India Will Not Become a Great Power by Loudly Proclaiming its Intentions

Review of my book — “Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ by Shivshankar Menon, National SEcurity Adviser,January 2010 to May 2014, published Nov 22, 2015 in ‘The Wire’ and accessible at and reproduced below.

When Bharat Karnad asked me to speak at the launch of his latest book, Why India is not a Great Power (Yet), he knew that we have not always agreed on issues, to put it politely. He told me that I figured extensively in it and that I may not like what I saw. He was correct. I did not like what I saw about myself in the book; nor did I recognise myself in it.

Nevertheless, this is an important book which raises and discusses issues of primary importance to India’s foreign and security policy – issues which deserve much more serious discussion and examination than they have received so far in the country.

Karnad’s argument is straightforward, familiar to his friends and stated clearly in the Introduction. It is that independent India is a reticent state, has consistently underperformed and has consistently declined as an independent player in the international arena. This is primarily because of its over-bureaucratised and super fragmented system of government, the hollowness at the heart of its defence, its hard power deficit, and its lack of vision or, as he says, that it may be a “strategically dim-witted lug”. He thinks that India’s China policy in particular is pusillanimous.

Fortunately, international conditions for India’s rise couldn’t be more propitious. For India to be a great power, Bharat says, we should embrace the following agenda:

Choose sides in dyadic situations: siding with the United States against China; with Russia against China; with South East Asia, East Asia and Australia against China; and, Iran, Russia and China against the US and its allies in West Asia. As a result, India will be the regional and international balancer in two formations, a ‘middle-Asian quadrilateral’ and a ‘security diamond’ of India, Japan, the US and Australia.

Define its security perimeter in terms of an Indian ‘Monroe Doctrine’, and assume the role of gendarme in the area bounded by the East African littoral, the Caspian Sea, the Central Asian republics, South East Asian nations and Antarctica; and, cobble together a pan-Asian maritime security system on China’s sea border.

Incentivise India’s immediate neighbours, including Pakistan, with generous economic terms that plug into India’s economic and industrial engine, establishing India’s economic preeminence to complement its role as security provider.
Build up strategically-oriented, conventional military forces able to take the fight to China in Tibet and the distant seas, and to prosecute expeditionary missions from Subic Bay to Central Asia to the Gulf, and establish foreign military bases in Vietnam, Central Asia and Mauritius
Reorient her military effort from Pakistan to China, forming two additional offensive mountain strike corps.

Erect a consequential private sector led defence-industrial complex.
Resume thermonuclear testing, and place nuclear munitions at Chinese points of ingress along the border with China.

Prosecute a tit-for-tat policy with China, nuclear arming Vietnam as payback for China arming Pakistan.

Karnad concludes by saying that unless there are drastic changes, Great Power-lite is all that India can realistically hope for.

Just this summary will give you an idea of the sort of robust , assertive and thrusting policy that the author wants, and of the host of issues that he raises and considers in this book. There is much that can be said on its military aspects, on what Karnad has to say about India’s military infirmities and strengths, the hollowness of hard power and how it is configured and used, and on the alleged lack of vision and plans for its use.

In the limited space I have, I would rather focus on what the author says about India as a great power. There are two main aspects to this. One is what is a great power. The other is why and how India should become one.

What a great power does – and doesn’t do:

Bharat Karnad defines what separates a great power from others thus:

“With a modicum of economic strength, and natural attributes of size, population and location apart, what separates great powers and would be great powers from the rest are a driving vision, an outward thrusting nature backed by strong conviction and sense of national destiny and matching purpose, an inclination to establish distant presence and define national interests within the widest possible geographic ambit, the confidence to protect and further those interests with proactive foreign and military policies, and the willingness to use coercion and force in support of national interests complemented by imaginative projection and use of both soft power and hard power to expansively mark its presence in the external realm.”

And yet, has it really been so in history? I do not think so. This is a description of how empires or hegemons behave as they wane: of the British Empire at the end of the 19th century and after the Boer War, of the US since its moment of unmatched preponderance just after World War II, of Rome after Marcus Aurelius, of the Qing after Qian Long, and so on. And frankly speaking, what happened in history when they did adopt such policies? Did they arrest or significantly postpone their decline? The record is mixed. The most successful at managing decline were the British. Others who followed the kind of assertive policies that Karnad advocates before they had built the power base to sustain it saw their relative position decline rapidly. And some saw calamity – as did Wilhelmine Germany and militarist Japan, which chose to stress adventurist power projection and said so.

