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The K. Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture 2021: Using Force Beyond Borders: When to Intervene

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  • Prof C. Raja Mohan
    February 25, 2021

    Amb Sujan Chinoy, Director General, IDSA

    Dr S Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister,

    Distinguished members of the audience,


    1. It is always a special occasion for me to be part of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses events. As a doctoral student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, I did most of my research, over long years I must say, at the small but fabulous library of the IDSA in the 1970s, when it was located at the Sapru House. I then had the opportunity to work at IDSA for nearly a decade from the early 1980s to early 1990s, and enjoyed association with its activity since then. But today is very special though. It is a great honour for me to deliver a lecture in memory of K. Subrahmanyam. I would like to thank Amb Chinoy for giving me this honour.

    2. KS was an inspiration and intellectual mentor to many students of strategy and international relations from my generation and those that followed. I had the privilege of working with him when he was the director of the IDSA in the 1980s. And benefited from his continuing engagement until his death in 2011.

    3. KS showered unstinting generosity on anyone, whether Indian or foreigner, old or young, who was interested in issues of strategy and security, Indian, regional or international. When we invited him to come and speak at the famous post-dinner symposiums in the JNU hostels, he was happy to drive on his own all the way from the India Gate to JNU, engage in vigorous argument with those who challenged him. His commitment to educating the public on strategic issues, widening the public square for the debate on foreign and security policies, sharing knowledge with other students of strategy, and mentoring the rise of new scholars were important features of his persona.

    4. KS’s contributions to shaping the Indian discourse are many—the debate on nuclear weapons; generating awareness of the strategic dimensions of the Indian Ocean in a sea-blind political elite, modernising military education, and promoting security sector reforms are some of them. In influencing the public discourse, KS became the principal voice that explained the world to India and India to the world, at a time when our nation had moved into relative isolation in the 1970s and 1980s. Unsurprisingly, his presence at IDSA drew anyone interested in India and its role in the world on a daily basis to Sapru House. As the youngest employee at IDSA, it was great to be part of the remarkable intellectual salon that our cramped quarters at Sapru House had become!

    5. One of KS’ main contributions was to rescue the Indian strategic debate from the ideological grip of the 1960s and 1970s. He injected a measure of hard realism and pragmatism into India’s discourse on international affairs. His willingness to question, publicly, the dominant narratives on the left and right made him at once controversial and the most stimulating thinker on Indian strategy. KS was also a champion of reform and innovation in India’s national security policies at a time, when the Indian establishment was settling into a comfortable status quo. His willingness to challenge conventional wisdom occasionally got him into trouble with the bureaucracy; but it gave KS the power to shape policy more than any single civil servant or minister could claim over such an extended period.

    6. In his last two decades—the 1990s and 2000s, KS was enthused by India’s prospects to emerge as a major power. He began to articulate the frameworks for Delhi in adapting to this change and prepare for a larger role in world affairs. He did not hesitate in demanding a comprehensive rethinking of the assumptions that guided India’s security thinking in the second half of the 20th century. As India now takes its place in the front ranks of nations, it is our duty to carry forward that task amidst the nation’s altered international status as well as the changing nature of its interests. A rising India, with expanding interests, must inevitably confront questions about the use of force, especially beyond our borders. We have also seen the current government trying to transcend some of the taboos that shaped Indian thinking on the use of force. That makes the analytical tasks of think tanks and academia even more important.

    7. When KS dominated the Indian discourse on international affairs, the strategic community was rather small. KS was eager to expand that community, bring scholars, soldiers, bureaucrats, and businessmen to come together to debate the issues of foreign and national security policy. He might be thrilled at the dramatic expansion of think tanks and platforms in recent years. This proliferation reflects the growing popular interest in security issues and an ever-widening circle of stakeholders. But he might also want to know why the think tanks have become so conformist. Even a cursory survey of India’s recent foreign policy discourse reveals that it is governments that came up with new ideas, rather than the think tanks. Worse still, the think tanks have tended to caution against change rather than advocating policy innovation. If there was one theme that stands out in KS’ approach, it was the need to continuously debate a wide set of options in dealing with national security. It is in that spirit that I touch on some of the issues that we need to confront when it comes to use of force and intervention.

