim that there is a routine national interest that explains and guides foreign policy. But insofar as such liberals do not see a highly coherent and solid structure of social relations that itself defines the social character of the state, they are more optimistic than others of more radical and critical persuasion that at least there can be very significant and substantial shifts of power and influence among the various groups of society. So previously subordinate groupings can become the more dominant ones and thus shape state behaviour in ways more consonant with their needs and interests. Thus such liberals are willing to discard the myth of national interest yet hold on to the view that in capitalist democratic societies there is the possibility and eventuality that large subordinate groups reflecting the interests of substantial majorities can for significant lengths of time shape state behaviour internally and externally in ways that suit these wider collective interests.

Social Dominance

Marxists and the more radical wing of feminism, however, are more likely to insist on the existence of stable structures of social dominance in society that both shape and are abetted and consolidated by the state itself. That therefore, barring specific contexts of great collective endeavour such as liberation struggles (and even then there will always be small sections of society antithetical and opposed to the interests of the vast majority), such states pursue elite and sectional interests which are always passed off in the name of national interest. Again, the issue is not that of the sincerity or otherwise of senior state personnel who no doubt may be motivated by a belief in the national interest. It is, rather, a matter of objective structures that socialise and shape senior state personnel (and their elite supporters outside the state apparatuses) to think and act in certain ways that help reproduce and extend existing patterns of social power and wealth internally through the pursuit of foreign policies appropriate to such extension and reproduction.

The class and social character of the Indian state means that its foreign policy behaviour will be decisively shaped by this fact. It is unfortunate that the Indian left seems all too prone at times to lend credibility to the notion of national interest (or the notion of “enlightened national interest”) by subscribing to, and echoing this term, when it above all should be arguing that what we have as a matter of routine is the pursuit of elite sectional interests passed off as national ones – a subterfuge all the more powerful in that so many of its practitioners are unaware that it is a subterfuge, i e, they are sincere believers in the notion of national interest.

To come back then to the three claims made for the concept of national interest. It is clearly a principle of legitimation or justification. That is where it gets its power and popularity from. It is a new form of legitimisation which makes greater internal demands of a state vis-a-vis its own population than was the case in the past. This is because it expresses the fact that modern states are nation states legitimised in the name of peoples constituted as separate nations. That is why the term used for describing a state’s foreign policy in the past was never the “national interest” but, more accurately, raison d’etre or “reasons of state”. Once the older form of the feudal or royal or patrimonial state transits towards becoming the more modern nation state then the term of description of its foreign policy behaviour, unsurprisingly, becomes the “national interest” even though the state continues to represent sectional social interests, albeit different sectional and social interests from those of the past. But it remains the case that any chosen foreign policy or form of behaviour can be justified in its name: hence its repeated and recurrent use by all comers from all avenues and directions.

However, its claim to being an important analytical tool or concept is greatly weakened once one recognises how limited is the framework of Realism for grasping the nature of the world order. But even to the extent that the foreign policy of great powers clearly does have some significant impact on the world, national interest is still, analytically speaking, bankrupt. Kenneth Waltz who provides the most elegant, parsimonious and internally coherent theorisation of Realism has used a Rational Choice approach derived from the homo economicus assumptions of neoclassical economics (widely perceived as the most scientific of the social sciences) to claim that just as one does not require a theory of the firm to provide a theory of the market and how it reaches equilibrium, similarly one can and must abstract away from the internal character of states to have a proper theory of the international system.2 And just as firms pursue their self-interest so too do states their selfinterest or national interest. And in both cases this inter-unit, or more precisely oligopolistic, competition between the most powerful units forced upon them by the anarchy of either the market or the international political system, is regularly stabilised by a market equilibrium (the supply-demand price mechanism) or by a balance of state powers.

This is not merely a Realist analogy. It is a conceptual parallel or equivalent determined by the same structure of rational choice reasoning in both cases. For Hans Morgenthau for whom interest is itself defined as power, the equivalent of interest or power for the firm would be

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

profit, and the pursuit of profit the conceptual equivalent of the pursuit of national interest.3For Waltz who insists that power must be seen as means separated from interests but absolutely vital for securing those interests or goals of foreign policy, profit would be the equivalent of power and formally separate from the goals of the firm. But pursuit of profit is so central a goal of firms (given that long-term survival is not possible without this) it can be treated as effectively synonymous with a firm’s primary self-interests. The pursuit of profit then can be taken as the conceptual equivalent of the state’s pursuit of national interest in the Realist framework. But here comes the nub of the problem. Whatever one thinks of the notion of profit, whether one likes it or not, it has an objectively grounded and precise elucidation and is therefore a universally accepted definition.

