Thursday, Dec 01, 2022
For The Record

Why Foreign Policy Matters

Our choice is clear: we must be globally active if we are to create and maintain the society we want at home. And our success at home is the best guarantee that we will be respected and effective abroad.

Why Foreign Policy Matters
Why Foreign Policy Matters

Address by minister of state of external affairs at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University on 13 Aug 2009 and Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh on 19th August 2009

It is indeed a privilege to be addressing you on the subject of “Why Foreign Policy Matters”, and particularly to do so just a few days after our celebrations of the 62nd anniversary of our Independence. At that midnight hour when, in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s memorable words, India awoke to life and freedom, our country was deeply conscious of its international obligations. In his historic speech about India’s “tryst with destiny”, Nehruji, speaking of his country’s dreams, said: “Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart. Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.” These words are typical of that great nationalist that a time when the fires of Partition were blazing across the land, he thought not only of India, but of the world. In recalling that spirit 62 years later, I am pleased to see so many internationalist-minded young Indians here today.

In those six decades, the world has become even more closely knit together than Nehruji foresaw. Indeed, today I think it is fair to say that even those countries that once felt insulated from external dangers -- by wealth or strength or distance -- now fully realize that the safety of people everywhere depends not only on local security forces, but also on guarding against terrorism; warding off the global spread of pollution, of diseases, of illegal drugs and of weapons of mass destruction; and on promoting human rights, democracy and development.

Jobs everywhere, too, depend not only on local firms and factories, but on faraway markets for products and services, on licenses and access from foreign governments, on an international environment that allows the free movement of goods, services, and persons, and on international institutions that ensure stability – in short, on the international system that sustains our globalized world.

Today, whether you are a resident of Delhi or Dili, Durban or Darwin, Aligarh or Alabama – whether you are from Noida or New York– it is simply not realistic to think only in terms of your own country. Global forces press in from every conceivable direction. People, goods and ideas cross borders and cover vast distances with ever greater frequency, speed and ease. We are increasingly connected through travel, trade, the Internet; what we watch, what we eat and even the games we play.

These benign forces are matched by more malign ones that are equally global. When I was only a few years older than most of you, I began my United Nations career dealing with people without passports, refugees caught in the conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia. In my later career, I learned that these people personified what the United Nations was increasingly called upon to deal with, "problems without passports" — problems that cross all frontiers uninvited, problems of terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of the degradation of our common environment, of contagious disease and chronic starvation, of human rights and human wrongs, of mass illiteracy and massive displacement. Such problems also require solutions that cross all frontiers, since no one country or group of countries can solve them alone.

Let us not forget that 9/11 made clear the old cliché about our global village – for it showed that a fire that starts in a remote thatched hut or dusty tent in one corner of that village can melt the steel girders of the tallest skyscrapers at the other end of our global village.

In such a world, issues that once seemed very far away are very much in your backyard. What happens in North America or North Africa – from protectionist politics to deforestation and desertification to the fight against AIDS – can affect your lives wherever you live, even here in North India. And your choices here – what you buy, how you vote – can resound far away. As someone once said about water pollution, we all live downstream. We are all interconnected, and we can no longer afford the luxury of not thinking about the rest of the planet in anything we do.

Our choice is clear: we must be globally active if we are to create and maintain the society we want at home. And our success at home is the best guarantee that we will be respected and effective abroad.

After all, your own lives reflect a variety of global experiences. What does it mean to be a young person in Delhi or Aligarh today? It can mean waking up to an alarm clock made in China, downing a cup of tea from leaves first planted by the British, donning jeans designed in America and taking a Japanese scooter or a Korean car to get to an Indian college, where your textbooks might be printed with German-invented technology on paper first pulped in Sweden. You might call your friends on a Finnish mobile phone to invite them to an Italian pizza or even what you think of as desi khana, featuring naan that came here from Persia, tandoori chicken taught to us by rulers from Uzbekistan and aloo and hari mirch that first came to India only 400 years ago from Latin America. And the most desi thing of all, of course, is suspicion of anything foreign.

Suspicion of things foreign has hardly been absent from our own country’s political experience. In India, self-reliance and economic self-sufficiency were a mantra for more than four decades after independence, and there were real doubts as to whether the country should open itself further to the world economy. Whereas in most of the West, most people axiomatically associate capitalism with freedom, India’s nationalists associated capitalism with slavery. Why? Because the British East India Company came to trade and stayed on to rule. So India’s nationalist leaders were suspicious of every foreigner with a briefcase, seeing him as the thin edge of a neo-imperial wedge. Instead of integrating India into the global capitalist system, as only a handful of post-colonial countries like Singapore chose to do, India’s leaders (and those of most of the former colonies) were convinced that the political independence they had fought for so hard and long could only be guaranteed through economic independence. So self-reliance became the slogan, the protectionist barriers went up, and India spent 45 years with bureaucrats rather than businessmen on the “commanding heights” of the economy, often, despite the best of intentions, subsidizing unproductivity, regulating stagnation and effectively, if unwittingly, distributing not wealth but poverty. (Which only goes to prove that one of the lessons you learn from history is that history sometimes teaches the wrong lessons.)

