China Culture Democracy Globalisation Government India Life Politics Radicalization Regional

Indian Foreign Policy Debate: A Neo-realism and Classical Realism Nuance

‘Where freedom is menaced or justice threatened or where aggression takes place, we cannot be and shall not be neutral.’    – Pt. Nehru speech to US Congress and Senate, October 1949

The fact that India needs stronger relations with United States to deal with the constellation of power around her is not a bone of contention between classical realists and neo-realists. The question is to add a variable which gives an important nuance to the argument. For long, classical realists and neo realists have argued on the difference[1] between balance of power as an outcome and balance of power as behavior.

Neo-realists true to the central Waltzian definition argue that so long as there is a difference in the capabilities between two states in the international system, the two states will try to influence balance of power as an outcome i.e. they will avoid a situation where the resulting balance of power is detrimental to their interests however they may be defined – zero sum or positive sum. Domestic politics of the state is not a factor for neo realists. They consider democracies and authoritarian systems to behave similarly when it comes to influencing balance of power (BOP) as outcome.Therefore, it is argued that some states balance because it is inherent in their domestic political system to balance and others balance only when the resultant balance of power of the system is threatened.

Classical realists, therefore, include domestic politics in their calculation when analyzing balance of power politics. Authoritarian systems and dictatorships have far less confluence of interests with democracies but classical realists agree with neo realists on the point that states whether democratic or authoritarian act according to interests in international politics. Both realists and neo-realists agree on two points: States act only according to interests and balance of power as behavior and balance of power as outcome are two different things. They also agree that states do not opt for rational solutions because there is no contract enforcing body in international politics like a world government.

Balance of power as behavior is when states indulge in BOP politics even when it is not certain whether the balance of power as an outcome will change as a result of their particular actions.Neo realists assume states to be black boxes which are too complex to be explained. Therefore, they stick to BOP as outcome in the interest of more order in a fundamentally anarchic international system and more importantly for a separation of international politics from domestic politics. Classical realists however are wary of doing this separation.  A more elaborate explanation with respect to current Indian foreign policy follows.

Many analysts have argued that NSG was not worth the effort for India’s policy as our nuclear programme is already well covered because of the 2008 waiver but it needs to be argued that process wise it is important to make the effort to enter a very influential cartel. China and Pakistan’s own record on nuclear issues is contradictory to the rules of the organization.  India, therefore, applied to NSG with an eye to change the balance of power as outcome which the discriminatory systemic politics of NPT has created towards a democratic responsible nuclear power[2]. China, on the other hand, it seems is indulging in balancing behavior without a clear appraisal of the outcome. Blocking India for reasons of its alliance with Pakistan betrays classical realist behavior by an authoritarian power rather than neo realist balancing merely to influence balance of power as outcome.

China is cognizant of the gap between Indian and Chinese capabilities[3] and the relative insignificance of an NSG membership affecting that gap in capabilities. It is therefore argued that China is doing this to buttress the interests of Pakistan who is an ally and to prevent a situation where the resulting balance of power as an outcome is not detrimental to Pakistan in India-Pakistan power equation. Pakistan herself indulges in BOP politics due to the nature of her domestic political system which is military dominated and one of nascent democracy.The India-Pakistan dyad has achieved nuclear and conventional deterrence but heightening her sense of insecurity viz-a-viz India[4] is a fundamental aspect of the Pakistan domestic politics. This manifests clearly through the long standing Pakistani policy of sub-conventional warfare even during times of dialogue with India. Classical realists argue that domestic power politics is an important variable in balance of power behavior of states like Pakistan and China who are ideological states.

Realists of various hues have agreed on stronger Indo-US relations due to common interests and to counter the BOP outcome emerging in South Asia with an assertive China. Interestingly, many liberal scholars have invoked ‘strategic autonomy[5]’ to argue for equi-distance between US and China because India herself suffers from certain authoritarian tendencies due to the imperfect nature of democracy and therefore India should not indulge in policy that betrays heightened sense of self-importance[6].

Interestingly, such thinking agrees with the neo-realist definition of balance of power as outcome. It is impossible to be equidistant between states without being ideologically neutral about their domestic politics. For it can be argued that a liberal will find it very difficult to compromise with an authoritarian system or semi-dictatorial system. This shows rather counter-intuitively that certain liberal scholars continue to perceive balance of power politics in separation with domestic politics just like the neo-realists. Both invoke pragmatism as an explanation when pressed on this point. Classical realists however, differ from this definition and assert that domestic politics of countries is an important variable in explaining their foreign policies.

They argue that China and Pakistan will continue to balance India regardless of BOP as outcome because they are domestically designed to. They would do it even if India was a restrained power in their perception in terms of neo-realist capabilities. However, critics of classical realism argue that such thinking leads to isolation and permanent antagonism between states. Classical realists blame the nature of international system and nature of authoritarian domestic politics for such a situation.

It is therefore, argued that India and US are natural partners whereas PLA and Pakistani militaries will continue to serve selective constituencies of the Pakistani and the Chinese state. It is often said that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. The problem arises when the domestic political systems are not designed to react to these shifts. Institutional inertia and ideological radicalism have resisted this flexibility in many countries. India and USA do not have a problem with the latter because both possess more flexible and self-critical domestic systems than most. The problem has remained the former.

Perhaps it can be argued from a classical realist perspective that India needs stronger relations with the US with thecaveat that India will take independent political positions in West Asia. India may not be able to handle West Asian anti-Americanism due to the nature of her domestic demography and resulting domestic politics, but greater coordination can be achieved in the rest of Asia. The differences between ‘systemic’ and ‘foreign policy’ balancing behavior need to be appreciated clearly. The reasons for choosing either need to be differentiated clearly as well for future statements of policy.






[5] Ibid.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *