The Dangers of Strategic Complacency

Sri Lanka Guardian Long Read 

Excerpts of the book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, by author. 

by S. Jaishankar

 ‘The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior’  – PLATO  

A famous Satyajit Ray film some decades ago captured the Indian self-absorption that shapes its larger awareness of the world. It depicted two Indian nawabs en- grossed in a chess game while the British East India Company steadily took over their wealthy kingdom of Awadh. Today, as another global power rises – that too in India’s immediate proximity – this country cannot be oblivious once again to its consequences. Ideally, the emergence of China should serve as an inspiration to sharpen India’s competitive instincts. But at the very least, it should stir a serious debate about the direction of world politics and its implications for us. This is important because in parallel there are other momentous shifts under- way. A larger rebalancing was already in evidence, now overlaid by greater regional volatility, higher risk-taking, stronger nationalism and a rejection of globalization. 

Indian Way

But the critical change is the recalibrated posture of an America that has long been the bedrock of the contemporary international system. Its response to China’s rise may well determine the direction of contemporary politics. Because global happenings are not always factored fully into its internal dynamics, such developments have often passed India by. How they impact its thinking is also not always made clear in the absence of definitive political narratives. So as India rises in the world order, it should not only visualize its interests with great clarity but also communicate them effectively. This is an effort to contribute to that endeavour, encouraging an honest conversation among Indians, without discouraging the world from eavesdropping. 

International relations may be mostly about other nations, but neither unfamiliarity nor indifference lessen its consequences. So, rather than allow events to come upon us, these are better anticipated and analysed. That has not been our history, as demonstrated in the Panipat syndrome that saw invading forces enter the Indian heartland for decisive battles. This default option of playing defence reflects a mindset that does not comprehend external events well, leave alone appreciate their implications. In contemporary times, Indian agnosticism about the outcome of the Second World War had major repercussions. In the next decade, India’s handling of the Cold War led Pakistan, a smaller neighbour, to close the power differential for decades. The consequences of its illegal occupation of part of Jammu and Kashmir was as underestimated as the strength of its revanchist sentiments after 1971.

Understanding of China has been inadequate, whether it was the significance of the 1949 revolution, later the intensity of its Communist nationalism or, finally, the enormity of its post-1978 rise. As India developed a greater familiarity with world politics, power equations were misjudged by political romanticism. Inevitable decisions, such as on nuclear weapons, were consequently delayed at great cost. The issue of pursuing earlier a United Nations Security Council seat is another example that has been debated widely. 

Missed opportunities in economic development by turning our back on global progress are, of course, a story told before. While the 1971 Bangladesh War, the 1991 economic reform, the 1998 nuclear tests and the 2005 nuclear deal were exercises in strategic retrieval, it nevertheless told on our overall standing. It is only more recently that a stronger realpolitik has overcome a complacency based on en- trenched dogma. 

The rise of a potential superpower is naturally a disruptive occurrence for any global order. If we forget that, it is because the last time it happened, with the USSR, was in the midst of a World War that masked its emergence. Transitions between superpowers and their overlapping coexistence are difficult at best of times. The one between the UK and the US in the first half of the twentieth century is the exception, not the rule. But when societies are built on different principles, then it is very much harder to reconcile contestation with collaboration. Divergences may matter less when a nation’s influence is relatively small, and its actions mainly affect its own people. It was perhaps more acceptable in the immediate post-colonial world, when capabilities were of a lesser order. But once they reach a global scale, it became much harder to overlook. Conducting international relations, while being agnostic about the character of societies, has its limitations. This is strikingly evident today as attitudes across the political divide reinforce each other. Even as this started happening, globalization as a powerful compulsion for cohabitation initially mitigated emerging contradictions. At some stage, however, geopolitical stresses have found articulation as a vocal nationalism among states that feed off each other. Sharper competitiveness should be expected as the driving force of the world today. 

China’s full-blown arrival on the global stage has inevitably had its repercussions. Some of that arises from the natural displacement of other powers. But part of it is also because of China’s unique characteristics. Unlike other nations that rose earlier in Asia, it is much harder to fit into the Western-led global order. The reality now is that the two most powerful nations of our day who served each other’s purpose politically for many years now no longer do so. 

