Interstate relations are governed by treaties, laws, understandings and actions of the leaders of one set of states with the others or their legitimate representatives either bilaterally or through regional and international institutions on matters of shared interests and goals. The world of interstate relations naturally involves conflict of interests. The state is viewed as a self-interested rational actor, operating under its own raison d’ étre. Peace in such a system is secured through balance of power among opposing interests. The classical interstate system is defined by non-egalitarian empires, hierarchy of powers or tributary system where weak and small states are tied to great powers through treaties, mutual obligations and rights.
The end of the Cold War marked the decline of super-powers’ hegemony built on Manichean dualism and the onset of the Grotian worldview. It has amplified the number of regional and international organisations for multi-scale cooperation and opened the prospect for the evolution of shared community. It is marked by a mix of cooperation and competition, not only maximisation of one’s own state’s power. The democratisation of states reduced the private ambition of leaders while pluralisation and diffusion of power, communication outreach, transport, commerce, technological unification of the world and tourism created new law-based practices to cooperate with other states, markets, civil society and citizens.
Egalitarian notion It has established a more egalitarian notion of sovereignty and opened official diplomacy stage by stage to multi-track. In any interstate system, a small state like Nepal seeks to promote and identify its own national interests with its ecological, cultural, political and moral survival, thus, depending on various geopolitical or strategic safeguards, sanctuary in neutrality, nonalignment and cautious manoeuvring in a world dominated by the protagonist powers. The system of interstate relations has now shifted to global relations with the proliferation of many sub-state, non-state and international actors that influence the foreign policy conduct of individual states -- big or small. The bipolarity of the past is shifted now to multi-polarity built on several sub-systems relatively autonomous of each other but interacting with all channels connecting all those outside them and enhancing their capacity and leverage.
With the ascent of China, all great powers of the world are reshaping their regional policies in reference to it. The overarching Sino-American competition now overlaps all sub-systems even giving opportunity for small states like Nepal to gain considerable freedom of manoeuvre and reap benefits from their competing bid. Parallel to it exists the pentagonal balance of power among the USA, Russia, Europe, China and India. It highlights a paradox between defensive containment that also involves offensive pushback and positive accommodation of each other’s legitimate sphere of influence, keep certain strategic autonomy from each other and contribute to the evolution of competition in a single global market.
Obviously, India, Japan and Australia are in both US-led QUAD and Indo-Pacific Strategy while China, Russia and Europe are seeking to assert their strategic autonomy in international affairs though India, China and Russia are members of SCO created to counter the influence of NATO of which many European nations are members. India, China and Russia are members of a common economic grouping BRICS. The engagement of Turkey, a member of NATO, in Afghanistan and purchase of Russian missiles for its air defence despite US objection marks the return of old European realpolitik. The European NATO members too feel betrayed by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan without consulting them that eased Taliban’s takeover. Though the US found disproportion between the costs of staying in Afghanistan and the strategic stake, its withdrawal exposed the vulnerability of Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, China and India to the risks of terrorism unless Afghanistan adopts civilised conduct. India and Iran are facing a dilemma with regard to the legitimacy of the Taliban government, the former for fear of its engagement in Kashmir while the latter fears the collusion of its radical faction with the ISIS.
In an anarchic nature of world politics, the escalating arms race, climate change, migration, poverty, terrorism, economic interdependence, the management of global common good require international cooperation which no nation alone is enough to bestow and shoulder leadership. In this changing global strategic environment, small states like Nepal must learn the lessons of its history of statecraft and discover its niche in economy and diplomacy to avoid being trapped in other's strategies in the name of regime compatibility.
The dynamic of the current global system is moving from European and American order to Indo-Pacific region as they are no longer able to fill the resource, institution, power and leadership vacuum required for a shared world order, global social contract, rule of law, justice and peace beyond the power play of interstate geopolitics. Europe is seeking its own political evolution probably to clinch Ostpolitik in diplomatic and ideological terms and limit American diplomacy evident from EU’s solidarity with France against US-Australia nuclear submarine deal. It ricochets General Charles de Gaulle’s free spirit in foreign policy. The US alliance with the EU and France casts doubt over the forte of trans-Atlantic unity forged against China’s growing economic and military clout in the Indo-Pacific region, Europe and Africa.
