India’s “Dost”: Constructivist Idea at Play?

India’s zealous help to Turkey, fighting the wrath of nature (earthquake), in a period immediately following the souring of relationships owing to the latter’s stand on Kashmir and the former’s supply of armaments to Armenia seem to reinforce the constructivist idea that self-help and power politics does not causally flow from the conditions of anarchy or ‘international structure’. However, attempting to paint entire foreign policy decisions in a constructivist and ideal hue would be considered naïve in a world where power parity matters. The increasingly great number of countries with populist and nationalist regimes suggests the continued primacy of realism.

This article would seek to explore the extent of flexibility and freedom of foreign policy officials to lamp the torch of constructivism in a dark night of realpolitik. While acknowledging that ideas matter, this article does not ignore constructivism, in its entirety, as a guide to foreign policy but highlights the limitations being put on constructivism owing to the primacy of international structure.

‘Mission Dost’ and the elastic limit of Constructivism

At a time, when India’s relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey hit a low, owing to the former’s supply of military paraphernalia to Armenia, India’s ‘Mission Dost’ to help earthquake-hit Turkey gives a different odor other than a purely power-ridden one. It highlights the belief that actors in an international arena do not act purely in power politics terms. States act according to different identities — as a “great power”, “leader of the Global South”, “Vishwaguru”, or “Champion of freedom”. This braces Ted Hopf’s belief that “culture, norms, institutions,  procedures, rules, and social practices […] constitute the actors and the structure alike.”

It seems like India is reinforcing its identity as a benevolent civilizational global leader, which has helped countries during the time of crisis in the past — one recent example is India’s export of Covid vaccines to a large number of Third World countries even at an expense of India’s domestic demands.

The Turkish envoy to India commented: “We really appreciate the help extended by India to Turkey within hours of the earthquake. We too use the word ‘Dost’ for a friend. I would say a friend in need is a friend indeed. Friends help each other.” The ‘intersubjective structure’, rather than the ‘international structure’, appears to be at work here.

However, the elastic limit of ‘intersubjective structure’ is shown by India’s unwillingness to help Pakistan, going through an economic crisis; while at the same time, India extended the hand of bonhomie to Srilanka. The reason of course lies in the ‘relative distribution of capabilities’ rather than identities — ‘friendship’ or ‘animosity’. The difference in material capability between India and Srilanka is much larger than those between Pakistan and India if we take South Asia as a system.

Likewise, India’s relations with Pakistan are different from those with Turkey. The different geographical positions of Pakistan and Turkey have different bearings on India’s threat perception.

Hence, India’s bet at changing its identity vis-à-vis Turkey is not risky as the cost of changing the “enduring social structure” is meager. Even if India loses the bet, it would not be of much concern, for Turkey is neither a neighbor nor does constitute an immediate threat. 

At the same time, India’s seemingly cordial relations with its militarily weak or insignificant neighbors are not because of the ‘friendship’ identity, but owing to the fact that these neighbors have to accept their position vis-à-vis India as a fait accompli and could not do much about India’s military clout in South Asia. The ‘identity’ argument can be refuted by the fact that countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka consistently try to balance China and India.

The foreign policy decisions in the light of constructivist ideas are limited to the scenario where “the potential costs of ceding control over outcomes to other states or institutions” is insignificant for actors. Thus, states could, with the least constraints/cost, experiment with changing identities of the self and other actors; if successful, would bring positive outcomes in one’s favor.

But where there are disastrous consequences for deviating from realpolitik decisions, especially in a case of security dilemma between states sharing territorial boundaries, neorealist conceptualizations are most plausible. For instance, Nehru’s free fall in the gravity of constructivism, when believing in the power of identities he concluded the Panchseel Agreement, proved dearly to India in the 1962 war. India’s leadership of Global South did not ensure any military support, during the war, from the countries “who voted with India in various and numerous inane peace proposals at the UN General Assembly”.

A broader picture of the Indo-Turkish relationship would be guided by the relative distribution of capabilities, but nuances of foreign policy decisions in short term can be gauged only by looking into several factors — ideas, domestic politics, ideology, the personality of leaders, etc. India’s ‘Mission Dost’ may not be stemming directly from power calculations, but this decision does not even go against realpolitik.

Revisiting ‘International structure’

Constructivism fails to define the broad contours of international politics. Most of the constructivist belief in the working of ‘constituted’ identities about the actors and self-interest can be couched, more plausibly, in the language of neorealism. 

Constructivism is agnostic about change in world politics” not because of ‘enduring’ social structure, but because actors remain skeptical about the moves of opponents on an anarchic chessboard, and from the parlance of the game theory they would not risk experimenting with different actions.

Ted Hopf’s belief that to have a stable predictable pattern of state behavior intersubjective identities are necessary needs to have a second thought. If India’s unwillingness to help Pakistan, when the latter is experiencing an economic blizzard, can be explained by the ‘enemy’ identity, then why did a stable intersubjective identity of India as a ‘global responder’ could not hold ground?

An offensive realist would plausibly argue that having the relative material capability in one’s favor is always a boon for the actor, thereby a weak adversary is always preferable.

The argument that states’ preferences and consequent actions flow from the identity they attribute to others and the identity they produce for themselves through “social practice” needs to be reconsidered. India’s relations with the US are guided by changing international structure. The change of identity from the ‘suspicious’ US (as seen by Indian foreign policy officials) to a ‘strategic partner’ is not spontaneous or because foreign policymakers decided to consciously culture the identity of ‘friendship’. It is owing to an increasingly aggressive China. The US and India need each other to balance against the ‘other pole’ in a bipolar world. 

Most of the US actions, during the Cold War, were owing to the American response to the international structure — in response to the USSR — rather than due to its identity as a ‘great power’. Alexander Wendt, while making the argument that the US military power had a different significance for Canada than for Cuba, could not perceive that Cuba constituted a threat because it was aligned with the USSR (acting as an extension of the USSR), not because of the ‘enemy’ identity. This is shown by the disappearance of the Cuban threat in the post-1991 era owing to the structural changes, rather than the fact that the US and Cuba became ‘friends’. Likewise, Canada, despite being militarily much stronger than Cuba, did not pose threat to the US because the former had an alliance with the US based on common interests — countering the USSR.

Weak countries prefer to sound the conch shell of constructivism and rely on the international fabric for their safety because they do not possess the luxury of national means.

Rejecting the neorealist assumption (self-help and power politics causally flow from anarchy) is not apt as neorealism provides only the broad contours of international politics in terms of great powers and does not provide details about foreign policy behaviors.

Both material and discursive power is important to decipher the working of international relations. However, the cost of changing the ‘enduring social structure’ in short term and the risk of taking actions other than those which were imperative under the structural constraints gives prominence to neorealist conceptions of understanding international politics.

Constructivism’s belief in changing identities can work over the long term (when the relative cost of changing identities is meager) and in scenarios where states are not engaged in a security dilemmas. Unlike realism, it provides an escape from the pessimistic whirlpool of the security dilemma. Normative ideas keep the possibility of bringing peace in a Hobessian-world alive. At the same time, where states are mired in an existence-threatening competition, states should heed the neorealist advice lest they see their demise.

[Photo by the Government of India, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Anshu Kumar is a student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. He is currently pursuing his Master of Arts in Politics with a Specialization in International Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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