Two divergent outlooks on international security

The 50th Munich Security Conference was held on February 1-3. Source: AP

The 50th Munich Security Conference was held on February 1-3. Source: AP

At the Munich security conference, the Indian world view appeared as a water colour painting in comparison with the oil paintings presented by Kerry and Hagel.

The annual Munich security conference unfailingly offers a feast for the mind. The speeches made at the forum by key policymakers throw much light on the world of today and tomorrow and stimulate thinking. This year’s conference on February 1-3, the 50th anniversary, turned out to be a fabulous feast.

The Indian perspective at the conference, in the course of an intervention by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon stood out for the optimism it exuded with regard to the international security scenario. However, it also makes an interesting study in contrast with the perspective given by the US participants at the conference – principally, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel.

The highlight of Menon’s presentation was his estimation that the trend is toward “globalization and an open international system” in the security and political domains. He assessed that the locus has shifted because the impulse of change in the political and security order comes mostly from local sources in terms of local aspirations and the rising curve of local expectations in conjunction with regional and major powers.

Menon also virtually ruled out any danger of a direct confrontation involving the major powers; indeed, the global powers do not want to risk global instability for regional gains. He added a caveat, though, that this “balance of force” might not hold good when sovereignty and territorial issues are involved leading to “imbalance of interests.” He added a second caveat that there could always be errors of judgment on the part of the major powers. Clearly, the reference was to the tensions in the Asia-Pacific.

What stood out from Menon’s remarks is that India remains a modest stakeholder in the global political arena insofar as its primary interest is confined to creating “an enabling external environment for the transformation” of the country. Which of course demands a “peaceful periphery” (read neighborhood and extended neighborhood) and a stable international environment. Yet, this can only be achieved through a reduction of regional tensions the world over and through more effective and representative global institutions.

There is, arguably, a contradiction here insofar as India is staking its claim at the high table of world politics but with a national agenda to create the wherewithal for its “security, growth and development.” It is somewhat like wanting to cross the river without wetting the toes – an impossible feat.

The Indian world view appears as a water colour painting in comparison with the oil paintings presented by Kerry and Hagel. And, yet, India and the United States claim a strategic partnership, which the American side has called the “defining partnership of the 21st century.”

Kerry spoke nostalgically about the “relatively straightforward” bipolar world of the Cold War“ compared to the forces that have been released with the fall of the Berlin Wall”. In the “convoluted” world of today, aside the threats of terrorism and “untamed growth” in radical sectarianism and religious extremism, the growing challenge of failed and failing governments and the vacuums they leave behind, there is also the spectre of “a voracious globalized appetite and competition for resources and markets.”

Kerry then went on to discuss the crucial importance of a robust reinvigorated trans-Atlantic partnership between the United States and its European allies, which, fortuitously enough, are beginning to “emerge from the economic trials of the last years.” He asserted that “turning inward” or contemplating a “retreat” from the world is not an option. Kerry gave a clarion call:

“What we need in 2014 is a transatlantic renaissance, a new burst of energy and commitment and investment in the three roots of our strength: our economic prosperity, our shared security, and the common values that sustain us.”

It was an exclusive world that Kerry sketched with $2.6 billion in goods and services flowing within the transatlantic region every single day, and $4 trillion in investments every year in each other’s economies that translate as 13 million jobs. Kerry saw the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership [TIP] as not only promoting trade, investment and innovation within the “indispensable partnership” but also cementing “our way of doing business as the world’s gold standard.” He envisaged the TIP as complementing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]. Kerry signaled to the rest of the world that “we will continue to speak out when our values and our interests are undercut by any country in the region.”

Hagel’s speech, which followed Kerry’s, focused on the security domain and was even more blunt – United States is “hardly withdrawing; we’re transitioning… I can’t think of a place in the world that we are retreating, not one.” He listed out an impressive list of current US involvements and interventions globally and declared, “I would venture to say the United States is more present doing more things in more places today than maybe ever before.” Hagel added that the US sees Europe as its “indispensible partner” and that the “centrepiece of our transatlantic defence partnership will continue to be NATO.”

In sum, Kerry and Hagel choreographed an international security scenario where the United States leans on the transatlantic partnership with its European allies to preserve the western prosperity and the West’s leadership role in the world. Their global vision was unambiguous – laid down in terms of “us” and “them” in the world community, with the accent indeed on “our” interests, “our” values, “our” economic prosperity and “our” security concerns, and, of course,  “our” prerogatives to safeguard “our” interests and concerns globally; and above all, “our” manifest destiny to provide leadership to the world, no matter what it takes. Even assuming that Kerry and Hagel exaggerated with the purpose of neutralizing the growing opinion in Europe that the US power is on retreat, on whole they presented an interventionist agenda based on America’s exceptionalism.

On the other hand, Menon took note that economic growth is increasingly driven by emerging powers. He flagged the necessity for the international community and the major powers to act in concert, in consultation with each other and with the regional powers, respecting international law while dealing with security challenges. He saw the need to improve, strengthen and use the processes and institutions of multilateral consultation. However, none of these ideas found expression in the US presentation at the Munich conference.

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