September 1, 2009

Galvanising international studies

“Today’s world is becoming smaller in many re-spects. Whether it is the international economic crisis, or terrorism or climate change – what happens in one part of the world [also affects] other parts. The international economic and political order is changing. … Our foreign policy should be able to cater to India’s interests in these constantly changing circumstances.” —Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, August 15, 2009

India is undergoing dramatic political, economic, social, and technological change. Firmly on the path of progress and modernity, India now appears confident it can overcome the many still formidable challenges and realise its true potential at home and abroad. In addition to mobilising domestic consensus, support, and resources, New Delhi has deemed it important to harness international support and resources for its development.

Beginning with the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and with significant initiatives undertaken by the governments of Prime Ministers P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh, India’s international relations have been undergoing gradual but fundamental change. New Delhi now enjoys good relations with all major powers and Europe, has cultivated strong relations with countries in South-east Asia, Central Asia, West Asia, and the Persian Gulf, is re-invigorating its relations with Africa, and is seeking opportunities in Latin America. With sustained impressive economic growth rates over the last decade and a sophisticated foreign policy, India has emerged as a significant regional and global power with interests in a broadly defined Asia and the world.

International Studies (IS) in India, however, have not kept pace with the changing scope and content of India’s international relations that must now address new challenges, problems, threats, and opportunities in a wide range of domains including economics (trade, investment, finance), climate change, security (traditional and non-traditional), and regional and global governance. Despite a strong beginning in the early decades after independence, there is concern in several quarters in India that International Studies pro-grams and institutions in the country are not fully able to cope with the demands and opportunities facing a modernising and rising India, which is fast integrating itself into a changing, complex, and increasingly knowledge driven world.

In comparative terms, India, which had the more developed International Studies programs and institutions in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, has since fallen behind East Asian countries, particularly China. This is an unanticipated development in light of India’s many advantages—an open society, freedom of thought and expression, and competence in the English language, among others.

India’s rising profile in global affairs demands that the demand-supply disjuncture and the promise-reality gap should be addressed quickly and substantively with the goals of making the country a leading centre of knowledge, education, and research in international studies. Indian scholarship should contribute to increasing the knowledge base for India’s international interaction and role. Creating world-class teaching and research institutions and programmes is indispensable in achieving these goals.

Creating world-class institutions and programmes in International Studies

Contemporary India is home to leading institutions of learning for students entering the professions of medicine and engineering, and the natural sciences. An open, democratic, and rising India must be home to world-class departments and schools in the social sciences as well. For a number of reasons—cultural, systemic, and institutional—the social sciences have been undervalued in India.  This cannot continue. Excellence in the social sciences is not merely “a nice thing to have” but essential for a rising India that seeks regional and global influence. Excellence in International Studies is especially crucial.

Building on existing schools

The logical first step is to build on existing schools of International Studies in India. One or two schools (such as the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University) should be targeted for restructuring and development (to make them comparable, for example, to the Woodrow Wilson School of International Studies at Princeton University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, or the London School of Economics and Politics). Their primary purpose would be to educate students at the master’s level, but they would also have small, rigourous PhD programmes.

Creating new schools

It may be an opportune time to create one or two new schools of International Studies in other regions of the country as well. Preferably, the new schools would focus on areas not well covered by existing ones. Agreement should be reached among existing and new schools to identify sub-fields in which each would build strength. Although more costly, the setting up of new schools would avoid problems associated with transforming existing institutions. In this connection, space must be available for privately funded institu-tions. The private sector should be encouraged to start schools of International Studies focused primarily on international economics, international finance, and international business. Through public-private partnerships, the private sector could also invest in linking existing schools and programmes in International Studies with leading business and law schools in the country to develop joint degree programmes.

Strengthening existing PhD programmes

Vibrant International Studies and political science departments in existing central and state universities should be targeted to build strong PhD programmes. Emphasis and specialisation would vary with the strength and interest of faculty and course offerings in specific departments. Not all departments need offer the PhD degree in all sub-fields. Departments should be encouraged to specialise and build a reputation in select sub-disciplines, issue areas, and countries or regions.

