India tempers its 'outsider' foreign policy

Friday, India's prime minister will arrive in Cuba to convince a skeptical swath of the world that India is, in fact, still India.

It could be a tough sell.

For decades, India happily assumed the role of chief rock-thrower at the world's political establishment. Freeing itself from colonial rule at the dawn of the cold war, India sought to find its own way to prosperity, separate from the influence and imperialism of the world's great powers. So in 1955 it formed the Non-Aligned Movement with like-minded developing nations.

As the 14th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) begins Friday in Havana, however, India finds itself becoming increasingly entwined with the powers it once shunned, particularly the United States. As a result, India is having to straddle the divide between its historical role as an outside agitator and its future as one of the world's emerging power brokers.

For India, it is a realization of its growing maturity as a nation. "It's about how we move from being a protester of the world order to one who takes responsibility for the management of it," says C. Raja Mohan, a member of India's National Security Advisory Board, a panel of civilian foreign policy experts.

A bridge between West, developing world

This weekend's summit, government officials acknowledge, will be about trying to find that new balance. "India has a role as a bridge in the global divide which seems to be emerging," says P. Harish, a spokesman at the Ministry of External Affairs. "That role is in preventing the global divide and promoting trust."

The task might not be an easy one. To policymakers in many developing nations, the United States is the primary imperial menace, threatening regime changes and cultural domination. Already, NAM member countries are preparing a draft declaration supporting Iran in its game of nuclear chicken with the West. At the same time, it is seeking to enlarge the definition of terrorism to include both the US occupation of Iraq and recent Israeli actions in Lebanon.

In the past, India might have joined the cavalcade of anti-US decrees. Today, it clearly will not. India's strategic goals are increasingly consistent with those of Washington, from economics to security. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example, wants to take the discussion on terrorism toward extremists in Pakistan's hinterlands. And with the US Senate considering a deal that would accept India's status as a nuclear power, India has no interest in provoking its new friend with bombastic statements about neo-imperialism.

"We will try to moderate the proceedings to the degree we can," says Mr. Raja Mohan.

To some, this risks casting India as America's lackey – an easy ally in the war on terror and a counterbalancing pawn against China.

"We are quite critical of the government of India's approach towards the USA," says Tapan Sen, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a member of India's upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha. What is needed, he says, is "a firm stand against US hegemony."

Yet others see different forces at work. The decision to open the country to outside investment in the early '90s began a transformation that is still changing Indian culture and policy. Before, India made bold speeches but remained essentially isolated from the outside world. Now, it is belted to the hip of globalization, leading to more substantial ties with countries from Africa to the Americas.

This certainly includes the US but is not limited to it. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Singh traveled to Brazil for the first-ever meeting of the India-Brazil-South Africa Group – an attempt to harness the collective might of three of the "global south's" most influential nations. Near the top of the agenda was a resolve to force first-world nations to open their agricultural markets.

After meeting with the Brazilian president, Singh said in a press conference: "We must endeavor, and we shall be seeking to build a new international order, which is both more equitable and more participatory [for] developing countries."

India's bilateral ties more important

In the end, these more intimate country-to-country connections are far more important measures of India's intent than any pronouncements at a summit, some experts say. "The real issue is what we are doing with these nations bilaterally," says Raja Mohan.

That doesn't mean that India no longer has any role in NAM. As NAM struggles to find a post-cold war reason for being, India is well situated to nudge it away from its dyspeptic past toward a more constructive dialogue on the problems facing the third world, such as hunger, poverty, and climate change.

"That is how India will try to move it," says B.G. Varghese of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. "Not to echo the old line, but to move it to a more helpful track."

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