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Volume XLIV, No.49

Perception and Reality in the Making of Foreign Policy

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by P N Haksar


When I was thinking about this theme, I suddenly realised that I have perhaps unwittingly led myself into great difficulties. Words like “perception” and “reality” are extremely contentious. Around these words—“perception” and “reality”—have been woven great philosophical traditions, both in the Western and in the Eastern system of thought. In fact, in the Eastern system of thought, there is an obsession with the question, What is Reality? And the Western system of thought is full of conflicts between Reality and its Perception. One is always in an area of grave doubt as to what is real and what is not real. Be that as it may, for my purpose I don’t want to go into epistemology or theories of knowledge as to what is real and what is not real. I will merely assume the existence of phenomena which can be subsumed under the word “reality” as also under the word “perception”. The only point that I wish to make is that if one studies these two sets of phenomena one does not invariably find a one-to-one correspondence between them. It is not as if Reality, howsoever defined, is perfectly perceived—and vice versa.

This hiatus between one’s Perception and the Reality, which one has to cope with in the arena of International Affairs, is a continuing problem. One has to be aware of it in order not to commit too many mistakes by either having false perceptions, or seeing reality refracted through the prism of ideas, value systems, moulds of thought, carried over from the past. Such thought structures and formations of ideas and values have regrettably a durability to an extent that even when reality has, in effect, changed, old perceptions tend to persist. During my limited experience of international affairs, I have often found that the main difficulties arise from our incapacity to have a close approximation in our perception of reality. Perhaps, since I am proceeding empirically here, a few examples might suffice. They are drawn at random from my memories of readings in history, and some of them are from my own experience.

One of the most dramatic ones, which forms a part of my own experience, is an event—I believe it was in October 1938—when I was in London: we all anxiously awaited the return of Neveille Chamberlain from his talks with Adolf Hitler in Munich, or rather a place called Berchtesgaden. He came back to London in a triumphant mood—with a piece of paper in his hand, and joyously proclaiming that the piece of paper which he had signed with Adolf Hitler was a guarantee of, as he put it, “Peace in our time.” People possessing a meaner intelligence, and people possessing even less of experience, in those days thought that somehow this achievement of Neville Chamberlain in Munich was not quite what he took it to be. Indeed, that perception of his, that he had somehow got an assurance of peace in his time, came up against the reality as it unfolded itself within eight months of the signing of that agreement—this was the beginning of the Second World War.

Now, Prime Ministers, Presidents, Foreign Ministers, diplomats and so on, are, by definition, men of more than ordinary intelligence. The falsity of perception is not based on the lack of what people call I.Q. or A.Q. There is, therefore, this question: how could a Prime Minister, in possession of all the facts at his command, have come to the conclusion of assured peace in his time—when actually a World War was around the corner?

I have another example, not drawn strictly from the realm of politics. Around 1911 there appeared two books. One is a very famous book, The Great Illusion, by a very famous writer, Norman Angell. If you read that book, which I did in my young days, you will find him arguing with a great deal of passion and even greater conviction, marshalling facts as he saw them, or as he perceived them, that war was no longer a possibility or a profitable enterprise. In the same year, there was a book written by a German General, called von Bernhardi, and it had an appropriate title, Germany and the Next War. The title itself is interesting because in General Bernhardi’s perception, war was somehow brewing. Here were two men, belonging to the same pattern of civilisation, Western Europe, who, writing in the same year, came to opposite conclusions. And this question has tormented me: how come that these two perceptions are so much at variance with reality as a historical fact? After all, howsoever philosophical a bent of mind one has, one has to accept that World War I was a reality, for certain purposes: World War I took place.

We have other examples from more recent times. The United States, for instance, conceived that the world as emerging after the Second World War, and as presented in United States’ formulation of its foreign policy picture, was a rather simple, dichotomous world: a world of International Communism, and a world of Democracy. A value judgement was attached—although in my humble view, in matters relating to foreign policy a priori moral judgments should best be left out, because the arena of international affairs has been, until now, despite the Sermon on the Mount or the preachings of Buddha or anybody you may have, outside the arena of morality: it is an arena of conflict of what are called “interests”.

So we find that in dealing with the world as it is, one has the compulsion to try and understand, as best as possible, reality—howsoever you may define it. And in the effort necessary for doing so, I have found it is essential somehow to consciously transcend the very formal paradigms, in terms of which the human mind, or policy-makers, or politicians, tend to think.

