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DECISION- MAKING IN FOREIGN POLICY

    Note no. 86  

Decision-making in foreign policy involves the analysis and assessment of past and current data, in the light of our past experience and that of others, who had dealt with similar situations, in order to identify the need and available options for action in the future and the likely implications of each of those options for the protection and promotion of our national interests.

Foreign policy has four aspects---political, internal and external security-related, economic including commercial, and societal, which has a bearing on our society as well as those of others. A successful conduct of foreign policy protects and advances our national interests and contributes to the preservation and enhancement of our status and power, without being unduly detrimental to the national interests, power and status of others. It seeks to avoid conflicts and, where this is not possible, to minimise the likely damage to our national interests, power and status.

The process of decision-making in foreign policy has become more complex than in the past due to the following reasons:

* The emergence of ethical issues such as human rights, democracy, disarmament etc as important components of the political aspect of foreign policy.

* The greater focus on non-political aspects such as economic, environmental etc.

* The new complexities of the security aspect due to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the never-diminishing threats from trans-national religious and other terrorist groups and narcotics smuggling gangs to national and regional security.

* The trend towards greater trans-nationalisation of the decision-making process due to the impact on the process of a country's membership of international and regional organisations.

* The increasingly assertive role of national and trans-national non-State actors such as the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), think tanks etc in seeking to influence the process.

* The networking of such non-State actors, at the national and trans-national levels, in order to strengthen their ability to influence policy making and implementation.

* The insatiable demand from the non-State actors and other sections of the public for transparency and accountability.

* The role of the printed and electronic media and the Internet in spreading greater awareness of the database of the process and in providing yardsticks by which the success of the policy-formulation and implementation could be judged. The availability of knowledge at the mouse-tip has contributed to a greater non-State participation in policy-making and implementation and to an instant and ever-continuing scrutiny of policy-making.

Provided one has a clear idea of one's national interests, meaningful decision-making depends on the following factors:

* Effective storage of past facts, experience and assessments and the capability for their rapid retrieval in order to use them for current decision-making.

* Capability for the collection of current data, open as well as secret.

* The availability of knowledge of how other countries handled similar or comparable situations and with what results.

* The quality of the in-house expertise and the availability of external (non-State) expertise to analyse and assess the relevant data and experience and to identify the available options for the future and the willingness of the in-house experts to continually seek and use such external expertise.

At least theoretically, computerisation strengthens the process of storage and rapid retrieval, provided one uses the computer as it is meant to be used. Computerisation is not just the physical availability of the computer, but its effective use as an aid for storage and retrieval of data and experience. The computer is only as good as the data fed and stored into it. If the human element fails to feed and store data systematically, computerisation fails to be an effective tool of the storage and retrieval process.

A striking example was the unsatisfactory handling, from the security and diplomatic perspectives, of the hijacking of an Indian aircraft by a group of Islamic jehadists of Afghan war vintage to Kandahar in December last. The much-criticised crisis management could be attributed to the failure of the human element to computerise data relating to the past hijackings of Indian planes, including details of techniques and channels used to enlist the co-operation of the United Arab Emirates in dealing with the situation, negotiators used, the behaviour pattern of Islamic jehadists of Afghan war vintage who had in the past carried out similar hijackings in other countries and how they were tackled by those countries etc. There was no use of the video-conferencing facility to enable the participation of the field officers at Amritsar with the decision-making process in New Delhi in real time.

Thanks to the modernisation of the media and the advent of the Internet, there has been a phenomenal increase in the availability of current open data at reasonable cost to the State as well as the non-State actors. About 80 per cent of successful decision-making is based on open information which, thanks to the Internet, is now available in much greater quantity and much better quality than in the past.

The remaining 20 per cent is based on secret information collected by the intelligence agencies. Though the collection of intelligence agencies has immeasurably benefited from modern technologies, resulting in a leap in the quantity of intelligence collected by them through technical means, there are still important gaps in the quality of collection and analysis.

This should be evident from some of the recent happenings, which had a bearing on international relations such as the failure of the US intelligence community to predict the Indian nuclear tests in May, 1998, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by NATO planes last year due to wrong target identification by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Indian failure to anticipate the Kargil conflict etc.

The frequently-recurring intelligence gaps are partly due to the neglect of the human factor in data collection and assessment and partly to the fact that modern technologies, while improving the collection capability of intelligence agencies, have also strengthened the capability of the adversaries to protect their secret data from being stolen.

There is now a dawning realisation of the need to correct the past neglect of human intelligence. Only a human mind can discern and analyse the intangibles of policy-making. A computer cannot.

Even the best of facts can lead to wrong decisions in the absence of high-quality expertise in analysing the facts and assessing the implications. Expertise is the product of institutional training, on-job experience, opportunities for interactions with other experts and first-hand knowledge of the past difficulties in implementation.

The quality of in-house expertise has definitely improved in recent years, but more spectacular has been the growth of a reservoir of non-State expertise which governmental policy-makers can tap with benefit.

The growth of the non-State expertise has been facilitated by the rapid increase in the number of NGOs and think tanks helped by private funding and the trend towards their trans-national networking. Non-State experts enjoy certain advantages over their governmental counterparts such as the following:

* They can be more objective in their assessments since they do not have to be politically correct and acceptable. Their assessments are not unduly influenced by purely nationalistic considerations. They are prepared to view a problem in a much broader perspective.

* Their trans-national interactions with one another are generally free of the inhibitions and mental blocks which characterise the interactions of State experts with one another. This enables them to pick the brains of their trans-national counterparts much more easily than State experts can do.

The readiness of the State policy-makers to make use of the expertise of non-State actors has contributed to many innovations in policy-making. One could cite the recent correctives to the US policy of over-focussing on China to the benign neglect of India as the outcome of the growing influence of non-State actors on foreign policy-making in the US.

Non-State experts were closely involved in the confabulations which preceded the recent visit of the US President, Mr.Bill Clinton, to South Asia and one could attribute his decision to visit Pakistan despite Indian objections and his blunt messages to Pakistan in his pronouncements at New Delhi and Islamabad to the advice received from non-State experts such as the Independent Task Force of the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Apart from academics, experts of think tanks and activists of NGOs, other non-State actors playing an increasingly active role in foreign policy making are businessmen, whose influence on the evolution of US policy towards China has been considerable, and special interests and human rights groups, which have had great impact on US policy-making towards Myanmar and the Taliban-controlled Government of Afghanistan.

While non-State experts are increasingly being consulted by State policy-formulators in India, their role in policy-making is still limited since governmental experts view their analysis and approach as highly esoteric and cut off from reality.

There is an urgent need for an examination of the positive and negative aspects of our policy and decision-making process in respect of foreign policy in the light of the experience of other countries in order to improve the quality of the decision-making.

B.RAMAN                                                                    (30-4-00)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:corde@vsnl.com)

 

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