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.
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.’
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)