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India’s ‘Strategic Culture’ In Shaping Its Foreign Policy – OpEd


“The concept of strategic culture captures the essence of inter-State behaviour, looking at the set of preferences that states have in using one foreign policy tool or another.” — Jack Snyder

Like individuals, Nation-States also bear distinctive personality based on its shared historical memories that has been shaping its identity, consciously or unconsciously since time immemorial. The foreign policy of a Nation-State is therefore, an extension of its own distinctive personality personified in the global realm of world politics.

The identity of a Nation-State that has been shaping its unique identity or personality or the way it is perceived by other Nation-States is nothing but the sum total of its shared historical memories that come to the making of its culture. This ‘unique culture’ act as the DNA of a Nation-State and its own foreign policy formulation is nothing but the exact mirror or replica of this DNA, that can broadly be called as its ‘strategic culture’ that plays the most pivotal role in the making of its foreign policy.

It also provide answers as to why India has always been ‘reactionary’ (i.e. react/act after an event) in its security strategy, not having ‘pre-emptive’ posturing like the US or Isreal?

As we are witnessing 70 years of operation of Indian foreign policy (IFP), it is but natural for any curious onlookers of IFP to ask some pertinent questions about what has been going into the making of the foreign policy of world’s largest democracy having the oldest civilizational history of mankind on this planet earth. How the IFP has been conceptualized from the Nehruvian years to the present day of a de-ideolized and globalized interconnected interdependent world? Why India chose to be non-aligned in the good old Cold War days? Why India went nuclear in 1974 and again in 1998? Why IFP was reoriented in the post cold war days via adopting various futuristic ‘grand strategies’ like ‘Look West’ and ‘Look East’, now transforming into Act East and Act West policies?

The word ‘strategy’ is ubiquitous and can be found in all walks of life. The word ‘strategy’ has military connotations, because it derives from the Greek word “strategos” which means “to plan the destruction of one’s enemies through effective use of resources.”

The term ‘Strategic Culture’ was coined by Jack Snyder in 1977, while analyzing erstwhile Soviet Russia’s military strategy, where he felt that the origins of Soviet strategic thinking had a deeply rooted influence from Soviet history and the leaders of the Soviet Union did not behave according to any “rational choice theory”. Snyder defined strategic culture as “the sum total of ideals, conditional emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behaviour that members of the national strategic community have acquired through instruction or imitation and share with each other with regard to [nuclear] strategy.”

‘Strategic culture’ is an existential reality like real-politik . Nation-states do have established notions and habits regarding security policy, but that does not mean that these must play the primary role in guiding said policy. An elite Indian Foreign Service (IFS) mandarin may have an agenda item that would be considered counter-cultural for that nation (as has often been argued regarding pre-emption for the United States) but are able to push it through the resistant mechanisms of strategic culture; nonetheless.

With the winding down of the Cold War, India started to recast its approach to the world. In order to understand India then opening up, the US Department of Defense commissioned the RAND Corporation to do a project on “India’s Future Strategic Role and Power Potential”. The project leader was George K. Tanham. His influential finding, disseminated in an essay, “Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay” (1992), was that India lacked a strategic culture. Tanham attributed limitations in strategic thinking to India lacking political unity historically; the Hindu concept of time discouraging planning; the cultural view of the mystery of existence; the fact that Indian‟s were largely kept out of strategic circles by the British; and, lastly, to little interest in strategic planning in the elite ever since.

In the realist narrative India is a ‘Soft State’ (a term coined by economist Gunnar Myrdal in “Asian Drama”, 1968) and ‘weak power’. This betrays its lack of an understanding of and felicity in power play between nations.

It is a commonplace of the discourse on Indian security that India does not have a strategic culture and that Indians have historically not thought consistently and rigorously about strategy. At the very least, Indians have not recorded their strategic thinking in written texts, the only exception being the ancient classic i.e. Arthasastra. That India does not have a tradition of strategic thinking is not altogether incorrect.

On the other hand, since India’s independence in 1947, it has had to deal with a number of security challenges, and the volume of writings on these issues is enormous. Newspaper and magazine commentary is probably the largest single source on Indian thinking. In addition, the strategic community has produced a corpus of scholarly writings on security.

Finally, there are the texts of Indian prime ministers and other leaders who have over the years written and spoken publicly on security policy.
India’s ‘strategic culture’ is based on two broad based contours of philosophical foundation with its own belief-system with commensurate instrumental implications. The belief-system of its philosophical base includes certain age old guiding views viz sacred permeates Indian identity, goals are timeless, not time bound, India’s status is a given, not earned, knowledge of truth is the key to action and power and world order is hierarchical, not egalitarian.

India’s ‘strategic culture’ is the synthesis of its various historic experiences and ideas of different schools. Existing and developing as it had been since the beginning of the history of its political civilization, it was only after independence that India’s ‘strategic culture’ came into its mature form since only then were Indians able to systematically address its strategic issues according to strategic needs of their modern Nation-State.

Centered upon New Delhi’s South Block atop Raisina hill, contemporary India’s strategic culture mainly meant Nehruvian legacy i.e. Jawaharlal Nehru’s views about security and the world, in a rather long time (1947-’64). Later on, with the weakening of the dominance of Nehruvian legacy, India’s ‘strategic culture’ experienced constant changes and now even more under PM Narendra Modi’s politico-cultural and economic vision for making a ‘New India’ but the spirit or soul remained unchanged being unalterable like ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina’, ‘Kriyantu Vishwam Aryam’, etc.

To conclude succinctly, India’s security strategy, to some degree, changed correspondingly, yet it remained stable due to the great influences of ‘Indic culture’ cum Nehruvian heritage in the making of India’s foreign policy. The ending of the Cold War witnessed that Nehruvian legacy, being more idealistic and less realistic, challenged by new strategic concepts, gradually lost its predominance, as ‘Bhisma-Pitamah’ of India’s strategic thinking late K. Subrahmanyam, too agrees. The evolution of India’s ‘strategic culture’ finally resulted in the fundamental changes of India’s security strategy, her nuclear strategy in particular which has profound bearing on her foreign policy reorientation in a post Cold War era.

*Sourabh Jyoti Sharma, Assistant Professor, Gauhati University, D.K. College

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