Peter Gordon has noted how “modelling all countries and peoples as if they were America-in-waiting has led to any number of false predictions and ineffective and misguided policies.”

Where does India stand on the historical curve of power? She is still rising, putting in place the sinews of power and accumulating it. She is certainly not in the ranks of the declining or mature great powers who have followed the assertive policies Karnad urges.

During the period of their rise, the great powers went through long extended debates on their role abroad, avoided external entanglements where possible, concentrated on building up their internal strength, and projected/cultivated the myth that they acted abroad only reluctantly or for moral reasons. The US invoked freedom and human rights, but intervened in Europe in the two World Wars only after the old established powers had knocked each other out. The British even claimed to have acquired two empires in a fit of absent mindedness! None of them declared their purpose and goals in the terms that Karnad uses. Deng Xiaoping’s 24 character strategy of keeping one’s head down etc. sums up the approach adopted by successful rising powers through history.

The reason for this is simple. Existing power holders do not share power easily or unless they are forced to by external circumstance and shifts in the balance of power. It is a declared goal of US policy to prevent the emergence of peer competitors in the world. And yet the paradox of power is that precisely those balance of power strategies that Henry Kissinger so assiduously learnt from Metternich and Bismarck have enabled the rise of China to a position where she can actually consider herself a strategic competitor of the US, despite their economic interdependence.

Should India therefore adopt Bharat’s prescriptions? Certainly not as declared policy.

What India has been doing

As for his detailed policy recommendations, some of the more eye-catching ones are likely to be controversial and seem unlikely to be adopted, while others are actually part of the government of India’s practice though not presented in the same fashion as Karnad does for their effect on China.

More assertive ones – like military bases abroad, providing security in Central Asia and Antarctica, thermonuclear testing and force projection – sit ill together with his assertions about the hollowness of Indian military power and the defence procurement system, and are subject to divided opinion among our own forces, as he acknowledges in the book.

The book recommends that India declare an Asian or Indian Monroe Doctrine. An Asian ‘Monroe Doctrine’ of sorts was suggested at last year’s CICA Summit in Shanghai by the Chinese president when he spoke of “Asia for the Asians”. The idea sank without a public trace. No other Asian government has picked it up. Instead, their actions since have consolidated their considerable external balancing to China’s rise – witness the India-US Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific Security in January 2015, the Japanese Diet passing laws permitting the deployment of Japanese forces abroad this month, the increasing defence and security ties among countries on China’s periphery, and other developments.

As for the book’s other prescriptions, it is hard to see how some differ from the practice (not the rhetoric) of successive governments of India. For instance, he speaks of the need to make the extra effort to involve Pakistan in our regional integration. That is precisely what the previous government did, when it came closer than ever before to neutralising the issues that divide us while opening up economic and other links with Pakistan. That the effort did not succeed was due to internal developments in Pakistan, not for want of trying here. Karnad is right in saying that our primary strategic focus should be China, not Pakistan.

Without entering into a polemic, it was precisely the period of the UPA, which the author decries as a lost decade, when India shifted strategic focus from Pakistan to China, when India’s nuclear weapons programme and deterrence were fully operationalised, when India accumulated economic power at an unprecedented rate with GDP growth rates unmatched by any other Indian government/decade, when the government decided to raise the mountain strike corps which Bharat wants more of and strengthened the posture along the China border, and so on. The verdict on this period’s work will come when India finds that she needs to turn to her economic sinews to support and sustain her military and political quest as a great power.

I do believe that “speak softly and carry a big stick” is likely to be a more productive policy to deal with the consequences of China’s rise and the other changes we see around us. What this book seems to suggest is to “shout loudly and brandish whatever stick you have, whether big or not”! The chapter on the infirmities and strengths of the armed forces suggest that Karnad thinks we have a pretty weak or useless stick. Frankly, the best judges of the size and quality of the stick are the professionals themselves.

