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India needs an honest national security document for the next decade, just like Britain made

In 1946, a telegram from Moscow gave the US a strategy that lasted four decades. India too needs an honest security doctrine that keeps it match-fit in a changing world.

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On 22 February 1946, George Kennan authored the most consequential telegram in modern diplomatic history. He was then the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Moscow. The US State Department had asked him for a tell-all cable on the future of the Soviet Union.

‘Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do,’ Kennan noted. It led him to compose ‘a telegram of some eight thousand words – all neatly divided, like an eighteenth-century Protestant sermon’. The effect was nothing short of startling. As he himself noted, ‘my reputation was made. My voice now carried.’

Kennan had set out the rationale for containment. Over the next four decades, the strategy was adapted and changed, depending on who was elected to power in the United States. The objective was to limit Soviet expansionism.

There is an urgent need for countries across the world to find meaning in strategy once again. China’s forceful advance, the near-complete breakdown in China-US relations, the threat and opportunities of emerging technologies, the import of cybersecurity, coupled with the fragmenting effects of a less-globalised world are plainly noticeable.

Also read: Modi is right about indigenous defence doctrine. Army staff colleges can’t keep studying US

Britain’s new guide for action

As much as containment is back in vogue, there are too many analytical oddities for it to serve as the guiding cerebral torch to deal with the world today. Various countries’ Indo-Pacific strategies come close to enunciating the guiding principles that shape their futures. Germany, France, and the Netherlands have published such documents.

The European Union is in the midst of searching for agreeable grammar for its own strategic advance. In each case, Asia lies at the centre of the future of geopolitics. The Indo-Pacific is arguably the primary ‘theatre of opportunity’. The extent of engagement and cooperation in this theatre is expected to tip the scales in world politics.

To this end, the Integrated Review (IR) announced and published in the United Kingdom, on 16 March 2021, is an astonishingly ambitious and masterfully crafted document. It is intended ‘as a guide for action,’ providing ‘hand-rails for future policy making.’ It rightly outlines ‘China as a systemic competitor’. It clearly recognises that the global economy is steadily shifting to the Indo-Pacific.

As prime minister Boris Johnson puts it, by 2030, the aim for the UK is to be ‘deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific as the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence.’ With this in mind, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s flagship aircraft carrier will set sail for the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific with a possible port-stop somewhere in India, in the second half of 2021. To be sure, and as the IR clearly highlights, Britain seeks to ‘transform’ its relations with India in the next decade.

A large section of the 100-odd page document also focuses on the need to fully understand the ‘rapid technological change[s]’ currently underway. Lastly, it clearly emphasises the urgent need to prepare for a ‘post-COVID international order that will be increasingly contested…reducing global cooperation’. Impressively, this guiding document is backed by a detailed budget with allocations for clean energy and digital technologies and defence to counter-terrorism.

In an age where anodyne policy documents are published ad nauseum, the IR is a remarkable effort to give meaning to Britain’s strategic challenges that lie ahead. If Kennan’s aim was to clearly explain Soviet behaviour, at the onset of the Cold War, the lead authors of the IR outline with little hesitation the world that Britain finds itself in, and the one in which it needs to grow more a part of in its post-Brexit future.

More than anything else, there is a lesson in the making of the IR that countries like India could benefit from.

The lead authors of the IR comprise career diplomats and scholars-turned-foreign policy advisors to the prime minister.

The core team led 100 or so engagements with experts from 20 countries. This was an inter-agency process. Stakeholder groups from foreign policy to science were created. The IR received 450 submissions from the public and various organisations. Officials were asked to give testimony to different select committees of parliament. The central assumptions were tested just like a PhD thesis might be examined – making sure that the arguments could be substantiated with adequate evidence. The result was a process designed to make sure that democracies, like Britain, would be, as Johnson argues, ‘match-fit for a more competitive world.’

Also read: Chinese Communist Party has goals. India needs to have its own, not just respond to aggression

India needs a security document

There is a natural hesitation in India to craft something like a public national security document. This is understandable. India shares borders that are contested both to its east and west. It does India little by openly labelling China as a ‘systemic’ foe.

Yet, India’s challenges, much like any other country’s, are multi-layered. Renewing relations with China and managing an equitable trade partnership requires jet-setting economic reforms within India. The leading bureaucrats dealing with land acquisition and changes to India’s labour force are, in fact, as crucial to a China strategy as are the principal officials negotiating with Beijing in the Ministry of External Affairs. Strengthening ties with the United States, today, is as much about synergising India’s data policies as it is about arguing against sanctions for the acquisition of the Russian-made S-400. Giving the Quad meaning is as much about deliberations, naval exercises, and (now) vaccine manufacturing and distribution as it is about relocating supply chains to Indian states, each with a unique regulatory framework.

At the very least, a more private exercise will help to sharpen the challenge to and for India, over the next decade. It promises to shake administrators out of their cerebral comfort zones, allocate resources – keeping in mind the unadorned economic tests that India faces, encourage intra-governmental cooperation, better appreciate the needs of the private sector to truly realise a globally connected vision for atmanirbharta, and, most importantly, remain honest in estimating what India can or cannot do in the next decade.

Indeed, if there is one lesson from Kennan’s efforts that is worth keeping in mind, it is to offer ‘nothing but the whole truth.’ Doing so gave America a grand strategy for over four decades. India may not need something as explicate or grand, but at the very least, it urgently needs a much more tightly synthesised advance to remain truly ‘match-fit’ for a noticeably changing world.

The author is the director of Carnegie India. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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  1. For God sake and India’s sake, the last thing India needs is ANYTHING that is just like UK. No point copying a has been entity.

  2. India has always believed that as long as there are black cats to protect VIPs, cops to lathi charge non VIPs and poverty ensures soldiers to be paid to die, India is secure.

  3. Who says UK has “an honest national security document”? Any document that the Boris government produces is bound to be dishonest to the core and full of lies and distortions. Why should India follow such a fiction?

  4. A National Security doctrine is a must.

    The Indian polity is only 74 years old. The Nation has achieved much in these few years. But formulating a coherent strategy for internal and external security is not one of them. The mind set of the leaders then was India was safe from any aggression and a path of peace will resolve all irritant issues. We can forgive the leadership for the Pakistan action in Kashmir of 1948 as that state was not yet part of the Indian union then. Was that action handled well when we committed tom the defence of Kashmir is a moot question. Yet, post that action India should have realized the importance of a strong Military to become a strong Nation. It did not. It took a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962 to expose the vulnerability of the young Nation. I doubt whether the subsequent wars of 1965 and 1971 and the continued insurgencies in various parts of the country managed to convince the Government for a National Security Doctorine.

    It was only in November 1998, the GOI appointed a NSA by giving the additional responsibility to the Principal Secretary to PM, Mr. Brajesh Misra. The appointment was refined by successive Governments and now we have a full fledged NSA with defined responsibilities and recently a CDS to coordinate Military strategy.

    This is just the beginning of an effort. We are yet to see a National Security Doctrine or a visible consistent strategy not only against external aggressions and insurgencies but also in a global context.

    Tail piece: The feeling is that we are even now reactive than proactive to threats, internal and external. Hopefully we will get a Security Doctrine and be proactive in our security efforts sooner than later.

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