Diplomacy and force

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

"COERCIVE DIPLOMACY", as India's massive mobilisation of troops against Pakistan is approvingly and mindlessly described, is not a new concept. It is a new expression for an ancient strategy. Diplomacy devoid of sanction, economic or military, is ineffective; force unrelated to diplomacy is sterile and destructive. Nexus between force and diplomacy is inescapable. Dean Acheson's famous words "negotiation from strength", used on February 8, 1950, implied recognition of this truth. A power which is militarily weak tries to redress the balance in order to be able to negotiate effectively.

As Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau put it: "The means at the disposal of diplomacy are three: persuasion, compromise, and threat of force. No diplomacy relying only upon the threat of force can claim to be both intelligent and peaceful. No diplomacy that would stake everything on persuasion and compromise deserves to be called intelligent. Rarely, if ever in the conduct of the foreign policy of a Great Power is there justification for using only one method to the exclusion of the others. Generally, the diplomatic representative of a Great Power, in order to be able to serve both the interests of his country and the interests of peace, must at the same time use persuasion, hold out the advantages of a compromise, and impress the other side with the military strength of his country. The art of diplomacy consists in putting the right emphasis at any particular moment on each of these three means at its disposal."

Coercive diplomacy is use of threat of force in aid of persuasion, as its ablest exponent, Prof. Alexander I. George, emphasises in his book Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War. Two rules govern the game - the opponent must be allowed to save face by offering him a line of retreat; the practitioner must have a fall-back position for himself or an exit strategy before rushing into a confrontation. It follows that the lines of communication must be kept in good repair.

"Coercive diplomacy does indeed offer an alternative to reliance on military action. It seeks to persuade an opponent to cease his aggression rather than bludgeon him into stopping" (emphasis as in the original). The risks of miscalculation and bluff are high. Deterrence can collapse. Forty years ago, Henry Kissinger warned: "Deterrence is above all a psychological problem. The assessment of risks on which it depends becomes less and less precise in the face of weapons of unprecedented novelty and destructiveness. A bluff taken seriously is more useful than a serious threat interpreted as a bluff."

What else was India's "forward policy" towards China but an exercise in "coercive diplomacy"? It was based on miscalculation and bluff. A directive to the Army was issued after a meeting in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's office on November 2, 1961. Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon, the Chief of the Army Staff General P.N. Thapar, Chief of General Staff B.M. Kaul, Intelligence Bureau chief B.N. Mullick, and Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai concurred: "So far as Ladakh is concerned, we are to patrol as far forward as possible." Aimed at pleasing public opinion, it rested on the assumption that China would not react militarily. It did, a year later.

In contrast, Indira Gandhi followed sound military advice before marching into East Pakistan in November 1971. India and Pakistan have freely resorted to the use of force since their birth. Nehru reacted to Junagadh's accession to Pakistan by planning a military solution in September 1947. The following month, Pakistan sent the raiders into Kashmir. In 1965, it launched a war. India's military aid to Tamil outfits was designed to make the Sri Lanka government offer acceptable terms to the Tamils. In 1986-87 Zia-ul-Haq launched a covert operation in Kashmir to revive the Kashmir dispute. M.A. Niazi, Correspondent of the Lahore daily The Nation, reported (May 31, 1990) that "operations mounted during the late President Zia-ul-Haq's time caused fierce debate in policy-making circles with opponents warning that such activities would cause war." The record of coercive diplomacy in South Asia is anything but creditable.

Neither the massacre at Chattisinghpora nor the one at Pahalgam in 2000 drove the National Democratic Alliance regime even to talk of war. Its reaction in late 2001 was due to the changed international clime as an informed correspondent noted: "New Delhi's decision to mobilise fully for war against Pakistan was partly based on the recognition that America's global campaign against terrorism has given it a historic opportunity to force an end, once and for all, to Pakistan's support for cross-border terrorism" (The Hindu, May 23, 2002; emphasis added, here and hereafter).

This gives a new dimension to coercive diplomacy - a heavy reliance on a third party to bring to heel an adversary with whom direct communication was disrupted. The objective was not to persuade it but to compel it and to make evident its loss of face. The United States mediated in all but name. Nehru's successful practice of the craft in 1951 stands out in refreshing contrast. He offered talks while massing the troops. Public opinion has been divided on the Vajpayee government's policy. The Left is resolutely opposed to war as is a significant, if not preponderant, section of writers on strategic affairs. The government did not act in response to public opinion. It sought to mould and mobilise it in support of its belligerence. Consi-derations of domestic politics loomed large. The record since January and especially since the Kalu Chak attack on May 14 merits detailed analysis. We can, meanwhile, profit much by Prof. Kenneth Schultz' scholarly work and the essays on a related theme edited by Karen E. Smith and Margot Light.

