Undergraduate international relations (IR) students know IR theorists try to make sense of the world by imposing an ideological order. This exercise is dominated by the often contentious dichotomy between realism and liberalism. It is widely agreed in IR circles that realism underlies the international system and remains dominant. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the USA, where US ruling elites, despite their repeated assertions of high-minded liberalism, implement hard-nosed realist policies.
Bharat Karnad has long argued that India must embrace a nationalist/realist orientation. Karnad critiques Indian foreign policy from a doctrinaire realist perspective. He believes India will not play its rightful role as a world power until it ditches its longstanding malaise and embraces a total make-over based on doctrinaire realist principles. He asserts that “At the heart of the failure of India’s foreign policy after Jawaharlal Nehru is that a succession of prime ministers, including [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, have viewed international politics from the vantage point … of a ‘subordinate state’” (398). To overcome this subordinate mindset, India must systematically apply the three essential realist principles of nationalism, hard power, and national interest. Karnad is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, and like any good think tanker, does not simply make a theoretical critique, but provides his reader with a series of detailed policy proposals to address the problems he identifies.
I previously reviewed Karnad’s Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), when it was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. Staggering Forward is a continuation of his realist effort with a specific emphasis on India’s current prime minister and the policies of his government. This reviewer does not embrace many of Karnad’s hard-core realist principles yet finds this book refreshing and challenging, nevertheless. Karnad is an original thinker not afraid to go outside the usual academic comfort zone. He enthusiastically presents his thesis and policy recommendations and challenges the reader to take him seriously.
It is easy to agree with Karnad that since India emerged from 200 years of colonial dominance in 1947 it has yet to come into its own. It remains in the thrall of great powers, most particularly the USA, China and Russia. India’s government professionals, whether diplomats, military officers or civil servants have not completely embraced the notion that India can go it alone, without the patronage of a great power.
Karnad asserts that India has for too long been obsessed with the wrong enemy, devoting too many diplomatic and military resources to its rivalry with Pakistan. As the subcontinent’s dominant power, Karnad believes that India should make the concessions necessary to normalise its relationship with Pakistan and that doing so would free the country to address the challenge presented by the rise of China. It is clear that India and China will be locked in a protracted rivalry in the decades to come and that India has to gear up to meet this challenge.
Karnad is no friend of India’s Congress Party and the left. He sees Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as the saviour of India. That said, he is no friend of Modi’s Hindu nationalism and its extremist agenda. He supports a right of centre party not in thrall to its thuggish elements. Karnad’s assessment is that religion and politics do not mix and that India cannot move forward unless it embraces its tolerant “composite culture,” and establishes friendly relations with Pakistan and the world’s Muslim states based on mutual respect.
Karnad recommends that India break free from its “subordinate mindset” and assert its independence on the world stage. He is particularly critical of India’s relationship with the USA and advises India to reject US overtures to enter into a “strategic relationship,” preferring that the nation devise its own partnerships to provide a security regimen for Asia that no longer relies on US patronage. Karnad devotes considerable space to detailing what he views as US duplicity regarding India. Karnad argues that India “needs least of all … the assistance of a dysfunctional, unreliable and receding America” (391). While he may be a bit too simplistic in his assessment of the USA and its prospects in a post-Trump era, Karnad’s longing for an assertive country that stands up to power, defends its own national interests and does not accept coercion from powerful states is well made.
As a realist, Karnad believes a nation state cannot play its rightful role in the world without a strong reservoir of hard power. Like his realist compatriots he believes hard power is based on a strong and capable military backed by a strong economy. Thus, Karnad sees military solutions for all manner of problems. He rejects India’s Nehruvian-Gandhian antecedents to embrace the assertion of military power to secure and defend Indian national interests, and when necessary, to coerce other states to fall into line behind Indian policies. This leads to a hawkish set of recommendations for a muscular India. He wants the military to focus on self-sufficiency in weapons production, updating India’s nuclear weapons arsenal, entering into co-operative military relationships with Asian states ringing China to prevent Chinese hegemony in Asia, and restructuring the Indian military to enable credible force projection not only in the Indian Ocean region but throughout Asia.
Highly critical of what he views as India’s outdated and outclassed military, Karnad asserts that India is far behind China militarily and will not catch up any time soon. This, he argues, leaves India no option but to embrace nuclear weapons. He urges the Modi government to toss aside US proliferation concerns and undertake a thorough modernisation of India’s nuclear forces. He is aggressive in wanting India to make it clear to China that “first use” is on the table and that India is prepared to use tactical and strategic nuclear weapons to deter and defeat Chinese military aggression. If all of this is not troubling enough, his most disturbing recommendation is to support the provision of nuclear weapons for Taiwan, South Korea and Japan as a means of proving a credible Asian security system no longer reliant on the US nuclear umbrella.
Like other die-hard realists, Karnad sees no credible role for human rights concerns in India’s foreign policy. Over the course of the book Karnad calls for India to ignore human rights abuses by the governments of Iran, Russia and Myanmar, for example. He asserts that attention to such abuses will interfere with India’s cultivation of close ties. Whereas liberals would critique this approach as a willful sacrifice of India’s soft power advantage, Karnad seems unconcerned, claiming that India’s long-term reliance on its civilisational soft power assets is overrated.
Most policy analysts and policymakers are more nuanced than Karnad is in this book. While hawkish, Staggering Forward, which clocks in at a lengthy 476 pages, includes such a huge array of ideas that readers from differing ideological perspectives are likely to find validity in some of them.
That said, Staggering Forward is overly long. The purpose of the book is to convince the reader of the urgency of making policy corrections and to embrace Karnad’s realist corrections. This could have been done more effectively if the book were shorter. In many ways it is a didactic work and, as such, could have made its points forcefully while being succinct. Instead, Karnad relies on repetition, stating his points numerous times at different points throughout the book. There are instances where Karnad showers the reader with details, most particularly on arms production and technology and nuclear weapons. Much of this information is not particularly relevant or interesting to the general reader. It is “too far down in the weeds,” and not really necessary to make the point.
That said, Karnad is a dynamic and original thinker who deserves to be taken seriously. Indian policymakers and analysts of India need to read the book, give it the attention it deserves, give serious consideration to its specific policy recommendations and provide thoughtful critiques.