Foreign policy needs all its birds

Hawks, doves and even chickens

During times of impending conflict, it is not uncommon to accuse the ‘hawks’ of fanning the flames of war. Heroism and bravery are all very nice, the complaint goes, but it comes at the cost of avoidable bloodshed. Ironically, during times of impending peace, the hawks end up getting blamed for, well, cowardice. (via India Uncut) As for doves, it is moral courage that allows them to overcome patriotism during war and take great risks for the sake of peace.

Like Martian Men and Venusian Women, neatly labelling people into hawks and doves is a convenient simplification of decidedly more complicated matters. However it is dangerous to formulate foreign policy based on (the vilification of) these stereotypes. It is equally dangerous to advocate foreign policy merely on emotional grounds such as bravery or cowardice. So Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s accusation (more of that in another post) that hawks lack ‘a certain form of courage’ is beside the point. In the final reckoning, it is national interest that matters. Courage and cowardice are two of the options available in its pursuit. Good foreign policy is all about the ability to use hawks, doves, ostriches and chickens appropriately. Good foreign policy is also about not ruling out any options.

The Acorn’s position is that Indian foreign policy has been insufficiently imaginative in its use of various options available. Why? Forget Pakistan. Just look at the region. Civil wars in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Perennial political crises in Bangladesh and the Maldives. A murderous dictatorship in Myanmar. Despite decades of courtship, little geopolitical support for India among the Gulf states. Fears of being ‘encircled’ by China. If India finds itself with influence far short of its potential, it does call for a fundamental re-examination of its foreign policy stance. From the border clashes with Bangladesh to the royal shenanigans of Nepal, a less than emphatic India has been reduced to little more than a helpless bystander while its interests are being challenged ever more brazenly.

In so many of these instances, India’s interests would have been better served if it had not overwhelmingly relied on ostriches and doves. In spite of doves having such a poor record, ironically it is the hawks that are demonised — without ever having been used.

4 thoughts on “Foreign policy needs all its birds”

  1. Cannot disagree with the logic, but we need to get two little things into perspective. Talking of turmoil in our neighbouring countries, we are not a paragon of peace ourselves. All terrorist movements are essentially indigenous – they only get foreign support if they are seen to have a chance of success. Maoists infest an area bigger than Sri lanka, Nepal and Myanmar combine in India. And they are only getting stronger.

    As for the encirclement, China is in a far more vulnerable situation than is generally thought of. The territorial waters of Japan, Taiwan and the Philipines nicely encircle China’s coastline. And all three are staunch US allies, and have rather big axes to grind with China. In the West the Central Asian republics have allowed the US, military bases. In the north, Russia is a wary neighbour especially considering huge “invasions” by Chinese civilians who have made entire native populations minorities. The only difference is that Beijing maintains great trade relations with most of the uneasy neighbours.

  2. Kiran,

    India need not wait until it has stamped out all its internal conflicts before it begins to act on the external front. Here’s an analogy: while an ‘internal’ short circuit can cause a fire, cutting off the (external) oxygen supply can quickly put out the fire. Internal wiring (or the rats that nibbled on it) that actually caused the short circuit, can be fixed once the fire is put down.

    I agree with you on China’s own vulnerabilities and threat perceptions, but they are doing a much better job flying all their foreign policy birds.

  3. It is true that India is too often a bystander, and that its influence is too far below its potential. The large question is what does India want in terms of foreign policy that it does not currently have, and what means will best serve those ends? In terms of military security, India would enhance its security by developing an unmistakable military superiority over Pakistan, a military balance with China, an expeditionary capability to intervene in the regional trouble-spots mentioned, and a capacity to participate in post-conflict activities in its region. As an American, I can say that I hope that India will perceive that its interests will best be served by aligning itself with Japan and the United States militarily and politically. I think this will best serve India’s needs in the military, political and economic dimensions. How this will play out in the coming years will be interesting.

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