For India, such a scenario raises a host of strategic challenges. Handling that adroitly will be important, especially when approaching it from the perspective of our own interests. Developing the mindset to not only respond but actually leverage that is what could define the new India. The US currently is back to the strategic drawing board as it reinvents itself. Its interim approach is of greater individualism, more insularity and sharp retrenchment. This exercise of recalculation is a difficult one because the consequences of its past strategic bets cannot be easily undone. So we hear a potent narrative of unfair trade, excessive immigration and ungrateful allies. And market access, technology strengths, military dominance and the power of the dollar now seem to be the ingredients of an emerging solution. Whatever the politics that unfolds in America, much of the change is there to stay. The US-China dynamic that will impinge on the two States themselves and on the world is the global backdrop for Indian policymaking. 

The era of benign globalization that facilitated the dramatic rise of China has come to an end. How this came to pass is obviously important; what to make of it even more so. India’s rise has been slower and will now have to navigate difficult waters. We have entered a turbulent phase where a new kind of politics is being fashioned. The issue is not whether India will continue rising; that vector is reason- ably assured. The question is how to do so optimally in an era of greater uncertainty. 

For the near term, India has little choice but to pursue a mix of multiple ap- proaches, some orthodox and others more imaginative. But in all of them, partner- ships with global interests could make a significant difference. Much of that would revolve around the West and Russia. But China, now the world’s second largest economy, can hardly be disregarded in any calculation. Leveraging them all may not be easy but still no less necessary for that. Mastering mind games and playing hardball are also musts in a more visceral world. To do all that, it is vital that we come to terms with its complex dynamics. Only then can India successfully cute strategic policies for a new era. 

Events in the last few years have been such a deviation from the norm that there is understandable confusion about the direction of world affairs. Both in the case of the US and China, developments have been outside the realm of earlier experiences. Pakistan has exceeded the most pessimistic projection of its policies. Other neighbours of India have sometimes acted at odds with their past. The influence of changing geopolitics is visible in our immediate vicinity, as in the extended neighbourhood. Refreshing India’s ties with Russia has required dedicated efforts. Japan has offered opportunities notwithstanding the complexity of its predicament. Com- fort with Europe has grown, but needs more insights into its increasingly intricate politics. Much of our analyses of current happenings are also coloured by ideological battles. Whether we like the direction of events or not, it does not make them less real. They have both causes and effects that must be acknowledged. Whatever our views, it is better to analyse than just demonize the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

 When the dominant power in the world revisits first principles, its consequences are profound. Assessing that accurately is part of gauging the permanence of the change underway. For India, the exercise holds particular importance because American calculations have been supportive of its recent rise. How much a shift in its thinking would transform world politics and affect India’s interests is today a paramount question. It is inextricably linked to the dynamics of its relationship with other powers. The new American approach to trade and security is no less relevant. It would be a mistake to approach the Trump Administration using the logic of previous experience with predecessors. There are new priorities in the making and the old playbook of dealing with that country needs rewriting.

 India’s rise will inevitably be compared to that of China, if only because that country has immediately preceded it. Its imprint on global consciousness, its civilizational contribution, geopolitical value and economic performance will all be factors in that exercise. Emulating the strategies and diplomatic tactics of another obviously cannot be a serious proposition for a society with a very different history and outlook. That said, there is much that India can learn from China. One important lesson is demonstrating global relevance as the surest way of earning the world’s respect. The Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew once paid India’s rise a back-handed compliment of being the more reassuring one. Today’s world may call for a greater willingness to make waves.

There could also be an opportunity in a world looking for more sources of growth and stability. Being a democratic polity, a pluralistic society and a market economy, India will grow with others, not separately. Given these affinities, such an India can exploit effectively a search for new partnerships. Values that bring them together do matter, probably even more so in a technology-driven world. They shape intent that when paired with capabilities determines the nature of power. If one is less suspect, then there would be greater enthusiasm in welcoming the other. 

Geopolitics and balance of power are the underpinning of international relations. India itself has a tradition of Kautilyan politics that put a premium on them. If there are lessons from the near past, it is that these were not given the weight age that they deserved. The Bandung era of Afro-Asian solidarity in the 1950s serves as a reminder of the costs of neglecting hard power. But more than lack of focus on capabilities, they reflect an underlying thinking. We have since reached a league where the ability to protect our interests is an assumption, not just an option. That is best done through a mix of national strengths and external relationships. 

