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Nitin Pai: The case for military diplomacy

Nitin Pai  |  New Delhi 

One reason to go to a prestigious institution like IIM or Harvard is for the contacts you develop there. Now imagine after you come back from such a school, your employer — out of the fear that corporate secrets would leak to competitors — forbids you from maintaining any contact with your former classmates. Yet that is exactly the case with our defence officers, who are not permitted to even exchange emails with their former classmates without the approval of their respective service headquarters in New Delhi.

The paranoia underlying such an indiscriminate policy not only embarrasses individuals but also the nation. The world’s largest democracy trusts its officers with deadly weapons but doesn’t trust their sense of discretion. It also damages its own return on investment, for the officers who return from the world’s best military academies abroad bring back only the knowledge, not the social networks that could serve the nation’s interests. This is but one manifestation of India’s overall denial of a place for the armed forces in foreign policy. Apart from a very small number of mid-ranking officers who work together on a limited number of issues, the two anchor tenants of South Block, the ministries of defence and external affairs, might well be on two different planets.

But why do we need military officers to engage in diplomacy? Well, not only does the nature of contemporary international politics call for it, but other important nations practise it. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the US and the four-star generals that head its theatre commands are important players in operationalising Washington’s foreign policy around the world. The Pentagon’s foreign policy resources are comparable to the State Department’s. Look around the neighbourhood. The armed forces are key players in politics and security policies of all our neighbours, from China to Indonesia, from Pakistan to Myanmar. Further afield in Southeast Asia, it is not uncommon for retired military officers — like Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono — to occupy high political leadership positions.

Given our own firm believe in civilian supremacy over the armed forces, we are clearly uncomfortable with the sometimes dubious role the military plays in domestic politics in other countries. However, to pretend that other countries should operate by our domestic norms is unrealistic. Generals Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Than Shwe and Chen Bingde and their colleagues shape their nations’ policy towards India, we like it or not. Engaging them purely on civilian diplomatic terms, if at all, fails to engage their military establishments. Similarly, joint exercises and military-to-military cooperation arrangements only cover professional military matters. India does not engage in military diplomacy in any meaningful form.

This is part of the reason why India finds itself in a bind with respect to Pakistan, where it needs to engage the real power centre but finds itself with no means to. It is not a matter of matching protocol, for it is not purely military matters that we wish to discuss with General Kayani. Washington, in comparison, handles this a lot better through Admiral Mullen and General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, who are the primary interlocutors with the Pakistan army. Given that these admirals and generals are engaged in diplomatic activities of serious importance to India, can we afford to stay out of the military diplomatic loop?

This is not to say that New Delhi must set its generals and admirals off on diplomatic missions next week. Rather, India must make military diplomacy part of its foreign policy toolbox and create the capacities, structures and processes necessary to put it into action.

Diplomacy must enter the syllabuses of our military academies. Trained military officers must be deputed to Indian embassies and missions around the world, both to add to the numbers of defence attaches as well as to perform non-military functions. Not only will this expose military officers to the conduct of diplomacy but also address another problem — the inability of the Indian Foreign Service to ramp up its numbers fast enough to meet the growing demand. Furthermore, the socialisation of defence and foreign service officers through such postings will create benefits in the long term, in terms of greater understanding and policy coordination.

What about structures? As the late K Subrahmanyam consistently argued, India must restructure its armed forces along the lines of the US, with a joint chiefs of staff and tri-service theatre commands. Like it has done for the US, such a structure will lend itself to the conduct of military diplomacy.

However, while we wait for the political and defence establishments to develop an appetite for major reforms, it is possible to make adjustments to the existing structures to get some mileage. Why not make a senior defence officer the National Security Advisor? Why doesn’t the National Security Council have senior military officers in top leadership positions? Indeed, a general in the NSC can well be the point person to engage the Pakistani army establishment.

In the meantime, perhaps we can allow our defence officers to keep in touch with their foreign friends.

The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati
– The Indian National Interest Review

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First Published: Mon, April 18 2011. 00:20 IST