India Must Fight Its Battles Alone Like All The Great Powers 

by N V Subramanian - Oct 20, 2016 01:38 PM +05:30 IST
Must Fight Its Battles Alone Like  All The Great Powers  Multilateral engagements are a mere distraction.
  • If India must fight its own battles, it has to be internally strong, focus on bilateral diplomacy and shun external engagements that will not help its interests.

    Divisive internal politics must be reined in - the external threats to India are real.

The failure of the Goa BRICS Summit should tell the government what it should already have known, and which has often been communicated by this writer. And this is that India is virtually alone among the major powers of the world and has to make its strategic way ahead using any and all means.

The Cold War is over. The Cold War gave advantages to India that are simply unavailable in this uncertain, hostile, multi-polar world. India’s battles with China and Pakistan would have to be fought by India alone. The US can only assist up to a point without upsetting its own geostrategic equations. Russia won’t come to India’s aid in its present precarious condition.

Being alone is not such a bad thing. All great powers started alone. Starting out alone, they had to learn to survive. They had to learn to judge the strategic ecosystem and who to make temporary friends with and who to class as enemies. They had to focus on their real strengths and gradually eliminate their weaknesses. Not all of them succeeded. The table of great powers has consistently changed century after century. India should not take fright at being alone.

A country that is internally weak can never be externally powerful. India has become politically more divisive in recent decades and it would be unfair to blame just one government and one set of leaders for this situation. Democracy encourages and even celebrates political divisions but always within limits. Those limits are now in danger of being breached. It devolves on all political actors to pull back to sensible politics. The external threats to India are real.

The external engagements of India at this time (and perhaps for times to come) must be undertaken with great care and caution. Prior to every external engagement, India must re-acquaint and re-educate itself about its strategical objectives. It should shun engagements that do not advance India’s strategical interests in tangible terms.

Compared to bilateral diplomacy, this writer is less keen about multilateral engagements. There are fewer distractions in bilateral diplomacy. The setting for give and take cannot get better. There is firmer control over the agenda. Indeed, there are well-defined agendas in bilateral diplomacy that do not obtain in multilateral forums, unless you happen to lead them. Outside BIMSTEC, those opportunities are presently rare for India.

There are lessons in this regard from 19th century Europe. One of the major differences between Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III was that Bismarck mastered bilateral diplomacy while the other craved for the sort of multilateralism represented by the Congresses which commenced from Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat and exile in 1815.

Except for the brilliance that Napoleon III exhibited which triggered the Crimean War and broke France’s isolation after the Napoleonic Wars, he contributed little to France’s strategic growth. Analysts of that period often blame Napoleon III for France’s subsequent strategic paralysis that continues to this day.

Napoleon III sought Congresses so that others could fight France’s battles. His agendas were weak and scarcely thought through. He had no strategic objective for France. Seeing through him, the other powers refused to oblige.

The one who best saw through him was Bismarck, who loathed Congresses for the same reason that Napoleon III loved them, and instead invested his brilliance and energies in bilateral diplomacy. He spun such a web of bilateral diplomacy that it made Germany into a great power.

Against his better instincts, Bismarck buckled to Europe’s pressure to hold the Congress in Berlin when Britain and Russia had emerged from another of their interminable scraps over the Balkans, and he said that the outcome would be held against Germany. It was. From there to First World War was an unbroken slippery slope.

India should get over the fetish of multilateral engagements where it cannot control the outcomes. How does BRICS serve India’s interests when it is dominated by China which has openly turned against India? There can be no bigger insult than to have a Summit hosted in your country turn against you.

India’s diplomatic establishment has to learn the new rules of the game. No one is nobody’s friend or ally in today’s world. That is the sad truth. Each one is to themselves. It is up to India to safeguard its strategic interests. India is alone. It can see that as weakness, pity itself, and go down. No one will shed a tear.

On the other hand, India can visualise a challenge in solitariness and boldly plunge forth. In the world of great powers, who dares wins!

This piece originally appeared on News Insight and has been republished here with permission.

N.V.Subramanian is the Editor of and writes on politics and strategic affairs.
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