After the chemical attack in Syria on Tuesday, the Western world has tried, inadequately, inchoately, to formulate a response. Britain, Germany and France railed against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom they hold responsible for the attack, and against Russia, for backing Assad. The United States warned of unilateral action if the United Nations did not respond. Two days later, American Tomahawk missiles landed in a Syrian airfield.
Like the Security Council meet after the fall of Aleppo in December, where leaders watched helplessly as the city was pulverised by Syrian government forces, this moment speaks of failure. None of the coalitions that grew out of the Second World War and were supposed to protect us from another war, nothing in the reigning virtues of international relations, had an answer to the Syrian tragedy. When United States President Donald Trump, he of the “Muslim ban” and the war on refugees, is in the vanguard of moral outrage, there is cause for worry.
One country could have condemned the chemical attack and also called out the United States for the airstrikes in Mosul, Iraq, which left at least 200 civilians dead yet barely evoked a reaction from Western democracies.
The chemical attack did make it to the front pages of a few national dailies in India. Images of dying, gasping children stirred something that the siege of Aleppo could not, and the US airstrikes in Mosul could not. Indian public engagement with the conflict in West Asia is largely led by the Western media, and does not go beyond fleeting, sentimental reactions to photographs going viral on social media: three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish shore, five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance, wiping blood and dust from his face, and now children staring out from behind oxygen masks.
For the Indian government, the horrors unfolding in Syria and Iraq might never have happened. There has been no public condemnation of Assad or the US, no sympathy for the victims of their attacks or the refugees with nowhere to go, no proposal for what might be done to contain the violence. India has retired from the world, even as it seeks greater visibility in global forums and aspires to superpower status. It no longer lays claim to a moral voice that may be heard beyond its borders.
Morality versus pragmatism
This cravenness is often described as a deliberate shift in Indian foreign policy, from “Nehruvian idealism” to a post-Cold War “pragmatism”. The former was identified with ideals like “liberal internationalism”, “eradicating colonialism and racism”, “organising the uplift of the world’s poor and dispossessed”, “a suspicion of superpowers”.
At the heart of it, researchers Manjari Chatterji Miller and Kate Sullivan De Estrada point out, “there existed notions of morality in international relations, and a strong belief in India’s moral leadership”.
The pragmatism that replaced this was said to view international relations as “a clash of interests and the pursuit of power by individual states”. Pragmatic India would go after material gains, focus on national interest rather than abstract principles, expand power through strategic alliances rather than ideological coalitions, endorse the use of force if necessary to secure these interests. Miller and Sullivan date this shift in policy to India’s nuclear tests of 1998, which abandoned previous commitments to the principle of global disarmaments.
Scholars have now argued against such simple distinctions. Nehru’s foreign policy was not divorced from realpolitik. Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pragmatism, Miller and Sullivan show, is not free of ideological constraints. The difference perhaps lies in the power that the two kinds of leaders would care to project, material heft as opposed to moral weight.
All sides now
So while Nehru embraced non-alignment, albeit with distinct sympathies for communist Russia, pragmatic India has made friends with everyone, depending on where its strategic interests lie.
While Assad went to war with his own citizens, India moved from warmth to positive support for him. High-profile visits were exchanged last year and the two governments seem to have made common cause on one issue in particular: how to contain growing allegations about their human rights record and focus international attention solely on terrorism.
India has long warded off international censure for human rights violations in Kashmir. With protests breaking out in the Valley last year, it came under fire again from the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation. India counted on Assad as an ally in this diplomatic war and when the United Nations voted last year on a ceasefire in Syria, it abstained.
It is another matter that India also has economic stakes in Syria. Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited signed contracts in 2009, while the Oil and Natural Gas Cooperation-Videsh, only left Syrian oilfields last year. Meanwhile, Assad has enlisted Indian financial support in rebuilding the country.
Between Modi and Putin, there is a famed camaraderie, a bond between strongmen boosted by common interests in defence, nuclear energy and other economic stakes. The beautiful friendship only took a hit last year after Russia and Pakistan conducted joint military exercises, at a time when tensions between Delhi and Islamabad had reached boiling point.
India’s friendship with Russia has not stopped it from moving closer to the US either, abandoning decades of institutional suspicion about the West and Western alliances.
Tangled up with all these interests are other domestic constraints: the impact that getting involved in the Syrian conflict could have on India’s own, increasingly vulnerable population of Muslims, the danger that the sectarian conflicts of West Asia could bleed into this country as well.
These interlocking interests and constraints have meant that Indian attitudes to foreign conflicts and upheavals boil down to this, crudely: if it doesn’t affect us, don’t bother. It is a worldview that seems to have trickled down to the media and its consumers.
So the ascent of Trump and his immigration policies have been the centre of lively chatter, since it endangers the Indian community settled in the US and thousands more waiting to join them. Racist attacks on Indians in America also stirred the government to gentle rebuke. And when Brexit happened, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rushed to reassure markets that India was safe from adverse effects of the move.
Terror attacks in the Western world have also drawn immediate responses from India, anxious to build coalitions against terror and drown out the noise about human rights. So when a man drove a truck through hundreds of people in Nice in 2016, India sent its condolences to France and offered help. And Modi has already condemned a similar attack in Sweden last night.
But West Asia remains a vast, undifferentiated gulf of misery that is best left alone when it cannot be plumbed for strategic interests. The demands of morality are too great and could cost too much in times like this. Pragmatism offers far better refuge.