Now, the perception of the United States in the post-war years, being cast in this simple dichotomy of International Communism versus Democracy, led them quite normally and naturally into the enterprise of seeking to erect barriers against the spread of Communism. I happened to be in England at the time when they debated with the British, with a great deal of passion, about what they call the “Southern flank of NATO”. And if one goes through the record of debates on foreign affairs in the Hansard, one gets the following picture: there is, they said, a great man in the Middle East, called Nur-e-Said Pasha, and that around Nur-e-Said Pasha and Iraq there would be erected a structure of security called the Middle East Organisation. That took place in the year of grace, 1952. Naturally, when one erects a structure, one doesn’t expect it to collapse. Yet in 1958, within six years, the whole structure collapsed. I am not saying whether the collapse was good, or the structuring was good or bad : I am concerned only with noting the facts of history. Therefore I conclude that there was something, somewhere, which might be called a falsity of perception.

The same thing happened years later with regard to a structure set-up which moved further east into Iran, linking Iran in the Regional Cooperation Development Programme which involved Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. And the Shahenshah of Iran was, after the disposal of Mussadegh, the centerpiece of a new structure.

Quite by accident, rather than by design, the events of 1971 in our subcontinent sent a message across the chanceries of the world—and it certainly went to Iran—that Indira Gandhi’s India of ’71, with its triumph in Bangladesh, was emerging as a power in its own right. I am not saying whether this perception was right or wrong; such was the perception. Suddenly Iran, from years of hostility towards India, explicitly expressed by their Foreign Minister Zahidi, took steps to correct this one-sidedness in their relations with India. They sent an emissary to New Delhi in the first week of January 1973, a man called Sarfullam Rashidianan, who came here and insisted that our Prime Minister send an emissary to Iran. Although I was due to retire, I was asked to go. In the course of my conversations with the Shahenshah of Iran, I asked His Imperial Majesty the following question: I said that when I was in Vienna, and even earlier, in London, I often witnessed that a very large number of young Iranians tended to express their dissatisfaction with Iran; and how come that when Iran had a growth rate of 14 per cent and had no foreign exchange problems (with which we had been bedevilled from time to time, and we certainly could not boast of a growth rate of 14 per cent, ever), how come that there was such disgruntlement? The Shahenshah of Iran replied that I was not to worry too much about these young men; he said there are always disgruntled elements in society, and he assured me that he had the means to ‘take care’ of them. He repeated this with greater confidence in ’76. And within three years, history was to ask, who ‘took care’ of whom? Did the young men ‘take care’ of the Shahenshah of Iran, or the Shahenshah of Iran ‘take care’ of them?

Here we have a series of perceptions which somehow broke down. These are not the perceptions of some weak country with a mass of illiteracy behind it, not a poor, poverty-stricken country. They are perceptions of the United States, in the post-war years, of successive attempts to build up structures—which successively collapsed. And, I often wonder and ask myself, in response to the question of the kind of foreign policy one should have for one’s own country: what are the basic elements that one must inevitably take into account during the formulation of any foreign policy?

Of course, at a formal level of presentation, all foreign policies seem to pursue the same aim: from Moscow, to Peking, to Washington, to London, to Paris—every government, every Prime Minister, every Foreign Minister would assure you that they are pursuing a foreign policy—unselfishly, of course, they would say—in the pursuit of peace on this earth, in the pursuit of cooperation on this earth, and in the pursuit of the well-being of their respective peoples.

Then their foreign policies are also clothed—they wear garments—invariably in moral tones. The Americans would say that their foreign policy is in defence of democracy and human rights; the Russians would say that their foreign policy is for peace, or nuclear disarmament, and for social progress, for the liberation of people from racial discrimination, from colonialism and neo-colonialism; the Chinese would, in their own way, say the same thing—although I am bound to observe that the Chinese expression of foreign policy shows more zigzags—the Chinese call it zigzags—than the foreign policy of almost any other country.

This raises a question that perceptions are not simple phenomena to divine; they are deeply embedded in the historical consciousness of each country. There is a Chinese way of looking at things, and one would not understand what the Chinese are driving at unless one has some idea of the historically-determined perceptions the Chinese have about themselves. I don’t want to vulgarise it, but it is of interest that until 1818 the Chinese had no institution called a Foreign Office. They had an institution called the Great Hall of the Barbarians, where all matter relating to foreigners were dealt with; in fact, the Hall of the Barbarians was the place for the conduct of China’s international relations. I make no comment on this fact. But, there is a way in which a nation expresses itself, its own self-estimate, its position in the world, and its relationship with other countries as an aspect of reality which must be taken into account.

