Michael KreponIndian Strategic Culture

The fabric of any country is woven from many threads, and no country has a greater thread count than India. Some strands are more apparent than others, and a discerning eye can find patterns that evoke the key elements of a strategic culture.

Writing on Indian strategic culture was threadbare until George Tanham came along. At a time when he could have preoccupied himself with tending to his farm and “the girls” (his cows), George decided to take a deep dive into India. Intellectual curiosity was woven into his DNA. He graduated from Princeton, and then served as an artillery officer in Europe during World War II. Information about his wartime service and acts of bravery had to be pried out of him. He then went on to earn a doctorate in history and political science from Stanford, teaching briefly at Cal Tech before spending a long and distinguished tenure at RAND, eventually heading up Project Air Force and serving as a Trustee.

George belatedly became interested in Indian strategic culture because he believed that India could become a major player in international affairs – if this crazy quilt of a country could get its act together. And if so, then what? To find out, he read what little he could find on Indian strategic thought, and then took four long trips to India, mostly camping out at the India International Centre in Delhi to conduct interviews. He asked simple but profound questions. No one was a better listener. The result of his labors appeared in 1992, Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay.

George held the view that those who were already assured of knowing the truth would be hard pressed to find it. He wrote about India in an elementary style, explaining mysteries to himself, and thus to others. The monograph received mixed reviews, with critics – especially in India — arguing that a neophyte could not possibly think deeply about such a profound subject. Some of the criticism may have been tinged with embarrassment, because there was so little in the way of Indian writing on the subject before George had the temerity to tackle it.

Two important elements of Indian strategic culture that George dwelled on were straightforward enough – the impacts of geography and the British raj:

Geography has imparted a view of the Indian subcontinent as a single strategic entity, with various topographical features contributing to an insular perspective and a tradition of localism and particularism.

This dichotomy — the simultaneous sense of security based on geography and the realization that geography has failed to keep India secure — is partially offset by India’s ability to accommodate in various ways to invaders, thus creating and strengthening an evolving culture that plays a crucial role in modern India’s identity. The dichotomy has, however, led to feelings of pride and confidence intermingled with feelings of insecurity and risk.

India has developed a predominantly defensive strategic orientation. Its large ground forces remain defensive and protective… India retains a long-term, unshakable commitment to strategic independence and autonomy in its decisionmaking and military capabilities… It wants to play the role of peacekeeper in the Indian Ocean and to be recognized in that role by the great powers.

After the withdrawal of Great Britain from the subcontinent, independent India inherited the desire to emulate its former ruler:

On land and sea, the British sought to deny other powers easy access to the subcontinent. They set up buffer states to secure the land periphery and help defend the core; sea control ensured that all other powers were denied the means to penetrate Indian waters or to challenge any strategic sea routes. Progressively, but inescapably, India leaders since independence have assumed the mantle of the British raj.

Emulation meant, in George’s view, the likelihood that New Delhi would likely “approach world-power status by developing nuclear and missile capabilities, a blue-water navy, and a military-industrial complex, all obvious characteristics of the superpowers; yet recognition as a great world nation (rather than as a superpower) was the paramount goal.”

Turning to the influence of Indian cultural and social structures and belief systems on Indian strategic culture, George wrote:

India’s unique culture reinforced this unity and imparted, first, a tendency toward diversity and accommodation to existing realities and, second, a highly developed capacity to absorb dissimilar concepts and theories.

The assumed superiority of Indian culture became a continuing thread running through Indian history, enabling India to accommodate to powerful foreign forces that were far more purposeful in the exercise of military power.

Then George jumped into the deep end of the pool by postulating answers to the painfully obvious question of why India, circa 1992, had “produced little formal strategic thinking and planning.” His conclusions were:

First, because India has lacked political unity.

Second, the Hindu concept of time, or rather the lack of a sense of time… discourages planning.

Third, Hindus consider life a mystery, largely unknowable and not entirely under man’s control. In this view, fate, intuition, tradition, and emotions play important roles… Man’s control over his life is thus limited in Hindu eyes, and he cannot forecast or plan with any confidence.

George’s writing helped the process of Indian adaptation along. There are now several first-rate books written by Indian authors on Indian strategic thinking and planning.


  1. Vijai Nair (History)

    George was, in my opinion an outstanding strategic analyst whose strength lay in an abiding curiosity, the courage to delve into issues incomprehensible, a formidable sense of logic, a unique capability to recognise his limitations and the humility to absorb criticism, which provided renewed openings in his research.

    The first rendering of his book on strategic thought In India was castigated vehemently. I was one of his many critics. He rolled with the punches, collated the questioned aspects of his published work and continued to dig deeper with an open mind.

    His understanding of India’s cultural history grew phenomenally and that helped him to revise his thesis.

    Finally his understanding of the Indian mind was so revealing that he bagan to think ‘Indian’. Back in the US he often lost patience with those who found it difficult to digest his theories on where India was coming from and where it was going.

    While it does not mean he endorsed the views he gleaned, he found it easy to understand and accept the Indian conception of strategic thought and the wide chasm between that and to American concept of strategic formulation.

    In his passing the US lost a great American mind that would have been extremely useful in this era where the two countries are attempting to create a strategic arrangement of sorts, which continues to be bugged by American barriers that he had foreseen and tried to break through.

    In my opinion he is one of the two American I know of who understood India and would have been an asset for developing a meaningful relationship between the two countries – Magoo

  2. Nukethrower (History)


    So which books, written by Indian authors, on the subject of Indian strategic thinking and planning do you place in the top tier? Thanks.

  3. krepon (History)

    At the very top of my list would be C. Raja Mohan’s Crossing the Rubicon (2004). Admiral Raja Menon is also top tier. He has written a new book with Rajiv Kumar, The Long View from Delhi: To Define the Indian Grand Strategy for Foreign Policy, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

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