Book review: “The First Great Realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra” by Roger Boesche



One of the major themes of academic debates in the field of international relations these days is about how the rise of powers such as China, India and Brazil will shape the international system. Both those who see the United States as the indispensable nation, equating US decline to the end of today's order, and those who expect rising powers to assume leadership in today's institutions, predicting the continuation of the current order, seem to have one thing in common: they are informed by what we may call "Western" international relations theories. Considering that the future of global order rests, to a significant degree, in non-Western decision makers' hands, the global academic community's limited knowledge of traditional non-western thinkers - for example Chinese or Indian - seems surprising. After all, rising powers will increasingly be called upon not only to take a seat at the high table, but also to provide thought leadership about how to deal with global challenges effectively.

In this context, Boesche's concise introductory book on Kautilya (also called Chanakya), a famous Indian strategist, is a most welcome contribution. Kautilya was a key advisor to Chandragupta Maurya (317-293 BC), who defeated the Nanda Kings, stopped the advance of Alexander the Great's successors, and was the first ruler to unite the Indian subcontinent. After Chandragupta's conquest of many tribes, his famous grandson Ashoka (268-232 BC) was able to consolidate the empire further. Kautilya thus made a significant mark in the history of India, and several historians have argued that it was Chandragupta who laid - with sometimes harsh methods- the groundwork for Ashoka's reign, which is often described as the "brightest page of India's history". For example, in "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny", Amartya Sen often used Ashoka's example to argue that human rights and religious tolerance were not a Western invention.

Kautilya is described by historians as both the emperor's "Prime Minister" and the grand theorist of the politics and economics of the Mauryan state, thus comparable to Bismarck regarding his political power and to Machiavelli in his function as a chronicler - leaving, naturally, some doubts about in how far his work is normative and in how far it describes reality. Most agree that his work can be read as an adequate description of his time, yet also serving as a practical manual of how to govern.

Early on, Kautilya stresses the importance of religion as an important force to depoliticize the masses when confronted with state power, thus reducing the risk of rebellion. Kautilya himself, on the other hand, derided superstition and the belief of fate and professed only to believe in science. In matters of foreign policy, his views resemble those of Hobbes in that he considers international politics to be anarchical and expects the rule by the strongest in an ever unstable environment where empires either expand or decline, but rarely stand still.

On the domestic front, Kautilya's insistence on clear and just laws that must be backed by force are reminiscent of Hobbes, who warned of the perils of internal anarchy and strife. It also reflects Machiavellian ideas about the ruler's risks of incurring the hatred of his subjects through arbitrary and unjust legislation. This argument seems somewhat inconsistent from today's perspective as Kautilya also defends the (unjust) caste system to provide social order - "just" seems therefore to imply "predictable" and "measured" rather than "equal". Kautilya only advised the king to break with tradition if doing so enhanced national security: for example, he advocated enlisting low-caste men into the army, even though his activity had been previously reserved for the warrior caste.

In yet another parallel to Machiavelli, Kautilya argues the national interest should override moral principles "inasmuch the moral order depends upon the continued existence of the state." Yet contrary to the Italian thinker, who set no geographical limits to territorial expansion, Kautilya never advocated the conquest of lands outside of South Asia. This line of thought is still visible in modern Indian foreign policy: contrary to virtually all other major powers, India has never taken the initiative to invade a foreign country, and it has never shown interest in conquering areas beyond South Asia.


The chapter on foreign policy is arguably the book’s most interesting, and Boesche depicts Kautilya as a hard-nosed realist for whom war is not an extension of diplomacy (as Clausewitz argued), but who regards every part of diplomacy as part of ‘subtle war’. Diplomacy therefore does not seek to avoid war, but rather to assure that one is successful in warfare which occurs frequently. In short, if one can win, one should go to war, irrespective of whether an agreement or treaty has been signed previously. Even while at peace, a nation should constantly wage ‘hidden war’, consisting of sowing discord among the enemy’s leaders (e.g. by sending women to foreign capitals so beautiful that the enemies' generals turn against each other), or by simply assassinating key figures, preferably with poison.

Similar to Thucydides, who regarded the request for negotiation as a sign of weakness, Kautilya saw little point in it other than to deceive a neighbor before conquering his territory. His advice to merely kill foreign rulers, but treat the population of the conquered territory with respect and honor its deities was not based on moral grounds, but was meant to facilitate the integration into the empire and the enlargement of the army (interestingly enough, he never speaks of proselytizing, a common goal among Christian and Muslim rulers).

Kautilya’s most significant contribution to foreign policy making remains his ‘mandala theory’, according to which one’s immediate neighbors are enemies, while states on the other side of one’s neighbors are friends. In many cases, this theory seems correct, for example when trying to explain China’s warm ties with Pakistan. And interestingly enough, India’s relationship with its immediate neighbors have been historically bad. Today, the theory seems of limited use – quite to the contrary, India’s major challenge today is to turn her immediate neighbors into friends and foster regional integration.

Aside from providing a well-structured summary and interpretation of the Arthashastra, Boesche’s book includes at times comical details of how Kautilya sought to regulate public life, specifying fines for crimes such as “vilifying another for impotence or madness” or how he counseled the king about how to avoid becoming addicted to wine, gambling or women (considering the latter as the most dangerous).

Kautilya's major concern was to always have enough money available to finance a strong army with many elephants, which he regarded as crucial in any war. In the state-dominated economy, he envisioned controlled individual business activities of many kinds to assure that goal – for example, he argued that prostitution and gambling should be made legal, and said that each courtesan should register with the government and pay regular taxes – a policy too liberal for many societies even today.

In sum, what is perhaps most fascinating is how many ideas Kautilya articulated that would appear in the West centuries later – while Kautilya wrote the Arthashastra briefly after Thucydides, he long preceded Machiavelli and Hobbes, which thought along similar lines. Rather than looking for “non-Western” international relations theories, then, it may be more adequate to question the supposedly “Western” origin of today’s existing theories and acknowledge the profound contributions non-Western thinkers such as Kautilya have made.

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Seeing India through Brazilian eyes

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