So these perceptions are of over-riding importance, if we are to have a realistic foreign policy which does not draw heavily, as it were, upon what might be called perceptions which are inherited as a set of beliefs, including a set of myths—which every country weaves around itself. That is why, if I may so, I have been of the view, which I have expressed from time to time, that India’s foreign policy to be realistic, and for us to perceive it in realistic terms, has to be cleared of the entire gamut of ideas and emotions (particularly emotions) which have gathered round the rather simple words, the “Non-aligned Movement”. I am not saying that our policy is not a non-aligned policy, or that we do not belong to the Non-aligned Movement. But our non-aligned policy and the Non-aligned Movement have as much validity as the description of American policy as being dedicated to democracy and human rights; or the foreign policies pursued by Imperial Britain over a period of more than a century, which said that their foreign policy or their conduct of international relations was dictated by the tremendous burden they had taken upon themselves as a great civiliser of African and Asian peoples. This was their refrain all the time, at one level of exposition, of what I call the “outer garments” of a foreign policy in which Imperial Britain’s policy was clothed.

The trouble with foreign policy in our times, unlike any previous period of history, is that, as my dear friend Henry Kissinger observes regretfully, it can no longer be conducted unmindful of public opinion. When Castlereagh, or Metternich, or his French colleague Talleyrand sat down in the Congress of Vienna, the consciousness, or ebb and flow, of public opinion was furthest away from their minds. Foreign policy was structured in terms of the arithmetic of the Balance of Power, and public opinion had hardly any interplay in that structure.

In the twentieth century, those comforts are missing. In the world of today, public opinion—which means the cumulative effect of the aspirations of millions of people whose consciousness is heightened (a) by the political process itself, and (b) by the modern communications system—beats against the international structure which might be erected. And any structure which seems to impede the interaction of these aspirations with that structure is rendered fragile. In order to keep it going, one then has the choice of using force as a way of drowning, for the time being at any rate, these aspirations.

The story of the demise of the Baghdad Pact, the story of the demise of the Shahenshah of Iran, the story of the Vietnam war, the story of the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, the story of the goings-on in Latin America—all are stories of the impact of non-palpable, non-tangible, nevertheless real interplay in a large arena of the world, of what are called the people’s aspirations. Any foreign policy which does not relate itself to these, which imposes on the world simple systems of a power structure, keeps wobbling and shaking. Unlike in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, classical periods of European diplomacy, or in the classical period of Chinese essays in diplomacy, or Indian essays in diplomacy in Moghul times, in all perceptions in respect of foreign policy during the remainder of this century, and in future centuries, this factor must be taken into account by makers of foreign policy: apart from the interplay of power expressed in economic terms, there is the raw interplay of power of the aspirations of millions of people. He who does not take into account this fact tends to come to grief—and there is enough empirical material of the post-war years alone, even if one discounts the earlier years of history, which would substantiate what I am trying to say.

As you know, one of the great examples of imposing on a live pulsating, human reality, a structure of status quo, is the classical example of the Congress of Vienna, and the settlement that followed the Napoleonic wars. Metternich, the arch-priest of that settlement, was meant to bring calmness to Europe. Henry Kissinger, who is a great admirer of Metternich, says that Europe was becalmed. I do not see how he says so. Within the Metternich period there were vast turbulences in Europe. The first turbulence, beginning from earlier times, coming to a head in 1848, and continuing up to 1871, was called the Turbulent Period of German Unification. German unification was ultimately brought about after the Franco-Prussian War, and United Germany was proclaimed in 1871, on January 16. And where? In the Hall of Mirrors in the Palais de Versailles. The Metternichian system could do nothing about it. The Resorgimento in Italy, despite Metternich’s constant interference, proceeded space, and by 1861, up to 1871-72, Italy was unified, Garibaldi even attacking the Papal territories.

So even in earlier times, structures designed to keep, as it were, the status quo have shown fragility. I see no reason to believe that a foreign policy which seeks to freeze the status quo in the turbulent world of today has more prospects of success than it had in previous times.

Added to that are the complications that arise from the entire structure of thought, and a legitimate structure of thought which—from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, and right up to the Second World War—legitimised war as an appropriate instrument of policy. It was said that when diplomats failed, soldiers took over, and vice versa. After all, the diplomats had to clear up the mess of a Napoleonic war and of Napoleon’s terrible defeat at the gates of Moscow. But it is not as if soldiers alone create a mess: politicians and diplomats do the same. Anyway, they try to clear up each other’s mess!