What India must do next:

I am convinced that India will be a great power if she continues on her present course. This will not be through her soft power. Here Bharat Karnad is right, though he sets up a straw man – saying that there are those in the establishment who think so. I have never heard anyone responsible saying so or professing this peculiar belief. Nor will it be by others giving great power status to India, through some mysterious process of entitlement or accretion. Nor will it be through a variant of Bismarckian policy, which – despite all of A.J.P. Taylor’s and Henry Kissinger’s efforts to convince us otherwise – was a much simpler task than that facing Indian policy makers. (Bismarck had to deal with one continental system, which by its nature was a zero sum game. We have to deal with a complex continental system containing the rise of China, and simultaneously with an equally complex maritime system which is a positive sum game.) Instead, I believe that India will be a great power through building her own strength and capabilities and continuing to show wisdom and good sense in her choice of engagements abroad.

To me, the idea of a “responsible power” is a red herring. It is only a way existing power holders use to encourage conformity with their wishes and preferences.

Why am I sure that India will be a great power, despite all the limitations that Bharat Karnad mentions in his book? Because it is in India’s interest to be a great power. And this brings us to the purpose of power. Why should we want to be a great power? Theoretically it could be argued that like post-war Japan until recently, or Australia and Canada, we should be satisfied with concentrating on our own economic development and leave security to others. India cannot accept that for a simple reason. India, as Karnad says rightly, cannot rely on others for its security. Its interests are unique, whether economic, political or security – a function of its unique history, geography and culture. If we wish to abolish mass poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and disease and modernise our country, (or, as Gandhiji said so much more elegantly, “wipe the tear from the eye of every Indian”,) we can only do so by becoming a great power, with the ability to shape the international system and environment to our purposes. India is and has been an anti-status quo power, seeking to revise and reform the international order since Nehru’s day. That we have not succeeded is evident. That we need to be a great power if we want to have a chance of succeeding is also apparent.

There is also a chapter on what sort of power India should be which bears reading. This is something on which there can be and are legitimate differences among Indians. But I agree with Karnad that we are not clear yet in India about this concept. To me, the idea of a “responsible power” is a red herring. It is only a way existing power holders use to encourage conformity with their wishes and preferences. If you conform, you are labelled “responsible”, if not you are “irresponsible” or a “rogue”. We should worry less about the labels and the attempts by the world to fete us as a great power, and more about our own accretion of hard power and influence.

So, in sum, I find myself in agreement with Bharat Karnad on the goal of India becoming a great power but differ with him on the timing and the route, on how and when that will occur.

This is a book that anyone with an interest in India’s foreign and security policies should read, and read critically, and think about. You don’t have to agree with all that it says. I certainly didn’t. But I do hope that it sparks the debate in our country on these issues that we so urgently need.

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.
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2 Responses to India Will Not Become a Great Power by Loudly Proclaiming its Intentions

  1. My response (reproduced below) to Shivshankar Menon’s review of my book in ‘The Wire’ Nov 23, 2015 may be accessed at

    Shivshankar Menon, as I have long maintained, is the
    “smoothest” most intellectually agile Foreign Secretary and National Security
    Adviser the country has so far had, and, hence, able effortlessly to negotiate
    himself out of corners he has painted himself into!

    For starters, his belief – reflected in the title of his
    book review, that it is unnecessary for India to “loudly proclaim its
    intentions” is problematic. Surely, in
    the context of its historical reticence to assume a larger role and
    responsibility (except when it was ruled by the British and its resources
    marshaled by London to establish the Raj and expand their empire on which the
    “sun never set”) it is better for the country to do so than leave it to friends
    and foes to guess what they are. This way there will be less misunderstanding;
    it will reassure friends without affecting our adversaries – all of whom being
    hard-headed will assume the worst anyway.

    Then there’s the mystifying contention by Shankar (made at
    the book launch event and again in this review) that he is unable to
    “recognize” himself in his numerous utterances featured in the book. There’s no
    misquotation or “quoting out of context” here – because his statements are all
    taken from his speeches and addresses in various forums (texts of which he/his
    office kindly and regularly onpassed to me and are in the public realm), and
    from recorded interviews with me. His discontent then perhaps arises from the uses
    his views have been put to in order to buttress my arguments that he disagrees
    with. In retrospect, he may feel he has been shown up in less than stellar
    light. The risk of interpretation is, however, what public persons assume when
    they open their mouths!

