Tanham in Retrospect: 18 Years of Evolution in Indian Strategic Culture

Tanham in Retrospect:  18 Years of Evolution in Indian Strategic Culture

In 1992, RAND published an interpretive essay by Dr. George Tanham[1], an American defense analyst, on the historicaland cultural factors that have shaped India’s strategic thinking.  The essay is important because it highlighted and reinforced particular sensitive criticisms which continue to form the basis of significant Indian self-examination and self-justification.  This paper reviews Tanham’s major interpretive insights and examines them in light of observed[2] contemporary Indian strategic culture.

India has had no shortage of external observers, travelers who come to India from afar to pen their impressions of its tremendous richness of culture and experience.  External audiences have looked to sojourning scribes for help in understanding India’s behavior from afar. Internal audiences have used these same impressions to better understand themselves, to shape and define their identity, and to provide a diagnostic for reform.


Since the end of the Cold War the world has witnessed the emergence of India as a significant actor on the global stage.  As India grows in both prominence and capability, there is increasingly a desire to understand, and even predict, how India will behave in strategic matters—its military and foreign policy.

This paper provides the reader with the benefit of two external observations: one taken in 1992 and another in 2010. Both are interpretations seen through the lens of India’s strategic culture.  As such it may provide both audiences—those external seeking to understand what is persistent and changing in Indian culture, and how to predict its behavior, and those internal, seeking to diagnose what is stagnant and malleable for reform in order to adapt its behavior—useful sources of insight, or “data points”.

The first data point comes from Dr. George Tanham, an America historian and specialist in South Asian security affairs working for RAND, who, around 1992, over a period of about four months, made numerous visits to India in an attempt to capture the outlines of Indian Strategic Culture.  The echoes of his criticism are still influential in the Indian strategic community, and are parroted by both internal reformers and apologists.

The second data point is mine. Like Tanham, I came from an American defense analysis background, and likewise came to India to learn about its strategic thinking.  After having spent over a year immersed in one of India’s think tanks, having had a chance to form my own independent impressions, I was asked by a colleague to read Tanham and pen my impressions, providing yet another diagnostic data-point from an external observer, but this time nearly two decades later.

Implicit in such a request is a requirement to answer the following questions: What did Tanham say? Was he right—or rather, where was he right and wrong?  What did he miss?  His observations were taken in 1992: what, if anything was persistent and stood the test of time over nearly two decades, and what has changed in the last 18 years?  : What does his description/diagnosis mean for the future of Indian Strategic Culture?

Tanham himself offers no definition of “Strategic Culture” preferring instead to say that that his essay is an exploration of “the historical and cultural factors that have shaped India’s strategic thinking.”  However the term “Strategic Culture” had already been in use and defined in the circle of American defense intellectuals since the 1970s[3] when Jack Snyder introduced it to explain why leaders of the Soviet Union did not behave according to rational choice theory[4] and defined it as, “the body of attitudes and beliefs that guides and circumscribes thought on strategic questions, influences the way strategic issues are formulated, and sets the vocabulary and perceptual parameters of strategic debate.”[5]  The number of definitions have since blossomed but the utility of the concept, as proposed by Melanie Graham, is the opportunity to gain insight into those few elements of the many that go into shaping a culture that specifically influence or shape perceptions and response to threats and opportunities.[6]

This paper will review what I consider Tanham’s most important insights and assertions—particularly those criticisms that seemed to me to have become part of the self-narrative of the Indian Strategic community’s apologists and discontent reformers–and answer the first four questions along the way.  Then toward the end, I will summarize my thoughts on the last question.

What did Tanham say?

Tanham attempted to examine what historical and cultural factors had affected Indian strategic thinking; what were the evolving lines of security debate within the Indian civilian and military leadership, as well as the technical, economic, and institutional factors affecting the evolution of Indian military power.[7]

For someone who only spent four months on the task, he provided a surprisingly good first and enduring answer.  An important lacuna is that his list of interviews did not include any significant sampling of the political class.

Tanham identified four principle factors[8] that have shaped and explain Indian views: Indian geography, History, the Influence of the British Raj, and most importantly, Indian Culture, and Tanham makes a convincing case for each.

He also ascribes importance to the lingering influence of an anti-colonialist mindset and normative framework, and the coloration of the realities of cold-war power politics with India’s investment in a non-status quo normative order that maximized freedom of action, which continues to exert a strong (and in my view mismatched and dysfunctional) influence on contemporary strategic culture[9].  Tanham mentions, but in my view significantly underemphasizes the importance in contemporary Indian strategic thought of strategic autonomy, independent foreign policy, Indianization/Indigenization and self-reliance[10].

Tanham’s observations on the impact of geography and the British Raj are fairly common sense and non-controversial.  Both are useful in their explanatory power, and also not worth further commentary.  In short, there are land-centric, colonial obsessions that cloud contemporary Indian strategic thought, offering few real insights, and distracting from areas where the focus could be more functional and adaptive.

It is however, the third pillar of Tanham’s explanation of the condition of Indian strategic thinking, the pervasive influence of “the larger Indian culture” that is most interesting, and it is here that Tanham’s criticism made its deepest impact on the self-narrative of the Indian strategic community.  It is especially interesting because while the influence of Geography and the British Raj do provide insight into the focus and content of Indian strategic thought, it is Tanham’s observations on the effect of the larger culture which appear to inform and constrain the outputs, methods, and vibrancy of Indian strategic thought.

In 1992 Tanham noted that Indians had no writings that offered a coherent set of articulated beliefs or operating set of principles for Indian Strategy.  That is still true today, nearly two decades later[11].  Moreover the deficit is interesting, especially in light of the purported Indian negotiating style[12] that seeks to set out first principles from which other things follow, and the fact that Indians seem quite able to divine and articulate the operating principles of others[13].

