The Opportunity Cost of Counter-terrorism

Today marks seventeen years since 9/11 happened. If terrorism is theatre, all its shows have been running full house since that fateful day in September 2001.

India has of course been dealing with the threat posed by terrorism long before 9/11. But that attack made the rest of the world take notice of the dangers posed by terrorism. In the US for example, new strategies were made, new intelligence organisations were setup, and armed forces were retrained for counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.

Similarly, India underwent a change to add teeth to its counter-terrorism strategy and the question that I want to focus on in this blog post is: at what cost have we achieved counter-terrorism effectiveness? Let me explain.

The cost of terrorism is a subject that’s been discussed in great detail. But lest we forget, a cost is incurred for countering terrorism as well. By cost here, I mean the economic cost and not merely the explicit accounting cost. Economic cost is the sum of accounting cos and opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the opportunities lost (Cowen and Tabarrok). So, is the value of the opportunities lost by India in choosing to focus on counter-terrorism significant enough that we should lose our sleep on it?

To be sure, counter-terrorism requires spending money and deploying resources. At a macro-level, every resource spent by the government on counter-terrorism could’ve instead been used on something else. But because the threat of terrorism is so potent, it probably makes sense to incur the cost of letting other opportunities slip by. But is there any component of this opportunity cost that needs a relook?

I believe there is one component that needs some rethinking – the opportunity cost of getting R&AW involved in counter-terrorism. Because we probably will never have solid data to understand the resources diverted from R&AW to focus on counter-terrorism, my claim is only based on statements made by intelligence officers.

One such statement I came across was in a recently televised interview of two highly respected retired intelligence officers Tilak Devasher and Vikram Sood. At 10:25, Mr Devasher paraphrases from Mr Sood’s book The Unending Game, saying:

The focus is on terrorism and immediate actionable intelligence. What everybody is looking for is an instant coffee book report. So nobody is looking at the longer-term picture. What happens six months or six years down the road, where is that country headed, what are the vulnerabilities of that country which will affect us, those capabilities have been diminished.

Assuming this is how R&AW has actually transformed itself for countering terrorism, the opportunity cost is not at all trivial. This is because R&AW is a small organisation with limited resources at its disposal.  On the other hand its mandate is huge – it is perhaps the only Indian organisation that is tasked with collecting intelligence and conducting operations in other countries. If such an important organisation is disproportionately focused on counter-terrorism, it means that there is diminished focus on extremely critical questions such as: what will happen in China over the next six months? What should India’s stance be with respect to persecution in Xinjiang? How should India influence political events in Afghanistan? What will be the security implications of a water crisis in Pakistan?

This is a huge opportunity lost. Particularly so because terrorism is not just the only threat facing India. The conventional threats of an arrogant China and an irreconcilable Pakistani military-jihadi complex are just two others in a larger list of long-term threat vectors that India needs to be worried about. The US can afford to focus on counter-terrorism disproportionately because probably it really is the largest threat, given its geography and relative power. But India’s threat matrix looks very different and hence an assessment of opportunity costs of counter-terrorism is necessary.

PS: I suppose the same case of high opportunity cost applies to the Indian army. With its focus on countering terrorism in J&K, one needs to ask, what is the value of other opportunities being lost.

 

 

How do we address the Maoist challenge?

Extract from the proceedings of the National Conference on “Central India – Towards Conflict Resolution” organised by the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace & Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, September 26-27, 2012.

Speaker: Nitin Pai

It has been recognized that successful counter-insurgency strategy has three distinct but overlapping stages: “Clear, Hold and Build”. The first involves military operations to clear territory of insurgents, the second calls for holding territory and protecting the population from insurgent attacks, and the third consolidates military successes by building functional institutions of state that in turn can deliver effective governance.

While the security forces are equipped, trained and prepared to handle the Clear and Build stages, they find themselves inadequate to take on the challenge of the third, Build stage (more correctly, the Rebuild stage, after the destruction caused by the insurgents and collateral damage caused during counter-insurgency operations). By then, on the one hand, the local civil agencies would have atrophied and left without substantive capacity to undertake development in a conflict-ravaged area. On the other, media, public and political attention will move on to other issues once the statistics of violence show a degree of improvement.

