Book Review | Sharp, broad and objective look at India's foreign policy
Deccan Chronicle.| Anand K Sahay
Menon's book is about India in the context of Asian geopolitics, a most complex subject
Cover Image of the book 'India and Asian Geopolitics' by Shivshankar Menon. (By arrangement)
This book offers a remarkable piece of visualising and writing. Simple but not ordinary language has been used to convey complex thoughts and ideas on international politics that have played out since World War Two right up to the present. It is not far out to suggest that such a volume has not been attempted before, at least in the context of India and Asia.
Shivshankar Menon, who has been foreign secretary and national security adviser, doubtless has professional savvy; else it will be hard to embark on such expansive writing. But he brings more to the task. For every turn in India’s relations with the principal actors in Asia — to India’s east and west- as well as the great powers — the author summons to the folds of his writing valuable inputs from history, economics, politics, and the military and security dimension.
Weaving the threads from all these domains into a coherent narrative that seeks to explain why nations act in a particular way at a given time is a delicate task which requires the merging of scholarship and balanced judgment.
The author assures us that he has not written a history of India’s foreign policy, but has sought to look at our foreign policy "through a wide angle lens". That’s true enough. But even as nuances of geopolitics have been explored here, it is fair to say that the story of the more noteworthy features of our foreign policy in every decade since Independence also stand automatically summoned.
Besides, the book also delves into the making of the foreign policy establishment and the institutions that go with it. That happened under the watchful eye of the visionary first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. With the sheer breadth of changes the world has seen in the past 75 years, the author also recommends a conceptualising of India’s foreign policy with a new eye, and taking practical steps to give this shape.
Scholars in the field of international relations generally relate insufficiently to history in examining the playing out of current politics in countries and regions. All too often they also find themselves in the same corner as one of the great powers even when this is not made explicit. Menon dodges this failing. His writing carries objective fairness. Menon does not assume an Indian nationalistic stance. This is a refreshing confidence building measure with the reader if s/he is not from New India.
However, in approaching history, at times the author draws generalisations that appear too broad and lack citations needed to support a line of discussion. To take an example from the chapter ‘What Globalisation Did to Asia’s Geopolitics’, which is multi-dimensional, illuminating, and makes for fascinating reading, Menon writes: "History tells us that crowded environments, such as what we see in Asia today with competing states adjoining each other, bred militarism and pragmatism, as happened after the thirteen century in crowded continental Europe, which experienced five centuries of continuous warfare- the result of geography not character." Such an observation may have better served its purpose if anchored in closer examination of history.
There are also stray factual mistakes, attributable either to writing oversight or hurried editing at the publisher’s end, such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghanistan President, being described as a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. In fact, he was a leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami, a wholly different animal. The error, however, does not disturb the argument.
Menon’s book is about India in the context of Asian geopolitics, a most complex subject. That has necessarily meant showing Asia’s links to the two superpowers during the Cold War, and to major actors on the world stage in the period after that. China’s place is, of course, pre-eminent in any such discussion and the author shows this with insight and flair, given his expertise in matters concerning China, where he served as a diplomat and then crafted India’s policy in relation to China. In this context, he presents with deftness the sources available in English but skips primary Chinese language sources. Including them might have lent greater weight and value.
Russia is in the news on account of the invasion and bombardment of even civilian sites in Ukraine. In Menon’s work, there is not much by way of the analysis of underlying forces and tendencies in the geopolitics of post-USSR Europe that might have prepared us for Moscow’s action which has a huge bearing on the order- although it is fraying- that was brought about at the end of the Second World War.
If there is a lack in this otherwise splendid volume, it is the absence of greater attention to the Russian landmass in the geopolitics of Europe and regions beyond, although as may be expected President’s Putin’s efforts in relation to West Asia have not been neglected.
All the generations of Indians born since 1947 will likely find enjoyment and benefit in this work if they have an interest in foreign affairs — lay persons and strategic affairs professionals alike. Many foreigners, too, perhaps.
India and Asian Geopolitics
Penguin Allen Lane
pp. 406, Rs.699
Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.