Insuring your policy

Defence expenditure is the premium paid to insure against the failure of foreign policy

A good defence strategy is one that manages the risks of foreign policy going wrong for one reason or the other. It might turn out that foreign policy was based on the wrong presumptions, or unexpected events might upset the geopolitical balance and so on. In these circumstances, a state should have the military capacity to ensure that its interests are protected. In other words, work for the best, but prepare for scenarios where the best doesn’t happen.

It follows that there is a good reason to keep the foreign & defence policy establishments at a sufficient distance in order to prevent confusion on their respective objectives. They must co-operate and co-ordinate at some levels, but it must be recognised that defence expenditure is essentially premium paid to insure against the failure of foreign policy.

There are two mistakes states can make: subordinating defence strategy to foreign policy and vice versa.

Nehru’s policy of non-alignment (as distinct from participation in the Non Aligned Movement) in the years following independence was infused with realism. But he failed to (and indeed refused to) invest in building the necessary military capacity to hedge against the chance that non-alignment might fail. In the event, he had to seek urgent military assistance from the United States in 1962 after the Chinese invasion.

Pakistan is an example of the other mistake. Its foreign policy is completely subordinate to its military strategy. It is eminently sensible for Pakistan to develop military capacity to defend itself against India. But it is high folly to then pursue a foreign policy of relentless hostility and antagonism towards its eastern neighbour.

The takeaway from this little post is that an essential question that foreign policy analysts must ask is—are the goods sufficiently insured?

Crossette & cliché

A fisking of Barbara Crossette’s piece in Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy‘s online editors invited me to rebut Barbara Crossette’s piece on India being the baddest boy of global governance. You can see the published version on their website. This is the original draft.

Making room for India
Contrary to Barbara Crossette, India does the global governance thing

According to Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway, “Elephant in the Room” was the most popular cliché to appear in major newspapers and journals in 2009. It is perhaps appropriate then, that Barbara Crossette’s latest diatribe against India appeared in Foreign Policy under that headline. While it claims to show that it is India that causes the most “the most global consternation” and “gives global governance the biggest headache” it is merely a series of rants and newsroom clichés selected entirely arbitrarily in order to support the author’s prejudice.

It is unfathomable how Ms Crossette can declare that it is India that causes the most consternation and the biggest headache—among Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Pakistan and China—merely by listing its alleged failings. Without an attempt to compare the failings across countries—and why only these countries, why leave out the West and the rest?—it is logically impossible to arrive at a conclusion that one of them is the biggest culprit. But once you trade logic for hyperbole, you can fit just about any animal you like into that room. For Ms Crossette’s, it is the pachyderm.
Continue reading “Crossette & cliché”

Obama’s quasi-ultimatum to Pakistan

Okay, it’s a strong prod

In his opening remarks at the first Takshashila Executive Programme on Strategic Affairs, hosted by the National Maritime Foundation yesterday (wire report) (pic), K Subrahmanyam noted that the India media has ignored reports of how the Obama administration has put the squeeze on Pakistan asking it to jettison its duplicitousness with respect to jihadi groups. He chided Indian strategic analysts for assuming—on the basis of a lack of public statements over what the Obama administration intended to do about Pakistan—that Washington didn’t actually have a well-considered plan.

Today’s report in the New York Times supports Mr Subrahmanyam’s argument.

The Obama administration is turning up the pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban inside its borders, warning that if it does not act more aggressively the United States will use considerably more force on the Pakistani side of the border to shut down Taliban attacks on American forces in Afghanistan, American and Pakistani officials said.

The blunt message was delivered in a tense encounter in Pakistan last month, before President Obama announced his new war strategy, when Gen. James L. Jones, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, and John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, met with the heads of Pakistan’s military and its intelligence service.

United States officials said the message did not amount to an ultimatum, but rather it was intended to prod a reluctant Pakistani military to go after Taliban insurgents in Pakistan who are directing attacks in Afghanistan. [NYT]

Well, it looks like the Obama administration’s answer to the question this blog has been asking for the past year is: drone strikes and ground-based covert operations deep inside Pakistani territory.

