Rabindrinath Tagore (1861–1941) and Amartya Sen (1933–) defend a distinctive form of foreign policy internationalism in their writings. Instead of increasing the economic and military power of democratic states relative to their authoritarian competitors, Tagore and Sen focus on the need to diminish the capacity for violence in all states, regardless of regime type. In Sen’s view, a program of nuclear disarmament, a coordinated reduction in global military spending, and a coordinated reduction in the global arms trade should be woven into international law.
This book argues that the distance between Tagore and Sen’s foreign policy recommendations and the policies pursued by the leading states in the international system is better understood when it is viewed in terms of the early Indian classical period. In particular, the idea that violent actions lead to violent responses—and are therefore both immoral and imprudent—is prominently expressed in the early Buddhist Discourses and the Ashokan inscriptions as well as the writings of Tagore and Sen. The ethical standard of the obligations of power articulated by Tagore and Sen provides a better foundation for thinking about human security than the social contract tradition.
Neal Leavitt is senior lecturer at Boston University.
Part I: Buddha and Ashoka
Chapter 1: Violent Conduct
Chapter 2: A Legal Code
Chapter 3: Persons and Animals
Chapter 4: From the Ethical to the Political
Chapter 5: New Norms
Conclusion to Part I
Part II: A Development Ethic
Chapter 6: Living Reality
Chapter 7: The International System
Chapter 8: Human Security
Chapter 9: Open Impartiality
This interesting, puzzling book argues that Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) and Amartya Sen (1933–) each developed similar ethical and political theories for international relations. These theories, rooted in the teaching of Buddha, rest on an unusual premise: those with greater ability or power owe a duty to cultivate the capabilities of those with less ability or power. This approach is very different from the more familiar theories that see national politics and international relations as emerging from a contract based on mutualities of interest among otherwise equal and morally independent parties. What makes this book puzzling is that Leavitt sticks to the idea that Tagore's and Sen’s theories are more or less independent, despite the many connections between the two men and the way the much younger Sen has taken these ideas further into academic philosophy and political theory than Tagore did. Indeed, another scholar might argue that Tagore inspired, and Sen systematized. This unique book will be of primary interest to advanced students and scholars of Tagore, Sen, Buddhism, and international relations. Recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.
"Look at those who struggle after their petty ambitions, like fish in a river that is fast drying up.” Neal Leavitt extracts from Buddhist history, and from Tagore’s and Sen’s interpretation of that tradition, a remarkable analysis of the ethical, political and pedagogical needs of our time. Leavitt’s eye for what is most urgent, and his calm and reasoned case for an ethics that is non-sectarian and experience-based and a politics rooted in the obligations of the most powerful, make for a bracing intellectual journey.– Vanessa Rumble, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Boston College
This clear and compelling book accomplishes at least two useful and innovative aims: it connects Tagore's and Sen's readings of Indian intellectual history to their political thought; and it shifts the conversation about Buddhist ethics from the standard emphasis on universal compassion to the particular obligations of power and even love. These constitute provocative and promising interventions into contentious issues as old as Buddhism--such as the nature of right action and liberation--and as current as the ethics of international relations in a globalized world. – Anil Mundra, Rutgers University New Brunswick
Obligations of Power draws upon the wisdom of eastern philosophies to illumine our way forward, away from violent reaction and back towards humanity. Leavitt lucidly and skillfully analyzes what the work of Tagore and Sen offer: a reminder that fulfilling our obligations to others defines our personhood and enhances well-being. A refreshing dose of realistic and grounded thinking, this is a timely book that everyone who is committed to our mutual future should read. – Meg Tyler, Associate Professor of Humanities, Boston University
Neal Leavitt's book is a clearly written and enlightening analysis of the ways in which the ethical and political approaches of Tagore and Sen are rooted in the teachings of Buddha and the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. These teachings, still highly relevant today, revolve around non-violence, human development, interpersonal relationships, the need for public reasoning, and the duties that correspond with the capacities of leaders to protect the helpless, to sustain the lives of the deprived, and to cultivate our basic capabilities. Along the way, professor Leavitt points to subtle differences between Tagore and Sen such as their varying degrees of following Buddha in demarcating ethical and political philosophy from the speculations of religious traditions. This wide-ranging analysis also touches on epistemological issues such as the use of social empiricism as a form of justification for more humane methods of governing and crafting foreign policy. – Kevin Stoehr, Associate Professor of Humanities and Chair of the Department of Humanities, Boston University