Foreign policy should not be a zero-sum game

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Paradigm shift Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently remarked that the security of one nation cannot be built upon the insecurity of others
Paradigm shift Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently remarked that the security of one nation cannot be built upon the insecurity of others. Photo: AFP

Exactly two years ago, on 4 March 2012, US President Barack Obama told AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the premier American-Israeli lobbying body in the US, “I have a policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.” Between 1 July 2010 and 9 October 2012, he issued no fewer than 12 executive orders, strengthening the sanctions that had been imposed by the Bush administration on Iran. But on 29 January this year, he warned the US Congress that he would veto any new Bill that imposed fresh sanctions on Iran. What caused this extraordinary turnabout?

According to the western media, it was the new Iranian government’s willingness to bend at the knees in order to save the Iranian economy. The sanctions had caused huge inflation, a catastrophic fall in the value of the Iranian Rial, a sharp slowdown in growth and a creeping rise in industrial obsolescence. Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran since 1989, had realised that this posed a greater danger to the stability of the regime in the long run than conceding to western demands on its nuclear policy. The elections and the formation of a markedly more liberal government under President Hassan Rouhani had given him the face-saver he needed to change Iran’s policy.

All this may explain Iran’s motives, but it fails to explain why Obama should have changed his policy so radically. In particular, it does not tell us why, if sanctions were working so well, he did not administer one more dose to soften Iran a little further? All he had to do was to allow the Bill already in Congress to be passed.

According to the American Right, for whom attacking Obama is the second best game after baseball, he did not do so because he is chicken-hearted. But there could be another explanation and, on 27 February, a large gathering in New Delhi, which included most of the policymaking establishment and not a few journalists, got an inkling of what it might be. This is a glimpse of another, more peaceful world: one that Obama had sworn, long ago, to bring into being but had almost given up hope of doing.

The glimpse came in an hour-long speech by Iran’s new Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at an event organised by the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. International relations, he said, cannot be a zero-sum game. “The security of one nation cannot be built upon the insecurity of others,” he said. “Yet, this has been the paradigm of all politics during the 20th century. If you win, then I must lose.”

This has led those who had acted upon it to defeat, not victory. “If we assess the success of policies by the achievement of goals, then 85 percent of the wars fought in the 20th century have ended by making the initiators more insecure at the end than they were at the beginning,” he said.

To cite an example, he revealed a long-held Iranian secret: “When the US and the EU first began to put pressure on us (to stop enriching uranium), we had 200 centrifuges. Today, we have 19,000. Is this a victory or a defeat?” “There are many more jihadis in Syria today,” he went on to point out, “than at the beginning of the civil war. If the jihadis win, If (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad falls, then the war will spread to its neighbours and all will be lost.”

These remarks were in line with what Iran and Russia have been saying for several years, and what the West has reluctantly had to concede. But Zarif’s purpose was not to say, “I told you so!” His remarks were a prelude to the delineation of an alternative paradigm for international relations. Negotiations, he said, had to start with a discussion of goals. “If you can find a common goal, then the means to achieve it become much easier to decide.”

A common goal can only be found if both parties look for solutions that leave them better off than before. The US and the EU wanted to prevent Iran from enriching uranium altogether. Iran would never accept this but the goal that it could share was to ensure that Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon. This was because it did not want, indeed had never wanted, to be a nuclear weapons State.

This was because it was aware that the possession of nuclear weapons would make it less, not more, safe. “We enjoy conventional military superiority over our neighbours, but we do not underestimate their capacity to secure a nuclear umbrella if we try to raise this superiority to a strategic level,” he said.

“We would, therefore, risk losing our conventional superiority without gaining anything in return.” Iran, he concluded, was therefore fully prepared to make its nuclear programme completely transparent and subject to rigorous international inspection.

To the leader of a country that had been at war for 13 years, lost thousands of soldiers and maimed tens of thousands more, and run up a gigantic domestic and international debt, only to find its interests more severely threatened than before, Zarif’s alternative paradigm could not fail to have been seductive. For, only three months earlier, Obama had found himself on the verge of launching an attack on Syria that would have virtually handed the country over to the US’ most inveterate enemy, the al Qaeda, and its offshoots, made a jihadi influx into Jordan and Egypt inevitable, triggered a full-scale civil war in both countries, and forced the US to send thousands more soldiers into battle to prevent a jihadi takeover that would have put Israel in mortal danger.

To his dismay, he had found that Israel was nonetheless willing to play a dangerous game of brinkmanship in Syria in order to create the pretext it needed to drag the US into an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He must also have realised that the Sunni sheikhdoms and two very insecure heads of government in Europe were also not averse to using the US to fight their domestic wars of survival. But opinion polls in the US had shown that only 9 percent of Americans favoured an attack on Syria, and Senator Ron Paul and several other legislators had written letters to their constituencies explaining why they intended to oppose the attack. Obama, therefore, realised how desperately tired Americans were with war. It was in these circumstances that he turned to the Russians to find a way out.

