India's strategic culture is plain to see
By Namrata Goswami

WASHINGTON - The Economist, in two recent lead articles titled "India as a Great Power" and "Can India become a Great Power?", has severely faulted India for its striking lack of a strategic culture. 

Both articles strongly argue that India's aspirations towards becoming a "Great Power" are undermined by the unwillingness of its politicians and civilian bureaucrats to have anything to do with the idea of "grand strategy". 

The articles caution that with Pakistan in a dangerous internal web of jihadist violence, radicalization of its military and possession of nuclear weapons; China, an ever increasing threat from across the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, harboring covert plans of arming Pakistan with nuclear weapons, puts India on a tight spot. 

To my mind, strategic culture is just how elites perceive threats and opportunities, and both The Economist authors more or less perceive what that fundamental Indian strategic culture is: they appear just not to like it - and hence the recommendation in one of the articles that India should join Western-backed security alliances in order to realize its Great Power ambitions. 

To be even more precise, what I understand by strategic culture is an ideational milieu by which the members of the national strategic community form their strategic preferences with regard to the use and efficacy of military power in response to the threat environment. Each country has its own way to interpret, analyze and react to external opportunities and threats. 

As a member of the Indian strategic community, let me assure you that we do have a strategic culture where we closely assess the external environment and debate on the efficacy of the use of military power in addressing external threats. That India tends to give priority to dialogue over the use of military power in foreign policy does not mean that it does not have a strategic culture; it just means that the strategic preferences are different from the normal understanding of how Great Powers behave. 

India may lack a plan explicit enough to satisfy these observers ... or complain that its strategy is not what they want - the reality is that India has in fact already shed its non-alignment - but the new alignments are contingent and based on shared interests, and can never be total alignments of the "Cold War" variety. 
What the authors of The Economist articles are more likely saying is not that India lacks a strategic culture, but rather that it lacks a culture of strategic planning ... of identifying desirable future goals, and plotting a series of sequential steps to reach them versus just pursuing an opportunistic policy of what appears preferable in the moment without a clearly defined end in mind. 

This interpretation may have been true in the past, but the authors should be aware of the evolution that is taking place in the Indian strategic community today. 

In the past three years, India's External Affairs Ministry and the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) have sponsored future-oriented strategic assessments in order to understand threats and opportunities, especially in India's immediate neighborhood through studies like Imagining Asia in 2030, the DRDO 2050 project, the India Neighbourhood 2030 project, in order to craft an explicit and compelling national security strategy. I have been a consultant on these projects.

As to what is Indian strategic culture, there are broadly two major interpretations. One is what I call "hardcore realism" for which the projection of military power beyond India's borders will improve India's international influence and secure its borders vis-a-vis China and Pakistan. 

Realists view the instability in Pakistan, the rising power of China and the unresolved border issue, as serious external threats mitigated by broadcasting efficient and effective military power at the border with Pakistan and China, and projecting Indian naval power in the Indian Ocean. Realists support increased defense spending, which by The Economist's own admission poises India to become the fourth largest military power in the world by 2020. 

The other ideational base of Indian strategic culture is the Nehruvian commitment to use military power only as a last resort, not until the last diplomatic note has been written. 

Nehruvians firmly believe that dialogue rather than military force is the best way to resolve conflicts with either Pakistan or China. They have faith in the ability of international organizations to mitigate international conflict and are wary of security alliances outside of the UN. Nehruvians are against India joining security alliances of any nature that could potentially create conflicts and undermine world peace. Military power projection, for them, is purely an act of self defense as under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Aligning with other states for the purpose of a common broadcasting of military strength is not supported by Nehruvians; hence their commitment to non-alignment and aversion to militarized western security groupings. 

Given the overlap of these two ideational influences on India's strategic culture, a complex structure is thereby superimposed on Indian strategic preferences, influenced by realist aspirations for Great Power status based on military power projection but tempered by Nehruvian ethos of dialogue and international cooperation, with a growing inward looking focus on building India's economy. 

India could move closer to some of the other recommendations made in The Economist articles of what India should do to become a Great Power but on its way it will also disappoint as it will appropriately give preference to tackle internal poverty and development, a greater concern to Indian citizens and politicians, which will be the true springboard for its enduring greatness. 

Dr Namrata Goswami is a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC and Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of her own. 

(Copyright 2013 Namrata Goswami.)