While there are many Indians who see this as an unconscionable abdication[14] on the part of India’s political leadership, there are is no lack of apologists[15] for having no explicit policy.  Raising the issue, a visitor is likely to hear such arguments as: “It is not that important, and we have done pretty good without it so far”; “Its not necessary as everything you would need to know is on public record” (in some public speech or procurement document); “It is not necessary because the services know” (a wholly debatable point) to “it would be impossible to achieve such a consensus” or “there is no consensus on such things”; “it would be meaningless because in a parliamentary system the government could fall at any time”; “articulating it might just bring down the government”; “given our situation, a strategy of ambiguity is the wisest”; “it is best not to reveal such things” or “it would be inflammatory and counter productive” to “we should not ape the west and their militant foreign policy.”

Despite whatever is said in the manifold answers, (impossibility, durability, utility, ambiguity, obviousness, and belligerency) the external observer is likely to sense a high level frustration within the military officer corps over the lack of direction, as well as a cageyness and insecurity amongst the strategic elites. An outsider is left with the distinct impression that strategically speaking, today’s India does not yet know what she wants. 

Further, one gets the sense that the structures and tools necessary to achieve a consensus of direction–state bureaucracies, Parliament, military– are at present not sufficiently coordinated to the task.[16]

While Tanham was unable to find a clear set of priorities for Indian security in an Indian-authored document, based on his various interviews and observations, Tanham does an exquisite job of setting forth what they likely would be if articulated[17], and his list appears largely consistent with India’s contemporary sensitivities.

While clearly articulating the ad hoc strategies which India appears to have adopted, Tanham notes that the Indian government has not succeeded in articulating or pursuing these goals in a coherent, disciplined fashion.  Nearly two decades later, this is still disappointingly true (though there was an impressive amount of clarity in President Patil’s inaugural address to Parliament[18] following the strong election of the Congress party in 2009 which certainly hints at a consensus content for a National Security Strategy).

The lack of a clear National Security Strategy class of document is only the most visible element of what Tanham calls, “India’s relative lack of strategic thinking.”[19] Tanham notes that while India has, over time, developed elements of defense strategy, it has produced little formal strategic planning, and appears to be “reactive” rather than “active” in its approach, even suggesting that Indians may not address their problems seriously until a real crisis arises.

Tanham seems on target here.  An outsider does not get the sense that there are well thought through contingency plans[20], and plans with “branches and sequels,” that can be represented to them.  While one sees evidence of Chinese strategic planning to achieve coordinated policies and actions with specific destinations and specific goal dates, with rumors of planning timelines that span several centuries, a visitor could spend a very long time in India and never witness a group of Indians working through action-reaction chains of events aimed to secure a desired goal at a particular time even decades out.

It could be, of course, that such planning takes place in cloistered areas away from prying eyes, and Tanham notes that with respect to some major security strategies, such as nuclear doctrine, a small group of civilians may be developing its pre-requisite.  However Tanham also points to the perceived problems with such an approach, such as a situation where the military brass is unaware of the larger overall strategy, can make no plans, and is unaware of the status of forthcoming policy decisions.  A modern observer might generalize this concern to all defense planning, and in fact, some have.[21]

Current conventional wisdom about learning organizations notes the importance of communicating overall vision[22]. Insights in the US and Europe have determined that Defense Planning requires “many eyes”[23], from many different agencies and interdisciplinary fields, in order to map a coherent and considerate path forward.

Tanham is certainly not the only foreigner to make an observation regarding “the relative lack of strategic thinking” in India. In my own year there, I remember hearing various foreigners make remarks such as “I’m amazed at what passes for strategic thinking here”, “There is a lot of discussion of matters of strategic import, but very little strategy”, “There is a lack of connecting the dots”, and that India’s foreign policy and strategic “software” is underdeveloped.[24]

This means that someone within the strategic community would observe comparatively little systematic thinking which asks and answers the following questions[25]:

  • What are India’s desired outcomes?
  • What are the tools available at India’s disposal?
  • How well aligned are India’s current policies?
  • How ought they to be amended?

Or asked differently:

  • Where do we want to be at X time.
  • What are the sequential steps we must take (or refrain from) to get from here to there?
  • What are the intermediate destinations and decision points to shoot toward?
  • What branches can I foresee?
  • How are other strategic actors likely to react?
  • Who will oppose me…how will I check them?
  • What are the tools at my command to influence their behavior?
  • What other resources do we need?
  • Where will we get them and how will we go about getting it?[26]

Answering these sorts of questions are typically codified in a series of strategic planning methods and skills that build consensus and consistency and result in clear products that communicate to the entire organization , service, and country an organizing direction.

A Paradox

This observation of the lack of “the relative lack of strategic thinking” creates a paradox, as Tanham himself notes that Indians have a talent for analysis and conceptualization, and seem admirably equipped for strategic thinking[27].  Why then, if so intellectually equipped have their strategic concepts been developed in such an informal and haphazard way?  Tanham asks why it is that India has, for instance, never issued a white paper[28] and does not appear inclined to do so?  Part of the reason, Tanham suggests, is the lack of well functioning organs to do this work, but his larger explanation is the lack of a developed habit.

Tanham’s criticisms extend to what might today be called “Higher Defense Management,” and these criticisms ring disappointingly true today.  Tanham highlights that India’s actual strategic planning, decisions, and military decisions are taken by the Prime Ministers and their own small coterie of advisors[29] rather than civil servants, government leaders, or the military.  Tanham notes that major strategy and military decisions are taken by the CCPA (now the CCS) rather than the military, that the Chiefs of the services have no statutory power, and the dysfunctional power of the Finance ministry to veto military expenditures.  He notes the failure to achieve a Chief of Defense Staff and Joint Staff (citing civilian concerns that a concentration of power might encourage a coup).  Tanham wrote at the time that the National Security Council (NSC) was stillborn, not having been constituted in 1992.  It is constituted today, but what power and significance it has is, like the Integrated Defense Staff (IDS)[30], much disputed within the Indian Strategic community.  The problems observed by Tanham with respect to the vibrancy of organs that should be equipped to do strategic thinking appear to still be current today.[31]

Tanham explains that fear of a coup is one reason for holding back such defense reform, but dismisses this as an unrealistic fear.  He notes that the Indian Military plays only a minimal role in decision-making on matters of national security, and that if allowed, many well educated and thoughtful military officers could contribute to the formulation of national strategy and defense plans, while remaining apolitical and strongly under civilian control.[32]  A contemporary observer would likely make the same observation—that Indian officers are very committed to civilian supremacy and are principled in their desire to secure India.

