Abysmal lack of hard power/technical expertise in MEA, foreign service

The strength of Indian diplomacy was once considered its expertise in drafting international treaties. Familiarity with the English language and honing over the years of observing-reporting-analytical writing led after 20 odd years of service to the average Indian foreign service staffer being reasonably conversant with language pitfalls especially in drafting diplomatic papers. And, following upon the British FCWO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) model, having embassy heads telegraphing in cipher mode weekly situation reports. With the internet and instant communications, however, the situation reports are passe even if the weekly reports are not, but are sent anyway and filed away at the Delhi-end w/o anyone caring even to have a deko, unless, of course, a PM, Presidential or VP visit is on the way whereupon the local envoy becomes important and then for the local “bandobast”. In recent years this has entailed liaising with the NRI community and hiring halls/stadia, etc for PM to court Indian-origin types assuming there are enough such in that host country. Otherwise, technology has enabled a complete centralization of control of foreign policy conduct and management by PMO (whence MEA is kept in the loop as a formality).

All the writing/drafting activity doesn’t, however, grow, sharpen or expand one’s technical domain competence, this despite the IFS lately attracting professionals, disconcertingly IIT grads and doctors of medicine into its fold. As many studies emanating in the US and elsewhere — one such is by Daniel Markey who many years ago faulted MEA for its policy “software” support void — have concluded the IFS is not large enough, has not developed any great advisory skills in technical subjects, which tells on the quality of advice, handicaps Indian policymakers, and hurts national interest.

This is especially true with regard to military-natl security policy areas — an outcome of GOI, MEA and Indian diplomats having traditionally ignored the hard power aspects of international relations, which is turning into a giant void for the service. This knowledge gap can be quickly filled with lateral entry into IFS by military officers on cross-postings, and from other technically capable govt services, and experts from outside the govt — which is the norm in advanced countries but something zealously opposed by IFS. So, we have an MEA trying to help frame documents like LEMOA, CISMOA, etc without any deep information, understanding or insights into the subject and incapable therefore of weighing the technical pol-mil-econ ramifications and the larger strategic impact of such agreements, even as the US plenipotentiary has at his side a bunch of experts knowledgeable about even the minutiae.

So, what happens is the Indian side rarely has a draft agreement ready for negotiation purposes but rather reacts to and works on the draft produced by the other side to alight on its own basic draft document. This is what happened in the case of the 2008 nuclear deal with the US, and with the LEMOA — a pared down or tweaked variant of the standard LSA document the US tabled and which was fashioned into the draft LEMOA and CISMOA. India thus plays disadvantaged in this high-stakes game.

Just how innocent of specialized knowledge senior IFS ambassadors are may be evidenced, for instance, in a discussion on LEMOA, CISMOA, BECA in a TV program (‘Latitude’ on Times TV) aired last weekend, featuring the host, a recent ambassador to the US Meera Shankar and yours truly. But judge for yourself whether Shankar has much to offer besides banalities: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmdAe9bAjxY&index=2&list=PLAQGzpyU01aEC1XGo7rjfPfxI-Rc9weUP

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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4 Responses to Abysmal lack of hard power/technical expertise in MEA, foreign service

  1. Siddappa says:

    Kudos for taking the issue by the scruff of the neck.
    Yes, IFS has more or less turned into English Lecturer Service, rather than serve the nation to deal with foreign countries. Not one person today is mentioning how we’d go about with SCO, SAARC, ASEAN, OIC, NATO & etc..,

    Have had enough of NAM & such yesterday stuff.

    Time, NaMo upgrades the military liason officers in our embassies with some more hard nosed Military men, who can act as advisors….

    Some one like erstwhile Girija Shankar Bajpai is needed now.

  2. &^%$#@! says:

    Meera Shankar ( like her most if not all senior MEA officials) is more concerned about getting an ayah’s or peons position in some US think tank, than looking out for Indian interests. Her “schoolmarmish” air and manner of speaking is irritating and “Nehruvian”.

  3. ~!@#$%^*()_+ says:

    THE GRAND CHESSBOARD – American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives
    by ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI

    The dedication page reads – “For my students—to help them shape tomorrow’s world”

    You can check out the kind of people the MEA babus are dealing with and today supporting, here:

    And

    You can check out what exactly is the status/understanding of these people about their own allies here : http://i.imgur.com/ZVfCX86.jpg

    OTOH you can check out some of the ex-MEA officers active on the net to find out the depth of their capacity.

  4. ~!@#$%^*()_+ says:

    THE GRAND CHESSBOARD – American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives
    by ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI

    The dedication page reads – “For my students—to help them shape tomorrow’s world”

    You can check out the kind of people the MEA babus are dealing with and today supporting, here:
    i.imgur.com/eASngT0.jpg

    And

    You can check out what exactly is the status/understanding of these people about their own allies here : i.imgur.com/ZVfCX86.jpg

    OTOH you can check out some of the ex-MEA officers active on the net to find out the depth of their capacity.

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