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India should be more like Google

The internet giant’s model of “foreign policy” is one that should be emulated by all democracies.

Who has the most successful foreign policy in the world? Answer: Google. You might argue that Google is not a country, but if it were it would be the world's 87th biggest economically, just behind Ethiopia and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago. And it certainly has a foreign policy and a clear mission - "Don't Be Evil" - with clear values.

Google is no diplomatic ingénue, pretending not to have any national interests. It is explicit about obeying the rule of law in the countries where it operates. So far, there's nothing exceptional about this combination of values and interests. France and Germany had a similarly clear foreign policy (a strong union to rebuild a peaceful Europe), embodied in the Élysée Treaty of 1963. Tony Blair wanted Britain to be a bridge between Europe and the United States. The Bush doctrine of spreading democracy around the world was as clear as the Obama team's rejection of it is now.

But Google stepped out of the pack of foreign policies in January when it announced it was ending censorship in China. It has learned the lesson of how to do foreign policy in the 21st century. When a policy question raises a fundamental contradiction between your values and interests, you have to choose your values. Why? Because we now live in a global democracy. It's called the internet. We will wait a long time for global governance based on elections and rules. But we already have a global democracy, if we follow Amartya Sen in thinking of democracy as being as much a forum for discussion as it is a process for election.

Country of contradictions

Nations that are true to their values gain huge power. Google is regulated more lightly than Microsoft, because it is seen to want to do good. Or, to put it in economic terms, because Google applies behavioural restraints on itself, politicians certainly (and regulators perhaps) see less need for structural intervention.

Of course, these are perceptions. Many would argue that Google fails to live by its values and that Microsoft is less rapacious than people say. But perceptions matter. Anyway, I'm not interested for the purposes of this column in whether Google is good. Because, despite appearances, this isn't an article about Google. It's one about India.

India should be like Google. This thought hit me at a recent conference I attended in Delhi where we were asked to answer this question: "What should India's role in the new multipolar world be?" The magic of India is that contradictory statements about it are nearly always true. India is growing at almost the same rate as China, yet it fails to feed its malnourished children - a third of the world's total. It is the world's biggest democracy yet is still grappling with a caste system. Though India's millions of graduates swell the world's transnational elite, 20 million of its children are out of school.

The contradictions hold true of foreign policy, too. As it emerges out of the non-alignment of the 20th century, India's foreign policy elite is split between idealists who want foreign policy to continue to be led by values and realists who want it to concentrate on the national interests, especially the threat of terrorism that India feels perhaps more directly than any other nation after the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. But this is a false choice. The right way to frame that alternative is that foreign policy is about reconciling values with interests - but that when the two clash, values must win. That's why India should be like Google. It would then be able to push the contrast with its large rival - for Microsoft, read China.

One Chinese participant at the Delhi conference who bridled at this comparison complained that westerners do not understand the subtle way democracy operates in China. His evidence was that he had recently written an article arguing for greater democratisation in China; the US embassy had been in contact to congratulate him on it and to ask whether he needed help getting out of prison. He pointed out that he was a professor at Beijing University. That story probably says more about the Manichaean world-view of American diplomats than it does about Chinese democracy. We can accept that there are aspects of China that are democratising without having to say that it is a democracy like India. The point hardly needs substantiating, but a free press, free elections and free trade unions should do the trick.

The question for Indian idealists is whether they want to include promoting democracy in their values. Today, the continuing unpopularity of George Bush and the perceived failure of the Iraq war hinder any proper discussion of global democratisation. That is the wrong lesson from the war in Iraq. The right lesson is that you have to live your values. The mistake that Britain and the US made was to forget that we now live in a global democracy where any contradiction between your values and behaviour is ruthlessly exposed.

That doesn't mean that we should only deal with perfect democracies, but it does mean that if we say we want to promote democracies around the world, we need to be consistent. We should unhook Bush from his doctrine. We should have a "direction of travel" policy by which countries that are progressing towards democracy are treated differently from those that are moving away from it. And we should be clear that we are doing this because it is in our national interests. No fully democratic country has ever invaded another one. No democracy has ever had a famine. Democracies are unlikely to go nuclear on each other. So, if we care about peace, nuclear war and global hunger, democracy is the solution.

West and the rest

If Westminster is the mother of parliaments, India is the mother of democracies. In the 3rd century BC, Ashoka the Great championed deliberative councils to settle religious and social disagreements. Nearly 2,000 years later, the Mughal emperor Akbar sponsored interfaith debates and boosted the Indian tradition of secularism. The assertion that democracy is a uniquely western experiment is disproved as much by India's history as its present.

India taught the world pluralism and tolerance long before the Westminster model was invented. The world would be better if there were more democracies. But the perception that democracy is a western value is one that helps only those dictators who want to stop their ­citizens gaining freedom. By championing democracy, India would not only sustain those individuals fighting dictators, it would burnish its credentials as the world's Google. That will help deliver its interests (would the Americans have agreed to the India nuclear deal if it hadn't been seen as one of the world's forces for good?), but also ensure that the global governance it cherishes is based on the values it lives.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice