Impact of Kerry-Hagel duo

What can India expect with Senator John Kerry replacing Hillary Clinton at the State Department and former Senator Charles Hagel Leon Panetta at the Pentagon? Do these changes herald change in the US foreign and military policies that’ll hurt India?

Uniquely for a country aspiring to great power, the Indian government displays the sensibility of a marginal state surviving on small mercies shown by big powers. Lacking self-confidence, strategic vision, and the will to be assertive, New Delhi accepts that Indian national interests will be defined by others. So, if Iran is deemed a rogue state by Washington, New Delhi rushes to create distance with Tehran.

If President Obama champions a nuclear weapons-free world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh jumps on to the disarmament bandwagon without realising that this’ll require India to first sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), leaving the Indian thermonuclear deterrent — with no prospect of further fusion weapons testing — the equivalent of a short, blunt, sword. Worse, New Delhi assesses new appointees in the US government in the light of their attitude to Pakistan. That doing so pulls India down to Pakistan’s level apparently concerns nobody, even though every lowly Under-Secretary in MEA is alert to the possibility of re-hyphenation by stealth! Consider the recent brouhaha over an exhumed Hagel statement that India “financed troubles” for Pakistan.

If New Delhi had any real sense of the Indian stake in Afghanistan, our Washington embassy would not have been instructed to react strongly, or even at all. Silence on Hagel’s 2011 videographed talk would at once have signalled that Indian interests are not necessarily convergent with America’s, and that India will do whatever is necessary to protect them.

With Hagel hinting at Indian Intelligence activity out of the consulates in southern Afghanistan, this was no bad message to remind GHQ, Rawalpindi, that two can play at covert warfare, and meddling in Jammu & Kashmir will exact a price that a slowly imploding Pakistan can ill-afford. There was nothing there to get worked up about in the first place anyway, and so the reaction confirmed Indian diplomacy in recent years as being sometimes flecked with unnerving naivete. Surely, it is in the national interest for everyone to believe that India is not helpless and RAW is very much a player on the Afghan scene. In any case, as an ex-member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel was no doubt merely repeating something he heard in an intelligence briefing on the subject, and is not evidence of a bad-mouthing anti-India insider in the Obama Administration.

He has far graver issues to tackle such as managing a declining defence spend and lower readiness levels for the US forces. The American defence budget, frozen at the 2011-level, will combine with the sequestration of funds, resulting in expenditure reductions this year of $85 billion across the board, half of it coming from the Pentagon allocations, and $500 billion less available to it over the next decade. As a consequence, the US naval presence in the Indian Ocean, for instance, will be halved from two deployed carrier task groups to just one. A smaller American military profile in Asia is likely, moreover, owing to Hagel’s experience as an infantry drudge — a sergeant twice wounded, in the Vietnam War and scarred by that military defeat. It led to his opposing US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is bad news for the Manmohan Singh regime, which implicitly relies on the American strategic security cover in any future dustup with China.

It’s a scenario the Indian government and military better wake up to. America’s security coattails are not long enough anymore for a strategic partner such as India to ride on, alongside America’s treaty allies in Asia.

India’s strategic discomfiture may be exacerbated by Kerry. A polished diplomat in the classical mould, who dazzled his audiences in his first trip as Secretary of State to France, Germany, and Italy with flawless French, German, and Italian, Kerry indicated at his confirmation hearings that getting up China’s nose with forceful displays of military strength is counterproductive. “I am not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet….That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully”, he told the senators, who approved his appointment. “But we have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. And we’ve just augmented the president’s announcement in Australia with additional Marines. You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They are trying to circle us? What’s going on? And so, you know, every action has its reaction. It’s the old — you know, it’s not just the law of physics; it’s the law of politics and diplomacy. I think we have to be thoughtful about…how we go forward.” With both the Departments of State and Defence headed by persons who are wary of alienating Beijing, conciliators in the Indian government, such as the National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, are no doubt pleased. Just the other day, Menon repeated his stock wisdom that enmity with China is “not inevitable”. The corollary of such thinking is that, capabilities-wise, the Indian military packing a keg or two less of powder will not hurt the country’s security interests much.

