Replace “Strategic Autonomy” with “Strategic Interest”

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
February 05, 2019


Foreign Secretary of India Vijay Gokhalerecently underlined that India would continue to pursue the “policy of strategic autonomy” without joining any bloc or ideology. This is longstanding foreign policy thinking that needs renovation.

Why are the members of the strategic community in India so infatuated with the idea of strategic autonomy? The answer is simple and the reason is historical and politico-psychological. Before India became independent in 1947, the subcontinent was under successive foreign rules and the moment India became free from the last set of foreign rulers who came from Britain and colonized India for about two centuries, the leaders of independent India were apprehensive about any foreign move that could once again bring India under foreign domination, even if indirectly.

Indian leaders were attached to the newly won political freedom from British Raj and were mistrustfulof any external power’s overtures towards India. The United States was perceived as a country that could exercise excessive influence overdecision-making through economic penetration and the former Soviet Union was perceived as the one that could spread its version of communism in the nook and corner of India. The political elite of India was not weary of communism as a political philosophy, but was convinced that an ideology that could be promoted across India by a foreign power was not acceptable. The fear of British influence re-entering India was also back in the minds of the Indian political elite. This explains why India, unlike Canada, New Zealand and Australia, was not willing to work with an association that was named British Commonwealth. This was the reason why Indian masses preferred to turn the country into a “Republic”, so the British Queen would not even be a symbolic head of India.

But the time has come for India to abandon this political psychology and rather think and act in terms of “strategic interests” and not “strategic autonomy.” Seventy years are a short time in the life of a nation and particularly for India that represents a continuing civilization for about five thousand years. But in these seventy struggling years independent India has been able to reach a stage where no foreign force can yet again colonize India, directly or indirectly. Today, India has acquired a military capability that can easily ward off any attempt by any power to conquer the country. Second, India has elevated itself as a donor country from itsearlier status as a foreign aid recipient. Third, India’s agricultural sector needs a lot more improvement, but the country is no longer dependent on foreign food assistance and is proud of being self-sufficient in food production and livestock. Fourth, quite a few Indian companies have gone international and they invest as much in the US today, as the investment by American companies in India. Fifth, India has excelled in many frontiers of scientific and technological developments and is successful in competing with advanced countries, as for example, in the arena of space programmes. Sixth, India is a respectable member of the Group of 20 and plays a modest role in global political economy. Seventh, almost all major powers of the world seek cooperative ties with India and respect its role as an international leader in the contemporary post-Cold War strategic order.

In any case, the power structure of the world has changed a great deal from the one that emerged after the Second World War. The bipolar order and the unipolar world order have been relegated into international relations history. Scholars are currentlyenmeshed with discussion and debate onwhether the world is witnessing a new bipolar world order led by the United States and China. Major powers of the contemporary global order will not settle with any system marked by US-China bipolarity. The call for a multipolar world order is heard across the continents. While the US primacy in world affairs is under challenge from China, a vast majority of countries would no longer like to be led by either the US or China.  The forces of globalization have made the world more integrated than ever before and in the process complex interdependence rather than hegemony and domination would characterize the global order.

In the backdrop of all these developments, “strategic autonomy” should not be the guiding principle of Indian foreign policy. India is already autonomous in decision-making and all our goal-setting efforts and implementation of foreign policy should primarily be guided by principle of maximizing strategic interests and minimizing strategic threats.

For long the concept of “strategic autonomy” has come on the way of opportunities for India for bettering ties with major powers. Compromises are an integral part of negotiations in the pragmatic world and as and when India seeks to negotiate with foreign powers, strategic interest and not “strategic autonomy” should be the preferredapparatus of diplomacy.

Indeed, India also has complex matrix of relationship with a host of countries that look at India as relatively a Big Power and the same logic of strategic interests should be applied while forging ties with smaller countries. Indian diplomacy should seek to convince the smaller neighbours and even geographically distant neighbours that India’s approach to the world is based on mutual interests rather than gain or loss of strategic autonomy. This discourse is more needed in India’s immediate neighbourhood, since the real or illusory anxietyover India’s policies is abused by domestic opponents as well as external powers in this region.