Schultz' central theme is "how the transparent political process within democracies influences the way these states use threats of force; how the targets of these threats respond, and whether or not crises are resolved short of war." The author has a touching faith in democracies' commitment to peace - the record of Western democracies notwithstanding. Domestic public opinion can strengthen the government's hand as well as weaken it. It can restrain it from war as well as goad it towards war.

"Crises are primarily driven by efforts to communicate resolve, as states try to convince one another that they are willing to wage war if their demands are not met. Threats and displays of force are the primary means of communication. Whether or not such threats succeed depends crucially on the credibility with which they are sent - that is, the belief they generate in the target that the threatened actions will be carried out. A state will make concessions in the face of a threat only if it believes that failure to do so will lead to a worse outcome with sufficiently high probability... A completely credible threat backed by negligible capabilities will rarely coerce an opponent into making concessions or otherwise changing its behaviour. Nevertheless, the reverse is also true; overwhelming military capabilities can be rendered impotent if the threat to wield them is incredible;" especially in the nuclear age.

Governments tend to mould public opinion against compromise and then cite it as an excuse for intransigence. The author tends rather to discount this fact. The value of the work, however, lies less in the discussion of theory than in its analyses of case studies - the Fashoda affair 1898; the Boer War 1899; the Rhineland crisis 1936; the Suez crisis 1956; and Rhodesia's declaration of independence 1965.

The first one is the most instructive. The Fashoda crisis began on September 19, 1898 when an Anglo-Egyptian army led by Kitchener arrived at the village of Fashoda in the Upper Nile Valley and found it occupied by a much smaller French force led by Jean Baptiste Marchand. The French withdrew on November 3, 1898. Debate still rages on whether it was submission to superior force.

France was isolated diplomatically. "The British position was entirely unyielding - to the point that Prime Minister Salisbury refused even to call discussions between the two countries "negotiations". Intransigence was backed by a willingness to threaten war, a step the Cabinet took on October 28, when it ordered the mobilisation of the fleet. British public opinion was more nationalistic than liberal. As Sir William Harcourt noted, "We shall either see the submission of France which will be popular or a war with France which will be more popular still."

Britain sought France's public loss of face as much as its withdrawal. Domestic opinion in France was split due to the Dreyfus affair. Sensing that, Britain kept moving the goal-post. France was also tempted by the thought that its withdrawal would pave the way to a wider political settlement, based on British concessions. Any comparison with Indian strategy and Pakistani calculations on a dialogue on Kashmir is, of course, purely coincidental.

Schultz writes: "Salisbury manipulated the popular mood in order to bolster his bargaining position. By taking advantage of and stoking the public's outrage, Salisbury was able to convince the French that he had no leeway to offer concessions. In this way, accountability and competition helped lead to a peaceful outcome, but they did so not by increasing the political risks of war, but by highlighting the political risks of compromise... public opinion and Cabinet politics ultimately forced Salisbury into an intransigent position. The public and the press were in no mood for diplomatic niceties. Salisbury noted as much in a letter to Queen Victoria on October 3, writing, "No offer of territorial concession on our part would be endured by public opinion here". Prime Minister Salisbury had ensured that. His threats were credible. The French ultimately backed down; not simply because Britain was militarily stronger, but because the British were able to convince the French that they were politically able and willing to risk war rather than make concessions."

France's agent in Cairo thought that London was bluffing. "Intelligent people never thought that we would go so far as to make war for the Nile, when we would not do it for the Rhine; but almost everyone accepted as proven truth that England would never open hostilities, that her warships were only designed to frighten, that her commercial interests would always prevent her from seeing her communications with the continent interrupted by a state of war."

Schultz' analysis brings out clearly the game of brinkmanship which Salisbury played. The Opposition, afraid to be seen as unpatriotic, supported him. Initially, the people were opposed to war. "Public opinion was such that the political risks of war were small while the political risks of compromise were potentially large. Moreover, these constraints were not simply fixed, but also manipulated. Rather than working against the jingoism of the public, Salisbury and his Ministers cultivated the public's hostility in order to convince French decision-makers that they could not grant concessions. Similarly, the stance of the Opposition, rather than giving the government a way out, reinforced and reiterated these political constraints. The overall result was a clear message that France would have to withdraw unconditionally if it wished to avoid war."

