Monday, 30th October 2017

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The strength of few words

Success in foreign policy relies on patience and restraint

By Politics and Play - Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 1.04.17

In my line of work, I have had to read many memoirs by retired administrators and diplomats. Most are marked by dull prose, an inability to distinguish between the ephemeral and the lasting, a refusal to acknowledge mistakes or errors, and pomposity.

A book that had none of these traits was the late Y.D. Gundevia's Outside the Archives, a memoir refreshing for its candour, its self-deprecatory wit, and its rich, often profound, understanding of politics and diplomacy. Now comes Shivshankar Menon's Choices, not a memoir strictly speaking, but an analysis from ringside of five foreign-policy dilemmas that India has faced in recent decades. Like Gundevia, Menon also served as foreign secretary; like him, he has written a book that, in the subtlety of its analysis and the stylishness of its prose, stands out from the usual run of mandarins' memoirs in India.

'If only the Minister had listened to me' is a common refrain of many official memoirs; so is the desire to grab credit for positive outcomes that may have come from the official's time in service. Menon, however, is extremely generous towards his peers and colleagues, often praising the work done by other Indian diplomats and negotiators.

Menon's book is also marked by a self-criticism altogether rare in the genre. He writes of how he and his fellow negotiators in the Indo-US nuclear deal failed to foresee one fall-out of that much lauded agreement - namely, that China would feel threatened by it, and cozy up even more to Pakistan. Thus "the Pakistani fear of 2005 of China being lured by India's economic prospects has now been replaced by a consolidation of the Sino-Pakistan axis."

This intellectual honesty is also manifest in Menon's account of the attack on Mumbai in November 2008 by terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, trained in Pakistan and patronized by the Pakistani army and the State. Menon, then foreign secretary, writes that "for me, Pakistan had crossed a line, and that action demanded more than a standard response. My preference was for overt action against LeT headquarters in Muridke or the LeT camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and covert action against their sponsors, the ISI. [Foreign Minister Pranab] Mukherjee seemed to agree with me and spoke publicly of all our options being open."

Ultimately restraint prevailed, and there was no retaliation. Menon now acknowledges that the decision not to respond, which he did not at first endorse, was right. For one thing, "an Indian attack on Pakistan would have united Pakistan behind the Pakistan Army, which was in increasing domestic disrepute". For another, an attack by India would "also have weakened the civilian government in Pakistan, which had just been elected to power and which sought a much better relationship with India than the Pakistan Army was willing to consider."

In the end, by not responding, India shamed Pakistan in the eyes of the world, with the international community now seeking "to force consequences on Pakistan for its behaviour and to strengthen the likelihood that such an attack would not take place" again.

In the final chapter of Choices, Menon offers a few considered reflections on the craft of diplomacy. First, and most fundamentally, "there is no single correct or right answer to the questions foreign policy throws up, no answers that are valid in all circumstances. Instead, the best a practitioner can do is be aware of and open to the possibilities and consequences of choices... Strategy is, in effect, a practical affair; it is about achieving one's goals with the means available."

Second, Menon argues that while negotiations must always be pursued, there may be "times and places when war should be given a chance". Statecraft poses ethical dilemmas; sometimes, war may prevent or minimize deaths of innocents that would have occurred if states had not interfered to end a particular conflict. (Bosnia in the 1990s, and Bangladesh in the 1970s, are cases in point.)

Third, Menon argues that in the making of foreign policy "personalities matter". He notes that even in the United States of America, "where government has been consciously designed with checks and balances to avoid the accumulation of power in any one branch, foreign policy is one area where the president's personality and the president's choices matter to a much greater degree than in other spheres. In India since Nehru's time, foreign policy has always been directly managed by the prime minister; strong external affairs ministers, such as Pranab Mukherjee, are the exception."

Personalities matter; but how much? There is a thin line between authority and arrogance, as some past prime ministers knew only too well. Menon writes that the three prime ministers he worked with -P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh - had all "thought deeply about foreign policy before entering office, and all brought abundant intellectual capital to the task of remaking India's policies to fit the changed situation". He speaks of the "remarkable continuity in policy among these three prime ministers, with each building on his predecessor's work and all acknowledging each other's contributions". These three PMs also strove to consult with Opposition leaders and keep them in the loop with regard to important negotiations with other countries, while regularly briefing newspaper editors as well.

Narendra Modi goes unnamed in this account; but, reading these words, I wondered, is there not a sharp contrast here between past and present? Unlike Rao, Vajpayee or Singh, when it comes to foreign policy, Modi works mostly by instinct, not thought or experience. Besides, his approach to foreign policy seems to be unilateral rather than consultative. Even while speaking overseas, Modi has harsh things to say about Congress prime ministers, and he hardly ever praises Vajpayee either. Menon writes that "with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, one always got the feeling that he thought of a greater good than immediate party political advantage." Can we say the same of Modi?

Fourth, Menon stresses that success in foreign policy relies far more on quiet, patient, work behind the scenes than bombastic speeches by politicians or jingoistic screeds by editors and anchors. A case in point is the modus vivendi that has been reached on the India-China border, despite no formal settlement. It is a striking, if little known, fact that in terms of violent incidents or transgressions, the India-China border is far more peaceful than the India-Pakistan border and even the India-Bangladesh border. Further, as Menon points out, "there is more to India and China than the boundary." Bilateral trade has steadily expanded, witnessing a seventy-fold jump in the past two decades. We have even seen joint India-China military exercises. And there are more than 10,000 Indian students in China.

This, in Menon's words, is how this modus vivendi was achieved: "The key to arriving at a successful outcome was keeping public rhetoric calm and steady, displaying strength, and giving the adversary a way out, which was our preferred solution. It was not tweeting or whining in public, brandishing our nuclear weapons, or threatening war, as some Indian television channels and commentators did during those three weeks in May 2013" (when there was a rare transgression by the Chinese in Depsang).

Towards the end of the book, Menon observes that "I do believe that 'speak softly and carry a big stick' is likely to be a more productive policy for India to mobilize in dealing with the consequences of China's rise and the other changes we see around us." Then he adds: "As Bhishma said in his advice to kings while dying on his bed of arrows, 'He who is silent secures the following of others; the restrained one enjoys everything in life."' These are words that should be heeded in New Delhi, and beyond.