The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

K M Panikkar on India’s strategic omphaloskepsis

The costly refusal to see beyond itself and the subcontinent

An extract from Sardar K M Panikkar’s Annual Day address to the Indian School of International Studies on 13 February 1961:

The study of international relations is fundamentally a study of power relationships. This, of course, has to be interpreted in terms not only of military power but also of political stability and leadership, industrial strength, and all the factors which contribute to the power of nations. The power relationships between nations are constantly changing, and unless a country understands and adjusts itself to the changes that are taking place around it, its own security will be seriously endangered. In our own time we have witnessed such changes, cataclysmic in character and revolutionary in effect, that the picture of international relations may be said to have been completely transformed in the course of two decades.

It is only by a continuous and vigilant study of power relationships in the world that even the mightiest nations can maintain their position. Without a knowledge of the changes and dynamics of social life taking place elsewhere in the world no country can build up its own life. This is the primary object of international relations. Diplomatic relationships which every country now establishes with the ther independent nations of the world has this knowledge as its primary object. Earlier, since political interests were limited to one’s own neighborhood, diplomatic relations never extended beyond countries which were closely connected with one another either by geography or by interests. As everyone knows, modern diplomacy developed in Italy and spread from there to the rest of Europe. Till the second half of the nineteenth century, even the independent countries of Asia did not consider it necessary to set up permanent diplomatic missions in other countries or to study the dynamics of power so far as other countries were concerned.

Neither the Moghuls nor the Marathas had any notion of the sources of strength of the European nations with whom they had to deal. The Chinese Admiral who challenged the might of Britain during the First Anglo-Chinese War knew nothing about the naval strength of Britain and firmly believed that he could defeat the British Navy with his fleet of junks. The result of this ignorance of the sources of power of other nations was that India had, for a long time, to remain subject to a foreign power while China was, for over a hundred years, the whipping-boy of European nations.

From the earliest times, India lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers. While China was continuously watchful of developments across its land frontiers and had developed a very efficient system of diplomatic relationship on a continental basis, the Indian idea of diplomacy was confined to states within the geographical limits of India. Within this area, at different times, India developed a system of international relations and diplomatic usage. But so far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned, we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance. It is a well-known fact of history that the changes in the dynamics of power in the Hindu Kush Valley profoundly influence the politics of the Indo-Gangetic Valley. From the time of the first Aryan invasions this has been one of the determining factors of Indian political evolution. The emergence of a powerful state in the Kabul area, whether in the time of Kanishka, Mahmud of Ghazni or Ahmed Shah Durrani, profoundly influenced events within India; and yet, so far as the great states of the India-Gangetic Valley were concerned, they continued to remain ignorant of these developments and, therefore, were unable to take the necessary steps to safeguard their independence. In the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, every effort was made by that king to collect and evaluate information about the political situation in India and to estimate the sources of strength of the various Indian states. We know with what thoroughness this was done from Alberuni’s great work. In contrast, we may note that the great monarchies—rich, powerful, and well organized according to the standards of the time—of King Bhoja of Dhar and the Gurjara Pratiharas of Gujarat knew little or nothing of the revolutionary transformation which had taken place in the Kabul Valley and of the strength of the great state which Sabaktajin had established and Mahmud had inherited and enlarged.

This may be compared with the policy which the policy which the British pursued from the beginning of the last century, when they established themselves as one of the imperial powers in India. The invasion of Egypt by Bonaparte was viewed as an event affecting the security of India. When Napoleon and Tsar Alexander reached an agreement at Tilsit, the British authorities in India immediately took steps to send a mission to Persia, the object of which was to find out the extent of that country’s defensive strength and to explore possibilities of entering into an alliance with its government. Sir John Malcolm’s report on Persia is still a classic. Similarly, the advance of Tsarist Russia towards Central Asia led to the British neutralization of Afghanistan. The British did not wait for enemies to penetrate as far as Panipat before taking countermeasures as the Indian rulers of the Gangetic Valley had been accustomed to do. They carefully studied the conditions across the borders, developed a large body of experts who studied the geography, language, political conditions, and economic structure of the areas which bordered on India or which were considered to be of vital importance to the defense of India. No area was left uncovered. The British Government in India had at its disposal men who had devoted most of their active life to the study of sensitive areas: the North-Western Frontier and adjacent areas, the Persian Gulf and the Trucial Coast, Tibet and the Himalayan regions, Sinkiang, Alma Ata, and other areas of Central Asia. It was sufficient for them to cover the areas of special interest to India because the British Empire, as world power whose interests were spread over five continents, was able to take care of the rest.

