“Hard power yields obedience, while soft power yields acquiescence. The former is the foundation of state strength, but the latter helps consolidate that strength. History suggests that synergistic use of both forms of power allows a state to gain global influence.”
En route to becoming a superpower, India shall at some point have to consider partially shedding its soft image in order to earn the respect due to a strong nation. Hitherto, its strategic restraint against Pakistan-based terrorists has been lauded by foreign governments. Such praise however, has also restricted India’s policy options – a situation which is now starting to show diminishing returns, as strategic experts overseas question whether India can ever demonstrate the muscle and the will needed to qualify as a real super power.1
To avoid being categorized as a superpower wannabe, India needs to develop a politically, diplomatically and operationally sustainable response to cross-border terrorism. It needs to balance multiple considerations, such as protecting its citizens from terrorist attacks, promoting secularism domestically, preserving international goodwill and strengthening peace lobbies in Pakistan. Within these parameters, the order of priorities must be understood – the safety of Indian nationals and the preservation of domestic stability through secularism come first. Achieving these higher priorities without prejudice to the other two may require exemplary yet covert use of force against Pakistan-based terrorists.
“¦strategic restraint against Pakistan-based terrorists has been lauded by foreign governments. Such praise however, has also restricted Indias policy options”¦
Counter-terrorism experience of Western democracies suggests that decapitation strikes can greatly damage terrorist groups psychologically as well as operationally. For instance: in May 1980, Arab terrorists occupied the Iranian embassy in London, taking several hostages. After initially attempting to negotiate, the British government ordered Special Forces to storm the building. What happened next was controversial: eyewitnesses say that once the hostages were freed, the rescue force killed the terrorists in cold blood.2 Although hard evidence of a ‘no-prisoners’ directive never surfaced, media speculation was rife. Apparently, such speculation itself acted as a deterrent – no further incidents of political hostage-taking occurred in Britain.
Similarly, the February 2008 death of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, probably orchestrated by Israeli Intelligence, severely undermined that group’s attack capability. Mughniyeh had personally planned many acts of terrorism against Israel and the United States, and had pioneered the use of vehicle and suicide bombs in the Middle East. His elimination could be interpreted both as an act of vengeance (or justice, depending on one’s point of view) as well as pre-emptive self-defence by the countries that he had long targeted.3
This essay argues that India should adopt a comparable approach to foreign-based terrorists: one of ‘silent signaling’. Indian Special Forces should relentlessly eliminate terrorists in their safe havens, even as New Delhi pursues symbolic peace talks with Islamabad. To become a superpower, India needs to project a benign international image without being seen as weak or indecisive vis-à-vis an insignificant adversary such as Pakistan. The latter has already been labeled by a 2008 United States Army report as being at risk of state failure.4 Instead of attracting international hostility and further destabilizing the already weak Pakistani state through a military offensive (although that remains an option if all else fails), India should first try fighting cross-border terrorists through covert usage of hard power.
Hard and Soft Power: A Delicate Balance
Power is the ability to influence the behavior of others in a manner favourable to oneself. When exercised through tangible means such as threats and bribes, it is described as ‘hard’. When exercised through non-material incentives, it is described as ‘soft’. Hard power yields obedience, while soft power yields acquiescence. The former is the foundation of state strength, but the latter helps consolidate that strength. History suggests that synergistic use of both forms of power allows a state to gain global influence.
Britain for instance, constructed a ‘civilizing’ discourse to legitimize its colonial conquests in the Indian subcontinent. Advocates of the imperial project argued that it was bringing the benefits of Western science to a barbaric Asiatic people. Yet, whenever it faced a serious challenge, as in 1857, the Empire fought back with a savagery that matched and even exceeded that of its enemies. Soft power was used to mask the devastation caused by hard power. In turn, it was sustained by the political and economic stability that hard power created. The two forms of power, when combined, created a superpower.
Between 1947 and 1964, the Nehru Doctrine cost India sovereignty over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and suzerainty over Tibet. “¦also left India open to betrayals such as 1962.
An even stronger example is that of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. On the one hand, it propagated enlightened and universally respected values, such as societal egalitarianism and political liberty. In defence of these principles, it set an inspirational example by fighting a civil war to free black Americans from slavery. Through adopting the cause of ‘freedom’ as its own, it built up moral authority and formidable soft power globally.
On the other hand, the US also followed the logic of realpolitik, systematically eliminating challenges to its dominance of the Western hemisphere. It began by promulgating the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, declaring Latin America off-limits to European colonialism. Between 1846 and 1848, it fought a war with Mexico that ended with the conquest of more than half the latter’s territory. Having attained strategic depth, it then expelled French influence from Mexico and Spanish influence from Cuba, ensuring that no major military power could ever gain a foothold near its borders.
After World War II, the United States encouraged the trend towards decolonization, quietly undermining the old Europe-centric world order and replacing it with an America-centric one.5 This power shift became obvious during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Washington used its economic might to force Britain into ceasing its attack on Egypt. By exercising hard power – against an ally, no less – the US demonstrated that it had become the undisputed master of the Western world. This phenomenal achievement in empire-building would not have been possible but for the combined accumulation of hard and soft power over many decades.
As independent India seeks to establish itself in the global arena, it needs to learn the lessons of history and exploit the benefits of both kinds of power. The examples of authoritarian states such as the Soviet Union and Maoist China suggest that open and unrestrained use of hard power triggers the formation of a balancing coalition against a rising state. At the same time, no country has ever gained international respect just for being peace-loving and projecting a benign image of itself. Preserving the goodwill currently generated by Indian soft power while retaining the strategic autonomy provided by hard power is therefore, a key challenge for New Delhi. This is especially true of relations with Pakistan.
The (Mostly) Soft Indian State
Through its independent existence, India has largely been a soft state, committed to rising through a non-militaristic foreign policy. It has sought to propound principles of peaceful co-existence, only to find these rebuffed by more pragmatic neighbours. Between 1947 and 1964, the Nehru Doctrine cost India sovereignty over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and suzerainty over Tibet. With its deep faith in the binding nature of gentlemen’s agreements and international law, it also left India open to betrayals such as 1962.
The Indira Doctrine demonstrated the limits of what hard power could achieve by itself. Despite the best efforts of New Delhi, extra-regional forces intervened in South Asian affairs, to Indias detriment.
The Chinese invasion of 1962 and Pakistani invasion of 1965 led to a stronger emphasis on hard power. Under the Indira Doctrine (late 1960s-80s), New Delhi set out to establish India as the South Asian hegemon. Indian forces speedily repulsed an opportunistic Chinese probe in 1967 and paid Pakistan back for its past transgressions in 1971. The more confrontational tone of Indian security policy however, caused disquiet in foreign capitals, prompting some Western and Arab states, as well as China, to bandwagon with Pakistan.
The Indira Doctrine demonstrated the limits of what hard power could achieve by itself. Despite the best efforts of New Delhi, extra-regional forces intervened in South Asian affairs, to India’s detriment. From the 1970s onwards, China provided extensive help to the Pakistani nuclear program. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in 1979, prompting the United States enter into a covert alliance with Pakistan. During the 1980s, a convergence of these two vectors (acquisition of nuclear weapons and growing expertise in covert action), provided Islamabad with the means and self-confidence to launch a proxy war against India.