The Ultimate Pragmatist: Kautilya’s Philosophy on Smart Power in National Security

Topics: International relations, Hard power, Chandragupta Maurya Pages: 27 (8496 words) Published: January 18, 2013
The Ultimate Pragmatist:
Kautilya’s Philosophy on SMART Power in National Security


The Arthashastra is a treatise of political advice to the king, written by the Indian philosopher, Kautilya, in the 4th century B.C.E. Kautilya’s pragmatism is reflected in policy advice on how to conduct war and diplomacy by both honest and dishonest means toward the goal of increasing the power,wealth, and security of the state. Kautilya advocates “SMART”[1] power--the interface of warfighting capabilities combined with diplomacy, opportunism, and guile. His ideas for competitive advantage, resonate today. Kautilya’s ideas center around the concept of his “Raj Mandala”--a model upon which the king could decide on collusion, cooperation, alliance, acquisition or destruction in dealings with other nations. Through all of this he set forth a scheme of covert dealings, misinformation, spies, planned assassinations and poisonings. Kautilya can be seen as “predecessor” of Machiavelli, and like him is viewed as both a sinner and a saint on management principles and practices.


Public bureaucracies, such as the military confront quandaries of ethical choice. Such dilemmas are often of an ends/means nature, or the greatest good for the greatest number, and Machiavelli’s proposition, “when the act accuses, the result excuses.” When is a lie “noble” or “royal”?--in Platonic terms we sometimes suggest that the people may be deceived for their own good, and when is it not? What about the “dirty hands dilemmas” often encountered when public officials such as military commanders commit acts that from everyday reality are considered evil, but deemed necessary to maintain the national interest. In modern day cases like Abu Gharib, Guanatnamo Bay interrogations, the Iran-Contra affair and in a myriad of other instances our military leaders face conflicts of values, dilemmas of the “lesser of evils, “ or the quandary of “viable alternatives.”

From the year 2010, let us backtrack quickly to the year 352 BCE when a man named Kautilya served as the advisor to a powerful King, Chandragupta Maurya, in the Mauyran dynasty. Kautilya, generally felt no such conflicts. As the ultimate pragmatist he wasted no rhetorical statements to dilute his harsh management philosophies. Like Hoederer in Satre’s play, he might well have stated: “I have dirty hands right up to the elbows. I have plunged them in filth and blood. Do you think you can govern innocently?”[2] This case study bring to light a number of questions, is the public servant who commits bad deeds for the public good, an evil person, a pragmatist, or a tragic hero like Weber’s “suffering servant” (1919, 1946, 1978) who in doing his duty has ultimately lost his soul?


The treatise, known as the Arthasastra, was written by Kautilya around 321 B.C.E. He was the Prime Minister of the Mauyran Empire in the service of Chandragupta Maurya, its powerful king. This was one of the greatest books on war, leadership, management, and political economy of the ancient world. It presented strategic advice for decision-makers to maximize a state’s resources and its national security. It advocated rational self-interest in decision-making, yet at the same time it also argued for principles of a welfare state, in which enlightened self-interest would prevail. However, enlightened self-interest was promoted by Kautilya for pragmatic reasons and not for ethical ones, per se. Its precepts embody patterns of thinking on leadership and management applicable to modern corporations and military bureaucracies. On reading the Arthasashtra, one is struck by the political astuteness of its writer, Kautilya, who can be termed one of the shrewdest policy wonks the world has ever known. The purpose of the Arthasashtra was to be a comprehensive guide for government in the Mauryan Empire, and to aid its ruler to increase the wealth, power[3]...
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