The notion of national interest has no such universally grounded or accepted definition precisely because it is always subjectively defined. Claiming that interest is defined as power a la Morgenthau or that the primary national interest for every state is its security a la Waltz merely displaces the problem. For both power and security are themselves notoriously vague and openended notions not subject to universally accepted definitions or understandings, let alone precise elucidations. Even the claim that survival as a territorial entity is a universally accepted interest of all states founders on the historical fact that statesgovernments have on occasion accepted territorial partition or absorption out of choice rather than military compulsion.

It is not the case that there is always an objectively grounded meaning of the national interest though there will always be subjectively different perceptions of it. How often has one heard one or the other Indian strategic thinker or expert parade this superficial claim in order to finesse or avoid recognising the essentially insubstantial nature of the concept itself and therefore its analytical uselessness. There are only subjective perceptions of what the national interest is. States pursue not the national interest, objectively speaking, but (objectively speaking) sectional interests, passed off as (subjectively perceived) national interests. If the notion is analytically (but certainly not ideologically) useless then it is obvious that it cannot even serve as a compass for guiding foreign policy behaviour. Again, it is not a question of there being some true or objectively grounded national interest whose direction of pursuit must be discerned though many may falsely discern it and thus point in the wrong directions. National interest is not any sort of compass at all because the notion, unlike that of the profit principle, exercises absolutely no control over the domain of foreign policy choice. Any course of action including complete opposites can be declared as guided or determined by it. You can go to war or push for peace. You can be for or against this or that alliance. You can be for or against such and such country or state. The profit principle by its very objectivity and its universal acceptability does provide a basis for measuring how well or badly it is being pursued. It also, while allowing some range of options for a firm’s behaviour, also rules out a definite array of other choices. This is not the case with the notion of national interest. And the occasions where policy choices are obvious, e g, having to surrender before a more militarily powerful enemy, these do not require one to be a subscriber to the notion of national interest in order to provide an endorsement for that policy choice.

The Real Explanation

If national interest is not the basis for explaining a country’s foreign policy then what is? The real answer is quite simple and obvious. It is the political (and therefore moral) character of the leadership strata that shapes and makes foreign policy decisions. In addition one must also take into consideration that part of what we can call the “foreign policy establishment”, which whether inside or outside the apparatuses of the state, shapes public opinion about foreign policy matters. This political and moral character of these important social layers (usually dominant classes and their middle class support base) changes over time. It is itself shaped by the changes in power relations between classes and social groups nationally and internationally as well as between countries. It is reflective of the changes that take place in the dominant forms of thought and values. It is changed by the complex concatenation of processes and events that have taken place over time domestically and globally.

To understand the shift in Indian foreign policy in the era of neoliberal globalisation, which is roughly from the end of the cold war onwards, we cannot separate this story from the much larger and more complex story of why there has been a considerable right wing shift on all fronts – cultural, political, economic, ideological – over the last 20 to 25 years in India. This has been caused by a whole complex of factors, domestic and international and by changes objective and subjective, material and cultural. It has involved the substantial Hindutva-isation of the Indian polity and society, the greater economic and social polarisation of its people, the insurgency of Indian elites faced with burgeoning pressures from below and angry and uncomfortable about this. Indian official nationalism, i e, the nationalism of the state, is now more elitist, more insensitive to the poor and indigent, more belligerent and frustrated, more communalised, more arrogant and self-aggrandising, more desperate to be treated with “respect” internationally than ever before in its past.

Yes, there were dramatic alterations in the global system that must be factored into any explanation of Indian foreign policy shifts. There was the collapse of the Soviet Union and of its control on eastern Europe. This collapse of the east bloc clearly rendered non-alignment, at least in the sense of a distancing from alignment with either bloc, a more problematic notion. Insofar as nonalignment meant the pursuit of a more independent (from big powers) foreign policy it could still survive as a meaningful term. But to survive meaningfully and not just ceremonially as a collective, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) would have to find a newer unifying rationale.

Economic and social changes in the advanced countries in the 1980s greatly strengthened capital at the expense of labour with the dramatic financialisation of the world economy being both cause and consequence. Correspondingly, the dominant forms of economic thought shifted from Keynesianism and developmentalism towards the ascendancy ideologically of the mono-economics of neoliberalism, the most right wing and conservative form of neoclassical economics. But the view that Indian foreign policy changes after 1991 have been determined essentially by changed external circumstances, thereby altering the national interest, is simply the conceit of a Realist way of thinking. Major changes take place in the world. But their meanings and interpretations are always mediated through the filters of the changing beliefs and values that the senior state personnel of India and their acolytes and supporters hold. There is never any

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006 automatic or unavoidable direction in foreign policy that the Indian state must take as a result of such changes, however dramatic.

