India Has A Strategic Culture
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India Has A Strategic Culture


Last month the Economist published a brace of articles setting in motion a spirited debate over whether India has a strategic culture. The authors draw an unfavorable contrast between neighboring China, whose "rise is a given," and India, which "is still widely seen as a nearly-power that cannot quite get its act together." They catalogue several factors that purportedly explain New Delhi's underperformance in diplomacy and strategy. They pronounce the diplomatic apparatus "ridiculously feeble," for example, not to mention trivial in size; the political class evinces little interest in or taste for grand strategy; civilian officials at the Defense Ministry are "chronically short of military expertise." The authors mention ideas mostly in passing. Nonalignment, quasi-pacifism, and mistrust of the West remain the north star for decision makers, inhibiting strategic thought and action.

Insightful as the Economist pieces are, they conflate several related but separate things under the rubric of strategic culture. Indian commentators such as retired rear admiral Raja Menon have largely followed suit. Individual leadership, bureaucratic politics, and civil-military relations put in appearances in such accounts alongside strategic culture itself. These dimensions are closely related but far from identical. It's worth separating them out to glimpse the challenges before India. Some of these challenges are relatively straightforward to tackle. Others will demand time, determined political leadership, and, in all likelihood, some event or series of events that demonstrates — in irrefutable fashion — that the cultural reform project is worth undertaking. Military defeats and other setbacks have a way of clearing the national mind. Often times it takes a debacle to overcome political inertia and create a constituency for modifying a nation's strategic culture.

What is strategic culture? To borrow from scholar Colin Gray , it refers to the "disarmingly elementary" notion that "a security community is likely to think and behave in ways that are influenced by what it has taught itself about itself and its relevant contexts. And that education, to repeat, rests primarily upon the interpretation of history and history’s geography (or should it be geography’s history?)." What have the subcontinent's geography and venerable history primed Indians to think about strategy? How should New Delhi comport itself in regional and world affairs, and what sorts of actions are unthinkable?

Conscious cultural reform is a project of mammoth scope. Inexpert individuals can be replaced with knowledgeable ones. Civil-military relations can be revamped, as the United States has done several times within living memory. One of my mentors, Professor Carnes Lord, observes that bureaucracies can be remade through the artful — and, one hopes, metaphorical — wielding of Niccolò Machiavelli's "poisoned stiletto" to remove recalcitrant officials. But revising Indian strategic culture requires investigating the dim recesses of the subcontinent's past. Scholars must foray well beyond the post-independence decades to sketch a meaningful cultural profile. Kautilya's Arthashastra, a manual of statecraft from classical antiquity, is worth studying. So are the habits of mind foisted on the nation by outsiders such as the Mughal Dynasty and the British Empire. And on and on. Figuring out where the nation stands is central to discerning its path ahead.

Once scholars and statesmen understand Indian strategic culture, what should they so about it? It's ultimately up to Indians to decide what kind of nation they want to be. To manage the culture, they could do worse than study U.S. history, especially the century after our founding. Nonalignment, quasi-pacifism, and mistrust of the West — in this case European empires — were once the watchwords of American diplomacy and strategy, just as the Economist notes they are for India today. New Delhi could do worse than review how Americans consulted their "usable past"  and used it to manage the republic's self-image, and its strategic behavior, as it ascended to world power.

India has a strategic culture. Learning from others can advance its cause of self-discovery.

July 30, 2013 at 04:59

India is mostly Hindu, it does not acknowledge any other civilisation as glorious or equal or ancient as it is. Indians are happy to be within themselves and their own culture.They hate the idea of authority or submission, once hurt..will always come back with vengeance.You will see this phsyche in Indian Magnates buying out British and European shares and core Industries – Mittal, Tata RangeRover etc and also how India now manhandles Islamists. Indians still hate to the core fellow Indian Muslims and Abrahamic religions in general.They dont even recongize a monotheist God, nor do they recongnize atheism or even theism.Its a confused bunch of very proud, but innocent people.Personally, I feel..China is going to have it, this time around. PS – An atheist Jew who lives in India, its a beautiful country out of many countires I have travelled to. Hope to "end" here after many years, with these people.

