Reading the Arthashastra: The proper use of détente

Using hostile peace to tilt the balance

By distinguishing enmity and offensive action, Kautilya makes a sophisticated argument about the use of a ‘hot peace’ to accumulate economic power, that will, in time, allow a state to defeat the counterpart—by military force, if need be.

He classifies three types of what Dr Shamasastry calls “neutrality”. But this translation is not very appropriate, because Kautilya is not advocating sitting on the fence. One needs to study the Sanskrit, but from the context, the word “quiescence” may be more appropriate. Quiescence can be:

“Keeping quiet, maintaining a particular kind of policy is sthana; withdrawal from hostile actions for the sake of one’s own interests is asana; and taking no steps (against an enemy) is upekshana.” [Arthashastra VII:4]

The first arises out of a stable balance of power, where the adversaries are compelled to keep to their places. The second is deliberate, similar to what has been termed “masterly inactivity”, the phrase most famously used to describe colonial British policy towards Afghanistan under Governor-General Sir John Lawrence. It also refers to a state of détente. Finally, the third variety of quiescence arises from dereliction of duty, or impolicy.

Kautilya favours the policy of “keeping quiet after proclaiming war” when it can strengthen one’s own state and inflict injuries on the enemy. The latter could be due to exploiting the enemies internal troubles or, interestingly, through seizing an advantage by influencing patterns of trade: by “(preventing) the import of his enemy’s merchandise, which was destructive of his own commerce” or drawing “that valuable merchandise…to his own territory, leaving that of his enemy”. In fact, in what might militate against the contemporary view on the issue, Kautilya sees inward immigration from neighbouring states as a benefit. He places immigration in the benefits side of the analysis in several places in the Arthashastra.

This, according to Kautilya, is the way to both impoverish the enemy and not only accumulate, but also exhibit one’s own power.

So under what conditions does the king “march after proclaiming war”? The case for offensive action is based on the internal condition of the enemy and the geopolitics without. The enemy’s internal troubles must be beyond redemption, the state in a terminal decline and its people ready to desert their master. External conditions require a favourable disposition among the front and rear allies. The offensive action could be taken independently or in partnership with the allies depending on the circumstances.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.