Shifting underpinnings of foreign relations
Foreign policy is one of the principal instruments adopted by a government to serve a sovereign state's national interests. It is a composite set of plan and strategy of a state in its interaction with other sovereign states and determines relationship of a given state with other states.
Unlike policy formulations in other important areas of national life which puts domestic considerations into comparatively sharper focus, the development of foreign policy -- apart from taking into calculation vital domestic considerations -- is influenced by a host of external factors like global geo-political realities and strategic considerations, plans of other powers to advance their specific geopolitical designs, and the policies and behavioural of other states in the neighborhood and beyond. The world today is increasingly getting more and more interdependent and interconnected -- development of one state increasingly influencing and being influenced by that of others. As a result in the pursuit of national interest foreign relations of a state play a progressively greater impact. Foreign policy of a state thus has to be designed and crafted carefully and with dexterity to preserve, protect and promote national interests.
In the past many states -- big or small -- followed a policy of isolationism with varying degrees of success. For example the United States of America, at one time, sought complete withdrawal from international affairs, and followed a policy of disengagement and non-entanglement in order to isolate itself from "the perils of international dependence and foreign wars". In the past China also tried to isolate itself from engagement with the world beyond its borders. In sharp contrast to that policy of isolation the present foreign policy of USA is marked by an intense role in global power dynamics covering the entire gamut of international relations. China has also increasingly assumed a high profile role in global political and economic issues. The concept of isolationism or insulation is now totally passé. No state can now live in isolation.
The phenomenal progress in technology, in this century and the last, has introduced a speed in physical communication that was hard to anticipate earlier. Electronic communication has become instantaneous. In the words of Walter Wriston, 'information technology has demolished time and distance'. An event anywhere in the world today reaches the farthest corner in the twinkling of an eye and causes consequences there. A state's policy and conduct impacts on others' as these have never done before as much its own policy and conduct is similarly affected by those of other states. This phenomenon is true for all states, regardless of geographical size, comparative military strength or economic power and regardless whether the states are situated near to or far from each other. There is a well known metaphor that states that 'a butterfly flapping wings in Brazil causes tornado in Texas'. This metaphor succinctly encapsulates current international realities.
States in the world have now been thrown into an intricate web of interdependence that no state can escape from. Consequently the belief in isolationism has steadily and surely been replaced by the concept of internationalism and globalism. Clearly this concept has assumed an irreversible character as it defines & will continue to define the contours of the dynamics of inter-state relations in the future.
What are national interests of a state and how does one define them? A close examination of history reveals that national interest of a state has been more a dynamic concept than a static one. National interest is also multi-faceted as the concept embraces a varied range of components. While some components of national interest remain constant the emphasis that a state attaches to many other components may & do shift and change over time. A crucially permanent element of national interest is the state's survival and security. With this concept the upholding a nation's sovereignty and protecting its territorial integrity is inextricably linked. There have been many variable components also. At times, containing the growth & spread of particular brands of political dispensation to protect and preserve its own preferred political system has been viewed by many states as of vital national interest. Many states have also seen the spread of the nation's culture as of great importance to the pursuit of national interest.
There was a time when the whims of a king, or a dictator or a sovereign determined what a state's national interest was; not infrequently his interest was synonymous with national interest. All this have changed significantly. With the rising level of peoples' consciousness and as democratic values consolidate their sway economic development, amelioration of the economic condition, and achievement of economic prosperity of its people have emerged as a critically important component of a state's national interest. Most nations today define their national interest in economic terms, in terms of achieving economic prosperity for its people.
This changed definitional emphasis of national interest has brought about a paradigm shift in the security perceptions of states all over the world. The traditional security concern of a state primarily related to the threats from an external source directed against the sovereignty of the state.
Defending the state's geographical boundary, territorial integrity, political institutions and peoples' right to self-determination constituted the most core elements of its response to that threat. To these core elements of threat perception have now been added the concept of human security that encompasses elements that degrade the quality of life of the people like poverty, want, hunger, disease and malnutrition.
In a broader context the concept also includes freedom from fear and safety from chronic threats such as repression as well as protection of human rights and protection from harmful disruption in the pattern of human life. Security concerns of a state have thus assumed a more comprehensive & all embracing character.
As an important ramification of this emerging concept threat to security is being seen in a holistic & integrated context as common threat to states and not emanating from each other. The concept underscores that security of one state promotes security of the other and brings about a synthesis of security concerns among states.
A security threat to one state accentuates insecurity of other states, the cumulative effect of which increases global insecurity. Consequently common security threats -- that includes poverty, want, hunger, disease and malnutrition straddling territorial boundaries -- promote convergence of national interest of states, as prosperity of one is seen as interwoven with the prosperity of the other.
This, therefore, unites states rather than divides states. The shrinking of globe and the 'butter fly effect' imparts added stimulus to this process. Also this holistic perception of security provides incentives to nations to cooperate with one another to face the common threat rather than be antagonistic to one another. While this notion is true for relations among all states around the globe -- situated near or far its significance is more profoundly manifested among geographically contiguous countries. Among physically contiguous states it creates greater mutuality of interests. Therefore, physical contiguity between states now provides for natural friendship, amity and cooperation.