    8. My lecture focuses on this important theme that intensely preoccupied KS five decades ago this year. It is about India’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh. That this year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of that event provides an important moment to reflect on the use of force. The choice that India had to make in 1971 was not an easy one. It raised multiple questions —about legitimacy, feasibility, consequences and international costs. But KS’s forceful articulation of the case for intervention eventually carried the day. My objective today is not to get into the specifics of that very successful Indian intervention. Instead, I would like to look at the enduring questions about the use of force.

    9. We all know use of force is central to statecraft; ensuring the monopoly over violence within one’s own territory is the very essence of sovereignty and the capacity to build a nation within that sovereign space. Use of force beyond one’s borders is frowned upon by all, but remains a permanent feature of international relations. Its nature and modalities might have changed, but the use of force and intervention will remain with us until there is a credible collective security system enforced by a world government. No policy maker is betting that such an order is in sight. To be sure, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, it seemed the conditions for a very different world order were at hand. That phase is now well behind us. The proposition that one 'hyper power’ can produce order across the globe had its brief moment, but is no longer credible.

    10. Renewed great power competition has begun to overshadow the preoccupation with war against terrorism and insurgency over the last two decades. The great power competition will inevitably envelop others in the international system. Both inter-state and interventionary wars are now back on the agenda. The rise of new great powers and the growing military capabilities of regional powers too have increased the prospects for use of force.

    Therefore, Indian security policy makers will have to inevitably address questions of use force. Those questions are about the principles, purposes and strategies that must guide India’s own approach.

    11. This is not an easy subject to engage with. But KS would certainly have approved my wading, responsibly, into this sensitive subject. Minister Jaishankar too has talked about the need for an honest introspection into our past and drawing appropriate lessons learnt from it. The government itself has begun to highlight elements of India’s military history that were deliberately neglected in the past by the political class. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pulled India out of the collective amnesia of the Indian Army’s participation in the First and Second World Wars. The PM has also drawn frequent attention to the provisional governments of India set during the two wars. The first in Kabul in 1915 and the second in 1943 in Singapore. Both these provisional governments were about important sections of the nationalist movement focusing on violent means to oust the British imperial power from India.

    12. While strategic communities elsewhere have dug deep into British India’s Afghan wars after 9/11, independent India’s security studies scholarship pretends they don’t exist. Similarly, anyone interested in the conflicts in northern Burma today, would want to study the Anglo-Burmese wars. Put simply, a closer study of India’s military experience in the pre-independence era, might offer us a deeper historical perspective and valuable insights on the use of force.

    13. Our scholarship has also been hesitant to explore the tension between ideas and practice in the conduct of independent India’s security policies. India’s emphasis on non-violence, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the ambition to construct an area of peace in Asia. In the integration of princely states, dealing with Pakistan’s invasion in 1947, and the PLA’s entry into Tibet. Yet, these consequential developments did not make a sufficient dent into the dominant narrative about India’s policy imperatives on peace and security.

    14. One important part of that narrative is the centrality of the principle of non-intervention. This formulation tends to mistake independent India’s determination to prevent other powers from intervening in its own internal affairs and the question of India’s own intervention in the affairs of others. We in India might not see or want to see this apparent antinomy, but others do notice it. But there is little reason for Delhi to be defensive on this; for this dual approach to sovereignty and intervention is not unique to India. All large nations, especially the major powers adopt the same approach. The stronger the power, the greater the temptation to affirm not only non-intervention in its own domestic affairs, but also prevent other powers from interfering on its periphery and challenge its regional primacy. The US Monroe Doctrine, the Russian conception of near abroad, and China’s current effort to nudge the US out of the First Island Chain in the Western Pacific are part of the same tradition. The strategic objective of regional dominance is often couched in grand slogans like pan-Americanism, Eurasianism, or Pan-Asianism. In our own region, the slogan, “Asia for Asians” has been used for political purposes by Imperial Japan and is now being resurrected by Xi’s China.

