A recent Foreign Policy article in 2012 decried that of all the emerging powers, India was the bane of America’s efforts to integrate rising powers into the global order such that they can be relied upon to assist the hegemon shoulder extant global responsibilities. This order is being ostensibly buffeted by an array of different collective action challenges from climate change to vicious epidemics and burgeoning energy and water deficits. India, as the article claimed exhibited a disturbing disinterest to function as a key global stakeholder, contributing to the global public goods. Troublingly as the article claimed, India was the country that voted against the United States the most in the UN General Assembly, becoming the US’s biggest ‘headache’; it has also become the country that has largely stymied progress within the global trade and climate regimes.
But this has not always been the case. As the UN came into existence, India was at the forefront of this nascent global governance milieu, working assiduously to advance and institutionalise norms within various processes. Several Indian leaders served in high capacities across the UN establishment with considerable esteem, including the first female president of UN General Assembly, Vijayalakshmi Pandit. And Nehru himself bestrode global diplomatic circles as a colossus. Two recent books shed light on this exemplary global leadership from India and another expounds on how India, chiefly Nehru, balanced this idealism with a heavy dose of realism as he managed a string of regional crises where force was strategically deployed. What emerges from these three books is an India that is capable of global leadership, though albeit under different circumstances, an exploration of the conditions that facilitate and curb that impulse and the regional obstacles that cause India to square that idealism with realist tendencies.
Was the UN (pre) destined to fail? Are debates and conversations on reforming the organization redundant or – futile? Should we spend our time zeroing in on managerial and efficiency issues when the problem, at the core, is structural and historic? Mark Mazower argues so. No Enchanted Palace is a history of the origins of the UN, bringing into light, the contextual and ideological underpinnings of the covenant that birthed the world organization. Any discussion surrounding the organization’s current and future, he argues, must pay a nod to its past, which was born in the crucible of war and empire. The covenant forged in 1945, Mazower states, was never designed to lead to a global forum that respected the rights and place of countries emerging from decolonization. Instead, Mazower contends modern global governance that rose in the form of the UN was solely a creation to perpetuate and extend imperial rule; it was a project designed to embed imperialism into a nascent internationalism.
To make his case, Mazower challenges two fundamental and long-standing axioms of the post-war global consensus that led to the ensuing institutional surge, including the creation UN and the Bretton Woods duopoly. First was the notion that the UN rose of the ashes of the war and the legacies wrought by the destruction. And second, that post-war institutional accord was an all-American affair, as commonly understood. Instead, Mazower connects the lineage of the UN to the doomed League of Nations and the range of ideas that shepherded its rise, embedding it under an imperial tableau. British imperial ideas and exigencies formed the edifice surrounding the creation of the UN and post-war multilateralism. Questions of empire and its extension were of principal importance to the architects of the League and subsequently, the UN, as they debated the nature and orientation of the post-war world. As Mazower argues, ‘the UN was the product of evolution, not revolution, and it grew out of existing ideas and institutions, their successes and failures as revealed by the challenges of the war itself.’ Thus, any analysis of the organizations relevance and salience must historically trace its origins not to the 1940s but to the incipient debates of order, security and nationhood that took place earlier under the auspices of the British Empire. Mazower frames his narrative surrounding four thinkers and practitioners – Jan Smuts, Alfred Zimmern, Joseph Schectman and Jawaharlal Nehru.
At the outset, the efforts and ideas of Jan Smuts is presented as the founding credo of post-war internationalism. It is rather disconcerting to note, in retrospect, that an individual, who held rather reprehensible views of racial equality was one of the pre-eminent progenitors of the League of Nations and through that the UN. A fervent proponent of racial superiority, Smuts held that internationalism must be grounded on the pillars of imperialism to extend white domination of the world. And he vigorously sought to secure American backing for this project given his clear-eyed understanding of the geopolitical shifts on the horizon. The League was designed to be and function as an eminently ‘Victorian institution’ with an onus towards safeguarding and buttressing imperial colonies under an international framework until they were capable of self-governance. Under this framework and the watchful eye of imperial masters, colonies and their ‘inferior races’ could be civilized, bespeaking an order that was rather heavy in moralising and infirm in terms of rights and accountability.