The assertiveness of Europe and France reveals their disinclination to accept politically dwarf status, seek freedom from the Anglo-Saxon world, express political will to act as an autonomous interlocutor among great powers and recover a room for manoeuvre that was unused for reasons of infatuated phobia of the Sino-Russian entente cordiale. The EU members are locked in various levels of interdependence with both the worlds. It is national interests, not strategic doctrines or regime compatibility, which define the scale of their extra-regional ties and the play of interstate and intra-societal relations. Nepal, too, needs to find correct disposition of its disorderly nature of multi-level governance and overcome rows in the frontiers and sterile posture and protest at the centre.
India and the US are seeking allies to contain, if not rollback, the expanding strategic heft of China while Russia is asserting its role to regain the lost strength. Given India’s good ties with Russia, decolonisation drive, non-alignment and aspiration for a great power status it will be less likely to limit itself to US-led QUAD and Indo-Pacific strategy or only oscillate between US allies and their adversaries. India’s reluctance to play a leadership role in regional cooperation in South Asia has left a vacuum which the Chinese are filling to combat COVID-19, boost infrastructural development and trade expansion.
It is hard to say whether the architects of the EU, Germany and France, will find a common cause against China and Russia while they have already signed a global strategic partnership with it and expanded the scope for investment and trade. Will the EU devise its own security policy that benefits all members as opposed to serving as a military protectorate of the US under NATO? The newly cast UK, US and Australia (AUKUS) security pact reflects a future of deeper level of strategic collaboration between them to project power in the Indo-Pacific region against China. It is angering the latter, Russia, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Nepal as a tertius now finds itself in a situation of regional bipolarity and global multipolarity. Peace and stability in the nation prevail when no nation singularly predominates its foreign policy agenda while each member of the complex pentagon of power balances the other without playing one against the other to disrupt the balance, deplete its soft power, sabotage national consensus on foreign policy and cut the scope for the freedom of manoeuvre. The nation too has to keep close ties to each without alienating either of them, retain its values and identity and remain sensitive to the geopolitical stake of neighbours.
Nepal’s balancing act needs to combine the Indian, American and European preference for democracy and the Chinese preference for sovereignty, a mixture of pragmatic and idealistic elements without compromising the nations’ imperative of diversification and development. Nepal for long played the role of a tertius during the heydays of empires, interstate system and global relations now. Its adaptability and skill offered it freedom of manoeuvre and provided its leaders to build trust with all poles of power independent of each other, acquire an ability to transcend geographical determinism and formulate foreign policy with wider global gaze without losing national aspiration and hopes.
Rational judgement Nepal found a labour market in the Gulf region, Southeast and East Asia, permanent migration of bulk of Nepalis to Australia and the Atlantic world and form an association of non-resident Nepalis, conscription of natives in foreign police and armies and diversify economic and political ties to avoid vulnerability arising out of dependency. The nation needs to explore foreign policy space beyond tripolar interaction with India, China and the US so as not to sap the trust of other powers, the UN and global regimes and lose universal acceptability. It allows national leaders the right to pass rational judgments on various issues.
Nepali leaders are exhausted by the intoxication of positional power many times and built a mentality in policy as usual even at a time of great transformation in global politics and failed to see the world through its own lenses, not through other’s agenda and strategy and build mutual understanding about the optimal outcome of interdependence. They need to muster political will to decisively act in the national interests. This helps them in the national construction of various policy agenda of neighbours and international community, settle them by negotiation, hold dialogues with the public and placate citizens and civil society who are very sensitive about foreign policy issues. They are highly concerned about national sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and dignity. Reconciliation of informed opinion of scholars and foreign policy direction is important to settle the midway between regime affinity and national interests.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)