How ought countries to wage war in an era of peace? After all, only the naïve would believe that enmity between adversaries ceases in times of peace, pandemics, or platitudes. The issue thus framed is an important one for India’s strategic thinkers to get their head around, with the obvious proviso that war does not refer only to military combat, irregular or conventional, though it does not preclude it.

Russia and China are both believed to have “grand strategies” ~ detailed sets of national security goals backed by means, and plans, to pursue them. In India, much like in the United States of America, policy makers have tried to articulate similar concepts but have failed to reach widespread consensus; in the case of the former since 1947 and in that of the latter at least since the Cold War ended.

As Michael O’Hanlon, author of the recently released book The Art of War In An Age of Peace (Yale University Press, 2021) puts it, the USA has been the world’s prominent superpower for over a generation but much of American thinking has oscillated between the extremes of isolationist agendas versus interventionist and overly assertive ones.

A comparable well-researched, ethically sound, and politically viable vision for Indian national security policy is conspicuous by its absence. This is not merely an academic lament but a matter of some urgency for India’s policy establishment. The Pentagon, for example, has a well-established set of “4+1” pre-existing threats ~ Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and transnational violent extremism/terrorism. Hanlon and others have been arguing for a new 4+1: Biological, nuclear, digital, climatic, and internal dangers.

These new threats have been identified as addenda and not necessarily to replace the original threats and are aimed to ensure America is ready to face the challenges of the 21st century in war and in peacetime with a comprehensive national security and strategic plan in place. It is not that India does not have some of the finest strategic thinkers or they have not made significant interventions in the public if rarefied domains of geostrategy and security.

The problem is more that of a lack of strategic culture which emanates from the overemphasis of the political executive on domestic, mainly electoral, issues, and the stranglehold of career bureaucrats on policy formulation which has proven to be a death-grip for original strategic thinking.

It needs underlining that bureaucrats, generalists by training, are meant only to implement policy and the best of them focus on operationalising administratively the directions of the executive. It is the latter, therefore, which must listen to, and learn from, domain specialists before instructing public servants rather than let babus carry on climbing up the mountain of mediocrity, as it were.

To help get them started, an Indian version of 4+1 could be China, Pakistan, energy security, water self-sufficiency, and violence by nonstate actors. Plus, the Hanlon 4+1. Any takers?