Mr Pai, speaking about structural and governance shortfalls, pointedly stated that there were more convergences than divergences in the previous day’s sessions, about what he believed in and what his fellow panelists spoke on. His view spanned over three areas: how he viewed the Maoist issue, the fundamental errors we have made in addressing it, and what needed to be done.

He began with emphasizing on the problems and stated that the reason for the conflict was not merely limited to poverty, deprivation or lack of security – but essentially one of a governance deficit. People in many parts of India, especially towns and cities have a multi-dimensional engagement with the state. The ability to access people running the government is easier – though often unsatisfactory. They thus have a more balanced perspective of the state. However, people in many other regions – like parts of Central India – have a limited interaction with the Indian state, usually through police, forest guards and local officials. Often there rampant corruption and these public servants have no sense of purpose in their job and duty. Maoists exploit this and convert the dissatisfaction and anger arising from unsatisfactory quotidian interactions with government officials into a rejection of and revolt against the Indian state.

He also saw it necessary to distinguish between people who are angry because of the governance deficit versus people who have an ideological agenda to violently overthrow the Indian state. There is also a difference between adherents and sympathisers of Communism and those who take up armed struggle. Policy and public discourse must recognise these differences and address each group differently.

Mr Pai then spoke about fundamental errors in dealing with the issue in Central India. One of them being the attempt to make security forces deliver governance to people, because very often, they are the only ones with the capacity to do so. He cited the example of the BRO, where it is called upon to build roads in conflict areas. Such measures create and perpetuate a conflict economy, where everyone from the combatants to ordinary people develop an interest in keeping the conflict going. Second, flawed economic reasoning by the government is another error. It has tried to buy back weapons from militants, pay lumpsums on surrender and provide ex-militants with stipends. Such measures do not work because they can be easily manipulated both by militants and unscrupulous individuals.

Mr Pai then steered his case towards what needed to be done. Ideally, civil administration should take over when security forces leave. But this transition from counter-insurgency to normalcy is not well thought through. Bringing normalcy includes a process of governance, one that is well planned and executed.

It is necessary to create structures of governance while understanding that no existing organization can do this task. Civil administrators are unlikely to want to work in post-insurgency areas. It is undesirable to let security forces deliver public services like law and order, water, roads, public transport, banking etc. So it is necessary to create a new organisation with the capacity to handle the specific task of nursing a post-insurgency region back to health. Its purpose is to carry out the rights, privileges and guarantees given to the people of India. It must be created to deliver step-down care. For example, bank accounts, financial inclusion, roads, electricity, etc. These must be delivered within a span of two years.

Such an organisation should comprise of civilian experts but organised along military lines, and placed under the Home Ministry. It should, within a span of two years, be able to deliver governance and build transition in the post-conflict society. It should include all stakeholders, including the local politician with the aim to facilitate a quick and smooth return to normalcy, without affecting developmental goals. He stressed on the example of medical personnel and their requirement to serve rural areas.

In his concluding thoughts, Mr Pai said we have not learnt from our successes or failures. In fact, some mistakes only get worse with time. There is still a need to learn more about step-down care. So while the PM says, ‘Money does not grow on trees’, similarly, Mr Pai argued that capacity too did not grow on trees. It is something that needed to be created. While such a set-up would not totally solve violent or non-violent conflict – but somewhere in between was a marginal person, who would be less inclined to do anything off-track, if such a set-up is supportive of his or her well-being.

Recap: Naxalism rises because of governance deficit

I wrote this back in March 2008 after reading a book that helped be better understand why Naxalism/Maoism continued to exist in India. In a phrase: it is because it is because many parts of India are effectively outside the Indian Republic, and in some of those parts even the promise and hope that the Indian constitution offers is absent or unknown.

Playing into the Naxalites’ hands

Even well-intentioned people can become pawns in the Naxalites’ insidious propaganda war

(Mail Today | March 2008)

Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite country is a very important book, for it offers an excellent account of the nature of the Naxalite threat. The Naxalite movement thrives on disillusionment and disaffection. It collects unaddressed grievances and unredressed complaints and channelises them into anger against the “Indian State”. It tells rape victims, dispossessed tribals and bullied villagers that the appropriate target of their ire is not the local landlord, policeman or politician but that abstraction called the “State”. But beyond seductive dogma and the logic of the inevitable armed struggle to upturn the status quo, it offers no positive solutions. The fact both Communism and Socialism failed doesn’t matter to the Naxalite leadership, ideologues and sympathisers: people in remote, backward districts of India don’t know 20th century history.

