Review of Geopolitics in the era of Globalisation — Mapping an Alternative Global Future: The Gandhi approach

A former diplomat draws from Gandhian philosophy to present a strong case that there is a solution to some of the most severe international problems

Updated - July 02, 2022 05:36 pm IST

Published - July 02, 2022 05:35 pm IST

Meticulously tracing Gandhi’s political action and philosophy, the book discusses the relevance of non-violence, satyagraha, mass-mobilisation, and Sarvodaya.

Meticulously tracing Gandhi’s political action and philosophy, the book discusses the relevance of non-violence, satyagraha, mass-mobilisation, and Sarvodaya.

In the 1970s, Stanley Hoffmann argued that International Relations (IR) is an ‘American social science’. On closer examination of this discipline, it is difficult to refute Hoffmann’s analysis. American scholars like Hans Morgenthau, Robert Keohane and Alexander Wendt had primarily shaped the IR academic discourse. Likewise, American political leaders too influenced the study of world politics. For example, two former American Presidents are popularly associated with significant theories — Woodrow Wilson with liberal-institutionalism and Ronald Reagan with neoliberalism. 

Contrarily, in the global South, particularly in India, the IR scholarship is relatively new and mostly post-colonial. Lately, there have been some noticeable academic intervention by Indian scholars, but there is still a hesitation to intellectually and academically engage with the ideas of our political leaders, some of whom have profoundly impacted world politics. Except for writings on Nehruvian foreign policy, it isn’t easy to find literature even on Mahatma Gandhi from an IR perspective. Gandhi’s philosophy was practised by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, but the IR scholars remain quite oblivious to the concepts of non-violence and mass mobilisation. In this regard, Yogendra Kumar, a former Indian Foreign Service officer, should be credited for authoring a book that discusses contemporary geopolitical conundrums and offers some food for thought. The fascinating part of the book is that it draws from Gandhian philosophy to present a strong case that there is a solution to some of the severe international problems. 

Mix of theory and empirics

Ambassador Kumar started his diplomatic career during the height of the Cold War, and his first posting was in Moscow in the late 1970s. He later served in different Indian missions in Europe and Central Asia. He witnessed a political transition in these critical regions after the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The book is a good mix of theory and empirics, making it an easy read even for someone who is not well-versed with IR concepts. 

The author critically evaluates popular writings on geopolitics by Francis Fukayama, Edward Luttwak, John Agnew, Stuart Corbridge, Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan. What makes it more captivating is the significant discussion on Asian perspectives. There is a detailed analysis of how Confucian thought influences the Chinese School of International Relations that incorporates ‘Western modernism’ to develop ‘Chinese exceptionalism’. In short, China endorses the western characterisation of state but rejects notions of ‘electoral democracy, civil society and neutrality of law’ (p.17). China’s President Xi Jinping recently kept emphasising it as a ‘Chinese model’ — a way to resolve the persisting problems of humanity (p.18). The author then elaborates that the Indian IR approach is also an amalgamation of Indian traditional and Western modern thoughts. The core of Indian IR has a strong imprint of Nehru with a concept like non-alignment, and peaceful coexistence reverberates even today in Indian foreign policy narratives. Indian understanding of the international order is also substantially shaped by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, M.S. Golwalkar, V.D. Savarkar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Sri Aurobindo Ghosh (p.19). Highlighting the limitations of the most discussed geopolitical theories, the author recommends Gandhian thought for this turbulent world.  

Linking it to the times

The book is quite pertinent in the present context, when the world is discussing the validity of international law, particularly concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The author explains how the hope of rule-based international order in the post-Cold War phase got a setback as big powers continued to ignore the authority of the UN. For example, the U.S.-led ‘coalition of willing’ attacked Iraq in 2003, ‘bypassing the UN’ (p.32). Moreover, there was a lack of effort for consensus-building, and the North-South differences remained more or less intact. Developing countries have now realised that neoliberalism has an inherent bias for the developed North. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) faithfully followed the Washington Consensus and prescribed neoliberal policies (p.33). These policies failed to bring any positive results during the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. Likewise, the World Trade Organization could not conclude ‘any negotiating round after the Uruguay Round’ (p.35) due to the political split between its member states. With stringent political-economic conditionalities and a one-size-fits-all approach of the IMF and the World Bank, today, many developing and least developing countries find it easier to align with China for development-related requirements.

The author also discusses issues related to regionalism and regional security. There has been a spurt in regional politics after the end of the Cold War. But there were fewer achievements except for the European Union (EU). The author rightly underlines that the cultural connection hasn’t progressed to political-economic cooperation in South Asia. As a result, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) mainly remains ineffective (p.50). In South Asia, the Indo-Pak rivalry has also impacted regional cooperation. The author characterises Pakistan as a revisionist state and India as status- quoist (p.77-78). 

The book explains how the political-economic restructuring in the last few decades was not a smooth affair in the former socialist countries. The distressful disintegration of Yugoslavia and the economic collapse in Russia are two pertinent cases in point (p.72). There have been disturbing changes in the Arab world, with political instability in Syria, Libya, and Iraq. These are not good trends and further complicate world politics. The author has carefully reviewed two critical reports on the future of the world order. The first one dates back to 2017 and is titled ‘Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress.’ This report was by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC). The report underlines how tension within and between countries will rise, and U.S. dominance will recede in the future (p.89). ‘Escaping the Fragility Trap’ (2018)  is the second report by the London School of Economics (LSE) — Oxford Commission on State Fragility and Growth and Development that was headed by former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (p.91). The book elucidates six symptoms of state fragility as marked in the report.

Turning to Gandhi

The author maps the political and economic ailments that have gripped the world and made it fragile. The book examines how the prescription of the West is unlikely to improve the situation. With growing hopelessness, the author reminds us of the Gandhian approach. Meticulously tracing Gandhi’s political action and philosophy, the book discusses the relevance of non-violence, satyagraha, mass-mobilisation, and Sarvodaya. According to the author, Gandhi ensured that the Congress became a mass party by including peasants and workers (p.130). Gandhi used the ashram to practise his philosophy. Attending his ashram was like training for prolonged political struggles. Gandhi had given ordinary people a space in the freedom struggle, making them stakeholders. Under the aegis of Gandhi, the Congress reformed, developed a culture of accountability in the party and made individuals conscious of their rights and duties. Inspired by Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan also invoked the ‘’political and civilisational values of the Pushtoons to achieve his unique form of political mobilisation’ (p.132). The author points out that it is time to rethink and integrate Gandhian values in our political system — an inner-party democracy, empowering grassroots, and mass funding for political activism. The book also offers stimulating recommendations on countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar and explains how Gandhian philosophy could open a prospect for peace and stability if practised sincerely.  

To conclude, this is a comprehensive work, academically rigorous and a practitioner’s reflection on world politics. A few critics may observe that the author appears sympathetic to India and is overly critical of some Western discourses. Nonetheless, it is a must-read book for curious minds interested in understanding contemporary world politics. The book provides a thought-provoking analysis by brilliantly illustrating Gandhian political strategy. This is a fresh approach, and thus it requires the attention of students of geopolitics, Indian foreign Policy, IR theory and South Asia.

Geopolitics in the era of Globalisation: Mapping an Alternative Global Future; Yogendra Kumar, Routledge India, ₹695.

The reviewer is Associate Professor, Department of International Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi.

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