Book review: “Nation-building and foreign policy in India: An Identity-Strategy Conflict”, by Tobias F. Engelmeier
India’s rise constitutes one of the most fascinating and important stories of the past two decades, symbolizing, along with China, the fundamental shift of power towards Asia. Yet while many acknowledge India’s newfound importance, the country remains one of the most misunderstood actors in the international community. During the Cold War, India was the only democratic regime that did not align with the West. After turning into a nuclear power in 1998, the country suffered international condemnation, only to become one of the United States' strategic partners less than ten years later. Despite its transformation, many international analysts still analyze it through the prism of the conflict with Pakistan, which cannot do justice to India's much more complex role in the 21st century. The need to understand India's perspective has never been greater, and today no global challenge can be tackled successfully without India's active contribution and engagement.
It is in this context that Tobias Engelmeier's book, "Nation-building and foreign policy in India: An Identity-Strategy Conflict" (first published in 2009), makes an important contribution, shedding light on India's national identity in the context of its foreign policy. Engelmeier argues that foreign policy has been and remains and integral part of the country's nation-building project (which he regards as ongoing). Contrary to other nations which took the simpler way of building a national identity around visible characteristics such as race, religion or language, India's founding fathers pursued 'value-based nationalism', more abstract and less discernible at first, but ultimately a brilliant way to creating a nation of unparalleled cultural diversity. Indeed, India remains one of the very few countries on earth to have successfully built a national narrative entirely based on values (there is little else all Indians have in common) which makes many observers wonder how it can exist in the first place. Engelmeier's main argument is that India's foreign policy is deeply intertwined with this concept, causing what he calls an 'idealistic inflection' of foreign policy, which at times creates a conflict with India's national interest. The resulting realism - idealism duality in India's foreign policy is one of the key themes of the book.
Although a tension between realist and idealist ideas is certainly not unique to India, the author makes the interesting argument that India's case is special due to the continuing need for national stabilization through ideological politics. And indeed, India's foreign policy has always been defined by a very peculiar mix of realist and idealist concepts. The Western notion that Nehru was a pure idealist, and that India then slowly moved towards realism, for example, is far too simplistic, given that Nehru's strategy already contained many realist elements, and that idealist elements are still visible today. Also, as Engelmeier points out, "the recurring linkage between nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament, the idea of advancing a nuclear-free world by way of becoming a nuclear" and controversial euphemisms such as "peaceful nuclear explosion" hint to an unusually intense debate about the moral implications of obtaining nuclear status, something China clearly cared little about.
According to the author, the 'cost' of India's foreign policy's dual purpose (defending national interest and enhancing its integrative national identity) is set to increase, potentially requiring concessions in terms of national interest. As India's weight in global politics increases, so does global scrutiny, and India's vacillation may lead its "idealism being rendered incredible by realist policies and its efforts at realpolitik being (...) hampered by ideals." Engelmeier concedes, however, that a number of thinkers point out that India may fare quite well continuing a Nehruvian-style strategy, combining moral legitimacy with realpolitik.
The new geopolitical scenario suggests that India may indeed continue a complex compromise in the shape of a 'new non-aligned policy in a balance of power sense', sitting between the United States and China and maintaining strong ties with both. Yet India will not get around facing some very difficult decisions as it rises: How can it engage in the "global battle of ideas", make use of its legitimacy as a democratic and pluralist values, without violating other cherished principles such as that of non-interference? Engelmeier argues that, contrary to China, India can profit from a credible value base, which makes its narrative of a peaceful rise more convincing than China's - the 'idealist inflection' and structural duality - which make India at times act against its national interest - may thus turn out to be a major asset, as India's foreign policy has an 'identity anchor' (e.g. in the form of a claim to moral greatness), which is likely to cap harmful effects of its rise (as compared to, say, Imperial Germany).
India's rise provides both a challenge for international policy makers - the West's attempts to pull it into its orbit have often led to frustration, and India can be quite an intransigent actor in multilateral negotiations. At the same time, India's emergence provides an immense opportunity to enhance global peace and security, and Engelmeier's book provides valuable insights for all those who seek to understand this fascinating international actor.