What was Tanham’s explanation for India’s lack of strategic thinking?  Tanham lays a small amount of the blame[33] on the British Raj, which while developing strategic ideas, failed to articulate a written strategic plan, and kept Indian’s out of the discussions[34].

The larger blame for the “comparative lack of strategic thinking” falls on the tapestry of broader Indian culture[35], an admittedly more abstract kind of criticism.

His overall cultural explanation falls into three basic points:  First, that India rarely was a politically unified entity that had to think about defense matters from the perspective of a large, coherent state. Second, that India as a rural, agricultural, hierarchical society was ruled by nature and had no tradition of long-range planning, or planning for social change.  And third, and most seductively to those that would justify or encourage this condition, that Indian philosophical ideas, particularly as regarding time and human agency, are not conducive to planning.

There is little to say on the first point, except that India is now politically unified, and will find it necessary to think on those terms.  Tanham’s second point–that India, as a largely agricultural, largely rural society, has no tradition of long-range planning as nature determines the important and unchanging sequence of when to plant and harvest—is rapidly being undermined by India’s rapid industrialization and urbanization.  In perhaps 2-3 decades more people will live in Cities than in rural areas, and cities require and demand long-term planning.  India is on a trajectory of development much like any other country, and so it is not inconceivable that there will be a time when only 2% of its workforce engages in agriculture.  Tanham notes the “rigid and hierarchical structure of Indian society” which, while not “completely stifling initiative, makes change and individual initiative difficult” as individuals have few incentives to test the system, and that if an individual is lost outside family or cast it is a calamity.  But urbanization and modernization erode such rigid separation and hierarchy.  City life with its mobility favors nuclear families, and requires social mobility.  These aspects of the larger Indian culture are not likely to be fixed or predictive of future Indian strategic thinking.

Tanham’s insights into contemporary India, particularly the importance of Indian culture as a binding force to “Indianness” and identity[36] are valuable. His fixation, however, on the shackling nature of Indian fatalism seems dated today, especially against the backdrop of exploding creativity and entrepreneurialism.

Tanham’s critique suggests an almost overpowering wet-blanket effect of Indian culture on strategic thought and innovation. While this may provide insight into why things are the way they are, it should not be taken as a reason why things should or will be from here on out.  The point I want to make, observing India in the midst of rapid change, is that these cultural artifacts are not static. While it is likely that, ”the basic social and cultural patterns from early Greek & Chinese visitors still observable today[37]” will be perceptible even in a century, they are likely have morphed to be adaptive to new realities.

Tanham’s third point essentially makes the case that Indian culture contains certain philosophical concepts about time and human agency that are not conducive to planning.  Tanham emphasized the Hindu concept of time, which unlike the Western linear conception, is non-linear, cyclic, and recurring, and in his view is not conducive to “a sense of history”.  He seemed to think this negated the idea of progress.  He even proposed that Indians understood time spatially rather than temporally.  Closely linked with this is Tanham’s assertion that the primary Indian cultural narrative is that life is mysterious, largely unknowable, subject to fate, and not entirely under human control.  The impact of non-human / outside forces, be they natural, supernatural (as in the epics), or external to one’s society & control (invaders) on the understanding of cause and effect, when linked with an attitude of a non-urgency (change can wait, life may have many incarnations and opportunities, appreciate that any benefit brings costs), is to reduce the perception of the scope of human agency—which, however true in and of itself, serves to further constrain human agency, by encouraging a learned helplessness through an external locus of control, and by keeping focus on the circle of concern and deterring the expanding role of human agency within a circles of influence[38].

Tanham also cited the Indian concept of duty—which seems to be position-in-society-based[39] rather than agenda/outcome based[40], and the philosophical conceptions of caste (and therefore an existing order of human affairs not made by the convention of men) as positively stable, unchangeable, immutable, divinely ordained and fixed by god. This contributes to a conservative and non-innovative mindset which deemphasizes the need for a mental space to conceive of a future that is fundamentally different than the present or past.

These, combined, in contrast to Western notions of linear time, progress, and human empowerment, make the future appear less mutable, more uncertain, perhaps indiscernible, and less subject to human manipulation[41]. This supports attitudes of passivity, acceptance, and fatalism[42].  Tanham felt that these attitudes to the future and the de-emphasis of human agency directly handicaps planning and impedes preparation for the future[43].  A modern observer could certainly discern aspects of these observations in listening to how Indians digest strategic problems and potential courses of actions.

An observer might amplify Tanham’s observations by pointing out the overall religious-cultural narrative common to strains of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist thought, that of “No Destination”, values of acceptance of the world and its status-quo order (rather than activist change), and an idealization of training the “observer” (meditative) orientation to the world rather than the active.  Further, a society that has been stable and seen little change for generations at a time is less likely to have developed ideas regarding how to cope and instigate such change.

Some of the other cultural traits examined by Tanham are less tied to economic means and conditions and seem to reflect more habit and preference, and so would appear to remain persistent unless there is a crisis.

Tanham notes, for instance, the comparative importance of status and symbolism[44] in Indian Society, and their specific effect on military capabilities.  He notes that Indians seem to consider specific military capabilities–e.g., nuclear weapons, long range missiles and aircraft, a large blue-water navy, a strong military industrial base–symbols of great power status, and India must therefore have them[45].  A modern observer would note India’s rapid acquisition of power projection capabilities (carriers, long-distance cargo aircraft, air refueling and long-distance fighters) without any clear national consensus on what they are for.

