India’s Strategic Culture
2016-01-28 | Text: Michael Liebig | Photo ©: US Army / wikimedia; Imperial War Museums / Wikipedia; Vivek Patankar, Jaskirat Singh Bawa, / flickr; mannat sharma / Agência Brasil; Mariusz Prusaczyk, Sasint,, SNEHIT / dollarphotoclub; pixabay | 4357

The actual role of the Third World in the First and Second World War is still barely recognized in Europe and North America. Who knows that approximately one million Indian soldiers under British command fought in the First World War? Indian divisions fought in Northern France, Iraq, Palestine and East Africa. In World War II, more than 2 million Indian soldiers fought with the British, notably in North Africa and in Burma. That the Indians were good soldiers and made a very significant contribution to the war effort, was acknowledged by top British generals. In view of that, some readers may think that the Indians learned war-fighting and military strategy from the British. Naturally, the Indians did learn from the British, but, first of all, they have their own traditions of statecraft and military strategy as well as a long and dense history of war-fighting. And herein lie the foundations of India’s strategic culture. 


In 1992, the Pentagon commissioned a study about India’s strategic culture to the RAND Corporation. Its author, George Tanham, concluded that, due to its culture of spiritualism and timelessness, India had no endogenous tradition of strategic thought. Some scholars in Security Studies in India and in the West shared Tanham’s view and claimed that in the land of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi there was an ideational void where the occidental world had its Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, A.T. Mahan or W. D. Sokolowski.

In 2006, some 14 years after Tanham’s study, the U.S. Department of Defense commissioned another study on the same subject. Titled India’s Strategic Culture, its author, Rodney W. Jones, came to conclusions that are diametrically opposed to Tanham’s. For Jones, India does have a distinct strategic culture and the ideas of Kautilya, the ancient Indian theorist of statecraft, are an essential components thereof: 

«India’s strategic culture is not monolithic, rather is mosaic-like, but as a composite is more distinct and coherent than that of most contemporary nation-states. This is due to its substantial continuity with the symbolism of pre-modern Indian state systems and threads of Hindu or Vedic civilization dating back several millennia [...] It [Indian strategic culture] therefore draws on Chanakya’s (Kautilya’s) secular treatise, the Arthashastra, which closely parallels Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, as an exposition of monarchical statecraft, realpolitik in inter-state balances of power, and the practices of war and peace.”

But what say the Indian themselves about their strategic culture?

We refer here to two distinguished members of the Indian strategic community. The first is Shivshankar Menon, who was India’s National Security Adviser from 2012 to 2014:

“Frankly speaking, for a civilization and state like India not to have a strategic culture is impossible... [O]f course, we in India have a strategic culture. It is an indigenous construct over millennia, modified considerably by our experience in the last two centuries.»

The second is Namrata Goswami. She is a strategic analyst at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi:

«As a member of the Indian strategic community, let me assure you that we do have a strategic culture where we closely assess the external environment and debate on the efficacy of the use of military power in addressing external threats. That India tends to give priority to dialogue over the use of military power in foreign policy does not mean it did not have a strategic culture; it just means that the strategic preferences are different from the normal understanding of how Great Powers behave.»

What Menon and Goswami state here, is representative for Indian strategic community with respect to the subject of India’s strategic culture. Today, not much is being heard of the erstwhile supporters of Tanham’s ‘absence’-thesis. Still today, India needs to import military technology, but India never depended on the import of strategic thinking nor combat morale and skill.    

What is the Meaning of ‘Strategic Culture’

Before we analyze the main features of India’s strategic culture, we need to make some conceptual clarifications. The term ‘strategic culture’ has the semantic component ‘strategic’ which refers to statecraft, notably foreign policy and military strategy. But what about culture? In view of the fact that the American anthropologists Kroeber and Klukhohn have come up with 163 different definitions of culture, Rashed Uz Zaman is right when he writes: «For any student of strategic studies, the concept of strategic culture is as dangerous as an unmarked minefield on a dark night.»

We understand culture a) as man’s unique cognitive capacity to design and practically implement transformations of nature, and b) the material and intellectual products of man’s ‘cultivation’ of nature: religion, art, science, technology or social organizations. Based upon that anthropological understanding, it is of central importance to include the historical dimension of culture: the human transformation of nature occurs always in a social and intellectual context which has been formed by antecedent human beings – socio-economic formations, customs, traditions and patterns of thinking. Thus, past human existence is inextricably linked with culture and ‘culture-making’. One can think here of the famous dictum of Karl Marx in his The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: «Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.»

Moreover, while there is a ‘world civilization’ in the sense of universally accepted standards of human dignity, rule of law, rationality or scientific method, the term ‘culture’ is inherently pluralist. Mankind exists as many, different peoples. Peoples are distinguished by language and ethnicity and they live in different ecological conditions. Each people has different historical experiences and collective memories, and thus different traditions and customs. That all adds up to a diverse manifold of cultures in the world.

