Realism - the self-interested pursuit of national interest defined in terms of power, unencumbered by moral and intellectual restraints - dominated inter-state relations in the West during much of the 20th century. In the post-modern world, however, the West has largely dispensed with this philosophy in dealings amongst its own members. Meanwhile, over the last few decades, South Asia has adapted and indigenised this paradigm of inter-state relations. The price of borrowing this feature is proving to be inordinately high.
Power has been the principal organizing feature not only within states but also externally. The nation-state spawned in the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was itself an exercise of centralizing power, displacing the monarch with the ideal of 'nation'. The power this placed at the disposal of the central authority was contested for the generally only at the territorial and demographic periphery. The allure of the nation-state model was such that voluntary acceptance of it was the norm from Japan in the nineteenth to India in the twentieth centuries. Emerging states were inclined to accept the centralizing ideologies, for they helped reinforce the power of incumbent elites who then sought to maximize the power they achieved, both for their internal and external objectives.
The twenty-year hiatus in the European Civil War produced the intellectual outpouring of realism. Hitler was adequate alibi, and 'appeasement' a viable target. The failure of the League of Nations, and the challenge of revisionist powers in the colonies, led to the eclipse of the short-lived Wilsonian optimism in international affairs. The exercise of power to sweep away the Third Reich firmly buried that ideal. It is no wonder then that the ultimate symbol of power, the nuclear bomb, was conceived, manufactured and employed not only to end the war but also to begin another, dubbed the Cold War. Carrying the logic of power to the extreme was Mutually Assured Destruction.
The high priests of the new hegemonic paradigm from Morgenthau to Kissinger developed a whole new lexicon. To it they ascribed the term 'cold' in Cold War; the 'heat' was felt on the periphery where the powers engaged each other through 'proxy wars'. A neo-colonial spread of the rival philosophies - capitalism and communism - laid waste to regions and aspirations.
Comprador and ruling classes in the newly decolonised periphery imbibed the zero-sum logic and `beggar thy neighbor' approach. It helped firm in national identities - the basis of membership of the state system in the Charter era. It also established the elite in control of a centralized polity in new states with inadequate authority structures, ideological penetration and soft boundaries. Since power was the central motif of the state system, genuflection towards it for legitimacy and for increased surveillance and appropriation of the society's resources, was seen as rational. This suited the purposes of the Western powers for they were able to exploit regional and local animosities to regulate the system and streamline access to energy and resources essential to capitalist growth.
Realism has come to be the dominant stream of thought in international affairs and in international relations theory with adherents in the academic world, the ministries and militaries, and amidst nationalism-enthused public. Where there is no Leviathan to bring about order, its advocates argue, anarchy prevails. Self-help, centered on self-interest, is its key organizing principle. To defend and further these, power is a pre-requisite. To nurture and enhance power thus becomes a state responsibility. While conflict resolution mechanisms may be exploited for gains, the ultimate arbiter remains power. With all states similarly engaged in building power, it is axiomatic that this is the instrument most readily available to address conflict. Thus states are as much victims as they are agents of power.
Not surprisingly, the elite everywhere subscribe to the same understanding. Power enables the societal penetration required for making traditional social systems 'modern' and 'national'. It helps suppress competing alternatives. It eliminates rival power centers in the body politic and in the mind. It lends credibility to the government and its agents. It integrates the state into the state system. This is a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing, relationship. Thus the limits of sovereignty are in the governing rules of the system - rules set essentially in the West, for the West - rules that governments have not been able to transcend despite their diverse cultural moorings.
That the self-interest of these constituencies is being served through this arrangement is unmistakable. Their threat perception emanating from the 'Other' helps gain access to societal surplus that then gets invested in the security establishment, in effect in themselves. Thus they need 'each Other'. Acting on mirror images of each other, their policies bear a resemblance testifying to a quasi-alliance between realist security managers and establishments in both states. Their counterparts in the opposite side are thus their covert allies in this diversion of productive capacity from investment elsewhere. Their clinching argument is that the outlay on defense is necessary to prevent collapse into the chaos of diversities and subservience from which they emerged on independence. To them, Power is the route to Prosperity.