If Naxalite leaders rally support for themselves through mobilising local grouses into a movement against the State and its symbols, their ideologues and sympathisers provide covering fire in the broader strategic psychological war. By dissing India’s economic achievements, by spreading canards about the ‘failure of neoliberal reforms’, by an incessant, exclusive focus on the negative side (in the fashionable name of ‘dissent’), by playing up the myth of ‘two Indias’ and even by openly championing violence, these opinion makers create an context that leads the the average Indian citizen into thinking that there might be something legitimate about the Naxalite movement. There isn’t.

But the left-leaning and left-wing commentariat has succeeded where the pseudo-secularists have failed. The average Indian believes that the Naxalites are not quite as serious a threat as the jihadis—although Naxalites actually hold a broad swathe of territory. Little wonder then that Indian politicians feel no serious pressure to do anything about the Naxalite threat.

Even where there was significant public outcry, the UPA government decided that its perceived vote-banks were more important than national security: it is not half as serious about the jihadi threat as it should be. But where public attention was lower, it literally abdicated its responsibility. The presence of the incompetent Shivraj Patil at the home ministry didn’t help. So while the Naxalites consolidated into a nation-wide movement a few years ago, the central government continues to claim that this is essentially a matter for the states, and it would only play a co-ordinating role.

In the absence of a coherent national anti-insurgency strategy states were left to their own devices. Y S R Reddy’s government in Andhra Pradesh, got into bed with the Naxalites in order to win the election. It was a mutually beneficial bargain: the Naxalites took a breather (after being pummelled by the previous government led by Chandrababu Naidu) and regrouped. It ended predictably, when the negotiations failed and the Naxalites went back to their armed struggle. Why predictably? Well, because “armed struggle” is an inseparable part of the Naxalite dogma: Comrade Prachanda, the leader of Nepal’s Maoists, is being criticised for relenting on this even after they joined the government.

If this was the situation in Andhra Pradesh, with its relatively higher state capacity, what of places like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, where state capacity is extremely weak? Faced with fighting a war with what they had, they engaged in some extremely flawed strategies. Setting up Salwa Judum, an extra-constitutional counter-insurgency militia, was a big mistake. So is the draconian law which suspends the freedom of the press. The Chattisgarh authorities identified the problems correctly. But the tools they used to solve these problems were ill-considered, ham-fisted and ultimately counterproductive.

Chattisgarh’s government and political leaders cannot escape responsibility for these bad moves—but in the absence of cohesion, determination and resources from New Delhi, it is not surprising that they chose that course. Understandable, but still not acceptable. But it’s no use criticising the Chattisgarh authorities for their dubious strategies. The anti-insurgency war against Naxalites is a national one. The Union home ministry should be held to account for its sins of omission that directly caused Chattisgarh’s sins of commission. The next government in New Delhi has its job cut out—and parties would do well to put their anti-Naxalite war strategy in their manifestos.

If Left-leaning commentators and Naxalite sympathisers are batting for the Naxalites, what should one make of genuine liberal human rights activists? It is possible to construct a reasonable argument that violations of human rights by the government must be criticised every time they occur. The danger with this, though, is that well-meaning individuals and groups can inadvertently end up batting for the Naxalites. Compared with their usual backers, the Naxalites derive greater benefit when reputed individuals and organisations criticise the government. On the war’s psychological front, NGOs and human rights groups end up strengthening the Naxalite movement to the extent they add fuel to the fire of disillusionment and disaffection. Rights activists and do-gooders would do well to heed the old injunction primum non nocere—first, do no harm.

There are bound to be some who evaluate this trade-off and argue that holding the government’s feet to the fire is important in the even larger context of democratic accountability and good governance. Well, to be taken as bona fide, such individuals and organisations must unequivocally condemn Maoism and violent armed struggle. They must also unambiguously accept that only the state has the normative legitimacy to use violence. In other words, there is no room for moral equivalence: it is fair to criticise the government and government officials for their failings. But it is necessary to make the distinction between the State’s legitimate right to the use of violence and the Naxalites’ armed struggle.

