New Delhi: Should India turn its back on Non-Alignment? Should it shun SAARC and put all its energies into BIMSTEC? Should it quit the Shanghai Cooperation Organization out of disgust for China’s implacable enmity towards this country? Should it give BRICS a public burial?

Tacticians who may or may not be hawks would likely say yes to all the above questions. Strategic thinkers who understand that nations have lives beyond short-term cycles of history would hesitate to take precipitate decisions. They would very possibly say that unless history abandons you, don’t abandon history.

Great nations make the best use of their legacy. Great nations exist in multiple layers. The layers define their historical evolution. For example, India’s association with The Commonwealth derives from its colonial past. One does not entirely have to agree with Jawaharlal Nehru’s reasons for joining The Commonwealth, if indeed he had any.

But once in, the decision to leave, to water down one’s involvement, must be taken with care and due deliberation. A decision to leave must never be taken, not unless the situation becomes intolerable. On the other hand, membership must be used to turn it to India’s advantage.

In a multi-polar or polycentric world, it is crucial to have lots of friends in low and high places. Imagine the world to be a supersized election arena. That is how the world order is in the normal sense. The country that polls the most number of votes has an advantage that simply cannot be denied. Continuity and change must ever remain the guiding principle in relation to legacy partnerships.

Consider Non-Alignment. It is not really cast in stone. Even in Nehru’s day, India was not strictly non-aligned. It needed Soviet support on Kashmir in the UN. After the 1962 debacle, Nehru turned desperately to the United States for help. It should not have come to this. Desperation is unacceptable in a national leader. But it did. Indira Gandhi kept the form of Non-Alignment intact while tearing its substance to shreds by ranging Soviet Russia on her side in the war for Bangladesh.

Nations practise multiple standards. It simply cannot be otherwise. If individuals are selfish and greedy and look to gaining their own interests, nations cannot be expected to be abnormally altruistic. The external environment resulting from multiple conflicting national interests will scarcely be benign. Either you can react to the malign external environment and become lesser in a sustained reactionary process. Or you can employ intelligence, wisdom, foresight and vision and mould the external environment to your advantage.

Great Britain in the period after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars used balance of power strategies both to keep the peace of Europe and to advance its imperial interests. Great Britain without its brilliant execution of balance of power and discovery and full optimization of naval power would have been like it is today, a former Great Power in vain search for greatness again. It used the contested foreign environment to such great advantage that its tininess did not matter. It exhausted itself in World War II and was never the same after having also to give up its colonies. But its former greatness still provides lessons for emerging powers like India.

Otto von Bismarck’s Germany was equally unparalleled in moulding the external environment to its advantage. The Iron Chancellor made two mistakes. The first was seizing Alsace-Lorraine from France in the 1870-71 war which made France an unremitting enemy of Germany. Bismarck’s foreign policy for the rest was marked by extraordinary alliance-making which greatly contributed to Germany’s rise. Bismarck’s second mistake was in not training a leadership second line. He spun a delicate and intricate web of alliances but his unschooled successors could not understand their depth and cadence and got carried away with Germany’s Great Power status. It resulted in two world wars, defeat and occupation.

Yet, these denouements cannot detract from the magnificence and brilliance of Bismarck’s foreign policy. His political objectives for Germany were crystal clear. He united Germany and made it a Great Power. To aid this object, he set about successfully moulding the external environment. This is a model that India may borrow from.

This country should approach its foreign policy legacies with a confidence and determination to mould them to its requirements. India needs all the friends and allies it can make and have as the post-Cold War world enters dark and uncharted waters. No movement, regional bloc or transcontinental partnership is too small or outdated for solid and expanded Indian engagement, and this includes the Non-Aligned Movement, SAARC, BRICS, etc. The more organizations like SCO are tilted towards China, the greater challenge they present to India to mould and transform them to suit this country’s political objectives.

The key to it all is India’s political objectives. Out of political objectives flows foreign policy and strategy. Once India is clear about its political objectives in, say, the Non-Aligned Movement, SAARC, The Commonwealth, and so forth, it will be able to use them for its rise.

In dealing with legacy, India has to be pragmatic. Any legacy that has the smallest use for India must be embraced. Legacy brings legitimacy in some instances. To give a random example, if Indian diplomacy is able to rally the Non-Aligned Movement behind India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, who can possibly cavil at that? In the same vein, if the slogan of “Strategic Autonomy” provides useful cover for strategic expansion, what is the harm of parroting it?

In other words, India has to be a realist power. It has to employ any and all means to get to the top. As the great Cardinal Richelieu used to say, nations have this only single life on earth. India has to make the most of it.