Foreign Policy and You. Edited excerpts of my address at the inaugural St. Stephen’s MRF Annual distinguished lecture published in today’s
. Full version here:
EAM’s address at St Stephen’s MRF Distinguished Alumni Annual Lecture (March 24, 2022)
Foreign Policy and You, Address by External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar
Inaugural St. Stephen’s- MRF Distinguished Alumni Lecture by External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar
March 24, 2022
Principal, Dr. John Varghese
Mr. Rahul Mammen, Mr. Samir Mapillai, Dr. Chinkhanlun
Guite, Ms. Ann Susan Aleyas
Distinguished faculty, Junior member, Alumni, Guests
Let me begin by emphasizing what a great pleasure it is to be back in College. And it is a great honour to be invited to deliver the first MRF Distinguished Alumni Annual Lecture. I have always thought of myself as a Chowkidar, but I am delighted to know that others can see me as a nightingale, so that’s my big take away for today.
2. Now, this venerable institution has left its imprint in many ways on the making of modern India. I would emphasise, however, that its contribution in the realm of foreign policy has been particularly strong. Scores of Foreign Service officers have passed through its gates over the decades. And currently, both the External Affairs Minister and the Foreign Secretary have had the privilege of studying here. As indeed have our present Ambassadors to the United States, Russia, France, Canada and Switzerland amongst others, the list is much longer. And In fact, if you think about it, our alumni include three Foreign Ministers, a Minister of State, a National Security Adviser and numerous distinguished Foreign Secretaries and Ambassadors. And may they keep growing.
3. Now it is natural that the theme of my talk should be on foreign policy. But rather than inflict another learned analysis of the state of the world, what I would like to do today is to approach that subject from a different perspective. After all, most of you may not be directly connected to foreign policy in your current or future occupation. But my message to you is that whatever you do in life, the influence of external events will be very considerable. There are few activities that are immune from the globalized world. Keeping this in mind, I would like to talk today about what to the average person is a ‘good’ foreign policy.
4. Perhaps we over-complicate the answer by confusing the sensible pursuit of interests with very complex formulations. So forget the terminology and just look for the gut answers. A good foreign policy must work for you all; and I include that right here listening to me. Your everyday needs from the world must be better met. And since we are a collective as a country, our national security must be assured. As that is done, the pursuit of our aspirations must be facilitated. Foreign policy being the link to the outside, it should enable us to draw what we seek. This could be in terms of technology or capital, best practices, or even work opportunities. And obviously we would all like to be strong; we would like to look good and we would like to feel appreciated. Any policy which ensures all these goals has a lot going for it. It does not necessarily have to sound nice; it must simply pass the smell test.
5. Now think for a moment as an Indian student who happened to still be in Ukraine on the 24th of February this year. Concerned about your educational prospects, you have now found yourself in the middle of a serious conflict. And it is not just you, it’s 20,000 more of your fellow nationals and there are at the same time millions of Ukranians who are trying to get out of the country. Internal travel is itself dangerous and complicated. The borders are even more so due to over-crowding and congestion. And in the highly impacted cities, there is even the physical danger of just stepping out in the open due to shelling and air strikes. Now this is when you really look to your Government for support and for extrication. And indeed, this is when the entire foreign policy apparatus swings into action as it did through Operation Ganga. It does so by facilitating transport, and this includes trains and buses. It intervenes at the highest levels in Russia and Ukraine to ensure the ceasing of fire for safe passage. It engages the border authorities to ensure border crossing. And in extreme cases, such as, there is a particular town called Sumy, it even traverses conflict zones to assure you of the necessary logistics for your safety. And once you are out of Ukraine, it works with neighbouring Governments in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Moldova to establish transit camps, to utilize their air fields and to organize the flights which are required for your safe return home. Now reflect for a moment on these efforts, the interventions, the relationships at various levels that have gone into this – starting from the very top and think of what it needed to make all of this happen.
6. Or let me give you a second example – I go to Kabul on the 15th of August 2021- last year. Now for whatever reason, imagine that you found yourself stranded in the middle of the city when the Taliban took over. A huge effort was made by the Indian Government to bring exactly such people home. Quite apart from navigating a city now controlled by Taliban check points, you could well ask how difficult could this be. Well, let me tell you how difficult it was. It was as challenging as combining access to a secured American base that was on edge, surrounded by desperate Afghans and suspicious Taliban; of using Tajik rear support for very rapid responses, of accessing Iranian airspace at short notice and of quietly utilizing Qatari facilitation! Now there were some of our nationals who were beneficiaries of seats in flights run by the US, France, UK or the Emirates and all these were very delicately negotiated. Now this might seem, even from my account, as exceptionally complicated logistics. But it was really more than that; behind it were years of relationships that really delivered at a time of need. Equally important, this represented the efficacy of a flexible and pragmatic Indian policy of multiple engagement.
