Exploring our rich past can offer a vocabulary to understand the world in nuanced ways that go beyond the western constructs of realism and liberalism
A little over three years ago I wrote in The Hindu that at a time when interest in India and India’s interest in the world are arguably at their highest, Indian scholarship on global issues is showing few signs of responding to this challenge and that this could well stunt India’s ability to influence the international system.
As we meet here now, at the first real convention of scholars (and practitioners) of International Studies from throughout India, we can take some comfort. A quick, albeit anecdotal, audit of the study of International Studies would suggest that the last three years have been unusually productive. So much so, that we are now, I believe, at a veritable “tipping point” in our emergence as an intellectual power in the discipline.
Stanley Hoffman, Professor of International Relations (IR) at Harvard, once famously remarked that IR was an American social science. The blinding nexus between knowledge and power (particularly stark in the case of IR in the United States) perhaps made him forget that while the first modern IR departments were created in Aberystwyth and in Geneva, thinking on international relations went back, in the case of the Indian, Chinese and other great civilizations, to well before the West even began to think of the world outside their living space.
Having absorbed the grammar of Western international relations, and transited to a phase of greater self-confidence, it is now opportune for us to also use the vocabulary of our past as a guide to the future.
Recovery of these Indian ideas should not be seen as part of a revivalist project or as an exercise that seeks to reify so-called Indian exceptionalism. Rather, interrogating our rich past with its deeply argumentative tradition is, as Amartya Sen put it, “partly a celebration, partly an invitation to criticality, partly a reason for further exploration, and partly also an incitement to get more people into the argument.” In the context of international relations it offers the intellectual promise of going beyond the Manichean opposition between power and principle; and between the world of ideas and norms on the one hand, and that of statecraft and even machtpolitik, on the other.
In doing so we are not being particularly subversive. A 2011 survey of American IR scholars by Foreign Policy found that 22 per cent adopted a Constructivist approach (with its privileging of ideas and identity in shaping state preferences and international outcomes), 21 per cent adopted a Liberal approach, only 16 per cent a Realist approach, and a tiny two per cent a Marxist approach. When academics were asked to “list their peers who have had the greatest influence on them and the discipline,” the most influential was Alexander Wendt, the Constructivist, and neither the Liberal, Robert Koehane, nor the Realists, Kenneth Waltz or James Mearisheimer.
Mohandas Gandhi once said that “if all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live forever.” Let me make what may seem like another astounding claim, and which I hope, in the best argumentative tradition, will be heavily contested. If all the books on war and peace were to suddenly disappear from the world, and only the Mahabharata remained, it would be good enough to capture almost all the possible debates on order, justice, force and the moral dilemmas associated with choices that are made on these issues within the realm of international politics.
Uncertainty in the region
Beyond theory, we are faced with a period of extraordinary uncertainty in the international system and in our region. Multilateralism is in serious crisis. While the U.N. Security Council remains deadlocked on key issues, there is little progress on most other issues of global concern, be it trade, sustainable development or climate change. As academics, we cannot remain unconcerned about these critical failures.
Our continent is being defined and redefined over time. Regions are, after all, as much shaped by the powerful whose interests they seek to advance as by any objective reality. Whatever nomenclature we adopt, and whatever definition we accept, we are faced with, what Evan Feigenbaum and Robert Manning described as two Asias: the ‘Economic Asia’ whose $19 trillion regional economy drives global growth; the “Security Asia,” a “dysfunctional region of mistrustful powers, prone to nationalism and irredentism, escalating their territorial disputes over tiny rocks and shoals, and arming for conflict.”
The Asian Development Bank says that by nearly doubling its share of global GDP to 52 per cent by 2050, Asia could regain the dominant economic position it held 300 years ago. Yet, as several academics have pointed out “it is beset by interstate rivalries that resemble 19th century Europe,” as well the new challenges of the 21st century: environmental catastrophes, natural disasters, climate change, terrorism, cyber security and maritime issues. An increasingly assertive China that has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy of hiding its light and keeping its head low, adds to the uncertainty of the prevailing strategic environment.
India’s military and economic prowess are greater than ever before, yet its ability to influence South Asian countries is less than what it was, say, 30 years ago. An unstable Nepal with widespread anti-India sentiment, a triumphalist Sri Lanka where Sinhalese chauvinism shows no signs of accommodating legitimate Tamil aspirations, a chaotic Pakistan unwilling to even reassure New Delhi on future terrorist strikes, are symptomatic of a region being pulled in different directions.
Can our thinking from the past help us navigate through this troubled present? Pankaj Mishra, in his brilliant book, From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, describes how three 19th century thinkers, the Persian Jamal-al Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao from China and India’s Rabindranath Tagore, navigated through Eastern tradition and the Western onslaught to think of creative ways to strike a balance and find harmony. In many ways, these ideas remain relevant today as well. For if Asia merely mimics the West in its quest for economic growth and conspicuous consumption, and the attendant conflict over economic resources and military prowess, the “revenge of the East” in the Asian century and “all its victories” will remain “truly Pyrrhic.”
(Professor Amitabh Mattoo is President of the Indian Association of International Studies. This is an edited version of his presidential address to the Annual Convention of the Association in New Delhi on December 10, 2012.)