Friday, October 03, 2014

India’s Middle East policy is due for an overhaul

By Eli Bernstein*

It is no secret India is about to turn a corner and enter the world stage. Modi is well positioned to steer India from a developing nation to a nation developed. However, this rise should not be limited only to economic development. India, the world’s largest democracy and soon to be the world’s most populous nation is right to insist its voice should be heard on global affairs. This greater role in the international arena should include permanent membership of the UN Security Council and playing a key role in keeping world peace and the fight against international terrorism.

To do this, India must change its foreign policy on a number of fronts.

First, India must recognize that affairs in today’s world are increasingly global. India is not an island. India can — and should — become a diplomatic powerhouse as it grows in economic significance. India has a role to play in forming international policy, in the fight against terrorism, and in keeping world peace, order and and good government.

I do not mean to belittle India’s international contribution to date. India played a leading role in the non-aligned movement, in the BRICS block, and in many other international forums. It is the second largest contributor of peacekeeping troops, having contributed 100,000 troops over the past 50 years — but all that said and done, India’s role on the world stage cannot be said to have been that of a leading actor. It was a supporting actor at best.

India now deserves the spotlight. It has successfully conducted the largest democratic election the world has ever seen, and it did so, without a single ‘hanging chad’. India can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with China and the US, as one of the world’s captains. India must insist on reform of UN Security Council (and reform of the NPT) so as to ensure it has all the rights and privileges China and the US enjoy. This is a grand moment for India, a juncture in history which it should not miss
Second, India must farewell old alliances, and in particular its role in non-aligned movement, if it plans to stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s greatest powers.

At the risk of sounding like the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes, I will say this plainly, the non-aligned movement has long outlived its usefulness. I say this with no disrespect to India’s leadership in the movement and pay no insult to Nehru’s vision, but truth be told, the non-aligned movement was a product of the cold war which should have expired at its culmination.

India does itself no favours in being part of this club whose membership include/d the likes of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Castro’s Cuba, Chavez’s Venezuela, Khameni’s Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Jong-Il’s North Korea, and Europe’s last dictatorship. India of today must pick its friends more carefully.

While India ought not forget its roots, it must look in the mirror and see has grown beyond that. It has graduated that phase in its development and can now play in a higher league. Every graduation comes with the pain of saying goodbye to old friends. India under Modi’s stewardship, must choose pragmatism over sentimentality; must look forward, and not back. This means diminishing India’s role in the non-aligned movement. As the Hebrew saying goes: ‘rather be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox’.

Third, an opportunity now exists in the Middle East for India to demonstrate leadership in global affairs, and earn its stripes for a permanent Security Council seat. America’s influence in the Middle East is waning with Kerry’s disastrous ceasefire attempt being the last in a series of bungles that left America’s credibility in the Middle East in tatters. Kerry’s flirtation with Qatar and Turkey (which killed any prospect of the Egyptian ceasefire succeeding — back when the death toll was only 70). This is the latest in a series following the USA’s lackluster performance Iraq, its weak commitment in Afghanistan, its empty words of ‘red lines’ in Syria, its circular diplomacy with Iran, and its betrayal of long term allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel — all coupled with an incoherent Middle East policy defined by misunderstanding and arrogance. For the rest of Obama’s term in office, he can do nothing of meaning in the Middle East without powerful allies.

These allies are not the UN, the EU and Russia. The Quartet has outlived its purpose and should be retired. The UN has never been useful in doing anything more than issuing words. It has not acted in neutraility and as such can play no productive role going forward. The Europeans have their own house to keep in order — with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism one one side and the revival of fascism on the other — and is better spending its time on domestic issues. Naturally, it can always contribute to peace by donate to a relief fund when called upon. Russia is simply in no position to be at a table discussing war and peace.

Enter China and India.
China has been trying to play a more active role in the Middle East. It has sought entry into the quartet, has sent a high level Special Envoy to the region and tried to host a meeting between Israeli PM Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Abbas in Beijing. India too should enter the foray, and along with China and the US back a regionally-led solution.

The recent US faux pas saw an unusual alliance formed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority (Recent developments against ISIS will only further strengthen that alliance). A peace process led by this group, on the basis of the Saudi plan, would have a far greater chance of success than any US led initiative. Replacing the defunct quartet, the role of India, China and the US could be to facilitate such an agreement, to raise funds for a peace dividend, and to commit international peacekeeping troops.

But before India can do so, it must put a stop to its knee-jerk anti-Israel vote in UN forums. It treats a potential ally as foe and serves as a restrictive precedent for India’s own response options against terror groups. India would be well advised to follow the European model of abstention rather than vote against Israel because of old habits of the Indian foreign office. In the long term, India could play a far more productive role in resolving the conflict, if it can first demonstrate a greater degree neutrality.

Fourthly, as India has learned through painful lessons, terrorism by non-state actors poses a greater risk to India’s security that conflict with its neighbors. In this way, India is at least as vulnerable as the West. India, home to the world’s third largest Islamic population has an interest in promoting a peaceful interpretation of Islam, that does not fan the flames of violence and hatred. A global problem like terrorism can only be addressed through a coordinated global approach, be it in the battlefield of ideas, in the vaults of banks or in combat. India would do well not to stand on the sidelines as these discussions take place.

Finally, India must choose its partners wisely and ensure that it has allied itself on the right side of history. India must not be in a position where its resource dependence affects its Middle East foreign policy. This may require, for instance, the need to diversify its gas suppliers.

The bottom line is this. While Modi campaigned on a domestic platform, he cannot afford to leave the policy making at the foreign office unchecked, as India’s economic, strategic and diplomatic futures are intertwined. It is high time for India to step up and punch its weight in global affairs. To do so, it must first withdraw its role from the non-aligned movement and seek to stand side by side with China and the US in a tri-polar world. India can earn its diplomatic stripes by playing an active role in Middle East peacemaking alongside the fight on terror, but first, its must show its neutrality — through abstentions in anti-Israel resolutions at the UN and by choosing the right set of partners in the Middle East.
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*Eli Bernstein is former president of the Australia-India Business Council in WA and blogs on middle east policy for The Times of Israel. He writes this article in his personal capacity.