7. Now the Operation Devi Shakti flights from Kabul may have been stressful, but they were still manageable at short notice. Much more daunting was India’s challenge in the face of demands generated by the Covid pandemic. The Vande Bharat Mission brought back millions of Indians from multiple countries through air, sea and land. It is, in fact, the largest recorded evacuation exercise in human history. The movement of the people itself was only the tip of the iceberg. Behind it were a complex set of activities that included organizing, gathering, testing, housing, even feeding those who are waiting to be repatriated. Starting first at Wuhan and then moving on to Italy and beyond, this involved an intensive engagement with the authorities local, provincial, national. And it covered everybody from tourists and students to professionals and workers, even pilgrims, fishermen and seafarers. And it was not just limited to Indians coming back; many staying abroad, in the Gulf for instance, were given support directly or by interceding with local Governments. Here too, the results of cultivation by political leaders and diplomats paid off.
8. An example in public health during the same period is equally instructive. When the first wave of Covid hit India in 2020, we scrambled across the world to secure PPEs, masks and ventilators. And we did so in a seller’s market as the demand far exceeded supply. Ingredients for the pharmaceutical industry with escalating requirements were also greatly sought after. And commerce by itself was not adequate in such circumstances; in fact, contacts were needed for effective access. The second wave in 2021 saw a similar spike in demand for oxygen and specialised medicines from abroad. Locating, negotiating and contracting supplies became the priority for Indian diplomacy. And it really bent its back to deliver.
9. Now these four examples that I shared with you, they may be the products of extraordinary situations. But they do illustrate what is an undeniable reality. And it is that our daily life is increasingly influenced by what happens elsewhere, be they problems or be they solutions. So, the next time you are watching a foreign visit, hearing a discussion on an important relationship, or reading a debate about our interests abroad, remember that this may have a direct bearing on your well-being. Foreign policy matters not just in distress situations. It could literally determine your security, your job, the quality of your life, and as we have discovered recently, even your health. It shapes what you hold dear: like pride, values, reputation and image. And for all these reasons and more, it is important that you take a greater interest in the world.
10. Now let me explore what foreign policy could mean for you personally. As an Indian student, for example, it may be the ease of getting visas, the ability to travel during times of Covid, and perhaps even employment after studies. If you are a businessperson, it could help access to foreign markets, receiving information about regulations and practices, and where circumstances demand, assistance to solve problems. For the professionals and workers, this may be visible in ensuring fair employment contracts, a stronger sense of protection and welfare measures in times of difficulties. And for a stranded tourist, a sympathetic Embassy provides much-needed succour and support, and in more threatening circumstances, examples of which I gave you, even evacuation. But you do not have to be abroad to need foreign policy; it matters at home just as much.
11. When it comes to security, external or internal, diplomacy could be a preventive, a mitigator or a problem-solver. It can help raise awareness of a shared threat, just as it can find partners against common dangers. So, if you are a soldier guarding our frontiers or a policeman grappling with terrorism, a good foreign policy makes your life a little safer. And then there is the economy, with its search for investment, technology and best practices. In each of these sectors, foreign relationships can accelerate India’s progress. And cumulatively, what they do is to expand employment and improve your quality of life. Whether it is the cooking oil or pulses that are imported or a smart phone that is produced collaboratively, a larger policy decision has just made some difference to your purse. And bear in mind this is the era of globalization. So, whether it is oil, coal or fertilizer, or many other daily necessities, foreign policy can actually serve to ensure affordable access.
12. But also think for a moment how much the big issues of our times – pandemics, terrorism, climate change – how much they impact your very existence. And ask yourself whether we should not have a greater say in the search for solutions. It also matters to all of us what other nations think of India, our culture and our way of life. So, should we not then shape our image and influence the narrative? These are but a sample of how in an increasingly inter-connected world, the attitude, perceptions and interests of others are so relevant. If they have to be managed, if they have to be leveraged, then it is all the more necessary for a sharper realization at home that foreign policy really matters.
13. Now for all societies, security ranks foremost in their priorities. The reasons are very obvious: it affects the very nature of our collective. India faces more than its fair share of external challenges, in part because so many of our boundaries have not been settled. Given the serious repercussions, diplomacy is also very relevant to ensuring peace and tranquillity, if not more. In that sense, it is a critical support for defence. Most of the time, it is, in fact, the first line as a preventive; on occasion, it is also the back-up as a mitigator. Indeed, the achievements of foreign policy in stabilizing the neighbourhood are very much the basis for progress and development at home.
