Exploring India’s Foreign Policy Debates

By Nikola Mirilovic

Among the most contested questions in Indian foreign policy today are those related to the extent and type of power that India should use to project itself internationally. Should India rely on military, economic or ideational power? How should Indian policymakers make trade-offs between military, economic and normative objectives? What mechanisms does India prefer for global leadership?

Deepa Ollapally and Rajesh Rajagopalan of the Rising Powers Initiative have classified India’s domestic debates about the country’s foreign policy into three main schools of thought: hyper-power, national-power and liberal power proponents.

The hyper-power proponents view military power as not only a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself. They claim that extensive military power is a necessary component of India’s greatness. This is a minority perspective. National-power proponents also advocate greater military strength and expenditures, but they view them as means of achieving other goals. Finally, the proponents of the liberal power perspective argue that hard power is not an effective means of projecting India’s influence abroad, and that trade and diplomacy should be relied on instead.

Understanding these different perspectives sheds light on the complexities of major foreign policy issues in India. For example, the extent of India’s ambitions in its home region, South Asia, is contested. One view is that India should be satisfied with a level of military capabilities that guarantees New Delhi security by ensuring that India would prevail in a conflict with any of its neighbors, should such a conflict arise. A more ambitious view is that New Delhi should not be satisfied with security alone and should instead seek to exercise influence over its neighbors. On the other hand, there are skeptics who not only question the effectiveness of relying on hard power and military force, but also challenge it on moral grounds. Most key actors express support for a multilateral approach in India’s external relations, but in practice New Delhi has often chosen to act through bilateral mechanisms.

In the economic realm, the debates within India pertain not to the desirability of free market reforms, but to their pace and extent.  On international economic policy, the main debate within India is between those who argue that India should act as a global power, and those who believe it should act more as a developing country. The proponents of the former view emphasize economic growth and view it as a means of international power projection. They favor international economic openness, achieved in part through free trade agreements. The other camp believe that India, as a developing country, should prioritize protecting the most vulnerable segments of its population, promote equality, and/or preserve India’s autonomy. They are more inward-looking and likely to be skeptical of international economic integration.

In addition to these contemporary debates, there is also a perceived shift in the overall nature of India’s foreign policymaking over time. This argument holds that India’s foreign policymaking was largely driven by normative considerations in the post-independence period. The ideals that guided policymaking then included anti-imperialism, nonalignment, and Third World solidarity. Two key events undermined this approach: the 1962 war with China and the end of the Cold War. These events underlined the shift over time to a more realpolitik outlook, though this new sentiment has not taken deep roots across the board and remains open to challenge.

Where is Indian Foreign Policy Headed?

Even though notable foreign policy debates and areas of disagreement do exist within India, the foreign policy scene is also characterized by a high degree of ambiguity.

One possible explanation of this perceived ambiguity is that India is biding its time. Its capabilities are on the rise due to India’s sustained high rates of economic development. It is likely that New Delhi will be in a stronger position to resolve its international disputes in the near future than it is now. Consequently, India is waiting in order to present a more clearly defined and ambitious foreign policy at the optimal moment.

The alternative explanation centers on the role of bureaucratic politics. India’s civil service is large and made up of career civil servants. The size of the bureaucracy increases the importance of debates within the government, as opposed to debates between officials and outside actors. Meanwhile, the career civil service system limits the links between government and the private sector.

Although the future trajectory of India’s foreign policy may seem unclear, we have begun to identify the main dimensions of its debates. This has been an ongoing endeavor within the Rising Powers Initiative, which has held a series of events to explore this theme. We invite you to join the discussion.

Dr. Nikola Mirilovic is a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Professorial Lecturer at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, The George Washington University.


About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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