Correspondingly, the term ‘strategic culture’ presupposes that the patterns of thinking and behavior in politics in general and specifically foreign and security policy are not uniform across the world. Collective historical experiences and memories among a state’s elites and people, form the basis of its strategic culture.

Russia’s strategic culture, for example, would be influenced by the historic experiences of the invasions by the Mongols, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, Napoleonic France and Nazi-Germany as well as the desire to have access to the world’s oceans going back many centuries. Similarly, India’s long history – and the collective memory of it – is characterized by serial foreign invasions from the North across the Hindu Kush – Achaemenid Persians, Greeks, Central Asian tribes, Muslim Arabs, Mongols and again Central Asian tribes with Persian-Muslim culture. India’s defensive reflex towards the continental North became so deeply rooted that the threats emanating from the sea by the European imperial powers were not adequately perceived – with catastrophic consequences for India.         

Each state, due to its own, specific history and culture, has varying ‘attitudes’ – dispositions and preferences – in its foreign and security policy. That is so, even though all states share the fundamental interest of self-preservation and have rather similar basic structures in terms of governmental, military or intelligence organizations. One state may perceive its security assured via preservation of the status-quo, the other through its revision. In one strategic culture, there may be a disposition for risk-avoidance, in another a tendency for risk-taking in conflict situations. In exerting pressure on competing or adversary states, there may be a preference for covert intelligence operations or for economic-financial sanctions. A state’s ‘subjective’ perception of security and potential threats to it, is not mechanically determined, but substantially influenced by its strategic culture. And the same applies to the reaction patterns with respect to such threat-perceptions, that is what foreign policy actions will a state actually adopt.

We can define strategic culture as an ideational framework of conscious, but also subconscious dispositions and preferences in perception, thinking and behavior with respect to the internal and external security of a state. 

Strategic Culture as a Repository of Ancient Ideas of Statecraft 

The two oldest and continuous cultures on the planet are China’s and India’s.

Does that also apply their strategic cultures? I would argue in the affirmative.


One important reason is the fact that the oldest, and thus foundational texts on politico-strategic affairs have been generated in Chinese and Indian cultural space. I don’t mean anecdotal narratives on politics, foreign policy and military strategy which we know from the Hebrew Bible or Homer’s epics. Instead, I mean (quasi-)scholarly texts like the Seven Military Classics in ancient China or Kautilya’s Arthashastra in ancient India. I.A. Johnston has correctly noted that early and foundational works of strategy tend to have an  outstanding impact on the formation of the strategic culture within the geo-cultural space in which they have originated. Such ancient strategic texts come on top of historical experience and collective memory (which they, of course, reflect).  

The Seven Military Classics are a collection of strategic writings from the second half of the first millennium BC, which includes The Art of War by Sun Zi. This compendium was canonized in the 11th century by Emperor Shenzong and has since been required reading for the Chinese state bureaucracy. Mao Zedong too was an avid reader of The Art of War and in post-Mao China, the interest in and status of of Sun Zi’s classic has further increased. I.A. Johnston is certainly right when he states that Sun-Zi’s ‘hard realpolitik’-’parabellum’ paradigm is the central feature of China’s strategic culture from ancient times up to the present.

Compared to The Art of War, Kautilya’s Arthashastra covers a much broader thematic spectrum (in a scholarly manner): governance, public administration, economics, law, foreign policy/diplomacy, military affairs and intelligence. Thus, the Arthashastra is about Grand Strategy – that is optimizing the totality of the state’s military and non-military, material and ideational resources and using these power factors, attuned to the concrete situation, for the realization of its foreign policy goals. And the paramount foreign policy goal of the ‘Kautilyan state’ is the political unification of the Indian subcontinent. The Kautilyan paradigm is based on ‘Political Realism’ which assumes that inter-state relations are shaped by conflicts of interests whose outcomes mainly depend on the correlation of forces in terms of power. For most scholars working on Indian strategic culture, it is consensus that the core concepts and ideas of Kautilya’s Arthashastra are a central feature of Indian strategic culture. Zaman writes:

Kautilya’s “ideas are important for the understanding of Indian strategic culture. While history shows his teachings were popular amongst [Indian] statesmen, it is in independent India’s policies that one sees a manifestation of Kautilyan thinking... We propose that, amongst other influencing factors, Indian strategic culture is influenced by the ideas of Kautilya codified in his book The Arthashastra.»

However, there is a complication.

