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The Geo Interview with Amb. Shivshankar Menon - India in 2022 - Choices Revisited

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Amb. Shivshankar Menon

Image Credits: Brookings Institution


Ambassador Menon thinks on his acclaimed 2016 book ‘Choices’ in light of the present with Asish Singh, undergraduate student of International Relations at Ashoka University.

Dipika: Dear viewers, welcome to the Geo Interview! I am Dipika Singh and I manage content for The Geostrata. We have with us today one of the finest diplomats and strategic thinkers, Ambassador Shivshankar Menon. Ambassador Menon served as India's National Security Adviser between 2010 and 2014. Ambassador Menon has also served as the Foreign Secretary of India, and as India's Ambassador to China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Israel. Thank you.

Amb Menon: Thank you for having me.

Asish: This session will be a review of Ambassador Menon's much-acclaimed book 'Choices: Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy.' Ambassador Menon, you as India's top diplomat and then as NSA had operated within a certain milieu of ideas and principles with respect to India's foreign policy, which of course figures in your book Choices. Now if I ask you to juxtapose the shape that India's foreign policy has taken today, can you smoothly plug this contemporary Indian foreign policy into your book or has it since metamorphosed into something different?

The basic drivers of India's policy don't change.

So, there are structural and fundamental continuities in Indian policy, since independence. There has been a tremendous amount of continuity in Indian foreign policy. Successive governments tend to claim that their policy is different or better than everybody else who came before it etc., but that's normal and part of democratic contestation. But the fact is, the basic drivers: history, geography, economic and resource endowment, demography, population, locations, don't change. So there are certain fundamental continuities in policy, and especially in the Indian case, which I think were true when I wrote Choices, when those events happened which are described in Choices, and are true today and are true actually of the behaviour of the government of India. What does change much quicker, is actually the environment or international situation within which you operate and try and achieve your goals. The configuration of forces abroad, such as the sharpening of differences between China and the US, for instance, or the economic slowdown and the effects of the post Global Financial Crisis 2008 which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, are tactical things that do change. But I think the goals are still the same: transformation of India, making India a secure, prosperous country in which every Indian citizen can achieve their full potential or at least has the opportunity to do so. So, for me the goal doesn't change, some of the basic drivers don't change, but certainly the environment within which you operate changes and therefore you have to do different things.

For instance, in the last year, five different regimes around us, in the subcontinent, have changed: Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Maldives. Today there is a developing country debt crisis. The World Bank, IMF say at least 35 countries are at real risk of facing a debt crisis. Two of them are in our immediate neighbourhood and are already in talks with the IMF. Thanks to the pandemic, tourism earnings have taken a bit. Remittance earnings from the Middle East etc. have declined because workers have been sent home, and commodity exports have been hit, so they are not earnings as much. These are structural problems. And you have an immediate problem in your neighbourhood. India has stepped forward to help where we can, such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and so on. I mean, it would make sense to tell Sri Lanka that you can use Rupees to settle your trade accounts with us. And we could then, you know, promote integration and actually see them through this difficult period, because we do have a much bigger economy and capacity to meet their needs. So there is a situational change to which we react. And each government faces that kind of change… it is not only now that this happened. Of course, the trouble is that

levels of uncertainty in the international system today are much higher than they have been for some time.

This is because we are between orders, as it were. We do not have the certainty of a bipolar Cold War world, nor is this a post Cold War unipolar world where the US provides global public goods and dominates the situation. Today there are multiple regional balances and challenges. The European order is challenged by the Ukraine war, by what Russia wants, by what NATO does not want to. The regional balance in northeast and southeast Asia is upset with the rise of China. You have seen the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the East China Sea.

You have seen the balance between India and China is also upset: you have seen trouble on the border in the last few years. So there are multiple stresses to the international situation to which a government has to respond. So to the question, "is Choices still valid?"... I say some of the basic drivers of Indian policy remain the same: the emphasis on the neighbourhood: you will see much of what I have written in Choices is about the neighbourhood, it's about China, Sri Lanka, it's about dealing with our neighbours. So I think those kinds of imperatives stay the same but how we respond to individual situations will vary.