    15. Despite the rich nuances associated with non-intervention, the Indian discourse often sought to frame it in idealist terms. Consider for example, the sacralisation of Panchsheel or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that India signed with China. Contrary to the popular perception, it was not Jawaharlal Nehru but the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who took the initiative on drafting the Panchsheel. During his visit to India in 1954, Zhou Enlai insisted on putting the Panchsheel into the preamble of the 1954 agreement on trade and intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India. Nehru went along. Zhou Enlai had good reason to insist on non-intervention. For it was not about non-intervention in absolute terms, but about China demanding an end to India’s special relationship with Tibet. Over the decades, however, the notion of Panchsheel was abstracted out of its specific historical context and given an ideological weight of its own. But those who see Panchsheel as part of the complex evolution of Sino-Indian relations have no reason to offer eulogies.

    16. Tragic as it has been, the Panchsheel has been followed more in breach than in its observance. Delhi was deeply riled up by China’s support to various insurgencies in India during the 1960s and 1970s. While matters have improved considerably since then, the mutual concerns about issues relating to territorial sovereignty have not gone away. They are just below the surface. Delhi has reasons to be anxious about Beijing’s position on India’s dispute with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir as we have seen recently in the wake of India’s 2019 decision to alter the constitutional status of its territories. Soaring rhetoric on big themes could not hide the deeply contested territoriality of the two nations across the Himalayas that continues to derail effort to build a sustainable relationship.

    17. The Indian discourse often frames use of force and intervention along the North-South or East-West axes. In the North-South narrative, the former colonial powers of the North routinely resort to use of force and intervention and the developing countries of the South are merely victims of these interventions. The former is certainly true, but the latter is accurate only in part. The fact is that the developing countries of the South are as much prone to intervention in the internal affairs of their neighbours. For contestation for power among the Southern states endured, notwithstanding the rhetoric on the Global South. The struggles to build nation states, the reality of artificial boundaries drawn by the departing imperial powers, the problem of equitable access to economic resources, uneven development, ethnic and religious divides contribute to immense internal conflict and often draw the neighbours into it. It is no surprise that intervention by developing states in each other's conflicts is far more pervasive today than before. A cursory look at contemporary Middle East reveals the extent of regional rivalries and military interventions.

    18. There was also a tendency during the Cold War, for many countries in the South to treat the interventions by the West and East in different ways. During the Cold War, India tended to criticise Western interventions around the world, but was somewhat ambivalent about Soviet interventions. This ambivalence came into sharp focus in the manner in which India dealt with the Anglo-French intervention of the Suez and the Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979). This was not surprising given the legacy of the nationalist movement’s struggle against Western powers and the growing perception in a section of the developing world, that the East was a natural ally of the non-aligned world.

    19. The tendency to set different standards for one’s friends and adversaries is not unique to any one nation. After all, there is no question of ignoring the national interest. While Delhi privately urged the Soviet Union to end its war in Afghanistan, Delhi was unwilling to join the West and condemn the Soviet intervention. For Moscow was India’s main strategic partner throughout the Cold War. It was the major source of arms and blocked Anglo-American intervention on Kashmir in the UNSC. India’s position on Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, of course, had its political costs—in the West and the Islamic world. There have also been occasions when India gave strong support to interventions by its friends. Recall the Indian backing in the late 1970s for the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia even at the risk of losing political ground in Southeast Asia and alienating the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is indeed true that supporting Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia to oust the genocidal regime of Pol Pot was for a good moralpolitik. But also involved some realpolitik – helping Vietnam stand up against China.

    20. It is not that the great powers take an objective view of interventions. Both the Eastern and Western powers denounced use of force by the other as evil or illegitimate and their own as principled. But the West was better at justifying its interventions in terms of International law and using international institutions, including media, to control the narrative. Ironically, it was not always enough though to sustain domestic political support in the US to foreign interventions. Whether it was the US intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s or the more recent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, prolonged use of force abroad generates serious costs and turns the domestic opinion against it. We have seen similar internal backlash in the case of the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka.