Tanham makes an interesting point, that Indians feel India has not been adequately recognized as a great civilization and country, and that “indifference is worse than hostility,” implying an emotional rather than rational urge.  He suggests that the Indian belief is that if India has the symbols of great power status it will be recognized as such.  His critique is that Indians sometimes have difficulty explaining their intentions and plans for new weapons, especially missiles and for expanding the navy, suggesting that they either hope to obscure their long-term strategic designs or, more likely, the new weapons have not been integrated into a carefully developed strategic plan.  A modern observer would be no more satisfied today.

Tanham critiques further that Indian planners may need no additional justification or rationale than that India’s greatness mandates having them (with not necessarily any plans for actual employment toward some goal other than recognition).  That would contrast sharply with other nations who look at these items principally for their utility, and would think this mistakes form for function, and that the symbolic value accrues as much from the will to use (in boundary setting, hierarchy, competitive matters), and proper integration as from the “having.”  Such thinking might be folly, as an opponent or would-be ally might be able to sense whether one has selected and carries a sword for self-defense or conquest, and someone who carries it as a decoration.

Of course, the world is no longer indifferent, and India does have real defense problems.  India’s acquisition raises questions of the “cart” and “horse,” ; the inquiry for India’s future strategists is whether India is putting the cart (symbols) before the horse (requirements).  Tanham mentions multiple times that modern military technology is shaping India’s strategic policy, but that India’s modernization seems to be driven by technological opportunism rather than systematic and consistent thought on the part of Indian elites[46], and this appears no less true nearly two decades later.  Tanham suggested in 1992 that in particular, advanced armor, precision guided missiles, long-range missiles, and modern aircraft will require Delhi to revise its defense concepts.  It would require an in-depth study to see if this has been the case over the last 18 years, but an outsider certainly does not get the impression that such a revision has been as profound or seriously undertaken as in its neighbor China, who is perceived to be a relative innovator in these domains.

Laying the blame on culture though has its own problems if you are an administrative change agent, because, as Tanham notes, Indians seem universally proud of their culture, and see it as an organizing and unifying force. They are therefore unlikely to look at it critically, and see the situation as self-justifying.  This concern will be addressed below, but first it is important to note a few more of Tanham’s interesting observations regarding Indian culture.

Tanham cites the primacy of culture in Indian outlook and common identity formation, which seems true if taken in the broadest sense of inclusive social attitudes, tolerance, diversity, familiar myths, stories, familiar epics, and pride at their manifold incarnations.  And Indian culture has an interesting twist.  While other cultures seem to also assume their superiority which might seek to push their culture abroad in a masculine or proselytizing way, Indian culture seems to assume a feminine, receptive quality, where the narrative holds that others come to India as conquerors but are instead conquered by it.  In this narrative, Indian culture has a persistent, indomitable quality that attracts and seduces all who come, and ultimately prove more powerful than military might.

Tanham notes that Indian’s have had little taste for conquest of expansion beyond the subcontinent, and points out that historically to penetrate further North or West meant leaving fertile warm areas to traverse more barren and chilly regions.  Eighteen years and significant military capability beyond his writing this seems no less true, with the dominance of militant anti-expeditionary and anti-interventionist points of view in India despite acquiring expeditionary capabilities.

One might note, however, that the United States was once a “city on a hill” isolationist power, trying to steer an independent foreign policy outside entrapping European geopolitics, with a modest goal of keeping the great powers out of its hemisphere.  As India grows more important and connected, and perceives the outside world increasingly though the vista of television and travel, it will feel the temptation to exercise its emergent capacity for power projection.

Strategists should anticipate that as India grows in wealth and stature, the expectations and attitudes in the larger Indian culture will change.  They should also anticipate that as India’s businesses get exposed to and adopt best practices such as strategic planning, open-planning, and web-sourcing, that the resistance to such planning and sharing of information will become less common.

What is the Future of Indian Strategic Culture?


A judgment as to the direction and malleability of Indian strategic culture is important both to those who feel that India is fixed, for better or worse, in some eternal condition, and equally to those who feel that strategic culture is open to self-modification, and believe diagnosis is the first step to remedy.


If one has a static or self-justifying concept of strategic culture, then there is no need to look deeper, but if one looks at strategic culture from an operational, clinical point of view, assuming that cultural preferences may endure but cultural skills are a mimetic soup of best practices, then there are some additional shortcomings of interest to those involved in self-diagnosis.  What else would an outsider likely perceive at this moment in time about the state of Indian strategic culture, and what might lead someone to notice “a relative lack of strategic thinking.”

First, there is a disproportionately historical[47] and present focus to Indian strategic analysis, with comparatively little focus on the future.[48]  This saps a lot of time, and focuses the best minds away from where things are going.  Part of this may arise from the local tendency to perceive India’s grandeur more in the past than in the future, but one would expect this focus to shift to consider possibilities of the future.  The obvious place to start is to cultivate the skill set of disciplined scenario planning.  While an appreciation of complexity (and ability to see multiple sides) seems to be a natural strength in the Indian intellect, the lack of disciplined skill sets seem to lead the thinker to discount any particular approach rather than capture them into sound and useful products.

Second, there is an allied attitudinal deficit: an asymmetry where the questions Indian analysts seem to ask themselves focus more on threat than opportunity.  This absorption and fear of the initiative of others leads to a comparative lack of focus on India’s own agency and what leverages it enjoys.

Third, one particularly puzzling observation is the comparative weakness in the development of strong conceptual tools to think from the point of view of other strategic actors, and to give disproportionate weight to hidden motives and conspiracy theories over more overt, obvious, and signaled motives.  The obvious remedy for this is wargaming where analysts get a chance to make decisions while role-playing other strategic actors.

