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Making foreign policy

The national security adviser has arrived in India to the chagrin of the external affairs ministry. First came Brajesh Mishra in 1988 who also doubled as principal secretary to the prime minister.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed J.N. Dixit as national security adviser. On his death, M.K. Narayanan stepped into his shoes. His successor is Shivshankar Menon, a former foreign secretary. The centre of foreign policymaking shifted from the external affairs ministry to the prime minister’s office, of which the national security adviser is a part. Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary, P.N. Haksar, began poaching on the ministry’s turf. What does this arrangement spell for making foreign policy efficiently and with professionalism?

Ironically Mishra held that the post had no place in the parliamentary system. The American experience is not decisive. The US National Security Council was created by the National Security Council Act, 1947. But its importance depended entirely on what the president wanted it to be, whether a forum for decision-making or a mere sounding board.

As national security adviser, Henry Kissinger ignored secretary of state William Rogers, and demoralized the State Department. But that is precisely what president Nixon wanted. He laid down policy and did not trust professionals either for sound advice or effective implementation of his policy.

Kissinger met foreign officials whom he called to the White House in order to pass along messages from the president for their respective heads of state. Foreign dignitaries preferred to meet him, because they felt that they dealt with someone who was right inside the White House. President Carter’s secretary of state Cyrus Vance clashed frequently with national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. Politicians in power distrust, sometimes dislike, the professional. Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, noted that president Truman “regarded his own State Department as a hostile foreign power” and asked Eban to beware of the “striped pants boys in the State Department”. Prime minister Golda Meir distrusted diplomatic professionals because they were “excessively inclined to understand diverse points of view and in some regrettable cases afflicted with analytical and intellectual habits”: she wanted simple recipes.

But it’s the professionals’ job to “perceive the multiple elements that go into most decision, and policies. … They are also aware of the volatile atmosphere of a profession in which contingencies can be created overnight by forces alien and external to their own nation”.

The problem is two-fold. Previously, India’s prime ministers had a member of the Foreign Service in their office to sift through the papers that flow from the ministry and advise them on what is important or urgent and what is not, generally to keep them informed. The national security adviser enjoys far greater latitude and meets foreign diplomats.

There can be conflicts between him and the foreign minister. Is it possible to devise a framework in which both the foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office can perform competently without treading on each other’s toes?

Brzezinski advises: “Whatever system of decision-making a future president adopts, it will need an institution in which on an integrated basis longer-term national strategic and diplomatic plans can be formulated. It is important that such a body be an interagency organ, including international economics.”

India’s interests suffered when V.K. Krishna Menon, a hawk on Pakistan and a dove on the Soviet Union, began to influence foreign policy exploiting his proximity to prime minister Nehru. His successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, set up a committee headed by a former secretary general of the external affairs ministry N.R. Pillai. It opined that the foreign office must have “primary responsibility” for the conduct of diplomacy and its head must be the foreign minister’s “principal adviser”. The implication was obvious. There should be no éminence grise outside the ministry to act as its rival for influence.

Now we have, instead, a professional in the prime minister’s office who is just that — a rival to the ministry. This has come to stay and the working of this arrangement depends on the security adviser’s relations with the prime minister and the respect which the foreign minister commands. Veteran former diplomat Iqbal Akhund, who was Benazir Bhutto’s national security and foreign affairs adviser, has described in his brilliant book Trial and Error the frustrations which the national security adviser can suffer if the system does not work well.

The head of government must clearly state what he expects of each institution so that each performs its assigned role and provides sound professional advice which no prime minister can ignore in the making of foreign policy. But prime ministers “play by the ear” as events unfold rather than submit to the discipline of an organised process of decision-making. No national security adviser can cure that habit.

The writer is an author and lawyer.

A.G. Noorani, "Making foreign policy," Dawn. 2014-01-25.
Keywords: Political science , Political relations , Policy making , Foreign policy , International relations , International policy , Decision making , Diplomacy , Politicians , Shivshankar Menon , Abba Eban , Indira Gandhi , William Rogers , Benazir Bhutto , Iqbal Akhund , Henry Kissinger , PM Nehru , PM Manmohan , Brajesh Mishra