Alfred Zimmern, educator, political theorist, and one of the first Trans-Atlantic interlocutors, was one of the initial drafters of the League at Whitehall and served as a key source of advice and counsel for Washington as it prepared for an era of international leadership. Zimmern placed considerable faith in values of British Liberalism, imploring the United States to deploy the incipient organization to act as a beacon of global freedom. Zimmern’s ideas were firmly couched under a moral idiom, which he used as frames of reference when penning the core templates of the League. Once the war ended, he focused his attempts to create a series of think tanks and intellectual networks that would knit the United States and Great Britain, in their joint effort as stewards of moral leadership in the world. At the core, he sought to create the intellectual foundation for a global liberal order that under Anglo-American leadership was consonant with empire and its extension. For Zimmern, this project could not be branded as an imperial one since at its very core, it had a moral basis, that of advancing the cause of liberty and freedom to regions and populations that had not experienced it; this was an act of altruism, not driven by self-interest or rapaciousness. Indeed, many in Washington, unknowingly, seek to channel Zimmern’s exhortations to export freedom and democracy for a world that is still fraught with tensions and challenges. The emergence of the neo-conservative cabal is the perhaps, apogee, of this impulse, captured by their desire to export democracy through the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, following 9/11.
As a stinging rejoinder to these strands of universalism that hinged on false notions of empire twinned on the hip of internationalism, came India and Jawaharlal Nehru. The most arresting part of Mazower’s narrative is the efforts of India (pre-independence) in opening the pandora’s box of anticolonial sentiment, which had triggered myriad frictions within the new organization. As the UN was pulled into adjudicating imperial disputes, it exposed itself to being appropriated by the simmering discontent against imperial rule. Having commenced as an institution intent on restoring imperial fortunes, it quickly transformed into a hotspot and battleground of anti-imperial sentiment. Much credit to this belongs to India and Jawaharlal Nehru. Two issues were responsible – the annexation of South-West Africa by South Africa and the racial discrimination being subjected to Indians in South Africa. The Indian delegation seized on these matters to bring to bear the rights and the independence of colonies and its citizens, who continue to fall victim to the capricious conduct of imperial powers. As Mazower demonstrates, Delhi’s views toward these overtures were an affront to the hard peace gained after the war. Prejudice, in other words, endangered peace. To Nehru, the evils of fascism and imperialism were rather indistinct and needed to be countered with full force. International cooperation that, fostered and extended, imperial fiat were not to be countenanced. Together with his formidable sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Nehru and Gandhi sought to wage a battle for the soul of the UN, forcing it to confront and exorcise its foundational flaws to be considered legitimate. With considerable rhetoric, they used the UN General Assembly in 1946 to make their case for a ‘world cause’ that concerned the rights of publics across the global south, from Africa to Asia, who were struggling for ‘equality of opportunity for all races.’ Racial politics, in Nehru’s words, should not be condoned; human rights and civil rights mattered and the new forum should be used to highlight their importance, despite concerns of domestic jurisdiction and sovereignty. The Indians eventually prevailed as their motion was voted through the General Assembly. The triumph was, however, double edged. Though the GA found its voice and accrued more power in due course by upbraiding colonial actions, it also engendered regional blocs, especially in Asia, that quickly fragmented, further abetted by the convulsions of the cold war. As decolonization hastened, western norms of sovereignty and statehood also travelled, eventually generating an excessive deference towards sovereignty coupled with the inability to act against the whims of states when they contravened international law, one of the reasons underpinning the UN in 1946. When analysing or making judgments of the conduct of the UN, one must do so in the context of these historical legacies given their critical role in the foundation of the organization. It was not, simply put, designed to challenge or subvert great power politics but to sublimate it.