Obama must have welcomed the new Iranian government’s peace overtures because these too gave him an alternative to war, but at the UN General Assembly, Rouhani and Zarif unveiled the prospect of a wider cooperation to bring peace to West Asia. Slim as the chance may have seemed then, it was too important to ignore.

Zarif’s alternative paradigm sounds new today, but was first articulated more than a century ago, in 1910, by Norman Angell, a professor, journalist and later a Labour member of the British Parliament. Angell wrote a book titled The Great Illusion, which demonstrated, convincingly, that waging war had become a self-defeating exercise for the conqueror because, in an interdependent world, it destroyed the lines of credit and commerce upon which the creation of wealth rested. Angell’s widely acclaimed book did not stop World War I, but its prediction that war would destroy the conqueror as thoroughly as the conquered proved chillingly true.

Playing with fire Obama realised that Israel was willing to play a game of brinkmanship in Syria in order to drag the US into an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities
Playing with fire Obama realised that Israel was willing to play a game of brinkmanship in Syria in order to drag the US into an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Photo: AFP

Angell was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933, not coincidentally just after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. But World War II could not be stopped, and once more it was Germany that suffered the most.

In the past 30 years, globalisation has deepened economic interdependence a hundred-fold. Today, it is not only commerce and credit but manufacture and information systems that have crossed national boundaries. So, the cost of war has risen still higher. But the win-lose paradigm of foreign policy has not merely endured but staged a comeback after the end of the Cold War. The succession of pre-emptive wars waged and supported by the US have all ended up making it and the West less secure. Instead of ending terrorism, they have nearly bankrupted the US. A new paradigm for international relations, which is based upon creating win-win solutions to disputes, is not only desirable but absolutely essential.

What is true of the West is also true for India. India began its voyage as a nation by expressly repudiating the win-lose paradigm. Panchsheel and non-alignment were expressly intended to buffer international conflict or, failing that, to minimise its fallout. But when the Chinese delivered the coup de grace to non-alignment in 1962, India was forced into the win-lose paradigm. It has remained trapped in it ever since.

In the three decades that followed the Sino-Indian conflict, India’s foreign policy focussed almost exclusively on its neighbours, and the win-lose, zero-sum mentality expressed itself in a policy of bilateralism towards our neighbours. Predictably, given the huge disparity in size between us and our neighbours, it yielded very few dividends.

In the past two decades, India has sought once again to break this mould by evolving doctrines like ‘non-reciprocity’, and offering preferential and free trade concessions to its neighbours. It has also reached out to Asean, Japan and South and sub-Saharan Africa. But the win-lose paradigm has endured. It is responsible to a considerable extent for the UPA government’s failure to make any headway in forging more stable and durable relations with Pakistan; it has gravely weakened its relations with Iran; it has all but destroyed India’s relations with secular Arabs, not only in Syria but also in Egypt and Iraq, and poisoned New Delhi’s perception of Kashmiri ethno-nationalism.

Its relations with Pakistan remain tense because too many policy analysts and media pundits in Delhi have publicly proclaimed that New Delhi is intent on increasing its influence in Afghanistan at Pakistan’s expense. It is afraid of openly supporting the Palestinian cause because Israel is its most reliable arms supplier; it is afraid of supporting Syria because it does not want to jeopardise the flow of oil and remittances from the Gulf sheikhdoms and Saudi Arabia; it has joined China and Russia in BRICS to support the creation of a multi-polar and democratic international order but is hesitant about deepening its strategic cooperation with them for fear of alienating the US. Today, it cannot decide whether to build closer strategic relations with China, or join the US, Japan and Australia in ‘containing’ it.

The root cause of its timidity and indecisiveness is the belief that all of its choices are binary, and therefore that gains in one direction will necessarily involve losses in others. But its consequence has been to make India utterly incapable of giving a lead to other nations at a time of deepening systemic chaos in the international order, and universal confusion in policy. It has also made India the least trustworthy among the larger nations in the world.

India too, therefore, urgently needs to make a win-win paradigm as the guiding principle of its external relations. The starting point would be to base its foreign policy on principles and not expediency. The least this will do is to provide leadership in framing alternatives to military intervention, to a world that is no longer even able to discern where its interests lie.

No other country is better placed to do this, for India is not only a democracy, but a profoundly unthreatening one. It has an unblemished record in respecting its treaty obligations and the sovereignty of other nations. And while it may not be able to shower foreign exchange on hard-pressed developing countries, it has two other invaluable assets — the largest food stocks and the cheapest supplies of life-saving medicines in the world.

No other country has better credentials or capacity to guide the world out of the morass in which it is trapped. In a nutshell, what India and the world need is another Jawaharlal Nehru.

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