James Holmes

India Has A Strategic Culture

Our Naval Diplomat notes that learning from others can advance its cause of self-discovery.

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.