This internationalist thread is given a nationalist frame by Manu Bhagavan in The Peacemakers, a narrative history of India’s robust multilateral leadership leading to the emergence of the United Nations and notably, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, forged through the work of an important commission that was headed by a Gujarati Indian feminist, Hansa Mehta. But the key cast of Bhagavan’s story are Gandhi, Nehru and his eminently resourceful sister – Nan Pandit, endowed with considerable intellect, vigour and oratory which was in full display at various critical junctures in the UN’s genesis. This surprising and hitherto untold narrative is centered on a pivotal conjuncture (end of the war and the demise of colonial rule) that culminated in a unique and rather propitious moment for the creation of a global covenant that could secure and advance the peace of all humanity. Decolonization coupled with the rise of new great powers generated an opening where conceptions of human rights were advanced with emergent ideas of citizenship, nationality and the nation-state that were all embedded under a broader global framework headed by a ‘meta-authority’ clothed in the form of the UN. To facilitate and realise this rather radical desire on the global stage where in simultaneity, fissures in global politics were emerging, Indian leaders were front stage and centre.
Working with the concept of ‘One World,’ Nehru and her sister Nan Pandit, under the tutelage and counsel of the Mahatma, sought to forge a new agenda on the global stage that focused on the (human) rights of citizens across the world. And they seized the remit of the emergent global organization to make their case. Working from Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie’s book ‘One World,’ they called for a new grand global alliance that would facilitate the cause of a durable world peace. Nehru and Gandhi drew from Wilkie’s idea to give succour to the notion of a world federation consisting of nation states working together in unison to engender peace and prosperity; nothing short of a global body would be enough to rid the world of colonialism, they argued, that continued to threaten nations being forged in the crucible of the war’s demise. Some of these globally oriented ideas, as Bhagavan describes, also emanates from India’s own move to independence, which allowed leading thinkers and leaders like Nehru to ruminate on what role an independent India would play in a world being fundamentally reconfigured, providing a space for normative leadership.
And this leadership manifested in several ways through the agency of several key Indian leaders, including Gandhi, Nehru, Hansa Mehta and VK Krishna Menon, though not always constructively in the latter’s case. But there was no doubt that the flagship bearer of this ‘ideational’ India was Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who emerges as the key actor behind the scenes in Bhagavan’s narrative. The tasks and responsibilities given to her provided ample scope to display her multifaceted personality – resoluteness, fearlessness, intelligence, exceptional oratory skills, unabashed critic of colonial rule and an unstinting advocate of the disenfranchised across the world. She cut as both inspirational and intimidating figure to those that crossed her path. Bhagavan presents few encounters where Nan Pandit’s skills were deployed to destroy many a competitor, including the eminent South African leader Jan Smuts in the lead up to the important minority rights resolution that India advocated and persistently drove in the General Assembly against South Africa. Her future diplomatic appointments are a testament to the trust reposed by Nehru and the senior Indian leadership as well as to her redoubtable qualities, which served India with aplomb.
Some of Bhagavan’s most interesting passages deal with the drive to develop a binding, globally relevant and agreed upon human rights regime for all citizens across the world. Though India’s political standing and capital were high, this was no small task. Hansa Mehta’s advocacy at the working group on implementation of the Human Rights Commission bequeathed her considerable scope to adumbrate how human rights were to be implemented and defended. Her efforts resulted in the GA assuming the responsibility when confronted with egregious human rights violations despite the body’s reservations vis-à-vis domestic considerations and sovereignty. Eventually, the working group approved a watered down resolution that was predicated on the notion of ‘justiceable rights’ that secured the imprimatur of many leading powers within the UNO eventually culminating in a universal declaration on Human Rights that had moral force. Another strand that Bhagavan explores, though sparingly, is how Nehru’s efforts to mould a constitutional nation state in India meshed and got entangled with ongoing efforts to institutionalise a nascent UN. Nehru, masterfully exploited developments in the international sphere to goad domestic actors, especially princely states that were on the cusp of accession, to reach a consensus. The idea of India that Nehru was advocating for and forging also had international origins.
Bhagavan’s book also presents us with several puzzles for future scholars. How could a country just entering its birth serve as the exemplar and moral force behind arguably the world’s most important humanitarian document – UN Human Rights Declaration? What drove leaders like Nehru and Gandhi to speak out for the rights of citizens across the world? How did a nation steeped in idealpolitik effectively turn its back on its founding legacies and ideas? These are critically important questions as India, after decades of barren growth and insular politics, must consider if it can renew its trysts with its guiding normative legacies that served humanity writ large through the UN.