A National Defence University

A National Defence University (NDU) should be established soon. The Indian government has accepted a proposal to this effect. Successful implementation could fill a void and provide a much-needed stimulus to the development of security and strategic studies in India. Its success would hinge to a considerable degree on: institutional autonomy; an administrative structure and an intellectual environment that is conducive to open and free inquiry from different theoretical pers-pectives; a broad definition of security that goes beyond traditional security and straight strategic studies; and the recruitment of well-trained scholars to fill leadership and staff positions. The NDU should not be solely a teaching institution. It should have strong research centres as well. There are many models of NDUs. Those in China, Japan, United States, and United Kingdom, for example, differ significantly from one another. India should develop a university that meets its specific needs.

Language training centres and programmes

The effort to build strong International Studies schools and programmes should be complemented, as necessary, by the development of relevant language training centres and programmes. To be regarded as a country or region expert, a scholar must be competent in a relevant foreign language.

In light of India’s size, the country should have two or three strong language centres providing basic and advanced training in key foreign languages. Because setting up well-equipped and well-staffed language centres would take time, language training should also be provided through intensive summer programmes in universities with suitable facilities. Intensive summer programmes could be organised more quickly and should be pursued in an earnest manner.

Foreign languages of importance for India include English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Sinhala, Nepali, Farsi, and Swahili. Clearly some are more important than others and the country’s needs should be prioritised. Where demand for a particular language is limited and providing training in that language is not financially feasible, a small number of scholars could be trained in foreign institutions in countries where the language is spoken. Funding should be available for students and scholars to conduct their research and language training in the countries that are relevant to their studies.

Professional development

Success in building world-class institutions and programs hinges on a strong faculty and a dynamic and empowered student body. National educational authorities, universities, and professional associations should take sustained measures to upgrade the expertise and capability of faculty and students through challenging requirements, incentives, and opportunities.

Creating world-class research institutes and think tanks

Research institutes and think tanks are an integral part of the architecture of International Studies.  These may be located in or outside universities. Their primary role is research-based analysis of mid- to long-range policy-relevant issues and problems. The output of research institutes can contribute to academic inquiry and knowledge accumulation as well as inform public opinion and policy formulation. Think tanks have a much shorter time horizon and more explicit public information and policy functions. Through short reports, policy briefs, opinion columns, participation in policy seminars, and public presentations, they seek to inform the populace and policy makers and support or alter specific policies. Although not always possible, a distinction between research institutes and think tanks can help channel resources in desired directions.

By supporting innovative research, research institutes can play a vanguard role in pursuing new ideas, concepts, and strategies, as well as new solutions to old problems. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the RAND Corporation in the United States was in the forefront of innovative research in the then new field of nuclear weapons, especially on the theory and strategy of deterrence. Research institutes and think tanks can also play important public information and policy roles in a democratic society such as India.

In their early years, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi built a reputation for providing sound policy advice. IDSA came to be respected by officials and leaders across the political spectrum for its independent thinking. Over time, both the CPR and the IDSA appear to have declined in influence. Effort is now under way to rebuild these institutions under new leadership.

With a few exceptions, the present crop of foreign policy and security research institutes and think tanks are noticeable by their marginal position or near total absence from the information and public policy sphere. Economic research institutes have fared better than those in the foreign and security policy domains. Often government funded and/or staffed by retired diplomats and military officers, the foreign and security policy institutions have by and large followed the government line rather than providing deep analysis of policy alternatives. The interests and priorities of funders appear to have been limiting factors for institutions financed by private sector companies.

Looking forward, it is necessary to strengthen existing institutions and create new ones to discharge their public information and policy roles. In the long run the goal should be to build several prestigious institutions comparable to the U.S.-based Brookings Institution and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, or the UK-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS). The intent would not be to replicate Western institutions in India. In fact, the considerable influence of think tanks in the United States may be unique to that country. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the early experience of CPR and IDSA and the contemporary role of certain economic research institutes (such as the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations), space is available in India for sound policy-relevant work outside government.
Indian foreign and security policy research in-stitutes and think tanks should capture and expand this space through innovative, high-quality work and interaction with policy-making agencies, the media, and relevant NGOs and international organisations. Their focus should be on developing innovative research agendas, building institutional expertise and capacity, developing strong databases, upgrading publication programmes, and disseminating timely policy analyses to relevant audiences.

Developing research agenda

The choice and development of study programmes in research institutes and think tanks must be driven by contemporary as well as future demands in the market place. Research agendas should anticipate and address critical issues in the security of India and India’s international roles and interactions. Research institutes should focus on topics that lend themselves to deep analysis over time, a luxury that is usually not available to public officials working under time constraints. Research agenda should be subject to periodic review with the goal of remaining current and relevant. Depth should be preferred to breadth in developing research agenda and building capacity.