Choices by Shivshankar Menon

Asish: Thank you ambassador. That was insightful indeed. So, the basis or the essence of Choices still holds true. We are grateful that posterity has such a great book to read and understand the drivers of the major decisions in Indian foreign policy and how they panned out. Moving on. You have written in your book that the dispensation in 2016 was deriving India's foreign policy without an “overarching conceptual framework.” Given this, do you sense any incongruity in how India has responded to affairs in the neighbourhood and beyond such as the economic crisis in Sri lanka, or the coup in Myanmar, the challenge to the European security order stemming from Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Amb Menon: I think after some hesitation initially for a few years in dealing with smaller neighbours in the subcontinent. I think our government is still following very similar patterns of behaviour. The kind of support extended to Sri Lanka in terms of supplies, in terms of preventing a complete collapse but not getting involved in their internal politics. Not making a choice between how they settle their internal political differences, although the demonstrators are demanding the resignation of the president. That’s their internal affair, but we have no interest in seeing Sri Lanka collapse into anarchy or the people not being able to feed themself and so we have therefore, stepped up to support at least essential but we cannot solve Sri Lanka’s problems, no outside country can. This Sri Lanka has to sought out for themselves and their own political processes have to sought those out. We can only provide help to give, buy them some time to do so and I hope they manage to do that. About the goal of keeping a peaceful periphery of a stable Sri Lanka which stays united, which doesn’t attract inimical outside influences because after all this is right on our periphery. It’s barely separated by a small body of water. So, those interests remain and I think the government has done what it could to pursue and safeguard those interests during the Sri Lankan crisis. Same with the Maldives, we sent supplies, we have helped the government there and let’s see how it happens. Unfortunately, the difficulty today is that no matter how you conceive it, the world of course makes a big difference. My own sense is that

today we are in a world adrift.

This is not a world dominated by the United States. She might be the sole superpower. She is the only one who can project military power across the world but that’s not true of the others. There is no other power which can match that kind of military power.

The world is multipolar economically, so it’s not multipolar militarily or politically but it is multipolar economically and politically we can see it fractured;

we have seen this in Ukraine, we have seen that and the West might be consolidated. So with Russia and China as alternatives, most countries don’t want to have to choose sides in this kind of polarisation of the world system. We are between orders and the international system is not responding either to the dead crisis or to the pandemic, you have seen how feeble the response was to that. So that's really the problem.

Countries like India have to do much more in their role in their own immediate neighbourhood, regional powers have to step forward and help.

Asish: Thank you Ambassador. You made a very interesting and valid point: that the world is multipolar in economic terms but not so much recently in political terms. I think it would be interesting to have your thoughts on India's current position on the Ukraine crisis. So again harking back to the requirement of a conceptual framework, do you think we in India now have a consensus on how to deal with situations arising from such great power dynamics as we see in the Ukraine, so to speak?

Amb Menon: I am not sure that we have agreement and I am not sure that 100% agreement between everyone is necessary either. These are issues that are never black or white, right or wrong, true or false… These are issues that need to be discussed and reexamined all the time, because these change, over time, over space. I think the official line today in India is that the world is multipolar. And many countries like to say this: I mean China likes to say it; I think they feel comfortable because they think they are poles. I mean it is flattering to themselves to think of themselves as a pole in a multipolar international system. But if you look at the actual distribution of power, there is a disconnect between the distribution of military power, the distribution of economic power and basically political or soft power for that matter. Which is why I say this is a world between orders. I also say so because you look at the pathetic nature of the multilateral system and the international system's response to the pandemic. You know,

there were lots of meetings… G20, WHO, G7… you name it, everybody met. But what did they do? Ultimately it was each country for itself.

Even today, there are huge inequalities in the way the vaccines have been distributed in terms of access to medical care. We are still arguing about IPR for vaccines. I mean,

the last time there was a concerted international response to a transnational crisis or challenge was really in 2009 after the Global Financial Crisis, when the G20 met in April 2009 in London and agreed on a set of measures which prevented another great depression, which also helped to stabilise the international banking system and really prevented some much worse things from happening after the crash of 2008.

But since then, the system hasn't worked the way it should have. Which is why I say, there isn't a working international order today. So, what are we left with? Not everybody in India agrees with this description of the world. While there are many people who agree that yes, the world is between orders, but I think the official line today is that the world is multipolar, India is one of the poles, and we are going to assert our voice, etc.

We always had a voice. We are very big, we have influence, and we've managed to change the international system where necessary,

whether it was on the nuclear issue at the NSG or whether it was in changing the geopolitics of South Asia in 1971, you know, India is India. But I think, there is a natural tendency for each government to say that it is doing much better than anyone else: so we will see that kind of thing all the time. But

I don't think there is a 100% conceptual clarity or agreement and I'm glad there isn't: because it means we are still thinking about the issues, that we are still looking at them, that we are still examining the evidence, that we are responsive to a changing situation around us. Which I think is good.

