Sunday, October 27, 2013

Indian Diplomacy-Summits can wait
India must privilege state power over diplomacy in international affairs.
By N.V. Subramanian (21 October 2013)
New DelhiIn the post-Cold War world, a multi-institutional approach to foreign affairs may be preferable to the uni-dimensional course that international policy-making has taken under Manmohan Singh. Indian prime ministers since the inauguration of Jawaharlal Nehru have crafted and guided foreign policy as a personal mission but the world has become a whole lot more complex in the last decade and a half to permit such unmediated individual enterprise. 

It might especially be prudent to step back from high jinks summitry which in India’s case under Manmohan Singh is not yielding results and to let institutions such as the armed forces and the covert services join more robustly and influentially with traditional foreign-office diplomacy and the strengthening of trade relations to assist the country’s rise. 

In such a transformed regime, fraught relations with China and Pakistan would become more manageable, and there would be less helplessness and hand-wringing than, say, now faced with the uncontrollable dynamics in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to withdraw its forces. 

One of the major drawbacks with the dual authority paradigm of the United Progressive Alliance is that it leaves the prime minister with altogether too much time to do diplomacy. A fully engaged head of government cannot make such vast sacrifices of his calendar at the expense of domestic politics. This manner of domestically-imposed tyranny is not half as bad as it seems. 

It puts a premium on the prime minister’s time, and he is compelled to delegate. The situation is adversely altered today. Sonia Gandhi effectively is the prime minister. Manmohan Singh has become her foreign minister, rushing from one world capital to another. Since she controls national politics, he has no authority to forge risky foreign deals.

After the Sharm-el-Sheikh snub from the Congress party, he has become titular even in his foreign engagements. His summit meetings, therefore, are robbed of meaning. 

He returned empty-handed from the United States, and the outcome cannot be extraordinarily different in regard to his tours of Russia and China, where the measure of a man is taken from the political power he enjoys at home. International politics is ruthless. 

But even taking Manmohan Singh’s example to be an exception and an aberration, it is time India generally retreats from summit diplomacy and privileges the institutions of state power to produce results. Summits should always come at the last, after all the ground work is done, and the conditions created for success. Perhaps the closest to such a summit in the Indian context was the Simla Conference of 1972, but atypically for Indira Gandhi, she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory there. 

Nevertheless, the argument that summits should be reserved for the end still holds, even as state institutions are  permitted fuller play to manage and control the external environment. 

For example, in the later part of the 1990s, the covert services did a fine job of managing the environment in Afghanistan alongwith Russia, Iran and the Central Asian Republics. It is not proper to disclose or wise to speculate what was actually done, but the agencies executed their brief, and did rather well at that. When you are to govern a state, you cannot always be very moral, and quote Gandhi to excuse your failure and incompetence. 

Or take the Pakistan army’s violation of the Line of Control and the regular infiltration of terrorists. Manmohan Singh complained about Pakistani behaviour to Barack Obama. What prevented him to grant the armed forces a free hand to settle the matter, who know where the red lines run?

He should have conspired to make the situation so hot for Nawaz Sharief and the Pakistan army as to force their supplication. Ditto the case with China. 

The Chinese never indulge in pointless summitry, and deceive even as they sup

The simple point is that India is not leveraging its strengths. The advice from multiple institutions currently is routed to the national security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, who has no understanding of intelligence and military matters and statecraft in general, and uses his training as a diplomat to caution the government to the point of cowardice.

It has been all-round disaster to have (retired) Indian Foreign Service officers as national security advisors. This writer has not come across one national security advisor with imagination. 

Politics is as much about realism as about imaginative transformation of that reality. It is one and the same for foreign affairs. Granted that India has a cipher as prime minister. But imagine a brilliant head of government being thwarted by a mediocre, risk-averse national security advisor. 

At least in the Indian context, the national security advisor concept has not worked. If there were greater inter-institutional and inter-disciplinary mixing and blending, a capable national security advisor could be chosen from a diverse pool. 

But the military, the intelligence services, the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Foreign Service, etc, are usually so sharply segregated that cross-breeding is a rare phenomenon. And a national security advisor has to be a perfect cross-bred product. 

In the absence of such a person, the prime minister has to become his own national security advisor. He has to have the depth, the understanding and the confidence to step back and permit the institutions to accomplish the results. To this end, he can employ the specialized cabinet and other high-level committees; he has an expansive prime minister’s office on call. 

But the key is that summitry should be put on hold or kept to a minimum till India gains an understanding of the complicated and layered post-Cold War world. 

For that duration and after, state institutions must be set like bloodhounds in pursuit of targets and given definite political results to produce. The failure to use state power to safeguard national interests and to advance legitimate strategic goals can end in tragedy, as it did with Hitler’s bloodless occupation of the Rhineland, which emboldened the dictator to wage war four years later. 

France with at least 100 mobilizable divisions felt terrified to stop the coup of just four Nazi brigades. 

History cannot be repeated. 
N.V.Subramanian is Editor, and writes on politics and strategic affairs. Email:

1 comment:

  1. The thrust of the article is right, but the language used is just too complex. What sort of writing is this -
    - India must privilege state power over diplomacy in international affairs.
    - In such a transformed regime, fraught relations with China and Pakistan would become more manageable, and there would be less helplessness and hand-wringing than, say, now faced with the uncontrollable dynamics in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to withdraw its forces.

    Simplicity, dear sir, simplicity!