Consider, however, what is at stake if believers in the notion of national interest are forced to confront the inadequacy of this concept for the purposes of explanation and its indeterminacy for the purposes of guidance; and to acknowledge that it is basically merely a term of justification. Believers have no doubt invested an enormous amount of capital both intellectual and emotional. They would in effect be stripped naked both intellectually and morally. They would be forced to ask themselves the question – if the routines of foreign policy practice are not based on the national interest then whose interests does it represent?4 Then what is it that those of us who have spent a lifetime talking of the national interest really been doing? Who and what have we been promoting? One of Realism’s greatest attractions has always been its complete lack of self-reflexivity inherent, of course, in its crude philosophical positivism as a method of enquiry; its confident belief that what it articulates is the self-evident common sense of international relations thinking. No wonder then that there is so much institutional investment in academia, in government apparatuses, in the corporate media and in the corporate world in sustaining, defending and promoting this myth of an Indian state that genuinely seeks to promote the national interest even if it sometimes makes mistakes and errors in this sincere endeavour.

Indian Foreign Policy since 1991

Since the end of the cold war the key geo-economic principle guiding Indian foreign policy, regardless of which party or coalition has been in power, has been the extension and consolidation of neoliberal globalisation. The key geopolitical principle has been the effort to establish, consolidate and deepen the strategic relationship between India and the US, which means acquiescing and participating in the US project of establishing its informal global hegemony. This has, of course, been rationalised and justified in various ways. For example, it has been defended in terms of Indian national interest and the benefits of such a course in helping India to become a major world power which it is presumed should emotionally and psychologically gladden the hearts and minds of the poor and subordinated majority as much as it does the hearts and minds of the Indian elite and middle classes. It is also argued that neoliberal economic expansion and strategic partnership with the US will promote the interest of most Indians at least more than any alternative course of action.5

What is the reality? Whatever the claimed merits of the neoliberal form and direction of capitalist development domestically and internationally as a way of bringing prosperity to all or most, the one truly obvious and incontestable characteristic of this form of capitalism is that in the last 25 to 30 years it has led worldwide and within most countries (including India) to the most dramatic accelerations of inequality in the distribution of income, wealth and power between classes and social groups in human history so far. Economic inequality between countries has also grown faster than ever before. It is obvious who has benefited most and most disproportionately in India from the 1991 reforms. In this respect whether the majority of others have also benefited (the strongly contested claim that all boats have risen even if some more than others, from the rising tide of production, i e, from higher average growth rates) is beside the point. The social groups who have indubitably benefited and done so disproportionately are precisely those social constellations at the top and upper-middle of Indian society whose interests the Indian state has most promoted through its neoliberal policies.

Insofar as various states and the dominant classes and middle classes they most regularly and strongly represent have every interest in sustaining and deepening this neoliberal global capitalist order, then global politics must to a very large extent be about how to go about providing the necessary longer term stability for the production and reproduction of this form of global capitalism? Here, the question of the US and its global ambitions becomes central. For the principal beneficiaries of such a neoliberal order it is obvious that such stabilisation must be organised through the system of nation states and that this can only be with and not against the US state. The issue then is not how best to oppose the US but how best to cooperate with it! And what would be the most desired role for the US to play globally? To be sure there are a whole range of political and other issues that cause dissent and conflict between states. But the processes of neoliberal economic globalisation while they necessarily contribute to forms of capitalist competition at the level of firms, sectors and even at the level of states, they are nevertheless a crucial factor in containing the scope and depth of such competition in favour of an overall thrust towards promoting the search for a mechanism of global capitalist coordination.

This coordination can only be politically constituted – the establishment of the necessary institutional, infrastructural, legal, punitive, cultural-ideological features that can best assure the expanded reproduction of capital, its uneven distribution, and the ability of states to defuse the pressures created by the sufferings, inequalities and injustices that such a global order will necessarily have. The basic point one is seeking to make here, is that the Indian state representing as it does the interests of dominant groups has a long term and structural basis for pursuing its strategic partnership with the US and therefore to support in howsoever a variable and qualified fashion, its global imperial project. There is then a material foundation as to why after the end of the cold war the basic shape of the world order, politically speaking, is not the search by other powers to balance against the power of the US but a hub-and-spokes arrangement with the US at the centre and the other powers at the rim of this bicycle wheel, each more concerned to consolidate its bilateral relationship with the US than to join up with others on the rim against the US.

That this outcome should itself be an embarrassment to believers in the Realist paradigm is something that has been registered in parts of American academia where criticism of Realism is fiercer than ever before; but certainly not in Indian academia or in the public strategic discourse here. Furthermore, the US hegemonic enterprise is based not just on its economic, military and political-diplomatic strength but on its cultural capacity to persuade the elites of other countries (including India) of its world view, its values and belief systems and of its stated purposes for conducting the kind of foreign policy it does. One must not underestimate the extent to which the Indian elite and middle classes have come to accept culturally, intellectually, emotionally and morally the particular “vision” and “leadership” of the US in its project of global transformation. For the Indian elite and

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

middle classes, what it means for India to become a prosperous, dynamic and powerful country is to be like the US. You cannot seriously challenge that which you would most like to emulate!

