Defence diplomacy is becoming an increasingly popular tool used by countries today to further their national interests. The term “defence diplomacy” was first officially employed by the British Ministry of Defence in the 1990s, a term used for several cooperative military activities conducted with other countries[i]. There is no commonly agreed upon or even a widely used definition of the term. What is common, however, is the emphasis on the peaceful use of the military (equipment, personnel and knowledge) to build trust and goodwill, which excludes any use of force. In this regard, it can be seen as a subset of soft power, with which the practitioner seeks to alter the behaviour of other actors in the international system to secure its national interests.
The most common and high impact tools deployed as part of defence diplomacy include those with the most visibility and the potential to build confidence among the two countries and their respective militaries. These include Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), bilateral exercises, port calls by navy ships, training and education at each others’ institutes and high—level visits by military officers. This helps cultivate long term relations between the military personnel while improving interoperability between two friendly nations at the same time.
However, what is the extent to which defence diplomacy can be successful requires more thorough deliberations. There is a need to be realistic in terms of the expectations of defence diplomacy given its limited scope. Defence diplomacy cannot be hoped to be a bar to conflict between states. After all, it is not the lack of cooperation between two militaries that leads to conflict but rather the irreconcilable differences in the national objectives, threat perceptions and often ideology that breeds disputes and wars. There are some historical examples to support this argument. The pre-war military cooperation between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, including the training of officers, did not prevent a bloody war between the two states lasting around four years[ii].
There are, however, successful examples of defence diplomacy which can be attributed to conflict avoidance. In the 1990s, the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) did significant outreach with respect to the Indonesian military (TNI). Many Australian analysts believe that the personal relations built over years helped prevent an armed clash between the two forces when tensions in East Timor soared in 1999.[iii] Defence diplomacy has the potential, as far as military utility goes, to work at operational and tactical levels but the same cannot be said about the strategic level.
The success of defence diplomacy depends on several factors like the balance of power between the two countries, historical background and political leaderships among others. In India’s neighbourhood, for instance, there is only so much that defence diplomacy can achieve, given the structural constraints of the region due to its power structure, India’s central position in South Asia and pending disputes with almost all its neighbours. Despite its relentless efforts in confidence building measures executed like HADR, bilateral exercises and officers’ training from neighbouring countries, it is difficult to clearly attribute any major strategic successes to India’s defence diplomacy. This is primarily due to the benefits from India’s successful defence diplomacy not surpassing the costs of the existing disputes the countries in the region have with India, be they related to the borders, trade, security or transnational rivers. Since India is not perceived as a military threat from any of its neighbours, barring Pakistan, the above argument relates to India’s overall long-term national objectives and not specifically to conflict prevention.
The inconsistency in results is the most salient feature of defence diplomacy. If the British defence diplomacy’s objective was to democratise the military of many newly independent states after the disintegration of the Soviet Union was successful, the same cannot be said true for India’s defence diplomacy vis-a-vis its neighbours, many of whom have had military coups, including Bangladesh whose General Hussain Muhammad Ershad studied at National Defence College in India and went on to a stage a military coup in 1982[iv].
Similarly, while defence diplomacy helped avoid clashes between the TNI and ADF, the same result could not be reproduced in India’s standoff with China in Ladakh despite regularly holding talks and bilateral exercises in that particular region years before the standoff.
Nevertheless, there is still scope for improvement in defence diplomacy. One such area for India especially is the medical support to other countries’ militaries and people, particularly in South Asia. Indian Armed Forces have a considerable number of medical experts and practitioners. Indian military could play a major role in supporting the country’s medical diplomacy. This could be by way of expanding the training and exchange programs for foreign military doctors and paramedics, sharing best practices and experiences and even consider providing greater medical material support. As the COVID-19 vaccination drive gathers momentum in most countries, India could support countries, especially South Asian states, in the distribution and administration of these vaccines.
Overall, defence diplomacy should be considered a long-term investment made by a country to its foreign relations, complementing economic and cultural diplomacy. The results may just be limited to the overall image building of the nation as a responsible and reliable power on the global stage, with possible additional advantages in small scale conflict avoidance at local or tactical levels due to improved interpersonal relations between the military personnel of the countries involved.
[i] Gregory Winger (2014), “The Velvet Gauntlet: A Theory of Defense Diplomacy”, Institute for Human Sciences, Available at: https://www.iwm.at/publications/5-junior-visiting-fellows-conferences/vol-xxxiii/the-velvet-gauntlet/
[ii] Ian Johnson (2016), “Sowing the Wind: The First Soviet-German Military Pact and the Origins of World War II”, War On The Rocks, 07 June, Available at: https://warontherocks.com/2016/06/sowing-the-wind-the-first-soviet-german-military-pact-and-the-origins-of-world-war-ii/#:~:text=While%20Soviet%2DGerman%20military%20cooperation,the%20young%20Soviet%20officer%20corps
[iii] John Blaxland (2014), “Defending Defence Diplomacy”, Defence Diplomacy Is the game worth the candle, edited by Dr. Andrew Carr, 7-11, Canberra: Australian National University, Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/30673357.pdf
[iv] Stuart Auerbach (1982), “General Defends Bangladesh Coup”, The Washington Post, 25 March, Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1982/03/25/general-defends-bangladesh-coup/3390d727-476a-45dd-93a8-02a56eb9a529/