Clearly, in a more nationalistic world, diplomacy will use competition to extract as much gains from as many ties as possible. But there is, nevertheless, a strong case for India also supporting a greater sense of order. Our own growth model and political outlook intrinsically favour rules-based behaviour. India must make a virtue of reconciling global good with national interest. The challenge is to practise that successfully in a world of greater multipolarity and weaker multilateralism. 

India’s foreign policy carries three major burdens from its past. One is the 1947 Partition, which reduced the nation both demographically and politically. An unintended consequence was to give China more strategic space in Asia. Another is the delayed economic reforms that were undertaken a decade and a half after those of China. And far more ambivalently. The fifteen-year gap in capabilities continues to put India at a great disadvantage. The third is the prolonged exercise of the nuclear option. As a result, India has had to struggle mightily to gain influence in a domain that could have come so much more easily earlier. It is, of course, better that these issues are being addressed late than never. But greater self-reflection on our mistakes since 1947 would certainly serve the nation well. We could also extend that to the roads not taken. 

Author of the book, S Jaishankar

For a country that has long operated in a disadvantageous landscape, any change is to be welcomed with an open mind. While more distant developments cannot be disregarded, those in our immediate vicinity offer even greater promise. A Neighbourhood First approach that generously rebuilds economic and societal linkages of the Subcontinent can work to India’s favour. Extending the sense of neighbourhood to the East and the West is almost as important. Integrating the sea space to the South into our security calculus is the other key element of a broader vision. Together, the successful execution of such policies can reverse much of the strategic implications of the downsizing of India. 

The endeavours of the ASEAN to retain its cohesion and centrality also creates a demand for India. If the Asian balance of power was skewed by the Partition, this was further aggravated by the post-1945 restraints on Japan. The security posture of that polity therefore has some implications for India’s calculations. In fact, when it comes to Asia, the extent of change is still far from fully apparent. What can be safely asserted is that the openings for India are more, not less. 

However unsettling the current world picture may look, it should not mask the progress made in the last few decades. In a vast range of domains, they have trans- formed the quality of life for many. Certainly, Indians would be justified in expecting the future to be better. They cannot ignore global disruptions, but have no reason to buy into a pessimistic outlook. On the contrary, our domestic situation and international positioning opens up many possibilities. The options we create will help determine the choices we make. 

This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, sure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand traditional constituencies of support. The mix of opportunities and risks presented by a more uncertain and volatile world is not easy to evaluate. Structural changes are even harder to come to terms with, especially the diminution of regimes and disregard of rules. Goals, strategy and tactics are all today very different. The deficit in global goods may be troubling, but there are no ready substitutes.

 In such a dynamic situation, creating a stable balance in Asia is India’s foremost priority. It is only a multipolar Asia that can lead to a multipolar world. Equally important, it would put a premium on India’s value for the global system. Our approach should be to build comfort with the world, not opaqueness or distance. There will be a natural suspicion of all rising powers that we will have to allay. Taking on global responsibilities, acting as a constructive player and projecting our own distinct personality are elements of that solution. India is better off being liked than just being respected. 

So what will this really mean in terms of foreign policy and its practices? To begin with, it would require advancing national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions. Such an India would pay more attention to national security and national integrity. It would not be hesitant in adjusting its positions where required by its own interests. This mindset would also accord primacy to the nurturing of goodwill, beginning with India’s immediate neighbourhood. That would include a stronger sense of its bottom lines and a willingness to do what it takes to defend them. Making a visible impact on global consciousness would be taking this to the next level. It would encourage a greater contribution to global issues and regional challenges. Humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) is an obvious platform to demonstrate a more coming posture. 

There would be conceptual aspects as well. Introducing our own diplomatic terms into the discourse is intrinsic to the process of international emergence. The Indo-Pacific, the Quad or the BRICS earlier are illustrative examples. Brand building that already plays on our IT and business strengths could be expanded further. The corona pandemic has allowed India to be now projected as the pharmacy of the world. Cultural practices can also be ‘mainstreamed’ to strengthen that process. Observing the International Day of Yoga or advocating traditional medicines are cases in point. Even the more prolific use of our own languages in interacting with the world is an indicator of the changing equilibrium.