Sej Sankalp
May 9, 2013 at 22:40

For one, Indian civilization is one of the oldest and archeologial sites have been dated back to 6000 BC. These are not stone age sites but cities with multi storied buildings & a sewage system. Most of the rest of the world was no where close then. Second, for most of the time in recorded history, India's GDP was almost a quarter of the world GDP. The third is the extent of cultural development in India is evident in the complexity of writings, philosophy, arts & crafts that the land has seen; and also how these dominated the world thought at that time. These are to start with, good enough reasons to say that India was a global power. Also, correction: Asokha's empire extended to great swathes of the now South East Asia. 

With regards to the  current and now, yes India is in the process of discovering itself. After 300 – 500 years of colonialism, the brown skin Indian is finding the confidence to believe that he/she is not inferior to the white man. This takes time, esp if you account for the scale and complexity of the demographics. 


April 22, 2013 at 23:49

Asians including Indians want to be their own masters. Do what they want to do. Or do nothing at all.

What don't people from the west get that?

April 22, 2013 at 13:18

Global power?

Asoka's kingdom didn't even cover modern India as it left out the south. Some parts of modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh were included. How can that be global? South Asian is a better suited term.

April 22, 2013 at 13:16

Good question. I can't find any strategic culture in India.

April 22, 2013 at 12:48

One way to show India has a strategic culture is to induce Bhutan to join the Indian union like Sikkim has before.

Buba Rooni
April 22, 2013 at 04:53

This is a good article which asks a salient, if somewhat amorphous question:

What is India's goals and what is it role.

It's overriding short term goal is protection of it's land borders.  It has fought wars over the last 50 years versus China and Pakistan with at best, mixed results.  As a result, we should expect them to continue to develop their land based defensive capabilities especially in regards to that experience.

Long term I think they would most likely look to become the predominant power in both the Indian and Arabian Seas.  This would necessitate a commensurate devotion to development of air and sea capabilities.

In order to achieve these goals, one should expect them to continue to develop their economic infrastructure.  Though one could be excused for thinking that Indians are only capable of writing software and ship breaking, they are making huge strides in many areas though continue to be deficient in others.

As a result, it is natural for them to straddle the fence between Russian and Western suppliers of high tech, especially arms oriented, technology.  Indian failures in avionics, missile, guidance systems and armor are well documented.  To believe that these issues exhibit fatal flaws in Indian culture though, are in my view, unwarranted.

India does have social/cultural issues which continue to beleaguer development, but as the country continues to develop it's base one could see scenarios in which those issues will be ameliorated.

Time is on India's side.  The only way she can derailed, is a catastrophic war with the only power that can knock her off this track, which is China.  It is not a foregone conclusion that this inevitable. or even desirable for China.

Thought not pre-ordained, it would be my guess that India will, along with China, be one of the major players in a 2050, multi-polar world.







Niyamathulla Baig
February 11, 2014 at 00:18

hello !!!! can u please help me to complete my assingnment for “culture and challenges of modern india”, please help me thrugh my email.

April 22, 2013 at 00:10

India has often made it clear that they desire to be the preeminent power in the Indian and Arabian Oceans as well as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.

There is no Arabian Ocean. Its the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal that surround India.

Oh and the Non-Aligned movement is pretty much dead after India strategically aligned itself with Bush's America with the nuclear deal


Tactically speaking they couldn't organize a car wreck with ten drunks and five sets of car keys. 

Thats news to me! maybe some fictional news that we dont see on televison ?

Militarily they are a running joke in the region,

By a joke you mean space program and intercontinental ballistic missiles and a near-operational nuclear triad ? Man, the US must be a joke since they lost the vietnam war against the then primitive south east asians lol.

economically they have a GNP barely larger than California,

California's GDP is 2 trillion, 1/7th of the US economy and bigger than all other 49 states in the US.. so your point of running it down is not getting much weight.

and politically they seem to vacillate between courting the US and rebuffing it in favor of Russia.