Image Credits: Rediffmail

Asish: Perfect. And now I would like to quote you directly from your chapter Final Word from Choices. So, I am quoting “If individuals attempt to go against the grain of policy as implemented so far, objective reality and India’s condition are likely to bring them up short, painfully.” If we juxtapose India’s current policy, the activities in the MEA, to what extent has all of this matched your advice? Could you please draw some comparisons here?

Amb Menon: I think our biggest strength from the last 70 years has been that we have been quick learners. We have learnt, yes we make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. This government has made mistakes, the previous government has made mistakes. The question is do you learn from your mistakes and do you get better? Can you fix the consequences and how serious are they. I mean, if you look at relations with Nepal for instance, I think a few years ago relations with Nepal were really in bad shape and the Nepalese blamed us for the blockade, for trying to interfere in their constitution making in 2015, 2016, 2017. Public opinion in Nepal was very negative on India. In India there was an exasperation with Nepal which was seen as being very close to China, while China was playing a big role in the domestic politics, keeping the Communist parties together etc. Yet, I think we have moved past that, we have learned from that and if you look at India-Nepal relations today, they are in much better shape. So, for me that is the important thing, it’s not that we will never make mistakes or we will always be perfect or that our appreciation of the situation will always be hundred percent accurate and therefore, the things we do will exactly result in exactly what we want. No, but the ability to learn and adjust…

if you look at it over the time from independence, the parts of the government of India which deals with the rest of the world are actually the parts that have changed the most.

You know when we realised that intelligence was insufficient after 62, 65, we split external intelligence and created R&AW. When we realised that we needed to start working across silos, especially after we became a nuclear weapon state in 1998 (Kargil), we established the National Security Council. The Indian army went through fundamental reforms after 1962 and it was a very different army by the time of 1971. Even now we are undergoing a fundamental transformation in the way we look at the structure and organisation of the armed forces and the defence of India.

So, the external facing parts have learnt from experience and have been changed and have adapted. They have no choice: because we are dealing with things outside our control, outside our sovereignty, much more so than the internal security apparatus of the Government of India. If you look at the policing, at internal security, the Home Ministry and how these things work... Look at the laws that are still being used; these are all colonial era laws. These are things that are left over from the past, those have changed much less, we have added layers and more forces, more this and that but frankly in terms of structural change, adaptation and improvement, I don’t think we have done the same. So, for me that’s the important thing: that we learn, that we show capacity to adapt to learn and to keep learning. As long as we can do that in our external relations… look at the Ukraine crisis.

This stance, which makes absolute sense from an Indian point of view, that look neither an invasion of Ukraine by Russia nor calling Russia names and imposing sanctions is going to bring peace or settle the issues here. Because there are the fundamental issues of the European security order here, and they both have legitimate security interests, both the West, US, NATO and Russia, and the Ukrainians of course: they need to sit at a table and sort these out among themselves.

That's exactly what India has been saying from day 1; we have not chosen sides, the West might say how can you do this you are condoning aggression, but we want an order which works, we want peace, we don't want oil energy crisis going through the roof, fertiliser crisis going through the roof. These are not the things which help us; food crisis: you have seen the food crisis. So frankly, that kind of stand is exactly what India has done in the past, previous governments of India have done in similar circumstances. So you can call it what you like, call it strategic autonomy or call it normal alignment… You can change names, like the Janata party used to call it genuine non-alignment,’ whatever you want but the fact is that the impetus to do so comes from the fundamental drivers which I have mentioned earlier. And those will drive every government.

It's when a government deviates from that in the search for glory or status or domestic political advantage… then normally you have some trouble, and that is where we need to be careful,

I think. But at its core, if you look at it, India still behaves like India and will continue to do so for the reasons that I have mentioned.

Image Credits: ORF

Asish: Ambassador Menon thank you so much indeed. We would like to conclude this interview on this note: That India will behave like India. And to draw the contours of how that behaviour will look like, is upon us and the Indian citizenry, and we shall keep at it. Thank you, ambassador.

Amb Menon: Thank you Asish. Thank you very much. Enjoyed that.

Stuti: We would like to thank Ambassador Menon for sharing their views with us and guiding a young foreign policy audience. We thank our dear viewers for tuning in. Please share your views with us on social media and email to keep advancing the discourse. Have a great evening!

Amb Menon: Thank you Stuti, thank you all!

Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page






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