But in the world of hard knocks, India may soon discover that a purely defensive posture coupled to virtually zero capacity for sustained offensive warfare in the mountains and a strategic deterrent that’s more “let’s pretend to be thermonuclear”, will beget coercive escalation by the massively ensconced People’s Liberation Army and the Second Artillery Strategic Forces on the Tibetan Plateau.

There’ll be no American help even of the kind available to India in 1962, lest China get upset. Indeed, there’s a growing sentiment in America to pull back altogether from a forward deployed military stance in Asia. That will leave a terminally complacent and security-dependent India, up a creek.

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’ March 8, 2013 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Asian geopolitics, Australia, China, China military, disarmament, Europe, Geopolitics, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian Ocean, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Missiles, nonproliferation, Northeast Asia, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan military, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Impact of Kerry-Hagel duo

  1. RK Anuj says:

    There you go again. If you had not peppered your article with insinuations against the current policy makers, your analysis may have made an interesting read.

    If there is one certainty, it is that Americans tend to think well ahead. Soft talk does not necessarily mean being soft. So if Kerry says that they need not antagonise China, doesn’t automatically imply that US is chickening out of a tough situation, the sequester notwithstanding. The sequester itself is not non- negotiable as the ongoing Obama pitch strongly suggests.

    Yes, it would have been better not to react to Hagel’s comments to keep up pretences. But doesn’t the same apply to a certain nuclear strategist and his writings at every forum about India’s so- called failed thermonuclear tests. I thought nuclear deterrence was also a matter of make- believe and pretensions.

    India has always had a stand on complete nuclear disarmament, so what’s different if the present PM goes down that road. In fact President Obama’s stance on the subject should be viewed as a step in the direction that India has forever been showing the world. Isn’t that what we have always sought? Have we been forced to sign the CTBT till date?

    Competition with China is inevitable. Competition does not necessarily imply enmity. The art of diplomacy is not about chest thumping and rabble rousing. To talk soft does not have to be interpreted as going limp.

    So yes, you have a point of view but not a monopoly on nationalism/ nationalist strategic analysis.

    • You can talk softly, pitch disarmament, or whatever else, with effect, only when you carry a big stick as Teddy Roosevelt observed (around the time, incidentally, when the United States had acquired the globe-girdling “great White Fleet”) in the previous fin de siecle. The difference, moreover, between Obama calling for N-disarmament and India doing so is obvious enough — the US does not have to pretend it has a powerful and reliable arsenal. Deterrence is a mindgame, alright. But if it isn’t backed up by the real thing, the odds are some country will call India’s bluff. Peace and amity with China will be better rooted if our thermonuclear weapons are seen to deliver the requisite bang.

      • RK Anuj says:

        I really wonder what peace and amity prevailed/ prevails between the US and erstwhile USSR or between USSR and China or else US and China despite all the big bangs their arsenals were/ are capable of!! The limit of the bang requisite for sustainable peace is ill- defined, if at all. This has unfortunately led to a mindless race that we are familiar with. Now, they realize the folly and talk of disarmament. The wise learn from others’ mistakes rather than make their own.

        The Great White Fleet of Teddy in the previous fin de siecle did little to prevent the two Great Wars, if my memory serves me right. A lighter punch if delivered at the correct time at the vulnerability of an adversary is a surer guarantee of peace. It is that capability that we need to develop and let be known that we possess it.

      • Not sure what a light punch is, and delivering it at the right time, etc. is getting into abstractions that may be permissible in drawing room debates that an unforgiving history and international system do not permit.

  2. RK Anuj says:

    If there is one lesson that we need to take from an unforgiving history and international system it is that no amount of technology/ military might has prevented nation’s from coming under attack. The Pearl Harbour, 9/11, etc are just a few examples in the blood- stained mosaic of world history. That’s a settled issue I presume and deserves little debate. A thermonuclear weapon does not stop an adversary from attacking, it only makes the manner of his strike more devious and less predictable.

    I thought my contention about a lighter punch etc was self explanatory. Nevertheless, to lift the debate above the level of a drawing room abstraction, I’ll exemplify from your area of expertise, though there are numerous other methods. A lighter punch could be a petty- little Hiroshima- equal, proven and tested, by your own admission, weapon deliverable against a critical value target, with surety of strike despite any BMD/ counter force measures of the adversary. I suppose that’s an infinitely better direction to take!!