14. The world being what it is, self-interest and convergence cannot be fully counted upon, especially with neighbours. Their ambitions and emotions are not always predictable, nor indeed their risk-taking propensity. Few would have anticipated, for example, the turn that India’s relations with China have taken in the last two years. Any prudent policy therefore backs its posture with capabilities and deterrence. A big responsibility of Indian diplomacy, therefore, is to create the widest set of options for such contingencies. This could mean acquisition of defence capabilities and other supportive measures or securing the understanding for our policies and actions from the international community. And for that matter, in managing or resolving more fraught situations. So, let us look at how all of that has worked in the last few years.
15. A notable achievement of the Modi Government was to implement in 2015 the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. In conjunction with the resolution of maritime differences, this has had a positive impact on the security situation in the East. More than that, it has opened up possibilities for economic cooperation and connectivity for the entire sub-region. The beneficiaries are not just India-Bangladesh trade and travel and that involving even Nepal and Bhutan, but also the North Eastern States of India.
16. A very different challenge is being faced on our Western boundary vis-a-vis Pakistan. On that front, the initial goal of diplomacy was to expose and de-legitimize Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism. When counter-actions were required such as in Uri in 2016 and Balakot in 2019, effective diplomacy ensured global understanding of India’s actions. Where China was concerned, the diplomatic interactions that are going on in parallel to the military stand-off since May 2020 illustrate that foreign and defence policies are really joined at the hip. Here too, the value of global support and understanding is self-evident.
17. The leveraging of a multi-polar world has been particularly visible in terms of weapons and technologies needed by our defence forces. That a Rafale aircraft acquisition from France can take place at the same time as that of an MH-60R helicopter or P-8 aircraft from the US, the S-400 missile system from Russia or the Spice bombs from Israel speaks volumes of our nimbleness. These are typically accompanied by military exercises and policy exchanges that bring about greater strategic comfort. In short, diplomacy supports, empowers and facilitates the national security effort.
18. Some of this happens on the domestic side as well, even if it is less obvious. Peace at home has often been troubled by insurgent groups operating in the neighbourhood. Adept diplomacy, however, has effectively discouraged neighbours from providing shelter or support, with one notable exception of course. Separatism and fundamentalism have also been propagated from destinations afar, just as violence is sometimes rationalized. The protections of free speech are misused, usually in the name of democratic rights. So when arguments and persuasion reach limits, other forms of displeasure sometimes need to be expressed. Our overall posture does radiate the message that India will no longer be a soft target and diplomacy in that sense is not always a pleasant business.
19. Now since the quest for prosperity is a constant endeavour for all societies, it is also natural that policy-making is devoted to this goal. The most obvious expression of that is the promotion of trade and investments. Markets rarely work by themselves; in reality, in fact, everybody utilizes governmental encouragement and facilitation. Those with historical handicaps like us have an even stronger reason to do so. We are playing today catch-up on industrialization, on technology acquisition and on competitiveness. Just building capabilities at home, however, may not be adequate. Securing business abroad needs the information, networking and access. There is a virtuous cycle at work here, whereby greater trade and economic activity strengthens skills, capabilities and employment at home. And that, in turn, constantly updates and tests our mettle. In many ways, foreign policy is an exercise in competitiveness; its economic facets are merely a reflection in a particular domain. If we have just crossed an export record, which we have by the way this year, foreign policy too has made its contribution in that record.
20. Increasingly, foreign policy facilitates the creation of new capacities at home. In Asia, all modernizing economies have single-mindedly focused their external interactions on obtaining capital, technology and best practices from abroad. Japan was the pioneer in this regard during the Meiji era, while China after Deng Xiaoping the most successful in terms of scale. In recent years, India too has embraced this mindset. We have noted examples, whether at the enterprise level or in national projects. It may be information technology or auto manufacturing, food production or food processing, metros or bullet trains, space capabilities or nuclear energy; the fruits of foreign collaboration are there today for all of us to see. Newer challenges like green growth and climate action have started to open up still more possibilities. Partners have grown from the older industrialized economies to the more innovative ones. All this happens because of our ability to identify, engage, negotiate and leverage opportunities of interest abroad across many many domains. The most effective foreign policy is one that delivers on development.