Our case today is different. We have to keep ourselves informed of developments in all parts of the world, not because we have vital interests everywhere, but because conditions in the world have so changed that events in the most distant parts may affect us in a manner which few of use realize. Undoubtedly for us the vital areas continue to be those immediately bordering India; and consequently the study of conditions in these areas is of permanent importance to us. But with changed economic, political and military conditions, other areas also emerge as vital and sensitive. At no time in India’s long history had Tibet and the North-Eastern Frontier become areas of vital concern to India’s defense. The geographical, political and social conditions of Tibet were sufficient guarantees for our safety from that quarter: while the North-Easter Frontier covered by dense forests and high mountains was also a dead frontier. Besides the Himalayas provided us with an almost impenetrable wall across which no invading force had ever approached India. Today, the emergence of a great military power on the other side of the Himalayas, which stretches from the Karakoram to the borders of Burma, has totally transformed the situation. This is only one example of the frequent changes in areas of international sensitivity, without a knowledge of which it is not possible at any time to formulate national policies. This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent. [International Studies 22:2 (1985) pp192-195, emphasis added]

The roots of Obama’s Af-Pak predicament

US power is bound to decline if it continues to rely on a trans-Atlantic alliance

Henry Kissinger injects a strong dose of strategic wisdom into the squabbly-wobble that is being passed off as an Afghanistan policy review on by the Obama adminstration.

Concurrently, a serious diplomatic effort is needed to address the major anomaly of the Afghan war. In all previous American ground-combat efforts, once the decision was taken, there was no alternative to America’s leading the effort; no other country had the combination of resources or national interest required. The special aspect of Afghanistan is that it has powerful neighbors or near neighbors—Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran. Each is threatened in one way or another and, in many respects, more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism…Each has substantial capacities for defending its interests. Each has chosen, so far, to stand more or less aloof.

The summit of neighboring (or near-neighboring) countries proposed by the secretary of state could, together with NATO allies, begin to deal with this anomaly. It should seek an international commitment to an enforced nonterrorist Afghanistan, much as countries were neutralized by international agreement when Europe dominated world affairs…If cooperation cannot be achieved, the United States may have no choice but to reconsider its options and to gear its role in Afghanistan to goals directly relevant to threats to American security. In that eventuality, it will do so not as an abdication but as a strategic judgment. But it is premature to reach such a conclusion on present evidence. [Newsweek, emphasis added]

Dr Kissinger highlights one manifestation of the broader issue: across the world, the United States is attempting to solve twenty-first century problems relying on a twentieth-century alliance of nineteenth-century powers.

The Atlantic alliance—between the United States and Western Europe—might have been useful (see tailpiece) to deal with the mainly Europe-centric conflicts (the two ‘world wars’ and the Cold War) of the last century, but it has proved to be rather useless in addressing the emerging security challenges of this century: the rise of China, the growth of international jihadi terrorism, nuclear proliferation and environmental/natural disasters.

Accusations of an arrogant Washington apart, it is also true that the European states were more interested in showing their flag in Afghanistan than to actually do the fighting. Unwilling to take casualties towards a cause they see as remote, Europe has been looking for a flight out of Afghanistan for a good part of the last eight years. Moreover European states have a vastly different strategic perspective as far as jihadi terrorism goes—they have the luxury of believing that by appeasing them at home, they can escape being targeted.

The Obama administration would do well to heed Dr Kissinger’s advice. One reason Washington’s Af-Pak strategy is in such a rut is because it has neglected exploring options that would leverage the interests of Afghanistan-Pakistan’s neighbours. As long as it tries what is effectively a unilateral route (the European & international component of the coalition being negligible) the United States will find its policy options restricted to withdrawal, attrition or escalation. A new partnership—that weaves regional powers into a co-operative framework—would change the rules of the game. If it is an extraordinary challenge, then in Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama has the extraordinary man to handle it.

Tailpiece: The much celebrated Anglo-American alliance that won the Second World War had as many as 2.5 million Indian troops fighting on its side.

Pragati September 2009: Studying the world

Despite a strong beginning in the years after Independence, the study of international affairs in India, according to Muthiah Alagappa, the author of an in-depth essay in this month’s issue of Pragati, “(has) not kept pace with the changing scope and content of India’s international relations that must now address new challenges, problems, threats, and opportunities in a wide range of domains including economics, climate change, security and regional and global governance.” We feature a detailed look at how international studies can be rejuvenated in India’s academic institutions and think tanks.

