Military Diplomacy - An Underutilised National Resource
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 20 Jul , 2015

In India diplomacy has so far been the domain solely of diplomats. A diplomat in India is a generalist who learns on the job, if so inclined.  Modern international relations are such that diplomats and diplomacy have to be much more. It is now a profession that must understand and leverage all instruments of national power to further national interests. The major components of national power are economic, military and soft power. It is a moot question as to whether the members of the Indian Foreign Service have the training, skills and mind-set to function in an environment where there is a need for India to utilise its military capacities as an integral part of diplomacy.

…lack of interaction with professional senior military officers perpetuates the lack of strategic thinking that pervades the political class.

A look around the region makes it obvious that most Governments in this region are heavily influenced by their military. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar,  Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, China, the Gulf and Middle East including Israel are countries  and regions where the military has a strong influence on policy.  In our immediate neighbourhood, President Thein Sein of Myanmar, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, President Yudhyono of Indonesia and of course numerous Presidents and Foreign Ministers of Pakistan have been former military officers.

Military officers have a different value system, thought process and ethos from civilians.  They identify and bond far better with other former or serving military officers, irrespective of country, as they consider them fellow warriors.  Therefore if India wants to influence a country that has a strong military input in its policy making, as is the case in most of our neighbourhood, we should obviously lay significant emphasis on military diplomacy. It is quite surprising that this self-evident fact escapes the Government of India, especially its Ministry of External Affairs and we do not consider this aspect while pursuing our relations with countries in our neighbourhood. The United States is one of the leading proponents of the art of military diplomacy. It goes out of its way to get military officers from other countries to the United States for training, exercises and various other activities from a very early stage in their careers. It utilises its senior military officers regularly for diplomacy and believes that investing in military to military ties over the years give it considerable influence in other countries.

So why does the Government of India ignore the potential of military diplomacy?  Why does it not utilise the influence a professional, respected Indian Armed Forces can bring to bear to further its interests, apart from the cursory and restricted individual training it offers to some African and Asian countries? It appears that there are many reasons for this including some fairly complexones that relate tomind-set and organisational issues. Firstly, there is the mind-set of the Government of India established in the Nehru era in which the military was viewed with suspicion as a leftover British institution.

…we need to modernise within the Ministry of Defence and Services Headquarters a completely outmoded set of rules and mindset regarding security.

Quite inexplicable in view of the historical fact that it was the Indian sepoys of the East India Company’s Army that were the ones who initiated the revolt against the British in 1857 and it was the Indian Army that helped unify the country and control the post partition disturbances for the political leadership. Be that as it may, Nehru initiated and perpetuated a distinct attempt at keeping the military at bay in Government and downgrading the status of senior military officers. This mind-set of suspicion of the military is still dominant in the Government of India. It has been further reinforced by the intense obsession of Indian bureaucrats with turf and status issues.  Our Ministry of External Affairs thinks that anything to do with international relations of any type is solely their domain whether they have the knowledge about it or not. This is out-dated thinking.

The second major issue is the complete lack of a strategic mind-set amongst the political class in the country. Apart from notable exceptions like Jaswant Singh of the BJP and Arun Singh of Congress, there are hardly any politicians in this country who have the ability or the interest to think strategically and appreciate the advantages of indulging in military diplomacy.  Our politicians rely entirely on the advice of bureaucrats and police officers who due to turf issues want to keep the military as far away from politicians and governance as possible. Therefore lack of interaction with professional senior military officers perpetuates the lack of strategic thinking that pervades the political class. Stephen Cohen has eloquently brought out this fact in his book on the Indian Armed Forces, which is aptly titled ‘ Arming without Aiming’.

The third mind-set issue is the silo nature of the Government of India in which there is no institutional interaction mechanism to tackle issues in national terms rather than parochial terms.  There is a self-imposed firewall between the Ministries of Defence, especially Armed Forces Headquarters, and External Affairs. There does not seem to be any coordination between the two let alone consultation between the two in dealing with foreign policy . Increasingly, a similar firewall seems to be coming up between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Armed Forces themselves.

Apart from notable exceptions like Jaswant Singh of the BJP and Arun Singh of Congress, there are hardly any politicians in this country who have the ability or the interest to think strategically and appreciate the advantages of indulging in military diplomacy.

The availability of professional military advice on national security issues to the politicians has been restricted under the leadership of Mr Anthony, who is probably the most status quo and bureaucratic Defence Minister this country has ever seen. Under his stewardship, the Armed Forces have been successfully placed in a isolated silo by the bureaucracy which indulges in Orwellian word games such as calling Armed Forces Headquarters as ‘Integrated Headquarters in the Ministry of Defence’ when they are nothing of the sort.  Contrast this with a country like the United States where professional military advice is available at the highest level and is always taken into consideration on international and national security issues issues. This situation needs to be rectified and perhaps one of the ways that it can be done is to revive the now defunct Defence Committee of the Cabinet with the three Service Chiefs as part of it.  The ambit of this committee could be enlarged to also encompass issues dealing with foreign relations with a military component.