21. Thanks to political changes, we have now awoken to the realization that mantras about globalization, when mindlessly applied, can actually cause real damage. Not just that, if economic choices are divorced from a strategic context, it could lead the country down a very dangerous path. At the end of the day, the real debate is not whether we should be an open or a protected economy. It is whether we are an employment-centric and a capability-driven one or just a profit-obsessed society content to be a market. Along with vulnerabilities, a dependent mind-set has also been rationalized, masquerading often as globalized thinking. But I believe that India’s destiny is bigger than just to be a small part of the future of others. Real growth is not only about GDP increase and business earnings; it is equally about infrastructure, about supply chains, skills, finance and even socio-economic progress. When we sacrifice one for the other, our long-term prospects stand imperilled. And we could slide into strategic lock-ins without even being aware. Foreign policy is surely an instrument to advance our strategic course; but it is equally an insurance that our big picture is the right one.
22. In an era of more inter-dependence and even inter-penetration, it is also to be expected that all nations would seek to expand their zones of deep influence beyond their national boundaries. In the past, trade, finance, military activities and migration were some of the means to do so. Nowadays, the role of connectivity and socio-economic collaboration has become much more salient. This is important for a nation like India, whose reach was constrained by the Partition. As we grow in different dimensions, strategic sense dictates that our prosperity serves as a larger lifting tide for the entire region. Realizing this, the Modi Government has significantly expanded connectivity and collaborative initiatives with our neighbours. Its results are evident in new road and rail connections, water ways, port access and transit rights, power grids and fuel flows, and especially in the movement of people. South Asia has undergone a real transformation by encouraging win-win outcomes and buy-ins by partners. The Neighbourhood First outlook addresses this challenge in the immediate vicinity, just as parallel policies do so in our extended neighbourhood. India’s support to neighbours during the Covid period also reflected this very thinking.
23. Inter-dependence, however, has its own downside and can be leveraged unfairly when global norms are cast aside. Exposure to competitive polities, therefore, needs constant monitoring. We cannot always assume that others will play by our rules. For that reason, as an interpreter of the world, diplomacy is also the voice of caution. It informs people of the risks and pitfalls, even as it explains opportunities. And doing so in a systemic and organized manner is actually very much a part of formulating strategy. By its very nature, foreign policy develops a 360o outlook and can actually guide all other sectors. It could be trade and technology, or education and tourism. But current era really requires a holistic approach to important relationships.
24. At a time when demographic constraints are impacting the developed world, there is a real prospect of Indians gaining significantly in the global workplace. Till now, that has been largely self-driven with policymakers and the government mostly agnostic on this happening. However, a conscious effort at bringing our human capital into play on the world stage can actually create a very different set of outcomes. Employment prospects of Indian students studying in the US, in Canada, Australia or Europe are now very prominent in our agenda in interacting with these countries. Migration and mobility partnerships have been concluded with France, UK and Portugal, many more of them are on the way. And in fact, in this period of Covid-induced uncertainties, the educational interests of students have become very much a subject of focus for foreign policy. In terms of skills, we strive to ensure that Indian talent is treated in a non-discriminatory manner in the developed world – in US, in Canada and in Europe.
25. Where they already reside, community welfare and cultural concerns too are a subject of our attention. The largest numbers with the greatest need are, of course, in the Gulf. Their well-being is of the utmost priority and that has been fully reflected in our policy-making. The liberal usage of the Indian Community Welfare Fund speaks of a strong sense of responsibility towards them, as do programmes for job training and creating facilities for those in distress. The agreement on rights of domestic workers that we concluded quite recently with Kuwait is a very good illustration of our commitment to ensuring a better workplace abroad for our people. Endeavours to get back social security payments made abroad is another example. Indeed, making it easier to get work visas has become much more central to our diplomats’ efforts.
26. This mindset, in fact, goes much further up the chain, starting from how much easier it is now to get passports at home. By expanding the issuance-centres four-fold and by simplifying the verification process, the ability to travel and therefore to work abroad, that has undergone a sea change. Today, new prospects are opening up for Indian skills as a result of negotiated agreements, be it with Russia, Europe, the Gulf or Japan. Foreign policy is helping to make the world much more accessible to the average Indian. And they set out much more confidently than before, knowing that we have their back in times of difficulty.
27. But let us not forget that contemporary migrants join historically established communities to create a large diaspora. It is natural that their welfare and interest is connected deeply with foreign policy. In a more globalized world, they inevitably emerged as a more effective bridge for us to the outside. At the same time, a confident India has also taken pride in their successes and not shied away from a visible relationship. The 2014 event, which many of you would remember, at the Madison Square Garden, marks a new era in our diaspora connectivity. The role of the diaspora has acquired a greater value at both ends of the chain. For foreign policy, this may mean some additional responsibilities but surely it creates many more sources of support.