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen. The Supreme Court has turned down his bail application, yet sections of the media have been projecting him as an innocent being victimised by the state. Quizzed about the affair, Chakravarti contends that Dr Sen is a soft target for the state. “Having him in jail” he argues “allows the state government and police a victory in the face of organisational and security disasters on the ground. But this is a pyrrhic victory. It stifles a moderate voice, and has done nothing whatsoever to curtail or solve in any way either the raging Maoist rebellion in Chattisgarh or issues of development”

Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and Dr Sen has unfettered access to them). But the media coverage of the affair is playing into the hands of the Naxalites. In the absence of a nation-wide anti-insurgency strategy, will critical media coverage compel Chattisgarh and other weak states to take a more enlightened, sophisticated route? Given the situation on the ground, that’s unlikely. The interests of freedom and rights will be better served if the central government is compelled to really fight and defeat the Naxalites.

And then there is the non-security aspect of the anti-Naxalite strategy, wrongly characterised as the need for “development”. It misses the point because people don’t resort to violence because they lack development. They do so when there is a lack of governance.

A Test with Imran Khan

If India wants to have a stable and constructive engagement with the Imran Khan government, it must temper its enthusiasm for a quick breaking of ice and totally avoid any attempt to secure a “big” breakthrough.

That’s because dealing with Pakistan is playing cricket simultaneously against two distinct teams on the other side, each of which has a different interest and expection from the game. The Imran Khan government might well have been helped to power by the Pakistan Army, but the military-jihadi complex is a distinct entity and has interests of its own. Based on historical experience, whenever there is an expectation of an upswing in bilateral relations, we should expect the complex to throw a spanner in the works. This usually takes the shape of a military adventure, cross-border terrorism or some other ugly rabbit out of the khaki beret. This creates an impasse and an inevitable downswing in relations.

The way to avoid this is for New Delhi not to demonstrate any eagerness for new beginnings. Don’t try for quick wins. Don’t create expectations. Don’t even fall for photo opportunities. Prime Minister Khan has made sensible statements on dialogue and trade. Let these be worked out at the staff level in the ministries concerned…not by high profile political leaders and government functionaries.

(As an aside, I do think the Pakistan Army will realise they got more than they bargained for by promoting Imran Khan. They don’t learn from their previous experience. From Junejo to Jamali, the army has found that once in office prime ministers develop backbones and don’t always yield to the generals’ diktats. If Junejo could stand up to Zia, imagine what a personality like Imran can do.)

What New Delhi does need to think about seriously is having an official outreach to the military establishment. Diplomatic protocal and normative policies are one thing, but if the Army calls the real shots and will do so for the foreseeable future, realism demands that we find a way to engage the generals directly. We should stop pretending that dealing with foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of Pakistan is an effective way to deal with that country on political and security issues.

As for how to deal with Imran Khan and his government, New Delhi should adopt the temperament of playing a test match. If you play with a Twenty20 or one-day international mindset, you’ll come to grief.

New Perspectives for Independence Day

Last week, India celebrated more than seventy years of being independent. This is a fact that Indians should be proud of and we are, judging by the articles and news segments that are common during this time of the year. At the same time, it is useful to not look at the country’s independence and its progress in isolation. Taking a step back and looking at the experiences of other countries can provide an interesting perspective on our own journey and offer some lessons for the future. I thought of this as I came across some literature about Kenya over the past few weeks.

First was the novel A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, set during the time Kenya became independent in the sixties as well as the long period of emergency that preceded it. While the book illuminates much about how Kenya gained independence and how ordinary Kenyans approached it, what took me by surprise were the multiple references to India. India, by then, had already been an independent nation for the better part of two decades and was a model of resistance for people still struggling against colonialism elsewhere. One of the characters in the book makes repeated references to Gandhi and the spirit of non-violence that contributed to India’s liberation. There are also less charitable references to Indians vying with the Europeans to seize local markets at the cost of the indigenous population.

