India’s foreign policy challenges, according to the foreign secretary

Shivshankar Menon gave a speech at the Observer Research Foundation outlining India’s foreign policy challenges. Coming from India’s top diplomat, the actual content of the speech does not depart from the official line. But his choice of topics, the manner in which they are organised and what he left out (for ‘a separate speech’) makes it instructive.

The topic that was suggested, “The Challenges Ahead for India’s Foreign Policy”, lends itself to several and varied interpretations. Which challenges we choose depend upon what matters to us, i.e. our priorities. The primary task of our foreign policy is to ensure an external environment that is conducive to India’s transformation and development. To oversimplify, what are the issues and what kind of foreign policy would enable us to eradicate poverty, grow at 8-10% and transform India into a moderately well off state where our people can realize their potential?

Looked at in this light, broadly speaking there would be three sets of challenges: Firstly, ensuring a peaceful periphery; secondly, relations with the major powers; and, thirdly, issues of the future namely food security, water, energy and environment.

I have tried to give you a sense of the challenges that our foreign policy faces and is likely to confront in the immediate future. Some of you might see a great omission in this listing of challenges. What about balance of power issues such as the military balance in our own region and the world, and issues of conventional security? These require a separate speech by themselves to do them justice. Besides they probably receive sufficient public airing. Speaking personally, I believe that there is a good realist or balance of power argument to be made for choosing precisely these issues as our major foreign policy challenges.

But sadly the language of strategic discourse in India is not yet developed enough to describe what we empirically know and face as reality around us. We need to develop our own strategic concepts and vocabulary. I am repeatedly struck by the use of concepts, ideas and methods of analysis that come from other situations and interests, (such as deterrence, parity, or reciprocity), and bear little relationship to our unique circumstance. That is something that needs serious examination on its own. It is probably best left to thinkers like you by diplomats like me. [Shivshankar Menon/MEA]

He has a point about the need to develop our own methods of strategic analysis. But it is also important not to discard or reject concepts simply because they originated elsewhere.

4 thoughts on “Menonspeak”

  1. Scribina,

    Thanks. I read it this morning. It’s good. Words well chosen, especially this bit:
    The other argument that one hears in India questions the role of Pakistan Army, arguing that the Pakistan Army needs hostility towards India in order to justify its hold on power in Pakistan. To me this too does not seem a sufficient explanation.

  2. Nitin – what do you make of this:

    ‘If we define our own security in the broader terms of people’s welfare rather than the hard power of the state, many of the issues that divide India and Pakistan would be much easier to resolve.’

    Thousands of Indians dying due to terrorism is certainly not a welfare function. Clearly, hard power of the state is an outcome of these deaths and not vice versa.

  3. Manu,

    Yes, I think that statement is interesting and conveys a very idealistic view of foreign policy making. Not because it stresses people’s welfare, but because it downplays hard power. It’s misleading because hard power is not an end in itself, but rather, the means with which to achieve the security necessary for the welfare of the people. I’m sure Menon is aware of this.

    So I hope he made this statement because it was diplomatic to do so, and not because he honestly believes that welfare can be had without hard power.

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