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Big dreams, little direction: India’s foreign policy machine August 4, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Merrington, Louise , trackback

Louise Merrington

With the increasing tendency to link China and India in Western analyses of Asia, there is now a growing insistence by India that it be viewed by the international community on the same level as China, in spite of being far behind the latter in terms of infrastructure, development and economic influence. Although this hubris is not exhibited on an individual level by every official in the government or civil service responsible for foreign policy or defence, on a collective scale there appears to be a sense of entitlement which emanates from India but lacks clear direction – that is, India feels that it wants to achieve great things, but can’t articulate exactly what these things are. This has led to a series of missed opportunities.

These attitudes and outcomes have several roots, including a lack of cohesion within the foreign policy establishment, the overly bureaucratic and hierarchical structure of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), and immaturity within the strategic policy sector. India is often touted as the ‘world’s largest democracy’, and as such a diversity of opinion is to be expected. At the moment, however, this diversity is translating into a lack of decisiveness and cohesion in terms of foreign policy.

Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao.  Too much advice for the PM?

This paralysis is exemplified by the fact that India has not produced any sort of document, such as a white paper, outlining its foreign policy goals, though some Indian scholars and officials will argue that material present in the Constitution and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Annual Reports is articulation enough. Consequently it is difficult to ascertain exactly what India hopes to achieve, both in South Asia and globally. At present India (or at least certain sections of the foreign policy and defence establishments) has firmer ideas of what it wants to be – a ‘dominant’ power – rather than what it wants to do or how it wants to do it. Even so, there is no clear agreement on the type of dominance or influence desired.

It is commonly argued that India does not and has never desired hegemony in South Asia or on a broader scale, though this assessment would most likely be contradicted by other South Asian countries such as Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with whom India has had turbulent relations over the years. Indeed, India’s ‘elder brother’ view of itself has been one of the major obstacles to greater efficiency in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as this has been resented by the other members.

Rajesh Basrur from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore argues that this ‘elder brother’ approach stems from a notion of ‘extended neighbourhood’ which dates back to Curzon. Although, post-Independence, this was widened to a global strategic focus under Jawaharlal Nehru, he believes that after the defeat by China in 1962 India retreated into South Asia and focused much more heavily on defence rather than power projection. (Though, as he notes, some of the other South Asian countries might argue that actions taken during this time were actually offensive as well as defensive.) He also observes that the overall focus shifted away from ideology in favour of the development of material power (Author interview, 2009). Indeed, this shift is still continuing, albeit slowly, with India currently in transition between a Nehruvian non-aligned ‘champion of the poor’-style foreign policy and the policies of an industrialised country with a huge and growing economy. In a prime example of the link between economics and foreign policy, during the 1970s and 80s the notorious ‘Hindu rate of growth’ meant that military growth was also stymied, but after economic reforms began in the early 1990s and India began to integrate much more with the global economy, military spending also began to take off.

In spite of this growing global integration, however, India continues to lack an institutional foreign policy set-up, which means that strategic planning is weak and has too heavy an area-specific geographical focus, which leads to fragmentation. Consequently the foreign policy establishment is engaged with the issues of the day, but needs to broaden its strategic focus to see more clearly how actions on different issues affect each other.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon puts this lack of strategic focus down to the relative inexperience of the newly-developed class of professional strategists, an immaturity which he believes will be rectified with time. He notes that the same unsophisticated analysis was present in 1950s American debates on strategic issues and nuclear weapons, because it was the first time the strategists had had to face these kinds of issues, and that this proved to be self-correcting. In his opinion, it has only been in the last ten years in India that strategists have started thinking in terms of ‘outcomes’, not only in regard to foreign policy, but also in domestic issues, and that actually such debate is healthy because it illustrates a willingness to challenge authority which until recently had been absent from the highly hierarchical policy structure (Author interview, 2009).

In many ways, however, Menon’s has proven to be the most optimistic view. Former ambassador Kishan S. Rana, who has written extensively of various countries’ foreign policy bureaucracies, believes that although Indian foreign policy is not as fragmented as has been alleged, the current role of the Foreign Secretary needs to be realigned in order to better serve the country’s aims. Rana notes that there are two main objectives of any foreign service: foreign policy advice and management (the delivery of policy); and management of the diplomatic machine, which is a technical management task rather than a policy one. He believes that in the Indian context, the Foreign Secretary is forced to focus too much on the direct delivery of foreign policy, rather than the management of diplomacy. This, he argues, is in contrast to the set-ups of other countries such as Britain, France, Australia and the US, where the top civil servant tends to focus much more on “managing the diplomatic machine”, and where a lot of the foreign policy advisory work is delegated. He notes that in these countries the Foreign Secretary (or equivalent) rarely leaves the country or handles negotiations personally, in contrast, for example, to current Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who spends a great deal of her time accompanying government officials such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil abroad (Author interview, 2009).