It was only after a world-class financial crisis in 1991, when our government had to physically ship its reserves of gold to London to stand collateral for an IMF loan, failing which we might have defaulted on our debt, that India liberalized its economy under our then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. Since then we have become a poster-child for globalization. Our growth and prosperity would be impossible without the rest of the world.

To the young people here, let me say that you are likely to spend a lot of your adult lives interacting with people who don’t look, sound, dress or eat like you; that you might work for an internationally-oriented company with clients, colleagues or investors from around the globe; and that you are likely to take your holidays in far-flung destinations. The world into which you will grow will be full of such opportunities. But along with such opportunities, you may also find yourself vulnerable to threats from beyond our borders: terrorism, of course, but also transnational crime syndicates, counterfeiters of currency, drug smugglers, child traffickers, internet spammers, credit-card crooks and even imported illnesses like swine flu.

Wouldn’t you want your government to devise policies to deal with such challenges that would affect your, and one day your children’s, lives? Should such policies, in an ever more interdependent world, even be called foreign? One of the reasons that foreign policy matters today is that foreign policy is no longer merely foreign: it affects you right here where you live. You want your government to seize the opportunities that the 21st century world provides, while managing the risks and protecting you from the threats that this world has also opened you up to.

Indians therefore have a growing stake in international developments. To put it another way, the food we grow and we eat, the air we breathe, and our health, security, prosperity and quality of life are increasingly affected by what happens beyond our borders. And that means we can simply no longer afford to be indifferent about our neighbours, however distant they may appear. Ignorance is not a shield; it is not even, any longer, an excuse. Knowledge of others, on the other hand, brings great advantages in today’s world.

At the same time, much of what we are in the process of accomplishing at home – to pull our people out of poverty and to develop our nation -- enables us to contribute to a better world. This is of value in itself, and it is also in our fundamental national interest. A world that is peaceful and prosperous, where trade is freer and universally-agreed principles are observed, and in which democracy, the co-existence of civilizations and respect for human rights flourish, is a world of opportunity for India and for Indians to thrive.

If this century has, in the famous phrase, made the world safe for democracy, the next challenge is to make a world safe for diversity. It is in India’s interest to ensure that the world as a whole must reflect the idea that is already familiar to all Indians — that it shouldn't matter what the colour of your skin is, the kind of food you eat, the sounds you make when you speak, the God you choose to worship (or not), so long as you want to play by the same rules as everybody else, and dream the same dreams. It is not essential in a democratic world to agree all the time, as long as we agree on the ground rules of how we will disagree. These are the global principles we must strive to uphold if we are to be able to continue to uphold them securely at home.

Because the distinction between domestic and international is less and less meaningful in today’s world, when we think of foreign policy we must also think of its domestic implications. The ultimate purpose of any country’s foreign policy is to promote the security and well-being of its own citizens. We want a world that gives us the conditions of peace and security that will permit us to grow and flourish, safe from foreign depredations but open to external opportunities.

At the same time there is a consensus in our country that India should seek to continue to contribute to international security and prosperity, to a well-ordered and equitable world, and to democratic, sustainable development for all.

This we will continue to do, and we will do so in an environment in which change is the only constant. If I may be permitted the indulgence of a personal reminiscence, let me tell you how much my old organization, the UN, has been transformed in the career span of this one former UN official speaking to you. If I had even suggested to my seniors when I joined the Organization in 1978 that the UN would one day observe and even run elections in sovereign states, conduct intrusive inspections for weapons of mass destruction, impose comprehensive sanctions on the entire import-export trade of a Member State, create a counter-terrorism committee to monitor national actions against terrorists, or set up international criminal tribunals and coerce governments into handing over their citizens to be tried by foreigners under international law, I am sure they would have told me that I simply did not understand what the United Nations was all about. (And indeed, since that was in the late 1970s, they might well have asked me – “Young man, what have you been smoking?”)

And yet the UN has done every one of those things during the last two decades, and more. It is a reflection of how much the world around has evolved since the era when the Cold War seemed frozen in place, borders seemed immutable, and the Soviet Union looked as if it would last for ever. If all of those things could change so dramatically within one generation, shouldn’t we be better prepared, as a country and a society, for similar changes to happen in the lifetime of your generation?

