Define your environment
The BJP’s thumping majority has led well-meaning strategic analysts in diverse fields of finance, labour, agriculture and diplomacy to writing in editorial pages, giving suggestions on policymaking to the prime minister. This article proposes to argue that decisions on policymaking are a rigorous two-step process. The first step is to define or specify the strategic environment either compartmentally or holistically, and then, to address policy at that environment. This suggestion has come up in various forms at different times and also been addressed sporadically. Most easy to understand is making foreign policy, which cannot really be done without defining the prevailing or near future strategic environment.
In the late 1980s, an attempt was made to create a multi-disciplinary platform called the Defence Planning Staff consisting of service officers, diplomats, scientists and civil servants to make integrated policy. This body’s first product, the ‘Strategic and Technological Environment Assessment (STEA)’ saw the light of day, before the paper and the planning staff fell out of fashion. In the mid-Nineties, the formidable Andrew Marshal and his creation — the Office of Net Assessment (ONA) turned its attention to New Delhi to advise policymakers that making decisions without defining the environment was a shoddy process. Backing Marshal’s words were some formidable achievements. His ONA, originally constituted to make decisions to win the Cold War, had indeed won the Cold War.
Marshal’s staff addressed a number of workshops of multi-disciplinary groups in New Delhi. The military took to the idea immediately and started teaching it in the college of defence management, apart from creating its own Directorate of Net Assessment under the Commander of the Defence Staff. The civil service and foreign services were too mentally inert to make internal changes.
After a modest beginning, the practice of making a holistic strategic environment was given up. Not that there is no expertise or coordination in the present government. The National Security Council Staff has regional desks, as does the MEA. The R&AW has its own regional expertise and at the head of it all, is the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, where coordination takes place. However, a holistic staff study of the strategic environment is absent and ministerial decision-making occurs independently of a common estimate of the environment. The US generously circulates its own version of the world environment every four years in a document called ‘Global Futures’. We have nothing similar and this writer managed to persuade the NSA in 2008 to set up a small Task Force on Net Assessment and Simulation in the NSC staff. Net Assessment studies and a number of simulation studies were produced. The task force’s tenure lapsed after two years and since then the only document produced on geopolitical Net Assessment is The Long View from Delhi: The Grand Strategy of Foreign Policy, a book co-authored by this writer and Rajiv Kumar.
Today, as the new government begins its tenure, there is a crying need for a five or 10-year vision of the strategic environment. Addressing policy without such a document is a haphazard process. For instance, what is the government’s coordinated view on the future of petroleum? Today the Ministry of Petroleum, External Affairs, Defence and Environment, each probably have their own visions. The US, we know has a co-ordinated study. It is impossible to believe that Beijing does not have a five or 10 or even a 20-year study of global futures, when it is building the OBOR.
Some basic questions need answers. Most analysts say that it is possible that the power structure of the world will change in the next decade. There is still an argument whether the manifestation of hegemonic power is going to be economic or military or technological. Is the conflict over Huawei about selling cellphones or is it an impending conflict over dominating the world through technology? Which think tank in India is seized of these questions, or which parts of the government are worrying over the emerging future, especially since claims have been made that we will be a $5 trillion economy by 2030?
The writer is a former rear admiral of the Indian Navy