IN THE FOREWORD to an aide’s book on presidential decision- making, John F Kennedy wrote: ‘The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself.’ Yet even if the process of decision-making was obscure, it was necessary and unavoidable: ‘We cannot escape choice.’ Coming from a man who held the future of the world in his palm during the Cuban Missile Crisis, these words are worth pondering. But they call for an attitude that few decision-makers have been able to cultivate: an acceptance of the limits of all knowledge, including self-knowledge.
Indeed, few leaders in our times have displayed the temperament and ability to reflect deeply on the choices open to them: on the range and limits of action as well as their foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. What’s worse, they seem incapable of doing so even in retrospect. This is why most political and diplomatic memoirs turn out to be elaborate exercises in self-exoneration— charades in which the corpse masquerades as the coroner. In consequence, the rare account that honestly probes the choices open to the decision- maker is indispensable for students of policymaking.
In India we have had few such analytic accounts by diplomats or politicians. Perhaps the sole exception is the late JN Dixit’s series of books, which— while not devoid of vanity and self-righteousness— do illuminate the context in which many of our foreign policy crises played out. Shivshankar Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (Penguin, 243 pages, Rs 599) is a superb addition to this genre. The book is an insider’s analysis of five key foreign policy decisions in the last two decades: the border peace and tranquillity agreement with China; the civilian nuclear deal with the US; the 26/11 crisis with Pakistan; the Sri Lankan war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009; and India’s choice to adopt and persist with its nuclear No First Use policy.
The sheer range of issues covered here is testimony to Menon’s stellar career as a diplomat. He has been India’s envoy to Israel, Sri Lanka, China and Pakistan as well as Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor. What you won’t learn from his resume, though, is the deeply historical cast of his mind. He mentions in passing that he had originally intended to pursue doctoral research comparing ancient Indian and Chinese traditions of kingship. I can think of few practitioners anywhere who can match his ability to place contemporary global politics in the long sweep of history: the churning background of economic and technological change, geographic and cultural predispositions, institutional and practical considerations. This historical sensibility undergirds this book, but in the forefront are individuals and the choices they confronted.
Menon unpacks each of these decisions by examining the overall context as seen by New Delhi, the range of alternatives and considerations, and the consequences that flowed from the decision. He rounds out each decision by also looking at the current and future state of play. In every case, he shows an altogether rare ability both to understand the interests and perspectives of decision-makers on the other side and to avoid assuming that one’s own side is the repository of all virtue. He also repeatedly breaks with the received wisdom, especially in India. The underlying attitude is one of sober realism: an insistence that we must deal with the world as we find it and not as we would have liked to find it. This may seem rather atheoretical to those schooled in the Economics-envying discipline of International Relations. But they would do well to recall that this is a tradition going back to EH Carr, the founder of modern Realism and himself a career diplomat.
The book begins in April 1992, when Foreign Secretary Dixit asked Menon if he thought it was possible for India to settle the boundary dispute with China. An experienced China-hand, Menon felt that a settlement was not in the offing. But the changing global context might incline Beijing to seek stability along the border, so allowing it to focus its energy and resources on more pressing areas. It was in India’s interest, too, to pursue such an outcome.
Menon’s account of the ensuing negotiations is worth reading closely. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) had not been mutually agreed upon after the 1962 war, but the areas of differing perceptions were well known. Yet, getting the ‘purists in the Ministry of External Affairs’ to agree that the LAC should be the basis of a confidence-building agreement was no easy task: ‘The iron had entered their souls, and they were less aware of the infirmities and ambiguities in the formal position of each side.’ Eventually, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao gave a go ahead to negotiate on the basis of the LAC, but with the caveat that both sides would mutually agree and clarify the LAC.