 But more than the promotional elements, it is the underlying assumptions that can make a difference. We have been conditioned to think of the post-1945 world as the norm and departures from it as deviations. In fact, our own pluralistic and complex history underlines that the natural state of the world is multipolarity. It also brings out the constraints in the application of power. A behaviour and a thought process which reflects that can facilitate the creation of a more favourable equilibrium with others. 

Indian policymakers may need to assess the merits of more realism in their approach to world affairs. To a great extent, this is a compulsion forced on them by global developments. Increasing nationalism across geographies is contributing to a more transactional view of international relations. The primacy being given to trade and connectivity to shape choices strengthens these trends. An unabashed America First and a muscular China Dream are setting the tone. In any case, Russia’s focus has long been narrower than that of the Soviet Union. But even a Europe with a growing fortress mentality is struggling to find the right balance between its interests and values. As for Japan, its continued caution speaks for itself. India has little choice but to do in Rome as Romans do. Indeed, it can do that really well and perhaps even find new opportunities in the process. 

However, there is also a reason for brand differentiation that is especially important for a rising and aspirational power. In India’s case, this should build on the positive aspects of its nationalism. The world must be reminded that we pro- vided economic assistance and training to others even when our resources were meagre. The expansion of India’s engagement with the world should be seen as something deeper than just ambition. The approach of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’ is as relevant to foreign policy as to the domestic one. It should articulate a fundamental desire to engage the world more comprehensively. 

What India and the world mean to each other will change as they develop new equations. An economy that is transitioning to a higher level will hold a different relevance. That will mean striking the right balance between developing stronger national capabilities, making it easier to do business, ensuring a level playing field, and growing with the global economy. New equilibriums between the world and India will arise in different fields, some of them not without friction. But the in- ternational community has much more riding on India than just economic gains. Its performance will determine whether Sustainable Development Goals targets are achieved, climate change challenges are addressed, disruptive technologies are adopted, global growth is balanced and accelerated, and a larger pool of talent is made available. 

Not just that, it is also very much on India’s record that the global credibility of democratic practices will be strengthened. For that, India must successfully take forward its own model in the years ahead. While the progress of what will be among the larger economies in the next generation will be carefully monitored, its relevance to the priorities of the world will attract even more attention. Central to that exercise will be the ability to deliver a credible Make in India programme that can contribute to more resilient global supply chains. No less significant will be the deployment of emerging and greener technologies on a scale that make for a global difference. 

The socio-cultural changes that this India is undergoing are also an important factor in the overall matrix. Younger demographics and a broader awareness are contributing to stronger self-belief. An aspirational India will inevitably attach greater priority to pursuing national goals and establishing a global presence. Its greater sense of assurance will take India’s explorations in many directions. It is necessary that contemporary international affairs recognize and respect that development. 

As an Indian diplomat, I have watched the world change beyond imagination in the course of a long career. My generation and those before carried into our profession the heavy baggage of difficult experiences with the US, China and Pakistan. By the 1970s, these three accounts had mutated into a joint threat to Indian interests. The first half of my diplomatic life was dominated by two geopolitical realities: the Cold War and the rise of political Islam. They combined to precipitate the break-up of the Soviet Union, an event of great consequence for India. The second half saw our country come to terms with these changes and more. It fundamentally  reshaped our ties with the US, even as a new power rose in the East with global repercussions. But it is not just the world that is changing; so too are Indian capabilities, aspirations and priorities.

 All of this is cumulatively reflected in an evolution from the centrality of the Soviet relationship to convergences with multiple powers. Economic reform, the nu- clear tests, the 2005 nuclear deal and a tougher national security posture are among its diplomatic milestones. Together, they helped create a policy outlook that has not been easy to capture in terms of orthodox thinking. If India drove the revived Quad arrangement, it also took membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A longstanding trilateral with Russia and China coexists now with one involving the US and Japan. These apparently contradictory developments only illustrate the world in which we now operate. Comprehending and messaging them is hard, especially to those not ready to come to terms with the intricacies of the new architecture. Positioning is of increasing value in a fluid world, explaining the importance of engaging competing powers like the US, China, the EU or Russia at the same time. 