Consequently some old beliefs governing relations between physically contiguous states have radically changed. In effect it has brought about a reversal of those postulates. The orthodox security considerations were predicated on a potential inter-state conflict primarily emanating between neighboring countries that essentially called for a military response aimed at protecting the borders. The shrinking of time and space has changed the traditional idea of neighborhood; as the world gets smaller the concept of 'neighborhood' expands to embrace in its ambit countries far & wide. The Chanakyan theory was considered an immutable precept that shaped the psyche of state leaders & policy makers in formulating foreign policy. The essence of that theory was 'Your neighbor is your natural enemy and the neighbor's neighbour is your friend'.
That has lost much of its validity; the threat to territorial integrity of a state could arise -- if it so does -- from any country no matter where it is geographically located and from the view point of threat perception physical contiguity has become irrelevant. On the contrary, the converse postulate is more and more true now.
The converging perception of national interests and security concerns has also brought primacy of economics to the fore-front of international relations. As economics triumphs over politics the emerging world order is characterised by lower levels of political discord and higher levels of economic understanding. This in its turn creates expanding scope for forging economic ties and strengthening cooperation among states. In an inter-connected world conflicting aspects of inter state relations are being replaced by new norms of interdependence, cooperation and common opportunities.
Trade, investments and access to markets are issues are increasingly taking the centre stage of international relations. As creation of wealth, achieving economic prosperity & quest for a better life for the peoples emerge as shared global objectives the world creates new opportunities for growth and development. Economic competition is not seen as a threat but more as a healthy inducement learn from each others' experience and to co-operate and collaborate. The realisation that no nation can progress alone and no nation can achieve prosperity in isolation is generating innovative ideas for stronger foundation for advancing shared interests. The recognition that poverty anywhere threatens prosperity everywhere is engendering search for win-win solutions in preference of zero-sum games.
In brief these are some of the dynamics that determine the changing contour of global foreign relations. In the light of these shifting underpinnings of foreign relations it may be pertinent to highlight, on a practical plane, a priority issue that undoubtedly is of enormous significance to advance the national interest of Bangladesh and protect its comprehensive security. A momentous change is taking place in the world economic regime. The rise of Asia to the world economic stage is going to define the coming era. In the eighteenth century Asia's share in economy was 50% of the global economic out put. For much of recorded history China was not only the largest economy, but until the end of the 15th century, it also had the highest income per capita and was the world's technological leader. As recently as 1820, China alone accounted for 33% of the world's GDP. Then Asia missed the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and stagnated while Europe and America gained economic power. Consequently Asia's share shrank to less than 20% of the global output and China's share fell to only 9%.
The table is, however, turning again. China's is on the rise as its role in the global economy increases sharply. During the last quarter of a century Chinese economy has grown at an amazing rate of about 10% per year. In economic size China is the biggest economy in Asia and globally it is surpassed only by the USA. With China's foreign exchange reserves of over $1 trillion it enjoys the distinction of being the largest surplus country. China has grown to be the third largest trading nation of the world following the USA and Germany. China's outward Foreign Direct Investment is steadily on the increase. In the words of Professor Shambaugh, "The tectonic plates that have characterized Asia for half a century are shifting, and China may be returning to its traditional role ..."
With China also on the rise is another country, India. World's 11th biggest economy India is the second fastest-growing major economy closely following China. Since its economic reforms in 1991 India's has experienced an impressive growth rate of more than 6%. The current growth rate is estimated to be around a spectacular 8.9%. It is expected to maintain this momentum and grow at the rate of 8 to 9% for the next quarter century. India's outward investment is progressively rising as it emerges as 21st largest outward investor in the world. India's global trade is expanding at a fast rate.
With these impressive growth rates coupled with expanding global trading & economic relations these two countries are emerging as global economic powers dominating the world economic arena for the foreseeable future. The combined effect of their unprecedented economic growth will secure back for Asia its historical share in world economy. It is predicted by economists in economic power this century will belong to Asia.
This offers Bangladesh an attractive window of opportunity - a window that presents vast prospects to Bangladesh to prosper together with these economic power houses. To do that Bangladesh will need to effectively marshal the full force of its foreign policy to build & strengthen cooperative economic linkages with these countries. It may be relevant to remind ourselves that crafting of a successful foreign policy calls for a profound foresight & vision to envisage the contours of future interactions among states in the light of an objective assessment of the current realities tampered by knowledge of history.
While history is a gauge for foreign policy formulation it can not stagnate or languish in history. Nor can it afford to get stuck in a mind set fashioned by political theories propounded centuries back. A vibrant foreign policy will need to have the ability to promptly make necessary adjustments to appropriately respond to the shifting underpinnings of foreign relations. The formulation of such a dynamic foreign policy will call for talent & dexterity to continuously rethink & recalibrate actions & responses. For the economic prosperity of its people Bangladesh needs to seize the window of opportunity that has been offered. Bangladesh needs to harness its rich potential and derive its fullest benefit. Sooner Bangladesh does that the better & more effectively it will be able to advance its national interests and safeguard its security concerns.
(The article is a reprint from the 20th Anniversary Supplement)
The writer is former Adviser, Caretaker Government and Bangladesh high Commissioner in India and Secretary to Government of Bangladesh.