The second was about the prosecution service in Kenya which is, on paper, an excellent and well thought out mechanism. It provides for the Director of Public Prosecutions to be a Constitutional position answerable to the Parliament with adequate safeguards against executive interference. It is also a relatively recent system, with the current version of the Kenyan Constitution having been in force for less than ten years. It shows the advantage of learning from the mistakes of other countries. For instance, as was pointed out to me, it would be difficult for India, without a Presidential form of government and with the anti-defection rule in place, to adopt a similar model even if it guarantees to be an upgrade on our existing system.

So, to recap the lessons learnt: one, we should be mindful of our influence and our power in being role models for other countries. And two, wherever possible, we should take advantage of being late to the party by adopting systems and institutions that do not carry the heavy burden of legacy while being best-suited for our unique needs.

Social Capital and Caste

Conventional wisdom is that social capital in India is low because of our historical caste system. By placing people in a rigid hierarchy, and giving some people privileges over others just because of the families they were born into, the caste system prevented people from cooperating as well as they would in a more equitable society – that is what conventional wisdom says.

However, a point that we cannot miss is that despite the caste system placing a hierarchy on people, people from different castes did regularly cooperate and trade with each other. In fact, with caste being tied to hereditary professions, people had little choice but to regularly interact and trade with people from other castes. And this inevitably created social capital.

Putting it differently, the result of the caste system was an unequal but stable society, and this stability led to reasonably good social capital (history might be biased given it was written by people from certain castes, but we don’t see many instances of caste riots or clashes from over 200 years ago). You can think of it as a stable society with “handicaps”, where some people were privileged over others (in fact, there was a hierarchy of privilege), to the extent that it was okay for some people to abuse others in various ways.

Over the last 150 years or so, the caste system has been (rightly) challenged, and we are seeing various movements towards a more equal society. One side effect of this has been that the (unequal) equilibrium that had existed has been disturbed, leading to caste-based antagonism and a fall in social capital.

We are in the process of moving from one (unequal) equilibrium to another (more equal) equilibrium, but until we get there, existing beliefs and biases will continue to be challenged, which means some sets of people will continue to be suspicious of others, and there will be mistrust and thus low social capital.

Hard and Soft Data Localisation

Last year, when conversations were taking place on the kind of data protection framework India should adopt following the landmark privacy judgement, one issue kept turning up over and over. It seemed strange that the Justice Srikrishna Committee was seriously considering data localisation when most evidence suggested it did not protect citizens from foreign governments or agents and was harmful to the economy. It was little surprise then that the draft Personal Data Protection Bill released last week revealed a strong data localisation mandate.

Looking at the provisions around this in the proposed law, I see a distinction between two types of data localisation: a hard data localisation and a soft one.

Hard data localisation can be seen in Sec. 40(2):

40(2) The Central Government shall notify categories of personal data as critical personal data that shall only be processed in a server or data centre located in India.

This is the stereotypical notion of data localisation, one that completely restricts the ability of an entity to transfer data outside a set territory.

Soft data localisation, on the other hand, can be seen in Sec. 40(1) of the Bill:

40(1) Every data fiduciary shall ensure the storage, on a server or data centre located in India, of at least one serving copy of personal data to which this Act applies.

While this is not a complete restriction on cross-border data transfers like the previous one, it does impose costs on a data fiduciary. These costs, which might take the form of setting up local servers or procuring the services of an entity that provides local storage, is a real and tangible one. When the inevitable criticisms of the data localisation mandate in the Bill make it to the headlines, I hope this softer variant also attracts equal attention.

Of Football and Nationalism

One of the first classes in my public policy course is to help students distinguish between the concepts of nations, states and governments. These concepts are interesting simply because they play out in every other political discourse. Take Trevor Noah’s coverage of the French victory of the 2018 Fifa World Cup:

Noah congratulated the French team with a jubiliant cheer,

Africa won the world cup! Africa won the world cup!

The French Ambassador sent a letter to Noah, accusing him of racism to which Noah responded,

When I’m saying “African” I’m not saying it to exclude them from their French-ness, I’m saying it to include them in my African-ness.

