Nepal today has more agency than we are led to believeNepal's foreign policy is stuck in a time warp while the rest of the world has moved on.
The generally accepted onset of a 'new cold war' between the United States and China is one that few would dispute. The term, popularised by Walter Lippmann in his 1947 article The Cold War to criticise the Truman Doctrine, is now reprocessed to explain all forms of geopolitical rivalry—from the Iran-Saudi conflict to the India-China competition in South and Southeast Asia. However, the convenience of analogy usually compromises nuance and often accuracy. Historical analogies alone cannot, and do not, explain geopolitical realities. Instead, they limit the way we can understand and react to it.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff (whose work on conceptual metaphors mainstreamed the use of cognitive science to explain morality) calls frames 'mental structures' that allow us to understand what we take to be reality. Metaphors (think how much of Nepal's geopolitics stems from the cliché of a yam between two boulders) and historical analogy (like George W Bush calling Iran, Iraq and North Korea the Axis of Evil to evoke the Tripartite Pact of 1940) structure our understanding of reality.
Framing the US-China relations as a cold war gives the illusion of two economic poles separated by impassable ideology and geopolitics. This independence does not exist. Even as the trade dispute continues, the goal for both countries is to ease access to each other's markets, not to shut the other out. In 2018, US trade with China totalled $737.1 billion, with US foreign direct investment inflow into China at $107.6 billion. In 1979, at the height of Soviet-US economic détente, the Soviet Union accounted for 1 percent of US total trade at $4.5 billion. Unlike the Soviets, Chinese investors showed no hesitation in pouring $60 billion into the US market in 2016 (though this number has declined since then). There are over 360,000 Chinese students in the US and 3.5 million Chinese-Americans. Economic and cultural relations between the two supposed poles of the 'new cold war' remain intimately bound.
Lippmann's challenge to the Truman Doctrine was that it forced the US to subsidise and support satellite states and puppet governments even though their' effectiveness is meagre and their reliability uncertain'. That is, even though the US spent time and money framing the issue as 'us or them', the puppet states could not be trusted to choose the US. This reservation over reliability lays bare the politics of forced-choice imposed by great powers on smaller countries. Great powers frame complex issues in a way that makes their strategy easier: Recall Bush's 'You're either with us or against us' speech after 9/11.
Back in 1955, newly decolonised states accurately understood this, and took the position of not succumbing to pressure to join either one of the two ideological camps, that is neither you nor them. Supported by post-colonial zeal and Third World solidarity, it worked. But 2019 is not 1955, and the US-China rivalry is not the same as the US-USSR rivalry regardless of how often it is framed as such.
Parroting inaccurate framing only undermines small state agency and ability to respond. Say, if Nepal continues to frame the US-China rivalry as Cold War 2.0, and if it is not to be a satellite state, what option does it have? Continue to rely on the principle of non-alignment?
In 1961, Nepal joined the Non-Aligned Movement. Since then, much has changed: The Second World has dissolved, Third World solidarity is in tatters, and champions of the Non-Aligned Movement—if they are still around, that is—now have multi-tiered relations with both the US and China. India, for instance, has China as its largest trading partner and is in a strategic partnership with the US. It has come to realise that both options—non-alignment and Third World solidarity—are historical hangovers. Nepal, on the other hand, has enshrined non-alignment and the principles of Panchasheel as official state policy, as if foreign relations should be guided by immutable principles, even at the risk of contradicting need and reality. Our answer to the geopolitical challenges of the 21st century continues to be 'neither you nor them' when, at a time of global integration, it ought to be a version of 'you and them…and more'.
At the regional level, nowhere is the impact of historical analogy in foreign policy more evident than the evocation of Sikkimisation or Bhutanisation, and to a lesser degree, Tibetisation. Even as US diplomats stationed in Nepal were sending cables to Henry Kissinger calling the analogy between Sikkim and Nepal' inaccurate or irrational' in 1974, we've allowed politicians and the media peddling lazy analysis to continue using this analogy to frame our position vis-à-vis India.
Such framing undermines our position, and gives India an advantage it hasn't earned. It is this dispiriting frame that credits RAW with more influence in Nepal than it really wields. Given India and China's economic and military clout, they will always negotiate with Nepal from a position of strength. But neither their strength nor our weakness is absolute. We need to start giving ourselves more credit, and act like the oldest state in the region, one that has managed to negotiate an autonomous space between the British Raj and the Qing dynasty, Nehruvian India and Communist China, the USSR and the US, and now Modi's India and Xi's China.
Scepticism about employing analogy isn't undermining the importance of history; it is a call to be cautious about being selective about it. It is clarifying that the geopolitics of 2019 is not the same as in 1945 or 1974, and more importantly, neither is Nepal. We are a sovereign state with membership in a dozen multilateral forums, having diplomatic relations with 132 countries, an impressive international reputation, a widely dispersed diaspora, a standing army of international repute, and a massive population of compatriots in India—all of which give us more agency today than we have come to believe. A reframing of how we see our place in the region and the world is in order.
What do you think?
Dear reader, we’d like to hear from you. We regularly publish letters to the editor on contemporary issues or direct responses to something the Post has recently published. Please send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Letter to the Editor" in the subject line. Please include your name, location, and a contact address so one of our editors can reach out to you.