Fourth, the Indian strategic community would do well to develop stronger focus and capacities for sequential thinking (which again can be developed through scenario based planning and wargaming), and on systems thinking (interconnections and causations), which can again, be developed by scenarios and various diagramming methodologies.

Fifth, there is a lingering fear by some in the community of external ideas, and an unfortunate Marxist-analytical suspicion that all ideas are weapons of some class or interest rather than an earnest search for the truth[49]. This diminishes the freedom of the individual analyst to assimilate the best ideas as India’s own.

Sixth, there is a habit in the Indian strategic community to be analytic rather than focus on praxis and truly articulate options and paradigms for policymakers.  There is a need to sit with policymakers, find out what are their concerns and agendas, and attach themselves to meaningful work with a market for action.

Seventh, Tanham suggests that it is India’s diversity that makes consensus difficult.  That seems too fatalistic—diversity is often strength, and there is actually a remarkable consensus on a number of very important values.  Rather it appears that Indian strategic thinkers are underexposed to important tools of brainstorming and consensus building that might allow them to bring out and synthesize their diverse viewpoints and arrive at meaningful consensus.  There seems to be a great deal of talking at

each other, and difficulty in turn-taking.  This is not an uncommon cultural problem in many businesses, and seems to find its remedy with some formal training in active listening, facilitation, brainstorming and consensus voting.


Overall, a sympathetic outsider, observing India and reading Tanham, is likely to find a great deal of consistency, and recognize many of the attributes, both good and bad, that Tanham noted in 1992.  Sadly, even after 18 years, an observer is likely to validate Tanham’s fundamental criticism that there is still a “comparative lack of strategic thinking” and paucity of a systematic articulation of Indian security principles, hinting at a lack of evolution and dynamism over those years. It is worth asking why this is the case and if it will ever change.[50]  It is even possible to find Indians who proudly argue and defend these attributes of strategic culture as preferable,[51] but more usually Indians seem either frustrated or resigned to it.

But while I do think that the larger Indian cultural tapestry colors the way Indians digest strategic events, I am unconvinced that this cultural tapestry fundamentally prejudices Indians against strategic thinking or planning. Rather than some deep-seeded cultural preclusion, my own observations suggest that no more is required than a change in corporate culture within the organs of the strategic community (the planning staffs in the military, paramilitary and external affairs, think tanks and academia) that is underexposed to a very specific sets of practices.  Changing corporate culture (in this case the working norms and expectations related to planning) is hard, but hardly as daunting as a change in background culture.[52]  Direct experience during my time in the Indian strategic culture in fact showed that Indians were well equipped to absorb the tools of scenario planning and future studies, and a recent series of publications and projects already hint that the Indian strategic community is increasingly focusing on the future and seeking to be more explicit.[53]

Is there a future for Indian strategic planning and culture?  In my view, the answer is “yes”, and it is all upward.  As India moves to become a mainstream player, the need to act in such realms will put increasing pressure to further expand and develop the requisite organs and their competencies.

I think Tanham is right in pointing out this shortcoming, and some of its causes, some of which may exert a significant drag for some time yet to come.  But strategic culture is not fixed, and India’s own focus, outlook, and self-perception are changing significantly, and it is difficult to imagine that as India re-opens and finds itself able to compete and flourish in the world of business, that it will not adopt first there the conceptual toolkits that enable clear strategic thinking.  That, in turn, will proliferate into other realms; find increasing pressure through politics, and eventually into government bureaucracy and supporting civil society organs.

In closing, it would not surprise me if another external observer, another two decades from now, noticed the same pervasive influence of Indian culture in identity formation, the same importance of status, and the same basic attitude toward life and time, but I very much doubt that an observer even ten years hence would notice “a comparative lack of strategic thinking.

Appendix A:

A Few Important Changes:

A few important changes have occurred since Tanham wrote.  In 1992, Tanham assessed India’s power projection as quite limited.  India was not then a declared nuclear weapons state.  It did not have a nuclear submarine.  It did not have long range carrier aircraft and a new carrier on the way.  It had not demonstrated air-refueling its own fighters to Red Flag.  It had not demonstrated a number of ballistic and cruise missile technologies.  One must note that India has considerably more power projection capabilities than it possessed 18 years ago.  Tanham felt that India had not thought through the long-term implications of advanced weaponry.  That would deserve its own in-depth study.  Tanham also asserted that at the time, India did not seem to need to focus too far abroad because it was largely self-sufficient in the necessities of life and could afford to live largely oblivious to the outside world.  That is certainly not true today.  India is vitally dependent on the outside world, particularly for its energy supply (oil, gas, uranium, even coal), which is about 30% today and moving to above 40% in the next two decades.  There are indications that climate change may even mean it will not be self-sufficient on food.  And India is so vitally connected to the outside world in Trade.  Right now India seems to have a fatalistic attitude to what strategic actors do abroad, but the nature of democracy is such that constituencies will expect their leadership to press harder in the abroad to serve the interests here at home.


Threat Perception:  In 1992, Tanham’s perceptions were that India seemed much less concerned about Pakistan’s intentions than China, did not see the Chinese Naval threat as serious, and that China is psychologically less of a threat to India’s vital interests than Pakistan.  That is not true today.  The focus of Indian strategic thought has shifted to China, even as the threat based on the ideology of a successful Pakistan has diminished.  Tanham notes that India lived with Chinese nuclear capability for some years without much concern.  The narratives I have heard would suggest that that was never the case and that the nuclear program was initiated under Nehru with China in mind.

India’s Navy:  Tanham observed that the Indian Navy, because it was unhindered by conservative traditions of land defense and the restrictions that land frontiers impose, was more likely than the Army to meet modern problems with modern technology, and face future challenges with greater boldness. Eighteen years after his essay, though the Navy is clearly perceived both inside and outside as the principle innovator in strategic thought, the patterns of thought that are still primarily defensive and land-oriented are still quite visible.  At the time Tanham wrote, he noted that there was no authoritative government statement on Indian Naval Strategy.  One notes with satisfaction that the Navy at least has offered a naval Strategy.