The book is an insider’s analysis of five key foreign policy decisions in the last two decades: the border peace and tranquillity agreement with China; the civilian nuclear deal with the United States; the 26/11 crisis with Pakistan; the Sri Lankan war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009; and India’s choice to adopt and persist with the nuclear No First Use policy
This provision, Menon writes, ‘became one of the hardest parts of the agreement to negotiate’. The Chinese took a maximalist position on where the LAC ran because they thought that the LAC would congeal into the de facto boundary. Chinese diplomats conceded privately that the PLA would give them no leeway on the matter. Eventually, both sides agreed that the need for clarification would be recorded in the agreement of 1993. A follow-up agreement in 1996 on Confidence Building Measures made this more explicit. At India’s insistence, the two sides exchanged maps showing their conception of the LAC. The Chinese took one look at the Indian map and dug in their heels. ‘In retrospect’, Menon concedes, ‘this procedure gave both sides an incentive to exaggerate their claims of where the LAC lay.’ By 2002, LAC clarification lay dead in the water. Hence, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s decision to begin political negotiations on the boundary proper.
The agreement itself was politically a hard sell in India. Not only the opposition but also sections of the ruling Congress party had to be brought on board. Menon credits Rao with the patience and sagacity to steer the accord through tricky domestic shoals. He also highlights the achievements of these stability accords by contrasting the LAC with China and the LoC with Pakistan.
Menon’s fair-mindedness is evident when he underlines the downsides of the agreement. By putting the spotlight on the LAC, the accord had ‘the unintended side effect of further incentivising the forward creep to the line by both militaries’. By the time Menon took over as National Security Advisor in 2010, the Chinese had built an awesome military infrastructure in Tibet and India was trying (not very successfully) to catch up.
Still, when troops from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plonked themselves in Depsang in the spring of 2013, the Indian reaction was swift. The Chinese presence was detected within hours and Indian troops were moved up in force soon afterwards. On the diplomatic front, India insisted that the status quo be restored before any Chinese demands could be discussed. The last serious standoff in Sumdorongchu had occurred in 1987 and it had taken seven years for status quo to be restored. By contrast, the Chinese pulled back in three weeks from Depsang. ‘The key at arriving at a successful outcome,’ Menon notes, ‘was keeping public rhetoric calm and steady, displaying strength, and giving the adversary a way out.’
Menon repeatedly breaks with the received wisdom, especially in India. The underlying attitude is one of sober realism: an insistence that we must deal with the world as we find it and not as we would have liked to find it
MENON’S ACCOUNT OF negotiating the civilian nuclear agreement with the US is similarly insightful, even if the story is more familiar. There are tantalising hints about the deep differences on the Indian side over the desirability and specifics of the agreement. But he doesn’t tell us much about who held which views and how these were eventually reconciled. The brevity of the text is disappointing in such places. Clearly, Menon believes it is too soon to tell the full story.
The most important part of this chapter deals with the massive diplomatic effort to secure a clean waiver from the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG). The real opposition to granting an exception to India came from the ‘mini six’: Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway and the Netherlands. Menon is uncharacteristically scathing about their role. ‘They treated the NSG as a stage on which to play out their chosen roles. They postured and dissimulated in their conversations with the Indian delegation and were clearly unreliable. At the end of the process these small states with large egos chose to avoid U.S. wrath by going along with the U.S.-shaped consensus decision.’
China, by contrast, was ‘careful to be noncommittal, urging caution on the other members but not mentioning criteria or other countries such as Pakistan, even elliptically.’ The Chinese initially expected the ‘mini six’ to hold their own. But when it became clear that they might be the only ones opposing, the Chinese swiftly changed their stance and conveyed their support to India.
Menon argues that the accord laid the ground for a genuine strategic partnership with the US—notwithstanding the problem over nuclear liability. ‘While both countries have always fought shy of saying that their partnership is to balance China, it is clear that the rise of China was one of the major spurs.’ In hindsight, he also acknowledges that the Indo-US deal was ‘a major factor in ending the relatively balanced Chinese approach between India and Pakistan from 1993 to 2006.’ The accord ‘provoked a natural rebalancing that we were probably slow to anticipate’.
This shift in Chinese stance is also evident in greater Chinese engagement with almost all of India’s neighbours. In the chapter on Sri Lanka, Menon records that India’s policy after the war was shaped by the need to prevent excessive Chinese involvement in the island. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was more solicitous of the Chinese, ‘having built a political machine on Chinese money’. But his brother and defence minister, Gotabaya, was only concerned about security and hence sensitive to India’s concerns. In the event, Gotabaya and ‘more reluctantly’ Mahinda Rajapaksa assured India that its security concerns would be respected and that there would be ‘no permanent Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka’. At no stage was ‘exclusivity sought or promised. And realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity’.