    21. In the 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the Western tendency to intervene acquired a new intensity. That the Soviet Union had disappeared and China had not yet risen provided a free run for the US in the United Nations Security Council. As the West seemed to make light of the notion of territorial sovereignty and imagined the UNSC as a supra-national organisation that was free to make political judgements about the internal situations in other countries and endorse military interventions. There was strong resistance to these ideas in many countries, including India that was fending off the new international attempts to meddle in Jammu and Kashmir, actively supported by Pakistan. The Western academia and human rights organisations trashed territorial sovereignty as an outdated concept and justify the new interventionism in the name of universalism. There was widespread condescension at the Indian and Chinese attachment to sovereignty. Some even urged Delhi and Beijing to abandon the notion of sovereignty and accept interventions as a part of new international life. In an ironic twist, many of the same advocates are now having trouble coping with a newly risen China that has begun to flex its muscles and actively intervene in the affairs of other nations. Beijing has developed sophisticated ways of intervention—through influence operations and the so-called sharp power—to turn the politics of other societies, including the most advanced Western nations, in its favour. And resistance to this is proving rather hard. China’s approach to interventions is not a simple one; it had supported revolutionary movements all across Asia in the 1960s and early 1970s in the name of communist ideology. It was also fierce in defending its own sovereignty against foreign intervention. In the era of reform and opening up, it tempered its tendency to intervene. Its current interventionary strategy is more finely tuned and designed to buttress its new status as a great power, with a globalised economy, and wide-ranging interests far beyond its shores.
    22. India has its own complex tradition on interventions. Sending troops into East Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh in 1971 and keep peace in Sri Lanka during 1987-90 were among the most notable of India’s regional interventions. There were other cases too, including the liberation of Goa from Portugal, support for the Burmese government against rebels advancing on the national capital in 1949, support for Colombo in defeating the JVP insurrection in 1971. We celebrate some of these and ignore those that are uncomfortable. But as students of national security and strategy, we owe ourselves to dig deep into each of these instances of India’s use of force beyond borders. While armed forces do assessments of all their military operations, the students of IR and strategic studies have their task cut out in assessing the political and security calculus that went into these interventions, the debate between competing perspectives in the decision-making, the international reaction, the immediate outcomes, and long-term consequences, both intended and unintended. Learning from our own past is critical for insights into when, where and how to intervene. For our assumption is that the imperatives for intervention will continue to grow with India’s rise in the international system. The imperative also arises from the globalisation of the Indian economy and growing impact of the external world on India’s prosperity and peace. If India does not actively shape its environment, it will have to live with the rules set by others.

    23. The wider scope of a rising India’s national interests does not take away the continuing primacy of territorial defence. This is obvious given the continuing threats we face on both our Western and northern borders. But how we address some of these challenges might be beginning to change. In the past we were weighted down by the Panipat Syndrome that condemned India to passive and reactive defence on one’s own doorstep. We are now seeing the birth of an active strategy that wants to go beyond the borders to attack the source of the threat. National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, has expanded on this approach of active defence last October in his remarks at Rishikesh. As we mark the second anniversary of the Balakot attack by the Indian Air Force this week, it is important for security studies scholars to examine the intricacies of an approach that takes the battle to the enemy. That must include a focus on the kind of capabilities and strategies we need to make a success of an active defence strategy.

    24. Even as we rethink our approaches to territorial defence, India’s regional security role has drawn widespread attention. If there is one phrase that captures it is the notion of a “net security provider”. The phrase might be new, but India’s regional security role in the Subcontinent is not. India’s military interventions and regional security diplomacy are part of that tradition. An important question today, is about the potential for an expansion of India’s security role beyond South Asia to encompass the Indian Ocean and more broadly the Indo-Pacific. Although India has long claimed the Indian Ocean as its security sphere, it is only in the last few years that we have taken a more purposeful military diplomacy to buttress that claim. When Great Britain announced withdrawal of its forces East of Suez in 1968, India rejected the notion of a power vacuum, renounced any interest in playing a larger security role, and turned to multilateral solutions. Today, the new Indian determination to shape the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean is codified in the 2015 speech in Mauritius by PM Modi. It is probably the first speech by a Prime Minister on India’s strategic imperatives in the Indian Ocean. So much for Delhi’s suffocating continentalism. But India’s maritime strategy is clearly work in progress. It therefore needs much scholarship and analysis to look at the possibilities and limitations of a larger regional security role in the Indo-Pacific.