Noah has come under criticism for his views. And while he is beholden to them, the fundamental problem is that the two nationalisms that we speak of are very different. As this article in the Quartz points out,

That’s where the difference between multiculturalist states like the US and assimilationist states like France really comes in. The Jacobin universalist definition of the French national identity promises to allow people freedom from differences; if everyone is French first, then everyone is equal. The “melting-pot,” multiculturalist American model allows people the freedom to be different, but still be American.

If you’ve read classics like the Scarlet Pimpernal or the Count of Monte Cristo, you will see how easily the French Revolution was dismissed as a crazy political project that professed to place reason above all else. So while, ban on the burkini is heavily criticised outside France, the French see it as a reflection of their nationalism.

Noah, who appreciates American multiculturalism professes admiration for a nationalism that accomodates and promotes (to a certain extent) differences. But it is also the French Revolution that provided the clarion call for liberal nationalism (Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!) to which American, and even modern Indian nationalism can trace its roots back to.

The problem is not nationalism but the way the nation is built. India has attempted to assimilate minorities into a single Indian nation from the time of British India. Assimilation projects based on language have failed in the past but continue to dominate politics and identity. Over the last few years, fingers increasingly point to ‘anti-nationals’ who flout the perceived idea of the nation. As the French mull over what it is to be French, perhaps, it is a good time for us, as Indians, to revisit what ‘Indian-ness’ means as Independence Day draws closer.

Meanwhile, Mesut Ozil has resigned from the German foot ball team citing discrimination over his meeting with Turkish President Recep Erdogan — proving that nationalisms will always be at play in the sporting arena, long after stadium lights are dimmed. 

Politics as Persuasive Performance

In this post, I juxtapose two notions about politics that I came across in the past couple of weeks.

One, in Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast on Julius Caesar (which I referenced in my two earlier posts, available here and here), Mark Antony’s famous speech is seen as an appeal to emotion and is in stark contrast with Brutus’ appeal to reason. It is a performance, a façade that Antony puts up to get what he desires.

Two, in an episode of the Waking Up Podcast on the current fate of liberalism in the USA, Mark Lilla argues against the pull of identity politics. He says that politics should not succumb to self-expression. Instead, it should be a tool for persuasion.

So, there you have the reason for the annoying alliteration in this post’s title. Politics as a combination of performance and persuasion. A persuasive performance, if you will. Of course, this begs the larger question: would it be good politics, and I use good in a value-neutral sense here, if one of these features is absent? This is something to mull over in the future.

Xi Jinping’s foreign policy pivot

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs recently, with his speech offering important insights into Chinese foreign policy philosophy, objectives and approaches. Xi defined his philosophical program as “diplomacy of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” outlining 10 key aspects of this thought.

Examining these, it isn’t surprising that Xi’s first and foremost priority in foreign affairs is to uphold the “authority of the CPC Central Committee” and strengthen “its centralised, unified leadership on external work.” This has a domestic and international component. Domestically, it refers to the emergence and role of a diverse set of actors in Chinese foreign affairs – from the top leadership, diplomatic corps, representatives at international institutions, party members in the judiciary, the trade and commerce bureaucracy, local governments, the military to financial institutions and state-owned enterprises. Externally, it implies an expansion in the role of party organs and ensuring that events outside do not jeopardise the Communist Party’s rule.

Analysing the state media readout of the speech, one can identify that the fundamental objective of Xi’s foreign policy is to “facilitate a favourable external environment for realising the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” This is an expression of Xi’s shift from Deng Xiaoping’s tao guang yang hui (roughly translated to hide your strengths and bide your time) in favour of the strategy of fen fa you wei (roughly translated to striving for achievement.)

What this implies is that one can expect China to continue with an assertive foreign policy to actively shape events, attitudes and institutions in order to achieve its objectives. However, this round of assertion will be different from the nationalistic kind that has been witnessed since 2008, say in the South China Sea or with regard to Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute since 2012.

For starters, Xi acknowledges that China’s rise is “intertwined” and interacts with “the most profound and unprecedented changes (that the world is currently undergoing) in a century.” In such an environment, he is placing priority on developing “global partnerships while advancing diplomatic agenda.” This ranks two spaces above “national core interests as the bottom line” in the list of ten aspects of the new diplomatic thought. Also, ranking higher than core interests are the goals of “building of a community with a shared future for humanity” and “reform of the global governance system with the concept of fairness and justice.”

