Aphorisms and the Study of Foreign Policy

Ambassador Shivshankar Menon’s recent keynote address at JNU pulled few punches in describing what ails the study of international relations in India. My colleague Pranay Kotasthane has already weighed in on the issue, arguing against an over-reliance on history at the expense of other disciplines. Some of us also wondered if it was possible to come up with a collection of axioms relevant to Indian IR. While we’re still far from any such collection, I decided to make a list of a dozen aphoristic assertions on the subject. This is certainly not a comprehensive or balanced list – and my colleagues will readily contest some of my assertions – but I hope this will act as an intellectual provocation:

1. Patriots Rule: Nationalism is the defining feature of international relations. It binds together imagined communities and raises the costs they are willing to bear. But it also limits the power of one nation over another.

2. Coercion is Difficult: It’s hard to get someone to do what you want by hurting them or threatening to hurt them. Military coercion is usually too blunt, economic coercion is usually too weak.

3. Geography is a Conversation: Geography imposes constraints and offers opportunities. But it’s a society’s interaction with its geography that helps shape those constraints and opportunities.

4. Elite Consensus Matters: Since many foreign policy issues have limited resonance with the general populace, the narrow interests of the elites matter disproportionately, as do their collective convictions, delusions, and quirks.

5. Willpower Does Not Suffice: Extraordinary individuals and competent institutions can break through systemic constraints, but only temporarily or partially. International politics is a rigged game: in the end, the house always wins.

6. The Triumph of the Commons: Those who dominate the commons (the seas, space, and perhaps cyberspace) enjoy unfair advantages over those that don’t.

7. Interdependence is Double-Edged: Interdependence can simultaneously breed cooperation and resentment, familiarity and contempt.

8. States Gauge Each Other’s Intentions: Capabilities matter, but intentions complete the picture. Malign or benign intentions can accompany a range of capabilities, from high to low.

9. Danger is a Glue: Any alliance is only as strong as its collective threat perception(s).

10. The Power of Attraction: Ideas (and ideals) are to die for. Those who wield them can make friends and influence nations. They get to shape international orders.

11. History Isn’t Linear: Good times don’t last forever. And neither do bad times. Today’s conflict zone may be tomorrow’s economic powerhouse and vice versa.

12. Peace Demands Ruthlessness: Peace-making frequently means embracing foes, betraying friends, and shooting bystanders. It’s not a job for the fainthearted or the virtuous.


Note: These are the author’s personal opinions and don’t necessarily reflect those of the Takshashila Institution.