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Aravind Devanathan asked: What is ‘strategic autonomy’? How does it help India's security?

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  • S. Kalyanaraman replies: Strategic autonomy denotes the ability of a state to pursue its national interests and adopt its preferred foreign policy without being constrained in any manner by other states. In its pure form, strategic autonomy presupposes the state in question possessing overwhelmingly superior power. This is what would enable that state to resist the pressures that may be exerted by other states to compel it to change its policy or moderate its interests. Theoretically, therefore, only a lone superpower in a unipolar international order truly possess strategic autonomy since it is the only country that would wield overwhelming economic, industrial, military and technological capabilities and thus the power to resist pressure from all other states. Even superpowers become susceptible to the pressures exerted by their superpower peers in bipolar or multipolar orders, which means that their ability to be strategically autonomous is not absolute but only relative.

    It follows from this that regional powers like India are destined to be even less strategically autonomous. While they may express the aspiration to be strategically autonomous, their ability and willingness to practice it are likely to be inconsistent and variable. They will resist external pressure to change their policy or moderate their interest on core issues of national security irrespective of the costs involved. In the case of India, prominent examples of core national interests are Jammu & Kashmir and nuclear weapons. But under external pressure, regional powers like India are likely to alter their policy or moderate their interest on non-core security issues if the associated costs are calculated to be disproportionate to the benefits that may accrue from persisting with the preferred policy or interest. A good recent example in this regard was India’s decision to vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency. This decision was driven by the calculation that antagonising the United States, which was pressing India to vote against Iran, would compromise the benefits flowing from improved bilateral relations with America including in the nuclear arena.

    Further, the ability of regional powers like India to resist external pressure and practice strategic autonomy on non-core security issues is likely to be a function of the structure of the international order. A bipolar or a multipolar order is likely to provide greater diplomatic room for manoeuvre and thus help avoid the high costs of pursuing a policy or interest. But a unipolar order is likely to restrict the diplomatic elbow room available and thus the ability to avoid the costs associated with pursing a particular policy.

    In effect, the practice of strategic autonomy is a function of the power capabilities possessed by a state and of the structure of the international system in a particular historical era. While strategic autonomy is the ideal that every state aspires to, most are unlikely to either possess the necessary power capabilities or enjoy a favourable international environment to practice it. Given this reality, reifying strategic autonomy could prove more harmful than beneficial. If politics is the art of the possible, then political wisdom demands that the best not be made the enemy of the good.

    Posted on January 20, 2015

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