The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Rebooting India’s Foreign Ministry

India’s foreign policy is increasingly ambitious. Can its foreign ministry keep up?

Rebooting India’s Foreign Ministry

Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar addresses a press conference on the performance of the Ministry of External Affairs in first 100 days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new term in office in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, September17, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Indian foreign policy is in a moment of transition. Emerging out of its “aspirational power” chrysalis, India is shedding its non-alignment hangover, embracing its increasingly critical place in the Indo-Pacific, and assertively protecting and projecting its interests abroad. 

In recent months, however, India’s foreign ministry has been found wanting. There have been opportunities for Indian diplomacy to step up and shine: the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the aftermath of AUKUS, to name some notable examples. Some commentators, rightly, have called for the Indian government to capitalize on the opportunities these rapidly evolving situations present.

The Indian foreign ministry’s inability to translate these situations into realized opportunities, however, is unsurprising. Hamstrung by its small scale and facing structural and resource limitations, it is unlikely that India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) can effectively capitalize on rapidly evolving situations with speed and agility. 

In the coming years, Indian diplomacy is likely to face increasing pressures. A crowded Indo-Pacific, challenging neighborhood, and continually expanding domains of interest are challenges that will require an assertive and vocal foreign policy. To navigate these pressures effectively, India needs a capability-driven foreign ministry that delivers outsized outcomes despite its constraints and capitalizes on rapidly evolving situations with speed and agility.

Realigning Expectations

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The key limitation India must overcome is its understaffed and overburdened diplomatic corps. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) currently has nearly 850 IFS officers. To offer some comparisons: Singapore has 1,066; China is estimated to have 7,500; and the U.S. Foreign Service has 13,790. This is a long-standing limitation for India. In 2016, India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs expressed alarm at the 15 percent shortage of officers in the foreign service. Five years later, at 13 percent, this shortage continues to persist. 

This is unlikely to change. India’s former National Security Advisor and Foreign Secretary Shivashankar Menon previously observed that India practices “the most frugal diplomacy, with a small band of professional diplomats with minimum means to deliver.” Over the short and medium term, India’s small foreign service needs to be viewed as a distinct feature of its ability to act abroad.

Further, recent MEA reforms have been insufficient. In 2020, the Indian foreign ministry restructured itself by refocusing the efforts of key officials along thematic verticals, such as cultural diplomacy and economic and trade cooperation. Driven by a desire to enable officials to focus on strategy over administrative tasks, these reforms are a step in the right direction. 

However, strategy alone cannot singularly solve the constraints and limitations on India’s foreign ministry. Instead, the MEA should focus its efforts on building key capabilities that strengthen its ability to exercise outsized influence in spite of its limitations. The discourse around strengthening the foreign ministry must move away from increasing numbers and focus on concentrating resources in key functions that strengthen core capabilities and deliver ministry-wide benefits. 

The immediate priority should be strengthening the MEA’s speed and agility. To effectively respond to rapidly evolving situations with speed and agility, a foreign ministry must be able to gather the right information, enable rapid decision-making through forward-looking analysis, and mobilize effectively.

Gathering the Right Information

To effectively prepare for rapidly evolving situations, anticipation is key. Increasing the volume of information being captured and processed from as many potential inputs as possible can allow the MEA to improve visibility across its diverse domains of responsibility and spheres of interest.

To do this, the MEA should establish an in-house intelligence analysis unit. A dedicated intelligence collection and analysis unit, such as the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for Intelligence and Research (INR), could play key roles in integrating and coordinating multiple inputs of information, such as from intelligence agencies and private sector entities, as well as offering crucial domain expertise for intelligence gathering activities. 

This can generate considerable synergies. Instead of cooperation and coordination taking place primarily at the highest levels, a dedicated unit would facilitate coordination across hierarchies and ensure Indian diplomacy’s interests are baked into the intelligence collection value-chain. Further, intelligence agencies could identify key trends and signals that may otherwise go unnoticed by leveraging the MEA’s regional and thematic expertise on an ongoing and frequent basis.

A dedicated intelligence analysis unit will help improve the quantity as well as quality of information available to the MEA. In turn, this will provide the Indian foreign ministry with enhanced situational awareness and anticipation capabilities. Translating anticipation into improved decision-making, however, requires the MEA to proactively prepare for rapidly evolving situations.

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Enabling Rapid Decision-making

In the midst of dynamic and rapidly evolving situations, being prepared can help save precious time. Offering decision-makers the ability to make quick decisions informed by analysis that mitigates the fog of uncertainty in rapidly evolving situations must be a focus for the MEA.

Expanding the MEA’s existing analytic capabilities to include key forward-looking and anticipatory functions can have considerable benefits. Early warning systems and standardized process flows for expected crises, for example, can help the MEA empower decision-makers with greater certainty and predictability. The German Foreign Ministry, leveraging data and AI-based prediction models as well as other advanced analytics tools embedded in its PREVIEW portal, has quickly emerged as a leader in this context. 

While building similar capabilities in-house may carry a resource burden for the MEA, even expanding the existing Policy Planning and Research division’s mandate to include key forward-looking functions, such as strategic foresight and scenario planning, would be a good place to start. Such tools improve officials’ ability to reliably identify key risks, assess their potential for escalation, identify key interests, and determine critical decision points as well as their potential implications. 

Robust forward-looking analytical capabilities add predictability, optionality, and flexibility during uncertain and rapidly evolving situations. By effectively preparing in advance, the MEA can empower decision-makers to quickly make informed and well-calibrated decisions when needed. 

Mobilizing Effectively

Once decisions are being executed, it is essential to ensure on-ground presence does not get overburdened or overwhelmed. Under high-pressure situations with constrained resources, those on the ground are likely to face bandwidth and capacity constraints as well as potential mental health challenges. To mobilize effectively, the MEA should ensure it has processes in place to minimize reaction time, allow appropriate resource allocation, and provide on-ground personnel with adequate support. 

To do this effectively, the MEA should consider establishing a dedicated quick reaction support unit. Maintaining a dedicated surge capacity that can deploy to geographies requiring immediate support can go a long way toward easing pressures off diplomats overseas. The French foreign ministry, for example, maintains a dedicated Crisis and Support Center that deploys overseas field missions in support of embassies and consulates managing consular crises. Further, leveraging those with thematic and regional expertise can provide much-needed additional capacity. In situations requiring specialized expertise, such as health and civil security, deploying and reallocating relevant personnel can help ease burdens and improve response efficacy. 

Effective processes and mechanisms that reliably offer surge capacity and help allocate resources where most needed will be critical to the MEA’s ability to manage rapidly evolving situations. This can be a further differential in making on-ground presence in high-pressure environments more sustainable over longer periods of time.  

As we march on further into the 21st century, New Delhi will likely continue its brand of frugal diplomacy, choosing when and where to engage. As India’s interests expand, however, Indian diplomacy may no longer enjoy the luxury of choice. The MEA will face ever-increasing challenges to its ability to act abroad and when these challenges inevitably present themselves, it will be better to be prepared and ready to act.