October 5, 2021geopolitics

On strategic autonomy

Strategic autonomy is not about refusing to take sides in itself; but rather avoiding getting into situations where taking sides means losing the capacity for independent action.

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Our report India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a World Adrift has refocused attention on the concept of strategic autonomy. Some of the media coverage has characterised the report as having moved from advocating non-alignment 2.0” (a term used in a 2012 report by some of my co-authors) to strategic autonomy”. It is understandable that, on the face of it, a reader should get this impression. However, strategic autonomy is neither a new concept nor a novel recommendation: it has animated New Delhi’s foreign policy from Jawaharlal Nehru to this day. Non-alignment, 1.0 and 2.0, was a means to achieve strategic autonomy.

As the report was published, Pranay Kotasthane, my Takshashila colleague and Vice Admiral (retd) Anil Chopra, Distinguished Fellow at VIF, both expressed reservations about the term strategic autonomy”: What do we mean by it? Is it a means or is it an end? I thought I should answer some of these questions, and clarify my own thinking on the subject.

Kalyanaraman’s piece is worth reading in full.

The late S Kalyanaraman offers the clearest and most succinct explanation of what strategic autonomy means: 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.” Long story short, this means having adequate power, relative to other states, to do whatever a state wishes to. As he points out, in theory only a superpower can have complete strategic autonomy, and even so, does not enjoy it in all contexts and conditions. It is something that all states aspire to, but none ever achieves completely.

In practice, this means possessing enough power to make independent policy choices and capability to act upon them with a credible chance of success.

This exactly what the report recommends.

I prefer this parsimonious, conceptually clear and actionable definition of strategic autonomy. From this it follows that India should invest in rapid economic growth, boost domestic human capital, build broad and deep relationships with other countries, and acquire full spectrum military power.

A retreat from global trade will hurt India’s geopolitical stature

Note that there is a kind of paradox here: power is a relational concept but every relationship constrains autonomy. For instance, a country can acquire economic power by trading with others, but the trading relationship creates interdependencies that restrct what is in the interests of each party to do, and also what they can do. The trade-off cannot be avoided: it must be embraced and managed.

On my raw notes I’ve archived a twitter thread criticising the dogma of strategic autonomy.

So far so good. The problem with the idea of strategic autonomy — as with non-alignment — begins when it becomes a dogma and its practice ossified. In India’s case, strategic autonomy is often construed as a permanent rejection of alliances, especially with the United States. It is this dogmatic, hardwired meaning of strategic autonomy that I disagree with.

I have argued that in the short-term, India must be open to a closer alliance with the United States to manage the challenges posed by an aggressive China.

India does not have to abjure all alliances — rather, the decision on whether or not to join an alliance must be based on cold assessment of available options and the ability to choose and act independently. If we lack viable options to protect our interests, then alliance is an option. Kautilya, for instance, outlines the conditions and types of alliances. Strategic autonomy is not about refusing to take sides in itself; but rather avoiding getting into situations where taking sides means losing the capacity for independent action.

To read about more things like this, you can check out my published raw notes and my massive archives.

This is my view of the implications of strategic autonomy. My co-authors have their own that may differ from mine. What is constant across our interpretations is the need for rapid economic growth, acquisition of military power, greater diplomatic competence and political stewardship. To the extent that we focus on these foundations of strategic autonomy, India will have more choices and capabilities to pursue its interests.

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