28. Sensible foreign policies obviously have to address bread and butter issues. But, especially for large nations, there are bigger questions for us to consider as well. Three contemporary examples of urgent global concerns, I mentioned them in terms of big issues, are terrorism, climate change and pandemics. For a nation like India, quite apart from their direct consequences, there is also the need to shape the direction of the global debate. It has, therefore, been a major influence on global deliberations regarding the countering of terrorism. If the awareness of those threats is more today or if the tolerance is less, our efforts have made no small difference. On climate change, India not only helped forge a consensus at Paris but, in contrast to many others, has actually stayed true to its commitments. And at Glasgow, where I had the privilege of accompanying the Prime Minister, these were taken to a still higher level. The International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure are two notable examples of leadership in climate action. On pandemics, India’s supply of medicines and vaccines and deployment of teams abroad spoke volumes about our internationalism. The Vaccine Maitri has earned us great goodwill across geographies.
29. The cumulative impact of eight years of an ambitious yet practical foreign policy is now there for all of you to see. It is evident in our say in the big issues of our times, whether they are global challenges or strategic concerns. It is manifest too in the immediate neighbourhood and the extended one. As India wins elections in international organizations and bodies, that testifies to a larger constituency of support. Appreciation of India’s heritage, culture and tradition is broader, visible and not least reflected in the global observance of the International Day of Yoga. A more culturally assured India has also been more internationalist in its actions, affirming its own traditions rather than complying with the dichotomy put forward by others. The Covid experience reinforced the reputation that India has built up as a First Responder in humanitarian situations in the Indo-Pacific. The coming generations must therefore appreciate that even as we are accorded greater respect, the world will have higher expectations of us.
30. To appreciate the full extent of this change, the profound consequences of 2014 have to be understood. A different world view propelled a comprehensive review of our foreign policy. There was a conscious effort towards a ‘whole of the Government’ approach and more effective budgeting to back that up. The oversight of initiatives and projects – it’s called Pragati within the government – has became a regular occurrence. The six broad objectives that were spelt out to the policy-makers and implementers were very very clear. One, we must bring about a change of thinking in the world about us. Two, the partnerships we should create should be on more equal terms, and with smaller countries, more generous. Three, the global agenda and the big issues of our times should be shaped by India as much as possible. Counter-terrorism, climate action and black money were the immediate concerns, to which, of course, were later added maritime security, connectivity and pandemics. Four, foreign relationships should be actively explored and leveraged for domestic development and progress. Five, the very conceptualization of foreign policy should be more people-centric. It should look at the world as a global work-place, and I spoke at some length about that, not just as a marketplace. In parallel, there should be a greater focus on the Indian diaspora as an effective bridge. And six, our culture, traditions and thoughts should percolate our own articulation as well as influence international debates and initiatives. Yoga and Ayurveda were obvious examples in this regard.
31. In the years that have passed, the progress report on this transformation has actually been quite encouraging. The new energy in India’s endeavours is evident, notably in Prime Minister Modi’s own engagements. Some of India’s neighbours had not bilaterally hosted an Indian Prime Minister for years on end. Even a proximate region like the Gulf, leave alone those much further off, had seen a want of high-level attention for decades. Smaller nations, whether they are in the Caribbean or the Pacific, had actually been completely neglected. And to be very honest with you, Nations of Africa and Latin America had found their reach-out to be inadequately reciprocated. Now all of this has changed, and you can see that in terms of visits – bilateral visits, in terms of collective summits, in development partnerships and in fact opening of more Indian Embassies abroad. In our immediate region, the message of Neighbourhood First began to resonate, in fact, from the swearing-in ceremony in 2014. Its successor in 2019 further reinforced that impression. But this was not just symbolism; discernible progress in projects and activities have also lent it credibility.
32. So, what then of grand strategy, which is a concept, which is so closely associated with international relations? What I have presented you today are the building blocks which are dissected in a manner that their impact on your lives are discernible. Do connect the dots and look at the picture that emerges. A stronger and more capable India – one that is truer to its roots and culture – is a key factor in the larger rebalancing that characterizes our contemporary world. At a time when there are many more power centres, our place in a multi-polar order is clearly more assured. In an era that is more globalized, our talents, capabilities and contribution have a growing value for the rest of the world. As we mark 75 years of independence, Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, there is good cause to be confident about our prospects. But to be so, it is equally important that all of you be fully aware of the opportunities and challenges that the world currently presents. And surely, we can be so once we appreciate how much foreign policy really matters.
Thank you very much for your attention.