But when Indian actions are viewed from the perspective of its own self-interest, a clearer pattern starts to emerge. It is one of constant advancement of goals and interests, using all pathways that the world has to offer. And since that often means plunging into the unknown, it requires both judgement and courage. Our past will always be an influence, but no longer a determinant of our future. Forging ahead will mean taking risks and refraining from passing off timidity as strategy or indecision as wisdom.

In many ways, India’s progress of the last five years has confounded those who have been unable or unwilling to transcend the old framework of analysis. Expectations that its America policy would founder initially on the ideology of one Administration or then on the nationalism of another were proved wrong. That India could stand firm on key concerns and yet establish a stable relationship with China was not easily appreciated. The structural basis for ties with Russia is underestimated, as also the relevance of Europe and Japan to contemporary India. 

Perhaps the strongest preconceptions were in regard to the immediate neighbourhood. Every complication was depicted as a setback. And every correction was explained as an inevitable happening, presumably independent of India’s action. That being the case, it is hardly a surprise that the transformed landscape in our vicinity was not even recognized. 

Pakistan predictably has been the cause of the greatest debate. That India could offer a hand of friendship, but nevertheless respond strongly to acts of terror, is hardly a contradiction, except for those determined to see one. Clearly, different actions, players and times call for different responses. And setting the agenda to reflect contemporary challenges like terrorism is common sense, not wilfulness. 

Those with a historical sense of our national security threats will understandably worry about Afghanistan. Whether we blame it on imperial overstretch or just plain misjudgement, matters there have come to a difficult pass. But it is also true that the clock cannot be turned back two decades. India has a hand to play be- cause of its contributions during this time. And it has consequently a standing of its own that is of no small value. Therefore, it is important not to be stampeded by the tactical manoeuvres of others. We will count, not because of the largesse of the world, but due to our strengths. And our role will not just reflect that, but also our convergences with other interested powers.

 Experience of governance always adds greater reality to any analysis. Simply put, many things are easy to advocate, much harder to do. In fact, this was precisely that argument with which my father tempted a student of international relations to sit for the Foreign Service examination in 1976. The learning since is that actual policy in a large country is a parallel pursuit of multiple priorities, some of whom could be contradictory. Neither abstention nor hedging are always answers to their pulls and pressures. Choices have to be made, not just debated. And they cannot be without costs. 

But before choices comes the issue of capabilities. It is our ability to rise to domestic challenges that will determine India’s place in the world. We are at least focused on the right issues now: digitization, industrialization, urbanization, rural growth, infrastructure, skills etc. The achievement of Sustainable Development Goals can be for India what the Millennium Development Goals did for China.

There will be decisions on the economic front that will have a direct bearing on our comprehensive national power. We have a record of both over-protecting and under-protecting different sectors. The post-1991 strategy has clearly gone astray and both the current trade wars and post-corona recovery are powerful compulsions to formulate a more contemporary approach. Similar to how it approaches political multipolarity, India will have to undertake its economic variant, especially the big hubs around which its trade and investments revolve. Technology too has a special resonance for a society given to leapfrogging. Aggressive deployment may be tough but offers great rewards. Eventually, leading abroad will require delivering at home. 

Going up in the global power hierarchy, whether in terms of capability or influence, is only one element of India’s rise. Our nation has other journeys to make in parallel. In the last few decades, we have heard more authentic voices as democratization took deeper roots. These changes in our national culture have been affirmed, amongst others, through political and electoral outcomes. At the same time, India is also transitioning from a civilizational society to a nation-state. It involves assuming attributes that introduce discipline and formalism in aspects of our daily life. There are also problems left over from history – especially the Partition that require fresh thinking. So, quite apart from its growing prominence, the world is today required to come to terms with this changing India. 

The key questions pertaining to us reflect the global rebalancing underway. Will the world continue to define India, or will India now define itself? Awadh remains the symbol of the former to this day. But if it is now to be the latter, then it means not just new equilibriums with other powers but with the world order itself. India is today on a voyage of self-discovery and the lessons of Awadh are its surest com- pass in that quest.

The author of this book is India’s External Affairs Minister. 

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