Also in this issue: police reforms, liberalising the visa regime, managing the fallout of Sharm-el-Sheikh, tidings from Sri Lanka and a perspective on India’s priorities in the context of the global discourse over climate change.

On the domestic front: failure of the monsoon this year might reduce some regions to come to depend on the rural employment guarantee scheme; a scheme which we argue is a deeply flawed one.

There’s much more in the September 2009 issue of Pragati. Read and Share!


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Manmohan Singh’s foreign travel

The Indian prime minister is going to places he shouldn’t. And not going to places he should.

It’s becoming a pattern. First, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attends a summit of an international grouping that has little relevance to India’s foreign policy priorities. Then, at the “sidelines”, he meets the Pakistani leader who happens to be there too, and then surprises everyone with the outcome. His imprudently went to the SCO meeting at Yekateriburg, met a usually conciliatory Asif Ali Zardari, and appeared to blow hot. He unnecessarily went to a NAM meeting at Sharm-el-Sheikh, met a usually belligerent Yousuf Raza Gilani and handed him a lollipop. He now plans to go to Trinidad to attend a meeting of an irrelevant international organization—the Commonwealth—and intends to meet the Pakistani leader at the sidelines.

Now, if Dr Singh believes that he has to attend meetings of outfits that are peripheral to India’s interests, then he has gotten his priorities very wrong. Since he became prime minister in May 2004, he is yet to visit capitals of countries that are of direct relevance to India. The absence of top-level stewardship has meant that relations with Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Canberra, Seoul and Tokyo—some of India’s most important geopolitical partners—have been at drift. Other than through SAARC, another non-performing outfit, he has not visited even neighboring capitals. Yet he finds the time for not one, but three multilateral summits in the first four months of his second-term. At a time when China is rapidly developing its influence in East Asia and the subcontinent, the UPA government’s failure—and Dr Singh’s personal absence—in Asia has damaged India’s interests in the region.

On the other hand, Dr Singh might merely be using these faraway places as an excuse to meet a Pakistani leader at a neutral venue. If so, then he is not only running an important part of India’s foreign policy by subterfuge, but also, running the risk of damaging outcomes like that at Sharm-el-Sheikh. As K P Nayar wrote in the Calcutta Telegraph, the key official in the foreign ministry handling Pakistan affairs was not even in the delegation that went to Egypt. Without criticising the prime minister’s authority to use his own judgement on key foreign policy decisions, it borders on the irresponsible not to pay attention to composing the negotiating team properly.

The Prime Minister’s Office must state clearly what exactly Dr Singh hopes to achieve at these trips. If the purpose is to attend diplomatic Club-Meds, then he is guilty of very misplaced priorities. If the purpose is to meet a Pakistani leader, then it must not be done by stealth. Dr Singh can invite his Pakistani counterpart, visit Islamabad or indeed, set-up a Reykjavik like summit in a third country.

Think tanks, spy fronts and websites

China’s ‘institutes for strategic studies’

The website that first published the provocative article had the domain name www.iiss.cn—when that site was up it redirected to chinaiiss.org. In addition there is chinaiiss.com and at least one other site with IISS in it. They do not have anything remotely to do with the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (the IISS), nor do they have anything to do with the Chinese foreign ministry-linked China Institute for International Studies (CIIS, on the web at ciis.org.cn).

So what are iiss.com/chinaiiss.org/chinaiiss.com and CIISS?

According to TNN’s Saibal Dasgupta, the websites are run by one Kang Lingyi, and are a private initiative unconnected with any official body. Mr Kang says that it was a mere coincidence that his website had a name similar to the official think-tank, and that he has since changed it to China Center for International and Strategic Studies “to avoid confusion”.

FT reports that Mr Kang’s website is called China International Strategy Net and that he “took part in hacking into US government websites in 1999 following US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Sites such as his are part of the Communist party’s strategy to allow nationalism to grow to strengthen its political legitimacy.” (An issue of TIME magazine dated June 20th 2005 has more about Mr Kang and his patriotic initiatives online.)

What is truly remarkable—and this is China—is that Mr Kang was allowed to operate websites for several years with domain names similar to CIISS, the “official think-tank”. Because that is no ordinary think-tank—as Brahma Chellaney pointed out today, CIISS is a unit directly under the Second Department of the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army.