Salisbury calculatedly painted himself into a corner in order then to plead that he could not move on October 10; he took the then unusual step of publishing a Blue Book on the crisis, a collection of key dispatches between the two countries. "Until this point, the negotiations had taken place in private. With the publication of the Blue Book, the positions taken and arguments made by both sides were out in the open. The British public could see for its own eyes the uncompromising position of the government, as well as the audacity of French claims. Salisbury's action was not only unusual but a breach of prevailing diplomatic norms."

One is reminded of the Australian High Commissioner in Delhi Walter Crocker's dismay at Nehru's publication of White Papers containing diplomatic exchanges with China. "They were bound to unleash nationalist passion in India, probably to a degree which could deprive him of any leeway for negotiating."

The Times' comment on the Blue Book is as applicable to the White Papers. "We cannot conceal from ourselves that Lord Salisbury and his colleagues have taken a position from which retreat is impossible. One side or the other will have to give way. That side cannot, after the publication of these papers, be Great Britain." India, however, was weaker than its adversary.

French Foreign Minister Theophile Delcasse's was as surprised by the Blue Book. "It seems that, with this haughty language, the English government will cut itself off from all retreat, and that it will be impossible for it to back down from demands made in such a manner."

Unlike in Britain, public opinion in France was divided. Britain's show of force and its threatening posture strengthened the pacifists. France published a Yellow Book in reply, but omitted a telegram that would have inflamed public opinion. Britain watched the scene and hardened its stand. It "saw in France a divided enemy that was unfit for war. The greatest fear among British policy-makers was that the French government would fall to a military coup, which would install a much more militarist and reckless regime." Seen from London, France appeared to be on the eve of civil war - weak, but potentially warlike and aggressive. Given all the signals of France's weakness, though, the British government decided that it was better off standing firm and risking war, than backing down and risking the wrath of its own people.

The Boer crisis of 1899 arose from Britain's demand that South Africa should lower the franchise restriction in Transvaal of 12 years' stay to enable immigrants from Britain who outnumbered the others there, to vote. The imperious Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, said privately that he was striving, and always had been, for a peaceful settlement. But he was afraid that demonstration of the kind indicated would be necessary. "It would, however, be a game of bluff, and it was impossible to play that game if the Opposition did not support the government."

The Liberals in opposition were opposed to war, especially since South Africa was willing to reduce the requirement to seven years. Chamberlain launched a diabolical propaganda campaign. It "moved the public sentiment to a point at which war was no longer politically unthinkable." He increased the Cabinet's exposure to "audience costs". A timely British ultimatum, it was hoped, would mop up dissenters. Instead it was South African ulimatum demanding withdrawal of troops that paved the way for war.

LESSONS drawn from these crises are retold in analyses of other cases - the bluff; manipulation of public opinion; and the role of the Opposition. The media was nowhere as powerful as it is today. History teaches by analogy, not identity. No two cases are identical. The Indo-Pakistan crisis is gradually levelling out. A balance-sheet of cost and benefit must be drawn up when it is over.

Ironically, though world opinion's concern for human rights and morality is keener than ever before, so is acquiescence in the United States' resort to force. The sole superpower acts as sheriff. The Bharatiya Janata Party government is only too willing to act as its junior partner. American claims to international morality are suspect.

The essays edited by Karen E. Smith and Margot Light on the ethical aspect of foreign policy reveal that its glib assertions of international concern are belied by its conduct which is unilateralist to a degree. However, "foreign policy agendas will continue to be affected by ethical and moral dilemmas, especially when a vocal public opinion demands action against those acting unethically and/or immorally. What is in question is the willingness and ability of states to be consistent in pursuing an 'ethical dimension' to their foreign policies and formulating a position where the 'national interest' is always best-served by pursuing an ethical policy. If consistency and universality are not at the root of an 'ethical dimension' to foreign policy, the policy will remain selective and discriminatory in its attempts to serve a narrower interpretation of the national interest."

Coercive diplomacy has a long history. It waits a fuller study in all its aspects - diplomatic, military and ethical.

Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy by Kenneth A. Schultz; Cambridge University Press; pages 301, Rs.1,202. Ethics and Foreign Policy by Karen E. Smith and Murgot Light (Eds.); Cambridge University Press; pages 223, Rs.795.

More stories from this issue


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment