The Duck of Minerva


4 August 2010

I am in New Delhi doing research on elite perceptions of India’s strategy in Afghanistan. I just thought I would share a few quick observations from conversations with Indian security experts…

One of the greatest benefits of coming all the way out here is to help situate research questions within a broader political discourse. Here is what I have noted so far:

First, one quickly realizes that the voices which are most accessible to us in the US are often the ones which are the flashiest and most aggressive in the local context. However, these personalities are not necessarily the most influential or thoughtful. Like the barking of stray dogs which is clearly discernible in the night, the incessant voices of security policy hawks becomes less audible once the city wakes from its light slumber. Foreign policy issues are one of only a myriad of pressing concerns and they are hardly the most prominent concern for much of the population. Thus, inverting the gaze, one has to wonder about the representativity of the American voices which are most readily accessible to Indian analysts sitting in Delhi.

Second, we make a great mistake when we assume that the security policy community in a foreign country is as influential or central as the security policy community in the United States. The body of the Indian state has multiple heads (political, security, economic, etc), and while the voice of the remarkably small security community is occasionally given a hearing it is not necessarily prioritized by the politicians who adhere to a very different logic (as evidenced by the politician’s (non-) response to a series of major terrorist attacks in recent years). The voices of the security community is also not in dialog with the economic community. One might say that one head looks with anxiety to India’s unstable western neighbors while the other head looks east to lucrative trade opportunities and emerging markets. Using economics to achieve security objectives (and vice versa) is not highly developed.

Third, the security community is not static. There is clearly a rapid evolution underway here. In part the growth of the policy community is being fueled externally by the US (and to a lesser extent the European) defense industry which is keen to expand its business in India. The security community circuit visited by American defense contractors tends to inflate the voice of those who concur with an American vision of what a great power’s military looks like. In the long run this may lead to great influence for this community in the national dialog.

Fourth, it is well known that Americans are not skilled in the art of diplomacy — this is one of the greatest shortcomings of the way IR is taught in the US. Representatives of the US, both official and semi-official, tend not to be very self aware about how their words are received in the local context. Americans do not seem to realize how sensitive issues of sovereignty can be in a post-colonial country. Thus, telling Indian elites that “the world is watching” how they will vote at the UN on Iranian sanctions is treated as deeply offensive and intrusive. It would be refreshing if Americans did not openly attempt to twist the arms of friendly nations without an appreciation of the priorities and interests of these countries. It would be ideal if Americans on the security community circuit came to listen instead of lecture.

Well, I’ve got more listening to do….