On a more practical level, we need to reach out to the Armed Forces of neighbouring countries by dramatically enhancing our military training programmes and inviting many more of them for training courses, exercises, seminars and study assignments in India as well as sending very many more of our officers for similar training abroad. We must also include on a regular basis Armed Forces officers in delegations we send to countries, especially  in our neighbourhood,  as part of an effort at long-term relationship building. We need to utilise the Navy a lot more in showing the flag around our region and we need to listen to senior military officers when they opine on strategic issues facing the country and incorporate into our own foreign policies the advice given by the Armed Forces in dealing with other countries.

Finally, we need to modernise within the Ministry of Defence and Services Headquarters a completely outmoded set of rules and mindset regarding security.  The rules regarding service officers interacting with foreigners were created during the Second World War and remain largely unchanged. These prohibit any kind of communication with foreign nationals  (including family members) without prior written sanction.  In the age of Facebook, Twitter and email, this is patently unenforceable and absurd. What is the point of establishing good military contacts and relationships if you cannot follow them up ? These rules need to be updated for the 21st Century if military diplomacy has to have any chance of success.

Only when we do these things will we fully utilise a professional, cost effective resource available to us in our military establishment and use the power of military diplomacy to further the interests of the Indian nation.

First Published on 15-Jan-2015

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Arjun Katoch

Col Arjun Katoch, former Chief of the Civil Military Coordination Section in the United Nations

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3 thoughts on “Military Diplomacy – An Underutilised National Resource

  1. Excellent narration. An insight of the more proactive role for the defense services as in the other countries. It is Nehru’s saga and the fear phobia that prevents the Indian defense services from evolving as a viable and meaningful entity. Indian army, under a bureaucratic political system that lacks the insights of Indian interest or learn them after appointments do have negative impacts. Indian army needs to be institutionalized for a concrete and active role in the country’s affairs. The democratic system in India lacks intellectuals that could formulate trends based on history the current and emerging trends for the ministries to apply in dealing with other countries. Indian history has several follies from the Nurhuvian perception of an India without military conflicts and totally subjugating the defenses forces under a defunct political system that is possessed by the fear phobia of an army coup or take over the system following the footsteps of the Pakistani army. We have the powers like the USA, UK and other democratic countries where the army, while playing a vital role in establishing the sovereignty of their respective countries, is functioning as vital elements in formulating foreign policies and even the internal policies. Well, in India the political system is maligned and corrupted and certainly under such a system Indian bureaucracy does not see the defense forces have a place in establishing the sovereignty of the country. An ideal article that emphasize on the need to transform the defense into an institution that could aim at a meaningful policies to deal with the neighbors’ government that are mostly manned by the ex army officials.

  2. The officials of the MEA including its head, the Minister-in charge has very little knowledge of ground realities. When the COAS was sending out a tough message and stern warning to Pakistan, the Foreign Minister was contradicting him stating that much has been invested in peace efforts and harsh words should not be used in derailing these efforts. Does this Minister know what he is talking about? He needs to be reminded that public opinion is one of the determinants of foreign policy and the Army Chief was expressing that sentiment militarily.

    The MEA and its so-called peace efforts and composite dialogue has been a colossal failure. Talking for dialogue’s sake is not going reap dividends. So just as Pakistani civilian officials talk peace and its military wages war, India and its armed forces too should continue to wage war instead of showing restraint and exposing Pak’s double-speak.

  3. We have Menons ( Un ceasing attitude of Krishna Menon ) in every generation, yet the likes of Carriappa, Maneckshaw and Sunderjee are lacking.

    Now the top echelons of the armed forces are excusing themselves of Inertia under the pretext that there was no ‘ Govt sanction” or Govt did n allow us to cross the LoC as in kargil war.
    Are the Generals turning into Postmen liasoning between the fighting cadre and the myopic bureaucratic and baseless political circus or are they occupying the chair to desist their forces into being turned into a terrorist and Paki/Sino bulet fodder by the strategy which are void of any military strategy or sense yet pushed to be adapted by the diplomats and politicians

    If not crossing the LoC is seen as fighting with a hand tied at the back as in the Kargil war, why not stand ground and ask the bureaucrats to back off and let the military minds devise military strategy , why agree to send soldiers to a more certain death and disability?…let the the diplomats know that it is their job to counter pakistani yap yap’ in the international circle effectively and just because they are incompetent in doing so ( as seen from diplomatic blunders right from independence) then they shoudl not substitute that by asking the army to not do their job effectively and continue to let soldiers die each day from enemy bullets yet not acknowledge war!
    The domino effect of this is that the Pakis can and will come and go as the chinese do and once in a while even behead to pass on a message and the diplomats will downplay that too!

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