Beyond Strategic Caution

by: Carnegie Endowment

Originally published December 12, 2016

By Raja Mohan

A book review of Shivshankar Menon's "Choices: Inside the making of India's Foreign Policy" and the evolution of India's foreign policy after the Cold War.

Shivshankar Menon is arguably one of the most sophisticated diplomats of a generation that had the extraordinary opportunity to reinvent India's external engagement. Menon's cohort joined the Indian diplomatic corps in the late 1960s and early 1970s when India's relative economic and political weight in the world began to diminish. As India's economic deglobalization took hold and its foreign policy became too rigid in the 1970s, the space for Indian diplomacy began to shrink. By the time Menon came into policy making positions at the turn of the 1990s, the Cold War had ended and Delhi was compelled to embark on economic liberalization. As the structural change in the international environment and the reorientation of India's economic strategy combined to present new foreign policy imperatives for South Block, Menon's cohort was at the front and centre of the recalibration of Indian diplomacy. Strategic sensibility, intellectual clarity and bureaucratic skills lent Menon a formidable reputation.

His interlocutors at home and abroad have seen Menon as thoughtful and decisive. He was not burdened by the mantras of the past, for he could see the difference between the enduring and the transient from the perspective of India's national interest. Menon focused on outcomes and getting things done within the political and institutional constraints that he faced. His reflections after retirement on Indian diplomacy, therefore, have generated great interest.

His first book, Choices, will remain essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of contemporary India's foreign policy. Menon demands close reading for he is very un-Indian in his precision with words and economy in argument. The book is not a memoir. It is a discussion of some of India's foreign policy choices after the Cold War that he was involved in.

He was in Tokyo when Delhi was desperately looking east for financial support for macroeconomic stabilization and political rehabilitation in Asia. Menon then took charge of the China desk in the foreign office and went on to become India's envoy to Israel, Sri Lanka, Beijing and Pakistan. During the decade-long UPA rule, Menon served as India's top diplomat and national security adviser with an extraordinary impact on India's international relations at an important juncture.

Menon picks five important themes, in separate chapters, for discussion: the pacification of the border with China, the negotiation of the nuclear deal with the United States, coping with Pakistan's cross-border terrorism, the Sri Lankan civil war and the evolution of India's nuclear doctrine.

In each case, Menon lays out the context, discusses the choices that Delhi had to make and the broader lessons from those decisions. This framework gives the reader a panoramic view as well as the granular texture of each issue area. Menon's clear prose and command of the essential detail makes each account riveting. Even more important, Menon successfully captures the melancholy of modern statecraft.

In the effort to minimize harm and maximize gains, Menon says, "whether you succeed or not is never apparent at the moment, nor is necessarily clear subsequently. Politics is a process, without clear mathematical solutions or distinctions between right and wrong, true or false, black or white." For some, this might be too cynical, for others, too detached; but that is the nature of decision-making in the fog of political uncertainty, insufficient information and the rush of events.

Menon caps the book with a valuable reflection on India's international destiny, its strategic culture and the kind of great power it might become. He also offers insights into the emerging constraints on statecraft in the modern era. Deeply rewarding as Menon's account is, it is not easy to be persuaded by his central thesis about India's foreign policy: that Delhi has been "strategically bold and tactically cautious".

It is possible to argue that Delhi has tended to change too slowly over the decades. And that it has not been able to seize the opportunities that came its way, especially in the last decade. Menon does hint at the "roads not taken" in India-Pakistan relations. He points to India's "didactic" and "persnickety" negotiating style that nearly derailed the historic civil nuclear initiative with the United States.

Menon points to systemic factors like weak institutionalisation that make it hard to implement bold policy initiatives. But he holds back from a discussion of the strategic ambivalence of the Indian political class, on both the left and the right, that has often prevented Delhi from actively embracing change. As a result, pragmatists like Menon had to deploy their skills at ensuring minimal progress amidst internal constraints rather than widening the arc of India's external possibilities over the last quarter of a century.

That experience, it would seem, makes strategic caution quite central to Menon's own worldview. Menon warns Delhi against embracing ambitions of becoming a traditional great power and forgetting the priority of domestic transformation. He would like to see Delhi stick to the realpolitik of George Washington, Bismarck and Deng Xiaoping, rather than prematurely assert its power and come to grief like Germany and Japan in the first half of the 20th century.

But as India's generational transition unfolds, its new leadership might not be tied down by the hesitations of history that made Delhi very risk averse in the past. It may not want to buy the proposition that internal priorities must always precede the external. It might believe bolder foreign policy choices are critical for accelerating India's internal transformation. It might also want Menon's successors in the South Block to seek a different balance between strategic risk and political reward.

Menon's cohort helped Delhi overcome the widespread self-doubt on India's external prospects at the turn of the 1990s and elevated India's international standing. Menon's successors, one hopes, are as smart and raise Delhi's game amidst the new external possibilities that beckon it and persistent internal vacillations that hold it back.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.

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