The absurdities of the standoff abound. The cleavage of a common civilisational and historical experience, rent asunder by the Radcliffe line, is being further deepened. The 'line' itself is an 'active' one, from the Siachen battle ground getting to be perennial even as it makes the glacier recede, through the now immortal Kargil to a Line of Control reverberating with the ordnance traded across it. The 'Hotlines' that link the two militaries are avoided judiciously warily. The airwaves are filled with propaganda directed at the other side. The infiltrators, branded 'freedom fighters' by one side and 'terrorists' by the other, trudge across it for gaining 'self-determination' for their people or pan-islamist 'jehad', depending on which side one is hearing out in the propaganda that invariably accompanies and obfuscates such conflicts.
The realist stance ascendant in both capitals is that upping-the-ante is all it takes for the other to buckle. There is thus the search for the elusive position of strength. A triangular relationship is brought into the picture with China being the third party. In the best tradition of 'balance of power', of which it was itself a victim ever since the Opium Wars, it plays off one subcontinental actor against the other, admittedly both being willing parties to the balancing game. The lead-state of the West, the USA, no stranger to this strategy, also self-servingly inclines from one to the other. The strategic community in both states sees any such 'tilt' as a victory, never mind its metronomic nature.
'Inscrutable' China provides an interesting commentary on the nature of strategic thought in South Asia's pivotal state, India. It is seen as an adversary in the middle term. The Indian military effort has thus a ready excuse in a future as yet unborn. The logic is that should India not arm itself now, by the time of the showdown, it will be too late. Should the anticipated power struggle not transpire, in this logic it would be on account of the prior preparations thoughtfully being instituted now. Such closed loop argument is what has to be contended with if fresh winds are to be inducted into the discourse.
There is a price to be paid internally for adopting a state-centric approach towards governance. The price is extracted by force applied within the state, seen as inescapable for instilling the chosen, if contrived, conception, of nationhood. What Europe took centuries to achieve is being done in real time here. With states of continental dimensions in terms of diversity, the regional and local cultural and historical contexts have to be factored in assessing the import of western political theory and practice. Clearly, there is much that has to be imbibed from the experience of the West, but more has to be unlearnt.
This is an idea South Asia can borrow - a debt worth owing. South Asia can indeed be a test bed for the idea given that the dice is stacked against the loose coalition of forces aiming for such a collective future. The derision that the candles lit at Wagah is symbolic of the proportion of the challenge. However, there is no other region where the idea is more required, or more urgently. The battle for redeeming the ideals that informed our past and for rescuing our future is already underway. There are forces at work for commercial, sporting, and cultural interaction. Right thinking 'doves', busily subverting the strategic discourse, erode the credibility of the 'hawks'. There are those standing for reconciliation and healing. These are the vanguard of awakening in South Asia. There is an understanding that the way to prosperity is not the lonely one. Global approbation for states here can only follow regional regard for and acceptance of each other's standing. Shared sovereignty between local bodies, regional compacts, and supra-national entities is the dictate of future political practice, one that needs to be ushered into South Asia.
For this the assumptions of the 'realists' have to be bested in their own field - national 'security'. Their 'failure' in assuring security through nuclear deterrence ought not to bring forth the change, for the price in terms of nuclear debris and fallout of failure of deterrence is patently unaffordable. Their Cold War analogy cannot be allowed to stand, lest its internal contradictions prove it false too late. They have to be taken on in television studios, the airwaves, in print, at the academies and on the street. Their freshly strengthened alliance with the realists who dominate similar space in the Bush-led West will have to be reckoned with. The institutions that appropriate so large a percentage of state resources at the altar of security also require to be rescued. In face of the ascendance of rightist agendas in politics and their exclusivist ideology that is facilitative of realism, the intellectual struggle to displace 'realism' is a categorical imperative.
While the turn of the century in the West was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tagore's 'narrow domestic walls' have yet to come down in the minds of those schooled in Western attitudes predating its fall. The philosophy of Realism that sustained conflict in the West needs now to be exorcised. While relationships between former colonizers have moved on to more cooperative status, those formerly colonized have yet to catch up. We in South Asia must abandon this intellectual legacy; this is a debt we can do without.