Building capacity

Many existing foreign and security policy research institutes and think tanks have limited capacity (few full-time research staff) and resources. For several reasons, retired public officials tend to dominate leadership and faculty positions. Although they can provide an important practical perspective, former civil servants, diplomats, and military officers cannot be the mainstay of research institutes or think tanks. Their viewpoint can have unintended skewing and crowding-out effects. A judicious balance must be struck be-tween those with strong policy experience and well-trained scholar-analysts with strong applied theoretical and methodological skills. Research institutes and think tanks should hire trained researchers with advanced degrees. Staff hiring and retention should be given due attention. The goal should be to assemble a critical mass of analysts in select areas. Again, depth should be favoured over breadth. Where local supply is a constraint, Indian institutions should be able to hire foreign scholars on a contract basis or to develop ex-change programmes with foreign institutions.

Opportunities must exist for staff of research institutions and think tanks to develop research programmes and projects under their leadership, to collaborate with other institutions in country and abroad, to interact freely with government officials, to join the government for specific periods, to join professional associations, to participate in national and international meetings, and to publish in external peer-reviewed publications. These activities will help build individual expertise and enhance the capacity of the institutions that employ them.

Developing databases

Lack of data is a serious problem for non-governmental research institutes in the foreign and security policy areas. Government agencies in these areas have a penchant for classifying almost everything. Nevertheless, it is possible to build strong databases through sustained and diligent efforts by dedicated staff. Data can be gathered from declassified government sources, foreign databases, defence publications, professional autobiographies, communications with government officials, and so forth. Many Western research institutions have developed databases equal to, and at times superior to, those of governments. Information is necessary; but even more important is analysis, in which research institutes and think tanks can and should excel.

Upgrading publications

Publications are a key indicator of the vitality and relevance of a research institution. Strong, regular, and timely publications are crucial in building the reputation of an institution. Without a strong pub-lications programme, a research institution will have little or no credibility. Because research institutes and think tanks should be able to communicate with a wide audience, considerations of purpose and target group should differentiate their outputs. Publication in peer-reviewed journals is crucial to sustain and enhance researchers’ standing in a discipline or field. Book-length works and monographs can provide deep, research-based analysis of selected issues and problems. Policy briefs and opinion pieces based on such research are another mode of communicating with and capturing the attention of the policy community in a timely manner. These types of publications as well as participation in seminars and media interviews and debates (on television and radio) must all be encouraged and required. Timely dissemi-nation of analysis and opinion is especially important for think tanks. These institutions and the individuals in them should seek out target groups to communicate their research findings and policy positions.

Collaboration with foreign institutions

If they bring comparative advantage and help in the development of a strong research environment, collaboration with foreign research institutions, and the setting up of research institutes and think tanks in India by foreign foundations and institutions should be welcomed. India’s hesitation in regard to foreign institutions and international collaboration rooted in Cold War era considerations should be adjusted in favour of welcoming collaborative projects and exchanges of staff, as well as the adoption of best practices. This would be in line with the greater openness that has characterised India’s economy and international interaction since 1991.

Broadening the funding base

Government and big business have largely funded the establishment and development of research institutes and think tanks in India. This is likely to continue. However, it is necessary to broaden funding sources to include national and international charitable foundations. In the United States, private foundations are the primary source of funding support for research institutes and think tanks. India should revise its regulations, including its tax policy, to foster charitable giving to research institutes and think tanks, and to encourage public-private partnerships. Government-funded institutions should be allowed to raise private money as long as it does not alter their purpose and role. Over time, some government-funded institutions should be allowed and encouraged to become fully independent of government support.  New Delhi should also be more flexible in enabling Indian institutions to accept funds from abroad.


Creating world-class teaching and research institutions and programs are a crucial component of a sustained effort to strengthen international studies in India. That effort must be multifaceted and involve the Government of India, the professional community, and the private sector. Upgrading international studies in India is not simply a resource issue, though funding is a key consideration. Equally important will be a commitment on the part of government agencies, university and research institute administrators, schools and departments, faculty, students, and professional associations to reform and upgrade International Studies in India. Such a commitment would go a long way toward strengthening the field of International Studies in India, enhancing professional development and the knowledge base to support India’s international interaction and role.

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