This indicates that Beijing is keen to actively “advance major country diplomacy” to reduce friction and work with partners, particularly developing countries, to expand its global influence and play a greater role in norm setting. For potential partners, this signifies an important window of opportunity, as China is likely be more amenable to addressing sources of tensions and flexible towards accommodating their concerns. One can view events like December’s South-South Human Rights Forum, Beijing’s outreach to New Delhi and Tokyo over the past few months, its deepening ties with Moscow, its attempts at negotiating a new South China Sea Code of Conduct with ASEAN and its efforts to gather support against Donald Trump’s protectionist policies in this context. This subtle change does not imply an infusion of universalistic or idealistic notions in Chinese foreign policy but is rather driven by pragmatism.

A final noteworthy aspect of Xi’s speech was the constant reference to history. The repeated emphasis on having “an accurate understanding of history,” the need to “review the past, summarise historical laws,” understand “the trend of history” and the identification of present times as a particularly significant “historical juncture” operate at multiple levels. First, it signifies a sense of manifest destiny that has characterised Xi’s leadership. Second, it is an example of personal narrative building, whereby Xi has appropriated for himself the goal of making China strong, after it has stood up and grown rich. This once again places Xi in the league of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, above his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. And third, it is a nudge to the party rank and file to maintain “strategic confidence” and not be disoriented by “ever-changing international chaos.”

Effectively what Xi appears to be telling Party cadres and the world at large is that while the tide of realpolitik may ebb and flow, China is here to play the long game, “keeping in mind both internal and international imperatives.”

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-II

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. You can read the first part here. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play.  

Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Characters exhibit flaws and make choices that lead to terrible consequences. It is easy to feel sorry for Caesar, who gets stabbed by his good friend, or Brutus, whose misplaced idealism comes back to haunt him (quite literally at that). But the individual I felt sorry for the most was one who had a bit part role, the poet Cinna.

In the aftermath of Mark Antony’s incendiary speech, the Romans go berserk, searching for the men who murdered Caesar. They come upon Cinna on the street and kill him because his namesake was one of the conspirators. The scene is short but shocking, but with a tinge of black humour when the crowd realises they have the wrong man but kill him regardless, justifying their action on the basis of his supposedly bad verses.

I have two thoughts on this little episode.

One, it best showcases Shakespeare’s cynicism about human reason that I touched upon in my previous post. If it was not clear already, this scene shows just how vacuous a crowd can be. The broader implications this has on a democracy and a republic cannot be ignored.

Two, it asks questions about Antony’s role in Cinna’s death. Yes, he could claim he had no intention and that Cinna’s death was an unfortunate case of collateral damage. But he was aware of the crowd’s nature and knew exactly what buttons to push to get them riled up. Shouldn’t he then bear some responsibility for his words? Or does the blame lie solely on the crowd even though their capacity to reason is stunted? These questions act as a precursor to a conversation about hate speech and how best one can prevent it while still preserving a right to free speech. That we are still having this conversation centuries after Shakespeare wrote the play shows just how vexing a problem it is.

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-I

Note: This is the first of a planned two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play. 

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an intriguing blend of high drama, sudden bursts of violence, and impressive speeches. It is also a realistic and sombre meditation on the fragility of a republic. This fragility stems from the play’s take on human nature, which it would not be a stretch to say is a touch cynical.

Brutus, the idealistic senator and Caesar’s friend, sets great store by reason to disastrous effect. He believes that his fellow conspirators are as idealistically motivated as he is. He believes that the citizens of Rome will understand his reasons for assassinating Caesar. He is mistaken on both counts. The self-interest that propels these groups is a trait that very few individuals, like Brutus, can disavow. Left to their own devices, they will wreak havoc on society, which they do in the play to varying degrees of success.

This points towards the quality that a republic must have in order to endure, namely, that of being more than the sum of its parts. It needs to rise above the individuals who form it. And the way it can achieve this is by having institutions that channel the best of such individuals while avoiding the unsavoury bits. A republic thus lives and dies on the strength of the institutions that undergird it. This is a lesson worth revisiting every time the functioning of a republic is questioned.