Arguably the biggest obstacle to India’s effective promotion of its foreign policy goals, however, is lack of capacity, with only around 685 diplomats to service 190 countries. In addition, there appears to be a serious lack of cohesion within the Ministry, with, for example, allegations of a group of ‘China-wallahs’ within the MEA who make all the decisions related to China without the Foreign Secretary, who is deliberately sidelined, because discussions can’t take place with ‘outsiders’. This group has led to the MEA’s East Asian division jokingly being referred to as an outpost of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because it is seen to be acting consistently in China’s interest rather than India’s (Author interview, 2009). Although these allegations of a ‘China clique’ within the MEA remain unconfirmed, the very presence of such rumours highlights the lack of unity within the Ministry.

In any case, it appears that the current structure of the MEA and IFS is presenting problems, namely: 1) it is still highly bureaucratic and hierarchical, which tends to stymie efficiency; 2) there is a severe lack of capacity in terms of attracting and retaining qualified people; 3) the role of the Foreign Secretary needs to be re-examined; and 4) there is a certain amount of immaturity in India’s strategic analyses of its role and relationships, which influences foreign policy.

In spite of Menon’s optimistic (and likely realistic) assessment of these strategic views as maturing over time, the fact that India is in need of such a process indicates that it is not yet the type of influential power on the world stage that it claims to be. Although most definitions of power politics focus on military, economic and cultural (‘soft power’) strength, it can be argued that a mature foreign policy and strategic outlook is also a necessary component for any ‘great power’ state. India, as already noted, currently possesses neither of these.


1. Ambassador K P Fabian - August 7, 2010

The rumour about the East Asia Division’s keeping the Foreign Secretary out is only a rumour without foundation and is not worth repeating.

That India has ‘great power’ ambitions without clear notions of what status entails is well taken. But a similar observation can be made with some others too. In any case the ambition includes a permanent seat on the Security Council. Therefore, it is not totally undefined.

That India has to have a set of long-term policy goals is a good point. I do not know whether it is only a question of time.

Historically , very few countries have formulated a sensible foreign policy and carried it out. The best example is Bismarck.

2. EAM - August 10, 2010

This is a terribly biased piece using higly emotive language (‘hubris’ ‘sense of entitlement’‘ “notorious ‘ Hindu rate of growth’ (does anyove ever refer to the near zero growth rate before 1947 as the “Christian rate of growth”?).

The only real criticism of India that can be made out is a “lack of clear direction” and a “fragmented” bureaucray. However, does not every country have differences in views within the FP establishment – including China and US? I am not sure that anything about India sets it apart in this regard.

I would have thought that India’s foregien policy directions are quite clear and consistent, the key elements being

. a quite stable strategic relationshiop with Russia going back nrealy 50 years;
. increasing engagement with the US;
. better engagement with China and mutual efforts to avoid confrontation;
. a goal of hegemony in the subcontinent (this may not be achieved – even China cannot achieve this in respect of its neighbours, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea (let alone Russia and India));
. containing Pakistan;
. securing supplies of oil and other resources from West Asia;
. a priority for economic development.

I am not sure why it is so difficult to see this in the statements and acts of the FP establishments and think tanks. I do not see any lack of direction and clarity at all.

3. Trilok Singh - August 11, 2010

Dear Fabian,

A long-term policy goals is the need of the time.We cannot live in isolation.We have to find ways and means of development of alll the south asian countries.We need first of all peace around our borders and who, other than Indians, can be locomotives of progress in South Asian countries ? Bismarck is a bad example,because his Germany was the cause of later Strife in Europe.Today´s after ww2 Germany is the best example,because its peace and friendship policies have brought
education,prosparity and social welfare in whole of Europe.

Trilok Nanda,Cologne,Germany.

4. Kamala Kanta Dash - August 25, 2010

Thanks Louise for starting a very crucial discussion on Indian foreign policy.

I recently read Rajiv Sikri (2009, Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy, Sage Pub). He makes identical points in Chapter 14 when he talks about the inefficiency of the Indian Foreign Policy Decision Making. I completely agree with you and Sikri. The problem is that the foreign ministry has been either complacent or overconfident regarding its understanding of the International Relations (IR) and shows any interest in citizen engagement in policy making. The Public Diplomacy division has started a twitter account only recently. I completely agree with you that there is no white paper, no scholarly engagement on foreign policy issues and no one at the MEA will be allowed to update foreign affairs activities of the MEA. Dr. Tharoor’s tweets on his professional engagement at the MEA was not taken in the right spirit. You can ask either Sikri or Tharoor, I think they both will agree that the bureaucracy that has not been innovative enough to accept that the public can have a say in the foreign policy decision making.

As practiced in Australia, students pursuing IR during their UG and PG get an opportunity to either do an internship or work with the foreign ministry. In India the students even at JNU, the leading university in international studies do not get an opportunity to do internship with the MEA. So there is very unlikely that with time the expertise of the next generation will be any qualitatively different.

Foreign Policy and International Relations students in India must be nurtured and trained when they are young enough, especially in their UG and PG days. The uniform system of civil services as conducted by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) now requires reform and Indian Foreign Service must become a separate service and attract only people who are inclined to serve their country and be the best ambassadors of the country.

Best Wishes for your further research