    25. Long before considering a wider regional role, independent India found a way to contribute to international peace and security—though the UN mandated peacekeeping operations. Amidst the superpower standoff in the Cold War, there were spaces where non-aligned and neutral powers like India could chip in; and India had vast military resources. Together the two factors made India the largest contributor to international peacekeeping operations over the last five decades. While we celebrate this record, it is time for scholarship to ask some important questions. Should India continue to stay with the old framework, even as the nature of peacekeeping has changed and India’s own position in the international system has evolved? Is the objective of peacekeeping only to buttress India’s campaign for a permanent seat at the UNSC? Or does it have a military and strategic purpose of its own? In this context it is worth taking a look at China’s growing role in peacekeeping operations. China broke from the tradition of P-5 members to stand apart from peace operations. As Beijing became an active participant in international peace operations in recent years, I see one important strategic motivation. It is the need to overcome the PLA’s lack of operational experience beyond borders. China is also using PKOs to expand its military weight and influence in Africa.

    26. Legitimacy is an intangible yet important dimension of military interventions. For democracies, domestic legitimacy is as important as external legitimacy. Even a just use of force could be seen as illegitimate if the narrative around the conflict is not clearly set and communicated to the audiences at home and abroad. The question of legitimacy has dogged many recent US interventions. In many cases, the criterion for legitimacy is seen as the approval of the UNSC. But can the UNSC and more broadly the UN itself get it right all the time? India did not have much support in the UNSC or the UNGA for its use of force to liberate Bangladesh. Does that make it illegitimate? What matters in the end though is success of the military operation. If a military can quickly and decisively create new and sustainable facts on the ground, much of the international system will be ready to deal with the new dynamic. But the question of international political support remains an important element in modern warfare. The key as always is in finding that judicious balance.

    27. In debating the important questions of success and effectiveness of an intervention, our strategic community must study the Indian Army’s own use of force beyond borders in the pre- and post-independence eras. It could also turn to the US debates—after all the US has been the most vigorous intervener in the post-War world. After the failure in Vietnam, the US armed forces came up with a doctrine—going by the name of Gen Colin Powell— on the preconditions for successful use of force. These include a clearly defined political objective, avoiding mission creep, use of overwhelming force to achieve decisive results, and avoid costly and prolonged interventions. On the face of it, these are quite sensible recommendations. They were followed strictly in the US operation to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1990. But the lessons were forgotten by the first term of George W. Bush and we saw the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq unfold. Ironically, Gen Powell was the Secretary of State in that Administration. It is one thing therefore to come up with doctrines on the use of force, and it is entirely another to ensure the internalisation by the political class and the national security establishment.

    28. On territorial defence and interventions in the immediate neighbourhood, India has chosen rightly to set its own terms of engagement. It would prefer to act alone. On the global peacekeeping issue, India ceded the terms of engagement to the P-5 and the UN bureaucracy. Since the issues involved seemed distant, abiding by the P-5 mandate did not raise serious political questions at home. As India confronts wider security responsibilities, it is inevitable that the question of coalition operations presents itself. Coalition operations have become important because no great power is in a position to shape the larger outcomes on its own in a large theatre like the Indo-Pacific. That in turn begs the question of who in the coalition sets the terms of military engagement and the political objectives that must be pursued? Those issues might be relatively easy to address in non-strategic operations like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The more strategic the mission becomes, the tougher the questions relating to joint operations become. But it is an issue that Delhi can no longer avoid.

    29. Even as we debate the traditional forms of use of force and intervention, new challenges are arising. The emergence of cyberspace as a new domain for non-kinetic but consequential warfare, amidst the rapid digitalisation of the modern economies, is one we are barely coming to terms with. The contestation involves not only states and their instruments for use of force, but non-state actors of all kinds. The capacity of non-state actors to leverage cyberspace to trigger serious trouble and their ability to act as proxies for rival states have created sweeping new threats. In coping credibly and sustainably with the weaponisation of social media and the non-state actors for strategic purposes, democratic states need to upgrade their technical skills and enhance the strength of their political institutions. Attacking behind the lines and destabilising the home terrain of the adversary have always been an important part of warfare; it has now got a big boost with new digital tools. Today, democracies need to be good at both defence and offence in dealing with the new forms of warfare.

    30. In the end, the debate on when, where and how to use force beyond borders is going to be with India for a long time to come. My objective today was to merely highlight some of the issues involved. It is really up to the current generation of scholars and strategic analysts to delve deeper into the emerging challenges and potential means to address them. Recalling the role and contributions of KS does not reveal what the answers to those difficult questions are. But it certainly tells us how we might go about finding the answers.
    Thank you.

    Professor C. Raja Mohan is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.