We are living in a nuclear age where the whole world of Clausewitz has no meaning whatever. Although we have been through the gamut of nuclear strategic doctrines, nuclear weapons got their legitimation by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction; it got attempted legitimation at the possibility of a limited nuclear war; then it got legitimation through various doctrines of Flexible Response—until the Geneva Conference last year, when the two superpowers formally put down on a piece of paper this great discovery (which lesser beings like us were aware of) that there was no winnable nuclear war. Yet it is a long way from there to really working out this perception—that there is no winnable nuclear war—into appropriate policies relevant to the scenario of a non-winnable nuclear war.

As far as the contemporary world is concerned, first and foremost, this world of ours, the twentieth century—what remains of it—is characterised not merely by what is called the technological explosion (which is of course very palpable), but it is an explosion even more fundamental, called the explosion of human consciousness. This explosion of human consciousness does not relate itself merely to what is called the Third World; it is equally operative in Europe, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Africa and all over the world.

How do you handle it? There are no technological solutions, however great the technological advancement might be. You cannot say that electronics, howsoever arranged, either in a computer, or super computer, or fibre optics, or genetic engineering of one sort or another, can answer the problems of the social, human, economic and spiritual condition of humankind or the human drama of our times.

As far as our own country is concerned, things Sought to be clear, if we do not wallow, as it were, in our usual habit of thinking with our heart rather than with our head. India has had, all these years, one can say, a fairly successful foreign policy, with only one great failure which was in 1962; one can analyse it, and one ought to analyse it, with a degree of clinical objectivity. Nevertheless, foreign policy must be understood not merely as the formulation of nice phrases such as “we are for peace”; “we are for disarmament”; “we are for ending racial discrimination”; “we are for Namibia’s freedom”; “we are for South African’s rights”…all this we are, of course. But the question is what weight do these words carry?

There is very salutary thought, uttered by a man called Louis Namier who said that arguments, howsoever clever, howsoever cogent, howsoever founded in facts, when uttered by weak people, were to be dismissed as mere quibbling; but arguments, howsoever nonsensical, howsoever irrational, when uttered by people possessing power, had a persuasiveness of their own.

The problem before our country, now, tomorrow, and the day after, will be to match with a clarity of purpose the aims and objectives of our foreign policy—which are obvious enough; the primary aim of course is the preservation and strengthening of our sovereignty, our independence and our territorial integrity, and above all, the capability of carrying on our development processes under the most favourable conditions. It’s not easy. We can see the difficulties which we are experiencing on all counts. The problem of national integration is certainly there; there is no use hiding it; it is not per se insoluble but one can forecast that it can’t be solved within the framework of the calculus of politics that we have hitherto pursued—a calculus of politics which puts a premium on the lower-order identification of human beings rather than the higher-order identification of human beings: homo Indianus, the Indian human being as against identities expressed in terms of religion, caste, language or region. Identity is an important thing: the question always is, what do you identify with? Under Indian social conditions one can have a perfectly legitimate identity in terms of one’s primordial molecular social structures. The question therefore is whether we Indians are capable of transcending these particularisms of our primordial social system into a larger loyalty. Unless we make a conscious effort that our perceptions, even of our domestic situation, are not refracted through the prism of caste, creed and religion, reinforced by the calculus of short-term politics of vote-gathering, then one can predict that the problems of national integration will be more serious, more difficult to solve, more intractable than they need be.

Similarly, in the area of economic development, I think one has to consider well the complex inter-relationships which must exist in an India of 700 million people, of the emphasis on production and productive efficiency, and the relationship between them and distribution. Can we say that the first priority is production, that distribution can wait? Or, that distribution would be the product of a trickle from production down to the lower levels of society? I think I discern certain false perceptions gaining ground in our contemporary India, which were not there in earlier times, that somehow one could disjunct what is called production and what is called distribution.

And finally, I should like to conclude by saying that the world of today, as it exists, is not a world that is moved, as it were, by some divinely ordained moral imperatives; that the crisis is, whichever way you look at it, of a global nature; that attempts to solve it on a narrower basis than the world scale are not likely to succeed. Therefore I, for one, have never understood the separation of the so-called Third World from the First or Second World, or the geographical axis called the North and South. Whichever the problems you look at—the problems of nuclear war, of disarmament, of conventional disarmament, of economic development, of global indebtedness and its consequences to the world at large, of trying to sell your goods in the markets—all these problems are global, and we must not assume that there are regional solutions, or that there are solutions less than global. Unless we do this, our perceptions of reality will not correspond more closely to reality—but remain wishful thinking.

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