Up to the early 20th century, India has had a predominantly ‘oral culture’. In contrast, the Chinese as well as the Greek and the Judeo-Christian cultures of the Occident have been ‘book cultures’. Foundational values and ideas have to be expressed in written texts if they are to be considered as ‘cultural assets’ worth to be transmitted across the ages. Not so in India: outstanding texts were learned by heart and transmitted orally to the next generation – an extensive work like the Arthashastra being no exception. The oral transmission of outstanding works was dominant though they existed (in small numbers) as written texts as well. Many scholars mistakenly thought that the Arthashastra had been ‘lost’ for two millennia because they simply could not imagine that such a work could have been orally transmitted – and thus remaining efficacious. From this crass misconception, the conclusion was drawn that, if strategic thought is not (predominantly) transmitted via books, then there is no tradition of strategic thought and strategic culture cannot evolve. 

India’s strategic culture proves the opposite.   

It is often assumed that a state’s strategic culture concerns only that state’s elites – political, military and administrative leaders as well as intellectuals. To some extent, that is correct. However, elites cannot ‘construct’ a strategic culture and then impose upon the people. A state’s strategic culture must be in resonance with the people’s historical experience and conscious or subconscious collective memory. That includes also basic ideas of politics and strategy as expressed in ancient and foundational texts on statecraft.

But have the ‘common people’ of India – many illiterates among them  – ever read Kautilya’s Arthashastra whose ideas constitute a key component of Indian strategic culture? No, they have not.

But that does not mean that the Indian people do not know their Kautilya (or ‘Chanakya’, as he is often named in India). They know Kautilyan thought-figures because they have heard ‘stories’ (nowadays via TV serials) about Kautilya or aphorisms from the Arthashastra. Indians of all social layers have a basic familiarity with Kautilyan thought because they have grown up with the very popular Indian beast fables Panchatantra which originate in ancient India and ‘migrated’ via Persia and Arab cultural space to Europe where we know (some of) them from Jean de la Fontaine’s fables. As Adda Bozeman notes, Kautilya’s Arthashastra “restates in the language of a systematic political philosophy the cold wisdom that India has traditionally rendered in its celebrated beast fables.” Similarly, Indians, throughout the ages, have been immersed in the immensely popular epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. There are segments of the epics which resemble more a textbook of statecraft than a literary text – and these explicitly political segments have a great affinity with Kautlyan thought.

Therefore, Kautilyan thought is ‘present’ in modern India – among the strategic community and the people. In my observation, Kautilyan realism permeates the perceptions and patterns of thinking of ‘normal Indians’ when they politicize about issues of foreign and security policy. Of course, Kautilyan realism is not perceived as a theoretical system of statecraft, but as a benchmark and basic attitude in politics generally and foreign policy in particular. Indians fear not the power of the state, but its weakness – internally and externally. Harsh criticism of the state’s inefficiency and political corruption is not directed against the state as such. Strengthening of the power of the state is generally considered positive. Here, too, an understanding of the state becomes visible, which goes back to Kautilya. Most Indians are proud that India has become a nuclear power – in spite of mass poverty. The Indian people’s appreciation of military strength – without militarization of society, state and foreign policy – reflects a political paradigm that is grounded in Kautiylan realism. Kautilyan thought is being consciously ‘re-used’ by elites and, at the same time, is subconsciously influencing thought-patterns and behavior in the field of politics and strategy. Thus, Kautilyan thought is a key ideational component of India’s strategic culture. 

Indian Strategic Culture: Not only Kautilyan...

Is, however, Kautilyan thought the only ideational input of India’s strategic culture? No, it is not. What, then, are the other factors of influence? 

Besides the Kautilyan tradition of realpolitik, there is an ‘idealist’ tradition in Indian statecraft. Such political idealism can be traced back to Buddha (ca. 6th century BC) and the Maurya Emperor Ashoka (also a Buddhist) in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka fought a particularly cruel war in order to consolidate the Maurya Empire’s control over most of the Indian subcontinent. Thereafter he renounced war (without dissolving the army, however) and followed a peaceful foreign policy, which particularly featured ‘cultural diplomacy’. Thus, India has (also) an ancient tradition of peaceful co-existence and conflict resolution and ‘moralpolitik’.

Modern India has three ‘founding fathers’: Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel (who is far too little known outside India) and Jawaharlal Nehru. It is often said that Gandhi was the ‘idealist’ in the Buddha-Ashoka tradition, Patel a hard-core Kautilyan ‘realist’ and Nehru’s policy was a mix of Kautilyan realism and ‘idealism’ in the Ashokan tradition.

Can, therefore, Indian strategic culture be characterized as an (uneasy) combination of political realism and idealism? Yes, that can be done. However,

one needs to look carefully at the relative weight of these two factors of influence.

That there is an idealistic strain, is demonstrated evident in modern India’s history. Let’s take three examples of ‘moralpolitik’ considerations impacting India’s foreign and security policy. 

