People in India were expressing dismay in social media over the last weekend. It was all about how let down they felt by the US President’s positive tweets thanking Pakistan and avowing that a strong relationship would be built with that country. Pakistan had just facilitated release of Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, the Canadian American couple, and their three children, held in captivity for five years by the Haqqani group of the Afghanistan Taliban.
Our public can sometimes be very naïve and simple with opinion strictly in the black and white domains. They like to treat international strategic affairs akin to relations within their little colony clubs. They don’t expect friends to be ‘cosying up’ with their adversaries. So while President Trump in August this year was in the mode of saying that Pakistan supported “agents of chaos” and warned that it had “much to lose” by harbouring terrorists, the public was happy. For them at last there was a US President capable of calling a spade a spade.
There can be no denying the fact that it is not alone in India but probably all over the world that publics remain rooted in simplicity and are unable to fathom decisions or trends which their governments may take. However, in our case it’s a little more, simply because even some of our reasonably educated people view international strategic affairs from their narrow prisms of club culture.
The frustration is rife on social media where one comes across the weirdest opinion which holders defend to the death. Much of this has also come from the proliferation of media of all varieties. Yet you cannot blame the media. That’s because the public is used to headline-reading and not poring over opinion sections and debates that hardly bring out the real issues at stake; they usually prefer the emotive side of decisions.
US-India relations provide a fine case study to briefly examine the above phenomenon. US strategic interests in South Asia relate to a few red lines. Firstly, there is the looming spectre of China. Its presence and influence obviously strengthens its outreach. India remains in strategic competition with China and is therefore considered an emerging strategic partner of the US at any point; that relationship is hardly likely to change. However, Pakistan is firmly and historically a Chinese ally. Geo-strategically it holds much significance because of its location; much closer to the crucial Middle East.
Besides that US interests in Afghanistan have been frustrated repeatedly. It can hardly pursue anything there without Pakistan’s cooperation. With Russia too increasing its footprint there, the US strategic thinking revolves around offsetting that influence. It can’t happen by pushing Pakistan against the wall. Pakistan knows that well enough and plays its cards suavely knowing the limits of US coercion.
The public unfortunately hardly appreciates the challenges of the Indian government in dealing with this. The government aims at maximising its relationship with the US to ensure the benefits of a strategic partnership but remains under no illusion that India is the only player in a region where geopolitics is largely based on the effects of geo-strategic locations. The US did not go the full way in supporting India on Doklam but the Indian government would have not expected it either.
Pragmatic wisdom would have appreciated that there would be some diplomatic noise in India’s favour but largely there would be calls for patience and mutual pullback of troops.
The need for the study of strategic affairs in greater measure in our academic institutions cannot be more emphasised than today. When social media is rapidly proliferating, public opinion is going to be one of the major inputs in the future for decisions by governments in challenging situations. In many cases electoral prospects could well be influenced based on such decisions. Since knowledge is increasingly becoming power, there is necessity of ‘informed knowledge’ as against ‘headline knowledge’. It is good to see that in India strategic affairs as a subject is also finding much focus among the young.
I get many queries from young people about future prospects in pursuing this subject. While encouraging them, I am not fully convinced that this is going to find enough interest or whether the spin-off can create reasonable careers. Apart from careers in civil services, media and academia itself, strategic affairs are perceived as general knowledge and not a specialised subject in India. This needs to change but that can only happen when apart from government more corporate organisations come forward to sponsor centres of learning in this all-important field. Institutions such as Carnegie and Rand come to mind immediately.
All over the developed world, strategic affairs encompasses comprehensive knowledge and research beyond just international relations, conflict and politics. That is the future for corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets apart from the social field. Knowledge will always be power but at the cost of repetition it must become ‘informed knowledge’ to be of use for the nation.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps