Strategic morality: the cold-blooded view - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 23 April 2007

Strategic morality: the cold-blooded view

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Apr 07

Last week, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) meeting in South Africa, India and the US moved a step closer to civil nuclear cooperation. Regardless of the eventual outcome of that nuclear deal, India’s domestic debate on its pros and cons has surely been one of the most passionately argued. The battle lines have been framed as a strategic choice between joining the global power elite on the one hand and retaining sovereignty over decision-making on the other. Ignored in this debate has been the unsexy dimension of strategic morality, except through the Left’s customary flagellation of Western imperialism. The use of morality as a strategic tool has been ignored altogether.

This is unsurprising in a rising power like India; adolescents often find moral issues inconvenient in exercising their empowerment. Many of India’s new-generation strategic thinkers deride morality as a determinant of foreign policy, arguing that only inconsequential nations can afford the luxury of sitting on the high moral ground. Great Powers, goes their argument, act on an international stage that is fraught with contradiction and so they must inevitably behave hypocritical, paying lip service to principle while acting on practicality. Bismarck, long ago, thundered that the great questions of the time would not be settled by resolutions and majority votes, but by blood and iron.

India, however, has a half-century of experience in the strategic mobilisation of morality. The early Indian foreign policy of non-alignment and rejection of nuclear weaponry, flowing logically from the moral norms of Mahatma Gandhi, had generated for a fledgling India far greater power and influence than its reality commanded. Nehru’s voice, as the leader of a poverty-stricken and militarily weak country, echoed across the globe; it was amplified by moral force. An Indian motion in the UN General Assembly was often endorsed by others simply because it was Indian. While many of Nehru’s policies have been justifiably discredited, his strategic use of morality remains a stunning success.

The use of moral force to leverage a nation’s international position is not a quaint notion from an idealistic era. Contemporary realist strategy recognises it as a usable instrument in a nuclear environment, where the sword can only remain in the scabbard. French strategist Andre Beaufre, one of the most incisive thinkers of the nuclear age, likened the use of psychological tools, such as morality and humanism, to opening a new front on the psychological plane. In India’s propagation of non-violence, and later non-alignment and universal nuclear disarmament, and in the Soviet Union’s use of the moral levers of anti-colonialism and Marxism, Beaufre saw it “possible to take over abstract positions, and…deny them to the other side.”

In the case of a fledgling India, this was an exquisitely tailored strategy: turning its weakness into strength, creating the fetters with which “the Lilliputians tied up Gulliver”. And today a debate over whether India should embrace the United States or negotiate for the same benefits as the nuclear club is a false one. Instead the search for a strategy must centre on how India can sit in the boardroom of World Inc without casting aside the levers that served her so well for half a century.

The question, it must be remembered, is not about idealism, but realism. It is only the very powerful who can afford to cast aside morality. Andre Beaufre postulates three variables in a country’s options: material force, moral force and time. If material force available to a country is overwhelming, moral force will be unnecessary; goals can be achieved in a relatively short time. (It will be argued that Iraq disproves this, but the counter-argument is that the US is only failing because it has failed to apply adequate force.) When material force is small, however, as is still the case with India, moral force must necessarily supplement it and the effects felt only over a period of time. What New Delhi must consider is ways to build closer relationships with the US while retaining India’s traditional ability to marshal moral force.

In the history of every country come moments when it must trim its sails according to the winds and riptides of global changes, and reposition itself favourably in a new strategic framework. In the aftermath of World War II, a weakened and diminished Great Britain, even while shedding its aspirations of global superpower, retained international influence by creating a troika of diplomatic levers: a nuclear deterrent, its NATO membership and its unquestioning special relationship with the United States. Morality did not figure in this calculation, a mistake that has put Britain in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the popular lexicon as the 51st state of the USA.

India is poised today at a defining moment in its history, but as an ascending power, far better positioned to make calibrated and nuanced decisions. It would be a pity if India steps onto the world stage entirely abandoning a remarkable history of Gandhian morality that could provide a unique brand identity to its foreign policy.


  1. Mr. Ajai Shukla, this article is the best article that I have read in this year. It is highly resonant with my own views, and one which should be the preamble of India's foreign policy mould for all time. In my view also, the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru must not be lost, for it is one which is the crux of what will cruise India through to Superpower status.

    Thank you.

  2. Whose Morality?
    Dear Mr. Shukla,
    Your article on strategic morality, a copy of which I sent to my friends, nearly heralded a violent 'drawing room' discussion (some of my friends are lawyers, you see).
    We may nurture the notion that Morality, or the definition of morality is universal, but that's unfortunately not true. So this entire argument of using morality as foreign policy comes to a standstill and gets lost in the debate of 'Morality from whose perspective'?
    However, if we were to say this as 'using India's softpower to generate goodwill', or atleast a soft corner in other nations hearts, it would be more practical approach towards incorporating this in our foreign policy.

  3. Mr. Shukla, I recall reading an article by an American startegic thinker on a particular Indian magazine's one of the many "special series", last year. I'm afraid I do not remember the name of that gentleman.

    He stated that India is globally seen as definitely a very peaceful nation, despite having fought wars in most of its neighbourhood, conducted 2 nuclear tests, being an unofficial nuclear-weapons state, and having insurgencies in Kashmir and large swathes of northeast and central India.

    This in my opinion is highly overlooked, and is astonishingly amazing.

    Regardless of what today's neo-secular and ultra-liberal English media elements and the like (a la Praful Bidwai, Barkha Dutt, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, Vir Sanghvi and Arundhati Roy) say or complain, I a Gen ZZ person salute Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru for what they have bequethed to me.

    Thank you.


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