Implications for West Asia

What are the implications, for example, of all this for the Indian state’s foreign policy behaviour towards the west Asian region? This Indian state will not sacrifice its pursuit of consolidating the strategic alliance with the US and as part of this project, its deepening strategic relationship with Israel, for the sake of securing justice for Iraqis, Palestinians or the other peoples and countries of the region be these Syria, Lebanon, Iran. Ideally, India would have preferred to pursue simultaneously the best of relations with countries like Iran alongside its continuing pursuit of ever deeper relations with the US and Israel. But US and Israeli ambitions make this inconceivable and the Indian state has come out on the expected side in this state of affairs. It might try and cover up this fundamental bias in its foreign policy behaviour by claiming that it is pursuing a “balanced” relationship with Iran, Israel, Iraq and the US. Or the ideologues for the Indian state might simply acknowledge yet rationalise such biases in the name of national interest. But do not look for an Indian foreign policy that in any serious way represents a genuine commitment to a just resolution of the Palestinian cause and towards creating the necessary pressures that can seriously help in achieving this. A limited degree of economic aid to Palestinians and lip service, is all one should expect. Do not look for a foreign policy that would seriously challenge US and Israel in west Asia, although this alone is the route towards greater dignity and justice for the peoples of this region.

What is it that can change Indian foreign policy towards west Asia? It can only be the positive and successful outcomes of struggles waged by progressive forces opposed to neoliberalism and to the US imperial project domestically and internationally. With regard to the first named enemy, this is a struggle being waged by non-state and cross-state actors in India as well as elsewhere. With regard to the second named enemy, this is a struggle being waged by non-state actors and some states in and outside west Asia, the current crucible of world politics. Our responsibility in India is to participate in the struggles to oppose both its neoliberalism and its strategic partnership with the US and Israel. This is a long-term struggle that is inseparable from the pursuit of radical transformations in Indian society and polity in the direction of greater justice and equalities. The false “truism” of Realism that morality and the constant and unflinching pursuit of justice has little place in the arena of international politics is another of those myths, like that of the capitalist state as the “natural” guardian of the “national interest”, that needs to be exposed for the fraud that it is.




[Those familiar with the outstanding work of Justin Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society,Verso, London, 1994 and Benno Teschke, The Myth of1648, Verso, London, 2003, will immediately recognise my indebtedness to them.]

1 In western academia and to a much more limited extent in Indian academia, there are now various attempts to counter the powerful critiques of Political Realism/Neo-Realism and to “salvage” it by qualifying it, “complementing” it, e g, neoliberal institutionalism, making it more “broad church”, “historicising” it, and so on.But this remains essentially an academic exercise while politicians, the public media and foreign policy bureaucrats for the overwhelming part carry on with their “common sense” Realist understanding of the world order.

2 Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Random House, New York, 1979. 3 Hans Morgenthau, Politics among Nations, (reprint), Scientific Agency Press, Calcutta, 1969.

4 As in the case of domestic policy, for foreign policy, public pressure (domestic and external) through political mobilisations and unrest can push particular policy decisions and actions ina progressive direction antithetical to the class and social interests of dominant groups. But as long as the social character of states remains structurally elitist this capacity to represent the broader and wider interests of subordinate groups is limited and never constitutes the routinised dominant principle guiding foreign policy behaviour.

5 There is an interesting irony at play here. Advocates of economic neoliberalism, if they possess a measure of theoretical sophistication, would know that the strongest theoretical defence for their position comes from theChicago School which argues that “government failure” is much more dangerous than “market failure”, hence the need to minimise government involvement in the economy unlike welfarists (like Amartya Sen) in the neoclassical tradition who worry overmuch about market failures.The theoretical anchor for this claim is that government personnel (bureaucrats and politicians) pursue like everybody else, their self-interest, which in this case leads to government rent-seeking activity that then militates against economic efficiency. Yet somany of these very same advocates, including professional economists (whom one assumes have sufficient grounding in conventional economics even if their knowledge of radical and Marxist economics can be safely assumed to be quite negligible) like Manmohan Singh,Montek Singh Ahluwalia, P Chidambaram et al, have no hesitation in talking of that very same government pursuing the national interest. Self-serving politicians-bureaucrats who are dangerous when it comes to deciding on the best economic policies become throughthe magic wand of Realist thinking the reliably impartial and genuine pursuers of the collective, public, indeed national interest, when it comes to foreign policies.


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