    Nevertheless, there is little to be gained by fighting and winning/ losing a nuclear war. The acme of skill is not fighting and winning a 100 battles, but to win a war without having to fire a shot. That does not happen by wielding swords, howsoever long and sharp. There are other ways to better achieve that. I presume??

    • Winning w/o fighting, etc is all very good. But there are practical considerations. How much is enough? — is and has always been a difficult question to answer. How one chooses to answer it — as a minimalist, you argue for light, as a realist I contend that in the nuclear realm a reasonable number (dependent on the adversary’s arsenal) of high-end missiles carrying single megaton yield weapons, or MIRVed in the 135-175 KT range are necessary — is premised on the level of risk the nation’s prepared to assume (in the non-use of such weapons). History is no guide other than alerting countries to surprising, unanticipatable, events and contingencies. My concern is GOI’s tendency to find itself wrongfooted — enough evidence of that from the sub-conventional and conventional military fields.Beyond a point though, such debate is endless and unproductive.

      • RK Anuj says:

        I admit such debates are unproductive and futile. There are several views, my minimalist and your maximalist that you call realist, being only two such. The jury is still out and only future will judge which is right.

        In the interim while we need to analyse issues, every occurrence in world politics does not have to be viewed through a thermonuclear prism and made to sound like a war bugle. Yes, we need to learn from the past and ensure that we are not wrong footed again. There are several routes to achieving that, yours being one such.

        Your views are certainly noteworthy, but they may be more palatable if you do not disparage all the others who do not share them and just focus on forcefully advocating your stand.

  3. satyaki says:

    Dear Anuj,

    I do not think Bharat Karnad is maximalist. He only advocates a medium sized arsenal with proven thermonuclear weapons in the 135-175 kt range (or alternatively, a smaller arsenal with megaton yield weapons). In particular, he emphasizes on credibility of the deterrent. Maximalists existed only in the U.S/U.S.S.R.

    Our establishment too, does not disagree with the yield requirement: after all, DAE repeatedly trumpets its ability to make warheads “upto 200 kt” and media reports (in particular, those written by Ajai Shukla) quoting DRDO sources also talk about Agni V being able to deliver a warhead in the 150-250 kt range. It clearly indicates that an arsenal of moderate size with warheads in the ~150kt yield range is considered necessary for a minimum credible deterrent. What “moderate size” means, of course, varies from time to tiem and depends on many factors.

    The point Bharat Karnad makes is that credibility must be sacrosanct. When the purported weapons of ~150kt yield are such that nobody (including the designers) is truly sure whether they would perform as desired, there is indeed a gap to be filled in the deterrent. Testing is therefore, necessary. At present, there are other gaps in the deterrent as well. To fill these, among other steps, Agni V and a MIRVed follow on of the same would have to enter service at the very least. So, one has to decide which steps to take first. Maybe, making sure that Agni V type delivery systems enter service before doing a Pokhran III would be a good idea.

    What I find puzzling is why people would like to curb our nuclear deterrent capabilities at present levels without allowing for further development (I sincerely hope that this is not what you advocate). Especially when we can certainly afford a measured buildup of such capabilities that outstrips Pak by a good margin and keeps raising the cost of any large scale PRC misadventure (this, by the way, gives more returns on monetary investment than our investments on expensive imported conventional arms) .

    The bottom line is that the option for testing again at an opportune time should never be closed in the name of contributing to “world peace/disarmament”. Nor should we support any fissile material cutoff (lip service is OK so long as Pak continues to block the FMCT). Let the likes of the U.S/PRC bring themselves down to a level where their stockpiles are at par with ours before we lift a finger in any such direction. We should make it clear that any arm twisting from the powers that be on the CTBT front would undo our current voluntary moratorium. It is time that we stopped sacrificing national interest at the altar of some abstract moral principles. Accumulating national power in all its dimensions (the military dimension being one critical dimension) should be the one and only strategic goal of the nation state.