1) While (communist) China was determined to acquire nuclear weapons in crash-program mode, India under Nehru stuck to a non-proliferation policy – in spite of its rather advanced capabilities in nuclear technology. China conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 1964 and became a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in 1971. Only in 1998, after decades of vacillation and 34 years after China had done so, did India finally declare itself a nuclear weapon state (and is still not a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council).

2) Nehru believed in the Panchsheel principles of peaceful coexistence with China. He could not imagine that China under Mao would start a war against India – as it did in October 1962 in the Himalaya. India was unprepared and suffered a humiliating military defeat.

3) In 1971, India had defeated the Pakistani army in East Pakistan (thereafter Bangladesh) and captured some 90.000 Pakistani military personnel. In exchange for the mere promise of Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Bhutto to quickly and peacefully settle the Kashmir conflict, Indira Gandhi released all of the Pakistani POWs. Soon thereafter, Bhutto was overthrown by the Pakistani military (and hanged). And the Kashmir conflict has dragged on till today.

However, I think, these examples of foreign policy idealism represent (rather rare) deviations from the main trend in India’s foreign and security policy.

… but Kautilyan Realism Makes the Difference

The underlying principal trend India’s foreign and security policy is realism in the Kautilyan tradition. If look at India’s history since 1947, we see that Indian foreign and security policy has most of time been a stubborn pursuit of realist statecraft. The sketch may illustrate the dominant role of ‘realpolitik’ in the Kautilyan tradition:

Even Gandhi endorsed the deployment of the Indian army against Pakistan’s attempts to annex Kashmir. India’s territorial integrity and political unity was secured by Sardar Patel in the late 1940s by peaceful persuasion, coercion and use of force. Nehru pushed the build-up of science, technology and industry (also) because he understood that economic strength was the foundation of military strength. Nehru did neither push nor block India’s nuclear weapons research program. And he did not hesitate to seize the Portuguese colony of Goa by military means. India Gandhi ordered the invasion of East Pakistan, even though Nixon and Kissinger sent the U.S. Navy into the Gulf of Bengal in order to prevent her from doing that. India withstood massive external intimidation attempts and sanctions – and did (at last) establish itself as nuclear weapon state. All Indian governments – from 1947 to the present – have been committed to the principle of non-alignment in foreign policy. India never allied with another power – neither was it allied to Soviet Union in the past nor will it be allied to the United States.

These few examples should suffice to demonstrate that the basic directionality of India’s foreign and security policy is one of Kautilyan realism. which is based upon:

•  the elevated eigenvalue of state

•  inviolability of sovereignty and territorial integrity

•  robust enforcing of state interests in accordance with raison d’etat

•  build-up of national power in political, economic and military terms

•  power politics in the sense of highlighting ‘hard’ power – including the acceptance of war as ultima ratio.

All of these ideas and concepts are contained in Kautilya’s Arthashastra – written more than 2000 ago in India. And all of these elements of realist statecraft have found their way into Indian strategic culture. Thus, primarily endogenous ideational sources feed into India’s strategic culture. And that is true for the input of ‘idealist’ ideas as well. No one in the Indian strategic community will deny the importance of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, A.T. Mahan or W. D. Sokolowski; or Plato, Augustinus, Hugo Grotius, John Locke or Immanuel Kant for that matter. In Indian policy-making, the ideas and concepts of these Western thinkers will be consulted and considered, but they won’t substitute the endogenous ideational kernel of Indian strategic culture. Indians have learned from Kautilya that if diplomacy is not backed up by economic and military power, it is useless, if not self-defeating. But Kautilyan realism also means that internal strength provides the basis for a prudence in foreign policy and is the antidote for foreign policy adventurism. In India’s long history, there is no tradition of imperial expansionism and military conquest beyond the subcontinent. Chandragupta Maurya or Ashoka were as powerful as Alexander the Great or Caesar, but these Indian rulers had no inclination to conquer foreign lands. They knew, if they keep their own (subcontinental) house in order, they have all they need. I think, there is a strong factor of ‘geopolitical’ saturation in Indian strategic culture which derives from the historical experience that the development and optimization of internal resources, not grabbing foreign lands and assets outside the subcontinent, is the best way to become (and remain) a Great Power.

For India’s strategic culture applies the principle of ‘the modernity of (endogenous) tradition’ that permeates Indian society and politics. In modern India, tradition is no sentimental-nostalgic or even reactionary accessory of day-to-day politics. Rather, tradition is alive and efficacious within Indian modernity – both form a singular symbiosis. Thus, knowing about Kautilyan thought as well as its ideational sibling, the Buddha-Ashoka-Gandhi tradition, should not only interest South Asia experts. Understanding the strategic culture of India – one of the handful of Great Powers in the multipolar world – does matter in the 21st century. 

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