Fear of a Military Coup: Tanham devotes significant time to the fear of a military coup, and suggests that this is a major reason for the lack of reform of higher defense management.  This is a disappointing fear that appears irrational in that there seems to be little basis or evidence for it.[54]  In fact, my impression is that the Indian military evidences significant pride in its achievement of Civilian supremacy, and there is no hint in the dialogue of challenge to civilian control—only a desire for a more direct voice and more clear guidance.  He suggests that any challenge is unlikely, and this prediction is well supported over the last 18 years.  Civilian and political interest in reform is quite important, as inter-service coordination is an acknowledged problem.  Jointness in particular entails its own difficulties, and has always required a strong external civilian forcing function to overcome the strong interests of the services.  It must be recognized that this continued fear of a coup has real and present costs to India, preventing the formation of needed institutions for the development of national strategy and planning, and perpetuating an organization that is perceived both internally and externally as dysfunctional and hampering India’s larger comprehensive national power.

Fragile Coherence.  Tanham’s impression in 1992 was that India had a fragile coherence and national integration, and that a quest for personal and regional competition for power diminished India’s claim to greatness.  He seemed to think that Indian’s identity to caste and family overshadowed their “Indianness”.  That is not my general impression.  Certainly family is strong, and caste clearly plays a strong role in marriage, but at least in my work environment, these did not match my preconceptions of their import.  Certainly there are areas I visited that have culturally distinct backgrounds that felt themselves culturally alienated from larger India, but India’s coherence does not seem particularly fragile to me, nor does the national Indian identity seem weak, despite obvious regional interests and ongoing insurgencies.

Appendix B:

Additional Observations


Miscellaneous Notes on Content of Indian Strategic Thought:

  • Tanham notes that Indian Strategists disagree as to exactly what role India should play in the world, and how to reach such a goal.  Two decades later, that seems even truer.
  • Tanham notes India’s early emphasis on Idealistic Pan-Asianism, Peace, World cooperation, anti-colonialism, racial equality.  One still detects strains of this idealism, though there is increasing sophistication and realism in Indian strategic discourse.
  • Tanham suggests that India’s ambitions are not territorial.  That certainly seems true from what I’ve observed.
  • Tanham suggests that Indian’s feel their claim on leadership needs to be based on moral and spiritual values. That seems to be mostly true, with the exception of some Neoliberal thought that would articulate future economic power first, and some hyperrealists that would dismiss this.
  • Tanham suggests that India’s major defense thinking is land oriented.  That is clearly true from my observation, but:
    • Tanham suggests that Indian’s look at and think of Defending the South Asian Sub-Continent as a whole.  I have never heard things expressed as such, and in fact, contemporary thinking regarding the subcontinent seems to consider it rather as fragmented.
    • Tanham suggests that the British had a land-oriented forward strategy to contend with Russia and China for the control of Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia and Burma.  It is not evident that India is following in those shoes.
  • Tanham articulates 3 concentric circles of Indian strategic concern.  That continues to be part of contemporary Indian discussion, but not formalized.
  • Tanham asserts that the Indian government has followed a policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear capability.  One might generalize that this continues to be the practice.  It is less clear that this policy is deliberate, or is rather the outcome of bureaucratic risk aversion.


Misc Cultural Observations

  • Tanham asserts that Indians are proud and extremely sensitive.  That does agree with my perceptions.  The relevant impact on strategic culture and thinking is that the particular form of pride seems to express itself in a suspicion of foreign ideas or “Western ideas” that might “corrupt”and an unwillingness to take an apprenticeship role so as to adopt best practices.
    • That matters particularly with regard to India’s choices in how to absorb technology.  India has initiated a vigorous military R&D program, but has had limited success in producing advanced weapons systems.  India’s unwillingness to enter alliances, apprenticeship, or engineer an attractive investment environment mean it must try to come from behind all on its own, or rely on outside suppliers.
  • Tanham devotes some discussion the Ideas that India’s history is interpreted through the prism of nationalism, and to India’s conception as a world unto itself with isolated evolution.  This view contributes to the problem of openness to learning from outside as listed above.
  • Tanham asserts that Indians are Suspicious, fearful of betrayal, and envious of their neighbors, and believe in “other” powers at work (such as the CIA).  It certainly is my impression that Indian thinkers give disproportionate weight to hidden motives and seems prejudiced to believe and give greater weight to covert actions than others might.  Such assertions don’t seem to recognize the complexity and hierarchy of motives, and seem to be insufficiently self-consistent in terms of explaining strategic actor’s actions.
  • Tanham’s wonderful description of India’s important precursor civilizations, while interesting to culture, does not seem to be part of the larger common contemporary strategic dialogue.  Contemporary Indian thinkers seem to be much more likely to cite Western sources and post-independence history than any pre-cursor civilizations.
  • Tanham suggests that from Independence India has been on the Strategic Defensive [and may have suffered several “strategic surprises”], and has seldom attempted a forward strategy.  That seems no less true today.
  • Tanham notes the Indian Nationalist’s perception that India historically has maintained a defensive posture and fought defensive wars.  That also seems persistent, and India seems to have a continued aversion to what today is called “expeditionary operations.”
  • Tanham seemed to suggest that Indians see its culture itself as a tool of its security, almost “whatever it is, it’s not so bad, our culture will persist and prevail and absorb it.”  That faith in the buffering quality of culture to stop any real threat to their way of life does seem to prejudice Indian thinkers against an impatient or aggressive foreign policy.
  • Tanham notes that Indians are comfortable with complexity and contradiction.  That is certainly true.  At present, it has not led to any particular approach, but in theory it could be very valuable capacity, if the corporate culture of Indian strategic thinking adopted systematic tools and methods to turn that into sound policy options, scenarios, branches and sequels, and helps the community to “game out” possibilities and reason backward to today.
  • Tanham notes the great diversity of India.  That ought to be a strength today, again, if India develops within its corporate culture of strategic planning the tools, and a higher bar of overall expectations to “capture the wisdom of crowds” and synthesize things, and draw out its manifold voices (rather than letting the powerful or privileged or senior dominate the space).