US manages relationships between Russia and itself, why shouldn't other countries do the same ?

India's strategic culture fails to take into account the need for sound tactical effort.

The only valid point you 've made.

April 21, 2013 at 14:36

Frank – I don't think The Economist was advocating the notion that Indians or anyone else should be submissive to Westerners nor were they deriding INdia for having their own ideas.  The crux of their argument was that India itself has little idea of what it wants or how to accomplish it, a conclusion I half-agree with.  India knows what it wants, but lacks the focus to achieve its goals.

April 21, 2013 at 13:39

India has a strategic culture, bu, unfortunately, it is one that is far from perfect. For example, it now likes to diss its Russian partner every now and then instead of using every ounce of energy to improve the relationship. Russia is clearly frustrated and one cannot blame Moscow for doubting New Delhi as a strategic partner. 

Chuck Hill
April 20, 2013 at 07:17

The priorities I would assume are to secure their water supply, and maintain the ability to deny access to the Indian Ocean

John Survein
April 20, 2013 at 01:59

This article raises a number of interesting points. The first, which mostly floats under the surface, is the question of whether strategic culture (once even loosely defined) has real salience for states' behaviors. The notion has been called into question in Iain Johnston's fascinating, if flawed book on Chinese strategic culture in the Ming, which basically argues that the supposedly "defensive" Chinese mindset was really only ascendant when lack of capabilites precluded offensive actions. Perhaps, though, what the book really argues for is a sharper, more nuanced understanding of the strategic cultures of old and venerable civilizations, with a few to getting past the old orientalist views.

The second thing I really appreciate in this is the mention of Kautilya! The Arthasastra is a fascinating work–I've yet to see a really good comparative piece pairing it with the Prince, but such a work is certainly necessary. Its discussions of how a king should be disposed to neighboring states versus those on the other sides of neighboring states, etc., could have interesting applications when considering the arc running from Iran through India to Af/Pak and China. And given that he was more or less the brains behind Chandragupta Maurya, Kautilya's bona fides are second to none.

One other work that I would recommend in this vein is the Babur-nameh, the memoirs of Babur, Timur's grandson and the founder of the Mughals. There was a great translation made from the Chaghatai several years ago. Besides campaign narratives, his observations about the people of the subcontinent that he was conquering could provide insight into the difficulties that India faces in closing ranks and getting it together today.

April 20, 2013 at 00:12

Europeans think Indians do not have a culture of white master’s strategy. Too bad. India has their Indian strategy.

The authors of the Economist want Indians to behave like they used to be — servants of Europeans. These authors concluded that India does not have a culture of strategy because Indians want to be their own masters. Some of Indians and Chinese still have that old habit to kiss the butts of white men. However, more and more of them have their own ideas and strategies. It is time for Europeans and white Americans to listen to Asian’s ideas and learn about Asian’s strategy.


April 19, 2013 at 19:31

Indians are not confused!! We have been a global power since Asoka time!!

April 19, 2013 at 18:15

Very interesting question. Given that modern India was invented by the Brits, it’s a relatively young country. I’m sure that someone far more knowledgeable than I will know of a pre-British Indian state that may serve as a model for an Indian strategic culture.

April 19, 2013 at 15:54

I tend to agree with the author, but only partially.  While I agree that India has a strategic culture, its tactical culture is sorely lacking. 

To put it another way, they have some very grand visions and plans for their place in the world; they simply have no idea of how to achieve said items.  The Big Picture, whatever it may be, is not hard to come up with.  India has often made it clear that they desire to be the preeminent power in the Indian and Arabian Oceans as well as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Where they fall out is on the details.  Tactically speaking they couldn't organize a car wreck with ten drunks and five sets of car keys.  Militarily they are a running joke in the region, economically they have a GNP barely larger than California, and politically they seem to vacillate between courting the US and rebuffing it in favor of Russia.

India's strategic culture fails to take into account the need for sound tactical effort.

April 19, 2013 at 15:50

"India has a strategic culture."

So what's India's "strategic culture"?

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