Indeed, the institutions of global governance have been expanding beyond the UN itself. There are selective inter-governmental mechanisms like the G-8, military alliances like NATO, sub-regional groupings like the Economic Community of West African States, one-issue alliances like the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Writers connect under International PEN, soccer players in FIFA, athletes under the International Olympic Committee, mayors in the World Organization of United Cities and Local governments. Bankers listen to the Bank of International Settlements and businessmen to the International Accounting Standards Board. The process of regulating human activity above and beyond national boundaries has never been more widespread.

To these elements of international co-operation we must add a veritable alphabet soup of new bodies and new arrangements for multilateral engagement. India alone belongs to IBSA, to BRIC, to SAARC and the East Asian Summit; it is a member of the G-20 and the ARF; it observes the meetings of the SCO and attends the G-8. It pursues its interests in organizations as universal and well-known as the UN and as small and obscure as IOR-ARC.

It’s not just multilateral organizations we should think about: the world has changed in other ways too. Today, the smartest executive jets are made by Embraer of Brazil; the tallest building in the world is currently in Dubai, an incomplete structure that has just overtaken the previous tallest building, in Taipei; the world’s biggest plane is being built in Russia and Ukraine; the world’s largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore; the biggest shopping mall is in Beijing; and the country with the largest number of nationals in the Forbes list of the world’s ten richest people is India, with four billionaires whose combined assets, once valued at $180 billion, exceed those of the majority of the member states of the United Nations. Thirty years ago, all these categories would have been headed by the United States. The US remains the world’s sole superpower, but others are catching up fast in various areas where it had alone been dominant.

This is the world to which India must learn to adapt. It was Mahatma Gandhi who famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” That applies to India too. We seek to redefine our place in a world that has changed from the geopolitical realities of 1945 which shaped the current international system, including the permanent membership of the Security Council. We are today one of the world’s largest economies, a proud player on the global stage with a long record of responsible conduct on international matters. But is our foreign policy apparatus commensurate with the challenge? Is our society as a whole imbued with a consciousness of the strategic opportunity that engagement with the globe offers? Can we be taken seriously as a potential world leader in the 21st century if we do not develop the institutions, the practices, the personnel and the mindset required to lead in the global arena?

Our foreign policy debates in Parliament and the media seem obsessed with Pakistan or with ephemera, or worse, ephemera about Pakistan. There is little appetite for an in-depth discussion about, say, the merits of participating in the Non-Aligned Movement or the Conference of Democracies, or the importance we should give to such bodies as SAARC or the Indian Ocean Rim Conference. As Minister of State for External Affairs I suppose I should be grateful, even relieved, at being allowed to get on with foreign policy making without the interference of the general public. But in my view foreign policy is too important an issue to be left to the ministry of External Affairs alone. Our society as a whole, and particularly its educated young people, must care enough about India’s place in the world to participate actively in shaping our international posture.

And yet the picture around us is a pretty dismal one. International relations is a neglected subject on our campuses; I have deliberately chosen to speak on this topic at a college/university, which does not offer a course of study in international relations. The few colleges that do offer the subject do so in a formalistic and formulaic fashion that ill-equip the student to understand the realities of our contemporary world. JNU apart, few can hold a candle to the universities in China, Russia or the West that teach international relations to young people of a similar age to the majority of you.

We do have a handful of thinkers on international issues and a fistful of think-tanks, but in quantum and quality of expertise and range of output they all have a long way to go before they match the role played by, for example, their equivalents in the United States.

And what about the young people so well represented here today, who must shape the future orientation of India to the world? A young Indian scholar, Raja Karthikeya Gundu, recently wrote: “Few Indian students go beyond the West for study, and even if they wanted to, there are barely any scholarships or resources from government or private sector to do so. The average Indian has barely any understanding of foreign cultures, norms and worldviews, and satellite TV and Internet have not managed to change this. Hence, in the absence of global exposure, Indians continue to be an inward-looking nation burdened by prejudice. Thus, it is no surprise that when Indians travel abroad for the first time in their mature years, they are often culturally inadaptable and even mildly xenophobic.” This strikes me as somewhat overstated, and yet there is a kernel of truth in it.

The situation will not improve unless we improve the study of international affairs at our colleges and universities. Last year I was invited by my Singaporean friend Kishore Mahbubani to join a gathering organized by his Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, of some of the most eminent scholars of International Relations to brainstorm on improving the current state of the discipline in India. I couldn’t join his effort but one scholar who did, Amitabh Mattoo, observed that “There are few other disciplines in India… where the gulf between the potential and the reality is as wide as it is in the teaching and research of IR at Indian universities. Interest in India and India’s interest in the world are arguably at their highest in modern times, and yet Indian scholarship on global issues is showing few signs of responding to this challenge.”

