Can India’s foreign policy get anywhere with fewer than 600 men and women running the show?
Two op-eds, one by Stanley Weiss in the International Herald-Tribune (linkthanks Adityanjee) and another by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express (linkthanks Sameer Wagle) deal with India’s lacklustre foreign policy. Mr Weiss writes about India’s neighbouring countries, for the international audience and has nothing really for those who are aware of Lax Indica. Dr Mehta’s piece, on the other hand, presents an important—often overlooked angle—to the discourse over why India’s foreign policy is the way it is.
It’s got to do with capacity. The Indian Foreign Service has only around 600 officers in total—and they not only man the foreign ministry desks in New Delhi and over 162 missions and embassies around the world, but also handle such administrative tasks such issuing passports at regional passport offices. India’s engagement with the external world has intensified manifold over the last 20 years: yet the primary task of shaping this engagement is left to such a small number of people.
But merely increasing the cadre strength of the IFS is not the solution. The bigger point is that foreign policy is too important (and certainly too big) to be left to professional diplomats alone. In Dr Mehta’s words India lacks the ability to “draw in from a wider pool that would allow it to think strategically rather than merely diplomatically.” And it lacks this ability because of a certain hollowness in the academia and the intellectual space. Apart from a handful of ‘premier’ think tanks, there are few institutions that produce thought leadership on foreign policy issues.
While analysing India’s foreign policy, most commentators—including this one—are guilty of focussing only on intentions. It is common enough to complain that India could have done better in this case or shown more backbone in that one. That’s the flashy end of foreign policy analysis. Worrying about organisation structure, staff strength, training and collaboration with minds outside government looks mundane in comparison. Dr Mehta does well to remind us of the importance of the latter. Just why is it important? In Essence of Decision, a seminal work on explaining how governments make decisions, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow describe three models of analysis. Their “Organisational Process” model suggests that government policies are primarly the result of bureaucratic output (and not the unmodulated action of a unitary actor).
To the extent that foreign policy is determined by the people in the foreign ministry (and their interactions with those outside it) restructuring the bureaucracy is likely to yield better results. It must, though, be accompanied by a change in the organisational culture—one that seeks, respects and uses outside expertise. This much is for the government to do. But raising think-tanks and academic departments is something that civil society is arguably better placed to accomplish. The government will remain the main actor, but there is something Indian citizens and corporates can do to make India’s foreign policy more credible. Mr Weiss, the author of the IHT article, heads an impressive organisation called Business Executives for National Security, a “a nationwide (US), non-partisan organization, is the primary channel through which senior business executives can help enhance the nation’s security.”
There’s nothing like it in India.
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There is a bit of issue here about attitudes. The think-tanks that we do have, are not very effective in influencing policy. Mostly because they end up being too academic in their analysis and policy recommendations. This, in turn, is because the thinkers have zero experience of practical diplomacy. The foreign policy mandarins usually don’t even read the papers coming out of these think-tanks. The excuse, usually, is that they are too overworked doing things (modest folks, those) to read academic papers from arm-chair analysts. It is partially valid, I think, but their attitude is rather dismissive as well.
As and when the MEA manages to overcome FinMin (OMG! the IFS is expanding their “turf”! they will become “powerful”!) and increase its cadre strength, the excuse of being overworked will go away. It will also, hopefully, allow the MEA to let officers take sabbaticals and do some policy research. In parallel, if the MEA manages to get the lateral entry thing going, that would be quite useful as well. One can hope!
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