The Second Department is the PLA’s apex military intelligence department and, according to David Lampton “superior to all other civilian and military organs as a source of national and defence intelligence and military-related strategic analysis for the senior leadership”. Mr Lampton writes that “most Second Department researchers use a “front” affiliation when interacting with foreigners, notably China Institute of International Strategic Studies”. Its chairman is Lieutenant-General Xiong Guangkai, who is quoted as having threated a nuclear attack on Los Angeles in 1995.

There is nothing to connect Mr Kang’s CIISS with General Xiong’s CIISS. But the latter’s signals need to be taken a lot more seriously. Given the scope for confusion, the general would do well to ask Mr Kang to get a different domain name. Unless, of course, the reason not to is stronger.

Manmohan Singh’s costly lollipop giveway

Reinforcing the Denial in Pakistani society is setback for India

Mirror-imaging is not uncommon in popular conceptions that Indians and Pakistanis have of each other. You hear it from Indian lofty-softies when they declare that Pakistanis are “people like us”. But while Indian mirror-imaging generally stops with an innocent notion of the nature of Pakistani society, Pakistani mirror-imaging extends to the nature of the state and its organs.

Nowhere is this most manifested than in the belief that India’s intelligence agencies play the same role their Pakistani counterparts. Accusing India’s RAW of involvement in any number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan—however illogical it might be—need not concern the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s propaganda/psychological operations units anymore: for it is part of the Pakistani nation’s denial mechanism. It is far easier to believe that those devious Hindu-Bania-Indians did it rather than to go through the emotionally draining process of uncovering just why are jihadis killing their compatriots and co-religionists.

Even so reading the editorial in today’s Dawn should bring the coffee onto your clothes. On the matter of the dossier on RAW’s covert operations in Pakistan that Yusuf Raza Gilani supposedly handed over to Manmohan Singh at Sharm-el-Sheikh, it notes that “if they are rogue elements within RAW who are acting independently, they must be taken to task forthwith.” The good people on the editorial board of Dawn are generously—possibly sincerely—providing the Indian prime minister with the same escape route that US officials often provide the Pakistani government.

During a week when it was Pakistan which submitted a dossier of Indian misdeeds, and the Indian foreign ministry used the word “baseless”, Dawn’s editorial just completes the picture. As Coomi Kapoor puts it, India went to the “NAM summit as the (victim) of terror and came back with a document which seems to suggest that both countries are on a level playing field when it comes to sponsoring terror in the other’s backyard.”

Allowing Pakistan to insert the words that it “has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas” in a joint statement has reinforced popular Pakistani perceptions that Indian intelligence agencies are responsible for high-profile acts of terrorism like that attack on the police academy and the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. To the extent that these attacks had galvanised people against the Taliban, the “badly drafted” joint statement damaged the developing resolve against jihadi culture in Pakistani civil society.

The real implication of agreeing to the mention of Balochistan in the joint statement is its impact on Pakistani politics and society, and in turn, the effect this will have on India’s security. (And not so much the handle it gives Islamabad in bilateral negotiations, or indeed, casting itself as a victim of Indian covert operations. More on this in another post, here).

One man—and only one man—is responsible for this setback: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Blaming the foreign secretary and other underlings for the “bad drafting” is pointless. No one but the prime minister himself could have agreed to that reference. He should be held personally accountable for this decision.

Handing Mr Gilani (not even Asif Ali Zardari, and there’s a difference) this lollipop has already had perverse effects: in addition to damaging the prospects of Pakistani society turning against its Talibanisation, it has increased Mr Gilani’s stature vis-à-vis President Zardari. If at all a lollipop had to be given, it should have been to Mr Zardari who had been sounding conciliatory, and not to Mr Gilani who is trying to mask his insignificance as a popular leader by taking hardline positions against India. The decision to reward Mr Gilani and punish Mr Zardari is astonishing: it is either an act of strategic wisdom that ordinary mortals cannot fathom or a clearly discernible act of folly.

The acid test is the next Pakistan-originated terrorist attack: if there is one, Dr Singh must resign. If there isn’t one, or a major attack is averted with the assistance of the Pakistani government, then he deserves our praise.

Update: In his op-ed on July 31st, Pratap Bhanu Mehta echoes these arguments (in greater detail and style)