Srinath Raghavan’s War and Peace in Modern India is a rather striking and note-worthy riposte to Bhagavan’s narrative, showing a Nehru who was as cautious as he was idealistic and not shy to deploy force to gain leverage once a crisis descended. Force, as Raghavan expounds, was regarded by Nehru as the ‘lesser of two evils,’ that could be used to extract concessions and acquire advantage with the adversary. Drawing from the conceptual toolkit of strategy, Raghavan infers that Nehru’s approach during successive foreign crises conforms to coercive, rather than controlling strategic approach; or in other words, an approach where coercion or different types of force is used to influence and delimit the choices available to the opponent. By so doing, the coercive actor is able to harness the situation to their benefit given that the opponent will find it hard pressed to commensurately retaliate having ceded the first-movers advantage, which either deters them from undertaking undesirable actions or compels them to concede. Utilizing this frame, Raghavan analyses various different foreign crises – Junagadh, Kashmir, Pakistan and China, that Nehru encountered, tazing out his strategic approach as he sought to educe the most amenable outcome for India.
Raghavan contends that Nehru’s foreign policy doctrine (if it can be called) comports with liberal realism or at the juncture of the liberal and realist traditions of thought. Fundamentally a liberal at the core, experiences at the hands of colonial rule and through it reinforced the brutality and violence that was endemic to human civilization, forcing him to calibrate his internal compass as India entered the world stage as a nation-state. As a result, the use of force was a necessary option for statesman as they navigated the treacherous waters of international politics; Nehru succumbed to this reality. But as Raghavan observes, Nehru was also equally circumspect of the use of force and power more broadly, being fully aware of its potentialities, having witnessed the horrors of the war and more closely, partition. Nehru endeavoured to tread this fine line as he attempted to grapple with a series of crises throughout the rest of his career; a mix of liberal and realist impulses characterised Nehru’s foreign policy leadership. Indeed, looking at the cases where he relied on force to secure leverage, it was characterised by limited interventions that ‘demonstrated resolve, not recklessness’ coupled with diplomatic moves intended to pressurize the opponent to cave and seek resolution. Coercion was applied, when necessary, to deter and compel the opponent to strike a diplomatic accord.
Taking the reader through a list of early crises that populated Nehru’s tenure, Raghavan effectively demonstrates how Nehru effectively balanced his ideals with the use of force. Perhaps, the most searing experience was China, where his faith and arguably his failure to effectively read China’s moves and motives led him astray. The war with China ranks as the single blight in an unblemished career marked by great professional highs; it was the nadir. Though the crisis was marked by severe deficits on the Indian side, especially on the strategic and infrastructural side, poor leadership was also a key determinant. The liberal-realist approach which proved effective in some of the early crises crumbled when confronted with an opponent that was far superior and better prepared, armed, and led. Also undressed during the crisis were India’s strategic capabilities or the lack thereof, heavily relying on Nehru’s leadership and approach, Delhi’s strategic plans were found to be in disarray.
One rather striking aspect to Nehru’s high-minded idealism (Bhagavan) and grounded realism (Raghavan) was how domestic politics intervened at various junctures to influence India’s foreign policy. A clear divergence can be traced. During the China war, it became clear how Nehru’s options and strategies were far more susceptible to domestic resistance and public opinion, which at times, grew problematic. Delhi found itself either leading without due cause or lagging behind as the chorus surrounding Beijing’s military overtures became more shrill. And in Bhagavan’s case, we can see how Nehru exploited India’s domestic experiences shedding colonial rule to exhort the global body to cater to the masses of citizens across the global south emerging from the yoke of imperialism. And as mentioned, Nehru also used international developments to goad recalcitrant domestic actors, namely princely states, to accede to the Indian union employing a similar idiom, that of rights and self-determination. Needless to say, the boundaries between domestic and international politics in India were less rigid than generally considered to be.