There are tantalising hints about the deep differences on the Indian side over the specifics of the agreement. But he doesn’t tell us much about who held which views and how these were eventually reconciled. The brevity of the text is disappointing in such places
This uncompromising willingness to look reality in the eye is also evident in his treatment of the Mumbai attacks of 2008. As Foreign Secretary, Menon ‘pressed at the time for immediate visible retaliation of some sort, either against the LeT in Muridke, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, or their camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or (covert action) against the ISI’. Yet, looking back, he believes that the decision not to strike was the right one. A military reprisal would have obscured Pakistan’s involvement in the attack and turned the crisis into an India-Pakistan dispute in international eyes. It would also have weakened the civilian government under President Zardari, which wanted better ties with India, and united the Pakistani people behind the army. Strikes on the LeT headquarters ‘would have limited practical utility and hardly any effect on the organization’. Finally, against the backdrop of the global financial meltdown, military action would have led to an exodus of investors from the Indian economy.
Interestingly, Menon also argues that no future government is likely to exercise such restraint. This was prescient since this book was completed well before the recent ‘surgical strikes’. Menon holds that there is real, if limited space, below the nuclear threshold for Indian military action. But the key to any decision involving the use of force is the political context. At the same time, he insists that India’s No First Use policy is wise and in no need of revision. India’s nuclear deterrent exists to deter others from resorting to nuclear blackmail. To the extent that Pakistan treats its arsenal as a shield behind which to sponsor terrorism, it is incumbent on India to develop other conventional and sub- conventional options to thwart Pakistan. Covert action, he hints at in several places, has been used actively— for instance, to nab some of the facilitators of the 2008 attacks.
HAVING COVERED THE waterfront, Menon points to some enduring features of India’s approach to strategy and foreign policy. For starters, there is the overarching role of the Prime Minister, notwithstanding the cabinet system. Personalities become important in this context. Menon writes admiringly about Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh—all ‘intellectuals who enjoyed playing with the concepts, ideas and options that new foreign policy challenges posed’. They also shared ‘an unanticipated—and largely underestimated—ability and determination to see through their initiative.’ A characteristic strategic move made by all of them was the ‘flight forward’—overcoming an impasse by pursuing hitherto unthinkable and forward-looking initiatives. India’s strategic outlook, he argues, is characterised not by reactiveness but strategic boldness coupled with tactical caution. The flip side of these is the weak institutionalisation of foreign policymaking in India. Lengthy informal consultations are the norm before any formal decision is arrived at. Besides, there is a serious problem of capacity in implementation.
I finished the book with a different insight—one that Menon might well disagree with. This is the history deficit in our policymaking. As Menon hints in his chapter on China, many of our diplomats don’t understand the history of our boundary dispute with China. This is true of practically every issue area. For instance, the Modi Government was evidently unaware of the history of earlier attempts to clarify the LAC. The record suggests that Prime Minister Modi should not have made it a central pitch to the Chinese—only to be rebuffed. Similarly, the history of the NSG waiver in 2008 should have suggested much better preparation before launching a campaign to join the NSG, especially in light of China’s changed stance towards India after the nuclear deal. Instead, the Government needlessly staked the Prime Minister’s standing on an issue that did not merit such a move. Examples can be multiplied.
Choices itself is a product of a period that is now history. Internationally, this was the age of American unipolarity. At home, this was the era of coalition governments led by individuals who knew how to work across party divides to advance India’s interests. As Menon notes, Rao, Vajpayee and Singh acknowledged their predecessors’ initiatives and sought to push the tiller further ahead. By contrast, we now have a strong government with extraordinary centralisation of decision-making. Every move in foreign policy is presented as an unprecedented break from the past. We should perhaps not be surprised by politicians’ claims that everything is new under the sun. But it is striking that professional diplomats echo these boasts. This stance is problematic for a variety of reasons—not least because it assumes that there is nothing to be gained from studying history.
Yet even the heralds of our own ‘New Frontier’ would learn much from this deeply considered book. For the rest of us, there is simply nothing like it.