Foreign policy should be multi aligned. It should have friends not only among the big and the powerful, but also among others with whom we generally may not engage much because given the limitations that we all operate on.
Many issues that the United Nations is dealing with are not limited to geographic locations, they are impinging on others and they are not confined to political elites. Each of the issues has an impact on the lives of ordinary people. Therefore, what diplomats do has gained in salience compared to what was the situation previously. Former Permanent Representative of India to the UN Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin discusses with Huma Siddiqui various issues ranging from importance of UNSC, situation in Afghanistan, Peacekeeping, and his recent book.
Following are excerpts:
How important is the UN Security Council and General Assembly in the present times?
Today’s challenges are transboundary in nature. No one state however big or powerful is able to address these challenges by itself. For instance, in the security sphere, there is the concern about terrorism. In the health sphere there is a concern about the pandemic and how to bring it under control.
If you look at the environment, the concern is about climate change. And if you look at technologies, the concern is about emerging technologies and what will be their impact on societies and on states. So if you look at each of these big items, which are now visible globally, and are impinging and impacting everybody’s lives, you will realize they are all transboundary in nature.
In the global bodies the agenda itself has changed.
Now, if that is so, what are the platforms to address this?
Of course the United Nations is one platform, which is inclusive, which is open and everybody who has a stake participates. Yes, it has not lived up to its reputation. It is not because of the institution, but of the structures that we have created, that underpin that institution. So the way to look at it is perhaps to think that it’s not an organization that would lead you to heaven, it’s an organization perhaps, which would save you from hell. But if you view it through that prism, it has served a purpose that it was set up for 75 years ago, which was to stop the third world war from occurring because of the first two wars that caused havoc. And the UN has succeeded in that.
The situation in Afghanistan is a matter of concern. There is a humanitarian crisis in the making. How can India contribute unger the UN Flag?
The situation in Afghanistan is difficult not only for India, the region or globally, but primarily for the people of that country. And it has come about largely because managed transitions never work out the way you think you want or you plan for. Therefore there is a situation which nobody had planned for and now it is a reality. Afghanistan, even in the best of circumstances, was the least developed country, which was in a difficult economic situation now with a multiplicity of problems, no government. Today, it faces a humanitarian catastrophe.
What is the quickest and best channel to address the humanitarian crisis in that country?
India can take up an international organization or international organizations under the UN umbrella. There are different organizations like World Food Program or UNICEF, or WHO etc, which operate even in places where there is uncertainty about which regime is in power or not. India, is the chair of the UN sanctions committee on Taliban, and has a role to play. We are on the Security Council that would help in bringing to the table concerns of the region of India specifically. And the third element is that we have invested a lot of our foreign assistance in Afghanistan.
So what do we do with this whole expanse of effort that has gone over the last 20 years?
India has a stake and has the advantage of location where it is in terms of the international chessboard, so it can and should play a role. And it does not mean we go there directly, because we also have serious concerns, especially on whether Afghan soil will be used for activities inimical to India. Also the Taliban as a dispensation has not been helpful to us. And it’s been considered by many as a proxy for forces, which are inimical to India.
Your views on Peacekeeping operations under the UN Flag.
We have a history where we have been supportive of gender equality. And under Peacekeeping Operations, we did send the first contingent of women police officers. The number of Indian women participating in peacekeeping is not either to our satisfaction as a country or to the UN satisfaction. Efforts are being made to try and ameliorate that situation. We are a big country and now with changes in our recruitment patterns, it will be helpful in sending more women troops. Presently, we send a very small number of troops, in terms of the proportion of our armed forces. So it should not be a problem for a country like India to adjust the numbers very quickly.
You are the Dean at Kautilya School of Public Policy. What is the purpose behind this new institute?
There is a need to recalibrate the role of government, of civil society and of academia in providing inputs for governance because issues are so complex that only one part of a society cannot address it. Our effort is to provide education for those who can assist in recalibration between government, business and society.
We have an educational pattern which mixes all three and we have in every course an academic component taught by an academic aid practitioner, a component taught by a practitioner, either from government or who has experience of government and a practitioner from either civil society, our business, depending on the nature of the course and the content. The idea is to expose students in an unconventional manner to what they will face. Then they move out of the confines of a closed academic environment because life doesn’t exactly follow a theoretical approach.
Your first book – India vs. UK: The Story of an Unprecedented Diplomatic Win – what is it about?
The Indian tradition has largely been seen as an oral tradition. If you look at it historically, very few Indian participants in events and narrate those and convert them into written material. Look at our history, which is written by foreign travelers, largely, very meticulously, with copious source material.
We need to move from being an oral tradition to being one, where the written word is also important because that lasts longer than the oral tradition. Secondly, for institutions to grow, for institutions to be nourished; you need stories to be told. Otherwise, those stories wither away with the moving on of participants. So institutions and institutional practices can only be built if people record what has happened, and others understand what were the compulsions and the needs at a certain stage.
I chose an instance. It is a reflection of how Indian foreign policy is evolving today. I chose the instance of electoral battle at the UN because I found that it’s a good present to look at evolving diplomatic practices of India and the implications of that. And for me, the biggest take away from that election was that we need to broaden our ties, yes, ties with the big and the great powers of the time are important, so are ties with middle and small powers because each state pursues its own national interests. At any given time, if you do not multi-align yourself, then it’s possible that, on certain issues or your views may not coalesce with the others, if you keep your frame of reference very narrow.
I gave an example of when all the permanent members were against us, because their interests were being challenged by a country, which had never challenged a permanent member. The rule was that all permanent members have to have seats on the International Court of Justice. Now, therefore it was in the interest of all five permanent members to support their fellow permanent member, because if one falls then like domino effect others may also be impacted. We had friends not only permanent but others too, we were able to survive that turbulence and take on the whole world.
The Takeaway from this book?
Foreign policy should be multi aligned. It should have friends not only among the big and the powerful, but also among others with whom we generally may not engage much because given the limitations that we all operate on. So let’s not forget that, it is in our interests to also have friends who have a longer term engagement with us and who would support us in times of crisis.