External Observations

  • No foreign power was going to send 40 wings to defend India.”  Is that true today?  Might India be able to change that if it wanted to?
  • India mildly disapproved of the presence of the Soviet fleet but loudly protested the US presence.  Now it seems that India is mildly disapproving of the US fleet, but loudly protesting China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean.
  • The Soviets believed India could be a helpful friend in world councils, particularly the UN.  Now that seems to be equally true of the US.
  • The Services took the lead in developing closer relations with US? Why? This is a very interesting question.  Was it a strategy on their part?  Was it Peacekeeping experience?  Was it based on respect for competence?  Ability to communicate (English)? Or some other fundamental affinity that points to convergent values?
  • India insists on absolute equity, and refusal to serve under US command.  India still will not be under a US command, or in coalitions outside a UN framework.  However, India’s larger insistence on absolute equity is showing a more nuanced framework, particularly with respect to its neighbors.
  • Indians are fiercely independent but their fear of encirclement almost demands that they have powerful friends.  That certainly seems true, and also necessary from a strategic view given the actual balance of power.  One notes though that if Chinese or Americans inhabited the subcontinent, you might see a very different foreign policy.  Indians may have an appreciation for the need and an acceptance of the reality that violence is done, but seem to have an extraordinarily strong distaste for doing violence themselves.


[1] Tanham, George, K., Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay, Santa Monica, CA: RAND: National Defense Research Institute, 1992.  http://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/2007/R4207.pdf

[2] Like Tanham, the author of this paper is an American who came to India and travelled in many of the same circles, reading similar things, and meeting some of the same people some 18 years later.  Unlike Tanham, who made his observations over multiple shorter visits, my own observations were made over 16 months as a visiting fellow in an Indian think tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA).

[3] Snyder, Jack L., The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for Limited Nuclear Operations (R-2154-AF), Sept 1997

[7] For a good counter-argument to the utility of Strategic Culture in explaining military power, see Rosen, Stephen P. Societies and Military Power: India and Its Armies, New York: Cornell Press University Press, 1996.

[8] Tanham, p. 1

[9] Often supplying quaint and dated terminology and world view quite ill at home with a globalized world, and continuing to offer solutions to the problems that were current decades ago.  Part of this may be because the Indian strategic community’s leadership and prominent individuals (and teachers) matured in that time, and there is insufficient participation of younger non-academic voices who have a less historically colored view and see India more as the rest of the world is likely to see India.

[10] See Monsonis, Guillem, India’s Strategic Autonomy and Rapprochement with the US, New Delhi: IDSA, 2010 available at http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a923353318~frm=titlelink

[11] At the time of writing, India had published no equivalent of a National Security Strategy.  There was significant debate upon whether or not Kautilya was in fact significantly influential, and sufficiently coherent to count as a seminal text for modern Indian strategic thought, and few Indians writing in the strategic community laid out guiding principles or clear future end-states or intervening steps that would form the basis of planning in a way that Tanham would recognize as coherent..

[13] For example Air Cmde Phadke’s summary of China’s security objectives in China’s Power Projection.

[14] “We just look stupid” and “For hundreds of years foreigners have done our strategic thinking for us” are some of the private comments made to me.  A more formal criticism can be found by Admiral Arun Prakash in his essay “In house expertise” of Jan 2010 here: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/inhouse-expertise/572654/

[15] For example, Raghavan, Srinath, “Virtues of being Vague” writing in Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle 07 Jan 2010 http://www.deccanchronicle.com/dc-comment/virtues-being-vague-973

[16] See Admiral Arun Prakash in his essay “In house expertise” of Jan 2010 here: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/inhouse-expertise/572654/

[17] See Tanham, pages vi-vii

[19] Tanham, p. 1

[20] For instance, I had a conversation with a naval strategist who remarked, “The day China sails a carrier into the IOR is the day India will have to contemplate an SSN”—seems a little tardy to begin contemplation.

[21] See, for instance Laxman Behera’s “Rising Dragon, Slumbering Elephant” http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/5338/rising-dragon-slumbering-elephant-chinese-and-indian-defense-planning and Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta’s Arming without Aiming http://www.brookings.edu/press/Books/2010/armingwithoutaiming.aspx

[22] The case for the importance of communicating high level guidance in the form of a clear vision is stated well in NDU’s course on Strategic Planning (http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ndu/strat-ldr-dm/cont.html), in Kotter’s work on Leading Change, and in Col John Boyd’s “ For success over the long haul[…] one needs some unifying vision that can be used to attract the uncommitted as well as pump up friendly resolve and drive and drain away or subvert adversary resolve and drive […] what is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors and adversaries”

[23] Western country learning seems to indicate that Open Planning (a la John Warden), Joint Planning, and Integration of Civilian and Militaries are essential to well conceived plans—“the more eyes and the greater diversity of inputs, the more likely there will be no ugly surprises.”

[24] See Daniel Markey’s Developing India’s Foreign Policy Software,  http://www.cfr.org/publication/19725/developing_indias_foreign_policy_software.html

[25] Instead one is likely to hear discussions of strategic concerns that implicitly answer such questions as: What are the powerful actors doing?  How is this bad for India?  What other bad things are they contemplating?  Why have we not done likewise?  What are the downsides of any recommended course of action?  What are the self-justifying reasons why the current policy exists?

[26] Instead, the questions that actually seem to be dominant are: “What are other strategic actors doing?”