    The difference in our attitude and approach to the subject
    of ‘India as great power’, however, is both clear and manifest. One of the
    problems is we see the phenomenon from different ends of the historical
    telescope. Menon views India’s rise from the perspective of slumping great
    powers and is eager to ensure it doesn’t repeat the mistakes of a “Wilhelmine
    Germany and a militarist Japan”. Keeping in mind the emergence of Elizabethan
    England, Bismarckian Germany, Czarist Russia, Meiji Japan, and Mao’s China, I conclude
    that guns, in fact, pave the way for economic power and prosperity and, in any
    case, need not and should not be sought to be sequenced with the latter coming
    first as the Indian government has striven to do since 1947 with little effect.
    There may well be policy similarities in the trajectories of great powers in a
    certain phase of their rise as well as decline, but it makes no sense to
    confuse the two as Shankar seems to be doing. Indeed, I emphasize in the book
    that there was nothing inevitable about the ascending Germany and Japan, having
    become rich and acquired military prowess, spiraling to their doom as a result
    of hubris and mindless excesses. And that India can be assertive, forcefully
    stand its ground, extend its influence in widening circles, install an Indian
    Monroe Doctrine system of security, and support a stable and peaceful Asian and
    global order but on its terms (which Shankar depicts fairly in his rendition of
    the case I make in the book in his bullet points) without tipping over into a
    spiral of violence and causing tectonic disorder (as Nazi Germany and Imperial
    Japan did).

    Our deep differences notwithstanding Menon strives manfully
    to align himself with my views on the hard power as primary means for India to
    achieve great power, saying we differ only on “the timing and the route” and
    that the “prescriptions” in the book are fine “but not as declared policy”, in
    other words, that but for the cosmetic aspects, he subscribes to my substantive
    recommendations for changing the country’s vision, strategy and policies. Speaking
    personally, this is a particularly satisfying note for the ex-NSA to strike, except
    he also reveals his cluelessness (and that of the Foreign Office, generally –
    the scale and extent of which is elaborated in chapters 4 & 7) about the
    instrumentalities of hard power. He elides over the main themes about the
    infirmities and deficiencies in India’s mainly tactically (not
    strategically)-oriented military capabilities, analyzed in some detail and at
    great length in (chapters 5 & 6), by saying a bit blandly, that “the best
    judges of the size and qualities” of the country’s military forces are the
    armed services themselves. Except, as
    the book shows the Indian armed services have time and again proved they are
    not up to job, pursuing their combat arm/service/sectional bureaucratic
    interests often at the expense of the national interest and, in the absence of
    political hands-on direction, in extremis.

    This is evidenced in Menon’s claim that the Manmohan Singh
    government had, in fact, sought to “involve Pakistan in our regional
    integration”, and to majorly focus on
    China as the primary threat as proposed in the book. The trouble is it tried
    economically to integrate Pakistan by continuing to hold a gun – the army’s
    three strike corps – to that country’s head. If the political objective
    supercedes the immediate military concerns then shouldn’t Menon, as NSA, have
    overseen a radical restructuring of the massive armoured and mechanized forces
    — way in excess of need, into a single composite strike corps, as I have been
    pleading for years and also in the book, which along with the defensive “pivot corps”,
    would be sufficient for any Pakistan contingency, and diverted the excess
    manpower and materiel thus freed up to form two additional mountain offensive
    corps for a total of three such corps for the China front? This was not even
    contemplated possibly because of the fear that the BJP in opposition would make
    political hay out of any such move at reorganization and even more because of
    the certainty that the armour and mechanized forces constituting a powerful
    vested interest would oppose any such force rejigging. The result is the
    firming up of the status quo and an army order-of-battle that can neither
    overwhelm Pakistan nor stare down China.
    The insistence by the IAF on inordinately expensive short-legged Western
    combat aircraft, such as the Rafale, is another recent instance of narrow
    service outlook making a hash of economic good sense even as the hapless
    government of India peopled by generalist civil servants fail to generate any
    good ideas of its own with respect to this or any other defence issue and
    perforce have to rely on the advice of the so-called “professionals”.

    Shivshankar Menon is too much the establishment man to go
    against it. But he is also too intellectually honest not to admit that
    weaknesses in the political, systemic, and military set-ups and especially in
    the prevailing policy mindset combined with antipathy to hard power impede
    India’s rise.

  2. Shaurya says:

    We will soft toe to power and arrive there unannounced, without ruffling any feathers! How cute?

    OK, how about this for a compromise with ex-NSA SS Menon. Do not announce a thing on our great power ambitions but DO all else the book says! Deal?

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