Dealing With an Ambiguous World; Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy

In This Review

Dealing With an Ambiguous World
By Bilahari Kausikan
World Scientific, 2016
176 pp.
Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy
By Shivshankar Menon
Brookings Institution Press, 2016
176 pp.

Realism is a worldview forced by circumstance on tiny Singapore, and few articulate it better than Kausikan, who in 2013 retired as the top civil servant in the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The lectures collected in his book brim with insights. “The small countries of Southeast Asia have lived in the midst of competition by larger powers for many centuries,” he points out; “to balance, hedge, and bandwagon is embedded in our foreign policy dna.” Washington and Beijing will find a way to get along since the United States cannot contain China and China cannot expel the United States from Asia. But he warns the region’s smaller countries that “when major powers strike a deal, they generally try to make lesser beings pay the price.” An equal opportunity critic, he calls into question the alleged universality of Western values while also admonishing China that a great power “cannot forever portray itself as a victim without calling its intentions into question.” And to endear himself to academics, he states, “Any resemblance between what I studied and what I did for a living is almost coincidental.” 

Menon is a realist from a large country. He has served India in ambassadorial posts and as foreign secretary and national security adviser and tells the inside stories of developments in which he played a key role, such as the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China and the 2005 nuclear agreement with the United States, along with India’s responses to Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacks, its failed military and diplomatic interventions in the Sri Lankan civil war, and its adoption of a “no first use” nuclear policy. Although India’s policy process is not known for its agility, Menon makes a good case that the government can pull off bold initiatives by adopting a “fundamentally realistic approach masked by normative rhetoric.” This is partly because foreign policy in a democracy requires negotiating with forces inside the country as much as with those outside it. Although deterring Pakistan remains a necessity, Menon argues that India has shifted its foreign policy focus to the rivalry with China, which is one reason India has developed a “natural partnership” with the United States. Menon counsels that in its dealings with China, India should seek common benefits where possible and “where there is a hindrance, . . . prevent it, eliminate it, work around it, divert it.”