[27] Tanham, p. 52

[28][28] Apologists that agree with Tanham that the British Raj never issued such a paper should note that the UK’s contemporary MOD has evolved, and does issue White Papers and the services do put forward Strategic plans for public view.

[29] Tanham notes the early precedent set by Nehru in downgrading the military, believing it did not significantly contribute to Independence (Tanham argues against this view), and providing low levels of resources and hostile (anti-militarist) and non-expert leadership oversight in the form of Minister Menon, who Tanham also states was likely pro-communist and pro-China..

[30] Tanham mentions a Defense Planning Committee that does not seem to have survived.

[31] Today, perhaps we know a bit more about the institutional problems that inhibit[31] this than Tanham did back them.  Beyond the importance of a larger structure to allow and compel inter-service coordination, acquisition and planning, there is the clear problem with the actual capability to truly take advantage of Civilian Supremacy and Control.  For instance, the MOD itself is insufficient in size and domain expertise, and specifically lacking credible analytic capabilities along the lines of the US DoD’s Program Analysis and Evaluation (OSD/PA&E) function.  There is a lack of statutory responsibilities (appropriations, confirmations) of the Parliament to exercise meaningful oversight, and lack of analytic capacity (like the US General Accounting Office (GAO) to exercise predatory oversight and ensure the healthiest competition for ideas.  Further, India’s technology and modernization efforts will be hampered without a linked process of overt strategy to requirements to capabilities to acquisitions & R&D, and with R&D in a proper customer-supplier relationship.  Also, until the lack of horizontal entry opportunities to the Indian bureaucracy is corrected, Tanham’s observation assertion that the IAS, with their early Fabian and socialist influence, reacts rather than takes initiative, and so strategic innovation is not likely to come from the IAS or its ranks.

[32] Even today 18 years (and a couple of Commissions later), the Chiefs do not seem to be able to provide direct military advice (as can the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs directly to the President) to the highest civilian authorities and have a meaningful voice in planning without passing through the filter of the bureaucracy.  Also, Indian Professional Military Education (PME) for senior military officers is probably not adequate and broad enough.  Confirmation of the Chiefs by Parliament, and more stringent educational requirements and joint experience could certainly create a merit-pull through the ranks, affecting the future quality of Indian military intelligencia.

[33] Tanham does not use the world “blame” which is pejorative and he might feel misrepresents him.  I’m being deliberately provocative in using it, because that is how I think it is understood by both insiders and outsiders.

[34] Tanham, p. 51

[35] Of course, it is important to note that whatever the overall influence of the larger Indian culture, individual Indians have remarkable freedom to interpret it differently, as discussed in Prof Kanti Bajpai’s three schools of Indian Strategic thought in Pakistan and China in Indian strategic thought, International Journal, Fall 2007.

[36] Tanham, p. 12

[37] One hopes that Indian Strategic Culture will be quite different in its method and form, though perhaps its content and directions will not have seen great continuity.

[38] Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective people conceives of two circles.  A larger “Circle of Concern” which includes many things that could impact us but are not necessarily under our control or influence, and a smaller subset, a “Circle of Influence” where individual human agency can wield a significant influence.  In his theory, if an individual focuses on the outer circle of concern, they spend less time working in the circle of influence, and so their actual circle of influence decreases in size.  In contrast, and individual who focuses on what is possible within their circle of influence, expands it, further increasing the role of their influence in the larger circle of concern.

[39] Tanham, p. 17

[40] Compare the famous discussion on Duty between Arjun & Lord Krishna in Mahabarata / Bhagava Gita with the sentiment and implied initiative in the USAFA duty concept taught to officers: “Duty is doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, without being told it needs to be done”

[41] One notes that Indian thinkers while applying this to themselves do not seem such constraints apply to the Pakistanis, Chinese, or Israelis, for instance, who they seem to perceive as having tremendous agency.

[42] Tanham, p. 17

[43] Of course, one must also take this insight with a grain of salt.  There is certainly enough truth in it, but there is also strong evidence to the contrary, such as India’s central planning efforts (5 year plans), etc.

[44] Tanham, p. 60

[45] Tanham, p. 60

[46] Tanham, p. v & p. 61

[47] An allied criticism is that discipline for confining topics to constructive, on-topic, action-oriented discussion is not strongly developed.  One quite frequently sees topics diverge and take detours in many directions (anecdotes, lengthy soliloquies, disputes of minor facts, philosophical musings) with far less control and “return to topic” behavior.

[48] For a counter-point that occurred after this was originally written (and bolster’s the author’s view that it is a wrong interpretation of Tanham to believe Indian culture precludes strategic thinking), note IDSA’s Asia 2030 Conference, and MEA sponsored project on future scenarios, and the recent book by Admiral Raja Menon and Rajiv Kumar, The Long View from Delhi.

[49] I vividly recall two personal examples from my stay where ideas about warfare and education were not critiqued for their particular value, but rather met with an ad hominem sort of attack because they originated in the West and were suspect because of their origin.

[50] Apologists might argue that this is because the larger society has yet to resolve the very basic issues already articulated by the Indian strategic community: Lack of clear strategic guidance, lack of military involvement, lack of civilian subject expertise, lack of joint planning mechanisms, lack of adequate resourcing, lack of adequate data to do proper analysis.

[51] At least not for the purposes at hand, though the overall defense of underlying philosophical concepts on time, acceptance, unknowability, etc. would certainly find an ample number of defenders.

[52] See Kotter on Leading Change.  http://www.power-projects.com/LeadingChange.pdf

[53] For Example, Rajiv Kumar & Admiral Raja Menon’s The Long View From Delhi, IDSA’s MEA-sponsored Future Scenarios Project, or Dr. Namrata Goswami’s India’s Northeast 2020: Four Alternative Futures

[54] Tanham does note that such coups occurred in independent Pakistan and Burma which came from the same British heritage.


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