Foreign policy: Not by Ahimsa alone

Conversations with some of India’s most distinguished and thoughtful diplomats over the past few months have left me with a distinct impression that modern Indian foreign policy has come to accept the use of force beyond our borders and shores as inconceivable. Whereas the use of military power to defend our land and maritime frontiers is accepted but deprecated, I find that India’s statesmen and women treat military power beyond that as unacceptable and even absurd.

This has to change. Without a new foreign policy idiom that combines both diplomacy and military power, India will find itself at a disadvantage at a time of rapid, profound changes to the world order, to global and regional balances of power and fluid international relationships. Both China’s rise and the world’s response to it have transformed international relations into a contest where the coercive use of power is growing. International institutions are neither able to prevent this nor punish transgressors. The Indian foreign policy & defence establishment needs to urgently reflect on what this implies for us.

Because our diplomats and our generals inhabit two different worlds, and their political masters yet another, our approach to international issues excludes military power. It’s a mystery how the Indian Army managed to get on the front foot in Doklam last year but our situation in the Maldives is a good example of why “force is not an option” in our foreign policy. The Abdulla Yameen regime continues to exploit New Delhi’s worries about China’s influence in the Maldives to further increase China’s influence in the Maldives. If Indian foreign policy cannot even conceive of a role for military force here, where our interests are palpably at great risk, can we imagine us intervening in theatres further afield, say Myanmar, where a genocide is ongoing?

For their part, the armed forces are prepared — psychologically and physically — to defend our borders and proximate maritime and airspace. They are organised, equipped and trained for this. Because they see themselves as legitimate stakeholders in defending the borders, and because they have the competence and the capacity to play a role, they have a role in India’s foreign policy towards Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal and to a lesser extent, Sri Lanka. This means that India’s overall policy towards its land neighbours benefits from a balance of political, diplomatic, intelligence and military interests.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
Such a balance is missing when it comes to the broader geography. For instance, India embarked on a “Look East” policy in the early 1990s, but it took over 15 years for the armed forces to do so too. Our Afghanistan policy entirely relies on diplomacy, intelligence and economics, and leaves out military force as an instrument of policy. Conversely, our armed forces participate in joint exercises with many of their foreign counterparts, largely removed from the strategic context where they might be called upon to operate jointly. While joint military exercises do allow development of professional, tactical and operational competencies, to the extent that they are devoid of the overall context, they do not become instruments of strategy.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a hawkish foreign policy and getting into shooting wars in far-flung locations. Rather, that New Delhi should see our military capacity as an insurance against the failure of diplomacy around the world, just as it does with our land neighbours. And that the need for this is urgent.

How do we get there? The National Security Council must come up with a policy on overseas military deployments. This need not be a public document. It will cause the armed forces to begin to think systematically and purposefully on what kind of roles they will be called upon to perform, what kind of resources they will need, what preparations they will have to make and so on.

Structure can create stakeholders and vested interests. The primary ownership of the overseas military deployment policy can be vested in a joint expeditionary combatant command under the integrated defence staff (IDS). Such a force will need to develop competencies, resources and organisational interests in regions beyond the immediate neighbourhood, and can provide alternative options to the political leadership. In an ideal case, it could bring diplomats and military officers together in a cooperative relationship. This is what we should prefer and attempt. But even if the dynamics of bureaucracy don’t permit that, a competitive relationship is not a bad thing.

Career diplomats might raise more than an eyebrow at such a suggestion, but I cannot see how India can defend its increasingly global interests without bringing the armed forces into the foreign policy-making process. As is usually the case, “some of this is already happening.” What we need is for it to happen across the board. Of course, this means that the type of officers the armed force recruit and the type of officers they promote as generals needs to change. Career military officers might raise more than an eyebrow at this suggestion, but the best combatant commanders need not be the best geopolitical strategists.

From Kautilya to current times, military power has been seen as the last and least preferred instrument of statecraft. It should remain one.


The writer is co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank and school of public policy

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