    • RK Anuj says:

      Dear Satyaki,

      Maximalist/ minimalist is a matter of context, the Indian or US contexts being very different.
      A credible nuclear deterrence is no cap on conventional build- up or economic drain.
      The quest for more is never ending, as proven by history. To lobby for complete disarmament does not automatically imply signing the CTBT.
      Examples of nations building military strength to the exclusion of other elements of comprehensive national power abound. A balance is needed and that’s tough to achieve if nations indulge in an unbridled arms race.
      Diplomacy of the cloak and dagger kind has yielded little in any international engagement.
      Lastly, as my last para of the previous entry suggests, it’s not so much about the argument but the manner of its presentation.

      • I am relieved that it is only the manner of my presentation that offends you. I do not write to disparage persons holding different views, but my passion does lead to questioning the basis for these views. Sometimes stridently.

  4. satyaki says:

    Dear Anuj,

    Even granting that the Indian and U.S/U.S.S.R contexts are different, Bharat Karnad is not advocating maximalism. One ought to agree that if Pakistan is building a larger, more proven arsenal than ours, then the growth of our deterrent is far less than what we could afford without jeopardizing our economy. It is this overemphasis on minimalism that needs to be opposed. The reason being that there is a danger that the credibility of the deterrent will erode as a result.

    A credible deterrent certainly means that we can afford to go slow on conventional buildup when economic circumstances demand. For instance, once PRC acquired a credible deterrent (in their case a modest number of weapons in the 2-3 megaton range that they could deliver by missiles), they became immune to conventional aggression by forces (U.S.S.R in particular) that had far superior conventional arsenals. The key in PRCs case was the city-busting nature of their warheads. The only conflict that they were forced into from then on (I do not count conflicts that they initiated on their terms) was the Ussuri river clashes, if at all. Given what the U.S.S.R could do, these clashes were very limited (reinforcing what I said about deterrence imposing upper bounds on conflict size). Also keep in mind that the Ussuri river clashes happened when the only ballistic missile they had (aircraft were unlikely to go through Soviet air defense) was the DF-3, which could only target cities in Siberia. Once PRC acquired the DF-4/DF-5 around 1980, their deterrence was achieved. Of course, they have had to upgrade it ever since, but this is a continuous process, which in their case would be costing a tiny fraction of their current conventional buildup (which they seem to want to be able to start throwing their weight around vis a vis powers that cannot deter them).

    In short, doing what is necessary to guarantee a credible deterrent is vary vary far away from entering into an arms race and ruining our economy. By relaxing conventional requirements (in any case, given the economic disparity, matching PRC’s conventional might on the border is impossible for the foreseeable future), it will give us the space and time to concentrate on economic development without compromising on our ultimate goal of accumulating comprehensive power in all its dimensions. Given that testing is necessary for this, the only question should be when, not if.

    Regarding disarmament: advocating it is OK as long as we advocate it in the sense that the U.S.S.R advocated it and the U.S. advocates it. It is important that we do not allow others to hoist us on our own petard, so to say. In other words, while verbal support for disarmament is allright, under no circumstances should we sign the CTBT/FMCT. We should continue to oppose these as being discriminatory in nature, like we did in the past. The necessity of our opposing the FMCT will arise only when Pakistan stops its opposition.

    A final thought: could it be that the biggest beneficiaries of nuclear disarmament are those that would like to have more space for conventional conflict ? Given basic human nature and given the basic nature of nation states, nuclear disarmament could embolden militarist elements by making war an option that could yield dividends. Until a fundamental change in the basic nature of nation states occurs (nothing like that is visible on the horizon), universal nuclear disarmament might just enable a more “militarily active world”, though its proponents are well intentioned. But, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions….

  5. Madhav says:

    Is this report about the huge security breach at DRDO accurate? The blanket denial of Ravi Gupta (DRDO spokesperson) has only made me more suspicious.

  6. RK Anuj says:

    @bharatkarnad As you have acknowledged during the course of this debate, the logic behind your argument is far from being indisputable. So passion does not have to be derogatory.

    • Every issue has many sides and interpretations to it. This is what I have, with reason, acknowledged. It doesn’t mean they are all equally sustainable.

      • RK Anuj says:

        Strategy and politics make strange bed- fellows. The political hue being evident from your latest article, strategy is a mere matter of semantic and rhetoric, logic can go out the window. Thanks, but I’m done!!

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