Today, IR is taught in more than 100 universities in India, but in Mattoo’s words, “most of the IR departments have a shortage of qualified faculty, poor infrastructure, outdated curriculum and few research opportunities”. More than half the departments do not even have access to the internet, and are deprived of the rich wealth of online resources that students elsewhere in the world can command. Books and journals are in short supply. Little expertise has been developed in specific areas or countries of concern to India; to take one example, despite all the fuss about the reference to Balochistan in the recent joint statement at Sharm-el Shaikh, there is no major scholar of Baloch studies in India to whom either the MEA or its critics can turn. Foreign languages are poorly taught, resources for study trips abroad are scarce, research is of varying quality and opportunities for cross-fertilization at academic conferences practically non-existent. Whereas China, a latecomer to the field, has already developed, in the last three decades, a critical mass of students and scholars of IR, we are behind where we were in the heady days of the Nehruvian 1950s when we established bodies like Sapru House and the Indian Council of World Affairs which we have allowed to atrophy.

My friend Kanti Bajpai has argued that, "Rising powers seem to get the IR they need." But it won't just happen. We need to change the way we all think about international relations: you, the future leaders of this country, and we, its present ones. The MEA is willing to play its part, in collaboration with those responsible for educational policy, to bring about the change I have been calling for.

To return to Amitabh Mattoo, he warns, "India's inability to develop a sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of the world outside will have more serious consequences than just the dwarfing of a discipline. It could well stunt India's ability to influence the international system."  That is an outcome that, for all the reasons I have described, we can ill afford.

Mahatma Gandhi's point about "being the change" applies to my ministry too. Even though my experience of it from within is relatively new, I do believe there are some changes we ourselves can bring about and which I will be advocating in the months ahead. Some specific examples:

  • As I said earlier, I believe foreign policy is much too important an issue to be left to the foreign ministry alone. Discussion of international relations should not be confined to the seminar rooms in Delhi, and that is why I was delighted on 11th August 2009 to lead a seminar on Indo-Arab relations in Cochin. All Indians, even 2000 kilometers away from the nation’s capital, have a vital stake in the development of our foreign policy. I would welcome much more spirited exchanges between MEA officials and academia, the corporate sector and civil society, in person, through regular meetings and even email, respecting confidentiality but not fighting shy of ideas or opinion that challenges our entrenched mindsets.
  • Foreign language assignments to IFS officers. I have been struck by how often I have come across Chinese speakers in our consulates in Germany or Anglophone diplomats in France. Surely we can aim at a time when every national language is spoken by at least one Indian officer and an eventual time when every one of our missions is headed by an Ambassador who knows the language, be it Khmer or Korean, Spanish or Swahili.
  • I have written elsewhere of the need to develop and exploit India’s considerable "soft power", by making this integral to the work of our territorial divisions, rather than leaving it solely to umbrella entities like ICCR and the Public Diplomacy Division. This will mean taking Indian literature, culture, music and dance abroad as an adjunct to Indian diplomacy, and doing so within a context of a coherent public diplomacy strategy that weaves together many institutions that currently function separately.
  • Recently, we have seen the stirrings of a purposeful debate on whether the IFS exam should be distinct and separate from others in the UPSC. During my days in college, pretty much everyone aimed at the Foreign Service, and the Foreign Service drew exclusively from the top ten finishers in the national competitive examinations. Today, as working abroad for the government has lost some of its allure, this is no longer the case; indeed, for many applicants the IFS is a third or even fourth preference amongst the career options available to those who do well in the exams. I feel strongly that a diplomat should not be someone who fell short of his or her real goal of being an administrator, revenue official or police officer. We need internationalist-minded young Indians who see the chance of serving the country abroad not only as a privilege but as something indispensable to India’s growth and prosperity.

The tragedy of 26/11 confirmed yet again how much greater coordination we need among the many programmes and players in government involved with security and other international issues, and how essential is the modernization of our domestic and international instruments to keep Indians safe. We will have to work harder in government, and with Indians of all walks of life ¡V including business groups interested in foreign markets and in international investors -- to ensure that we break down the ¡§narrow domestic walls¡¨ that Tagore wrote about and promote a coherent, visible Indian approach to the world, backed with sufficient resources to take action and to get our messages across clearly. This will help to ensure that India remains influential on issues of concern in an increasingly competitive world.

In other words, the sustainability and success of our international policy depends on both leadership by the government of India and the active involvement of young Indians. The government is committed to protecting and advancing the global citizenship of all of you, but it cannot be done without your strong involvement.

The world, I am convinced, is going your way. You are a new, globalized, impatient generation of Indians who rightly refuse to be confined to the limited worldviews of older generations. The horizons of your world are ever widening. The prospects for international engagement, for more widespread prosperity, for more borderless success, have never been brighter. But the world needs your commitment, too.

I call upon you all today to commit yourself to thinking about India and the world – about India in the world – and your own role in learning about it, helping to shape it, and one day, I hope, helping to lead it.


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