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Does India need a grand strategy?

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  • June 08, 2012
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chair: Ambassador Satish Chandra
    Discussants: Maj General B K Sharma and Dr Happymon Jacob

    Interrogating the concept of grand strategy and whether India needs a centrally articulated design for the conduct of its statecraft constitutes the core thinking put forward by the paper. In contrast to other major states in the world, the Government of India has so far shied away from publicly articulating a grand strategy, thereby attracting comments that this is an anomaly that needs to be remedied. Proponents of grand strategy argue that the absence of a publicly articulated and coherent grand strategy gives rise to various concerns: armed forces acquire technologies without a strategy; government departments pursue their specific interests without reference to overarching national goals; and, diplomats have a hard time explaining India’s behaviour to foreign interlocutors.

    The author identifies several benefits which flow out of formulation of a grand strategy:

    • First, it will help departments to develop short and medium term plans in accordance with the overall national intent.
    • Second, it will help policy makers view their policy initiatives holistically and highlight crosscutting issues.
    • Third, it can provide a basis for prioritising resource allocations.
    • Fourth, it will improve coordination among agencies, increase synergies and provide direction to individual and collective actions.
    • Fifth, it can enhance communication and cooperation with other states.
    • Sixth, it will encourage policy makers to think systematically about the long term consequences of their actions.
    • Seventh, it will be useful to test the robustness of current organisational structures, processes and resources.
    • Eighth, it will help citizens to evaluate whether particular actions of the state are aligned with the nation’s core values and interests.
    • Ninth, it will be useful to promote structured and focused research on core issues and areas that are identified as national priorities.
    • Tenth, it would be useful for educating the strategic leadership.

    Besides these functional uses, proponents also emphasise that grand strategy is a key great power status symbol, thus making a strong case in public imagination for a centrally articulated design. While the author acknowledges the benefits and obvious usefulness which seem to be associated with a grand strategy, he argues that there are several barriers to formulation of such a strategy.

    The first barrier to the making of a grand strategy is the absence of conceptual clarity. The term has come to mean different things to different thinkers depending on their vision of the world, their conceptions about the nature of power, their institutional affiliations, and the interests they seek to pursue. Moreover, in the absence of a universally accepted definition and shared meaning, the term ‘grand strategy’ has come to exist as an ambiguous concept and as differing images, ranging from a fully developed plan of action to subtler aspects such as individual visions and world views. The author lists out seven such images:

    • As a Plan: grand strategy is viewed as a plan of action articulated by the nation’s top leadership who gathers an expert group to conduct wide ranging consultations with important stake holders both within and outside the government and bring out a draft grand strategy for top leadership sanction.
    • As a Vision: grand strategy as a vision, a representation of strategy created in the mind of the leader. Grand Strategy as a guiding idea offers flexibility to bureaucratic agents to adapt their actions according to needs of the circumstances, however, this image of grand strategy captures only a part of the strategy process and needs to be supplemented by institutional competence.
    • As Politics: Unlike the prescriptive nature of the previous images, according to this image, a grand strategy emerges out of bargaining and compromise among various stake holders within the state. This image of grand strategy runs the risk of being distorted to suit interests of particular coalitions and interest groups. Furthermore, enduring differences among key stake holders in terms of values, beliefs, and interests might severely impact the success of a neatly formulated strategy by expert planners.
    • As a Paradigm: Grand strategy imagined as a paradigm is a simplified version of reality, a general perspective of the world view widely shared among the elite. This image of grand strategy lays out the map and provides a certain conception about the nature of the world, but fails to meaningfully capture the complexity of current realities. Realism and liberalism are two such paradigms which provide a short hand guide for interpreting specific events and developments but cannot be substituted for strategy making.
    • As Thought: According to this image, strategic competence of a state is judged not by its material achievements but by the quality of its thought, presented and preserved in the written form. In overemphasizing the ideational dimension of strategy, the role of verbally articulated ideas, and the utility of force in the international system, this image of strategy underplays the tacit dimension of strategic cultures.
    • As Harmonisation of Ends and Means: Grand strategy in this image is all about ensuring that ends do not over step available means, and resources are not wasted, with the former leading to failure of strategy and the latter involving opportunity costs. However, matching ends and means is not a neutral process and involves more optimal employment of national resources placing a premium on ethical and political judgment.
    • As a Pattern: According to this image, grand strategy is a pattern of the past. The process of looking back to look ahead is seen as useful in explaining past behaviour and providing clues to future strategies.

    The second barrier to the making of a grand strategy is the associated costs and risks of its benefits. Firstly, articulation of a clear set of goals to set the nation on the right course in a turbulent internal and external environment is a self contradictory objective as it is difficult to predetermine opportunities and risks in a turbulent strategic environment. Secondly, though grand strategy is useful in promoting coordination among agencies within the government, tight regulation of behaviour may diminish the capacity for peripheral vision. Thirdly, in attempting to reduce ambiguity by formulating a grand strategy, the scope for strategic action, which thrives in the domain of inconsistency, could be curtailed. Fourth, efforts to define a state and underline its uniqueness through its grand strategy might generate narrow stereotyping and runs the risk of obscuring complexity. Lastly, a publicly articulated grand strategy may lead to further fragmentations in a politically fraught public space.

    Existence of divergent views on what constitutes India’s core interests and how best to promote them is identified as the third barrier to the formulation of a grand strategy. The paper observes that in the absence of a clear consensus on critical issues of national significance (such as settlement of border disputes, response to terrorism, strategy on Pakistan, China, etc.) among political parties, government institutions, and civil society groups, a grand strategy that articulates a particular approach on any of these issues will be politically contested. Finally, lack of resourceful and competent institutional arrangements which foster wide ranging dialogues and promote synthesis of different points of view is cited by the paper as another barrier to the making of a grand strategy. In addition to this point, the author stressed on the necessity to undertake interdisciplinary forward looking studies and dialogues to open up critical dimensions that will bear upon long term prospects of the country. In conclusion, the author remarked that he has attempted to problematise the concept of grand strategy in the paper and comments on the skewed and unbalanced nature of the contemporary discourse on grand strategy.

    Key Discussion Points:

    • The bottom-line of the images is that the leadership and the entire political elite should take ownership of the grand strategy if it is to be sustained for a long time.
    • Grand strategy should be goal-oriented. At the nub of it is the question: “What’s your goal for the country?”
    • National leadership wants to operate in a state of ambiguity. Putting out a grand strategy document in the public domain would attract questions about accountability.
    • The National Security Council should be at the driving seat of any such initiative. An objective and scenario building approach should be employed.
    • Suggestions for the paper included: contextualizing the discussion to focus on India; engaging with existing debates (Luttwak, Busan, Liddell Hart, etc.); including illustrations to describe various typologies of grand strategy; bringing out the role of culture, history, and the linkage between ideology and vision in the formulation of grand strategy; indicating revisions and new pathways to the makers of grand strategy; including a working definition of grand strategy; and, some exploration of whether elite and social consensus lead to grand strategy or vice versa?

    Report prepared by Bhavna Tripathy, Project Assistant (IDSA-DRDO ST2050 Project) at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.