For those seeking to discover where the Manmohan Singh government stands on the major foreign policy issues of the day at the end of its nearly nine-year record in managing the country’s diplomacy, the address to the Munich Security Conference ten days ago by the national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, was a robust exposition. But it is typical of the United Progressive Alliance government’s public outreach that Menon’s speech can nowhere be found within the government’s information system till the time of writing this column. Diplomats in Chanakyapuri, who hang on to every word of what the national security adviser says, sometimes in a style that reflects his Chinese experiences, had a difficult time locating his speech last week until a news and feature agency decided to put it out on their website.
Menon’s rational assessment of India’s diplomatic standing has come at a time when some presumptuous ‘great power’ assumptions among sections of the political class are doing much harm. But his analysis is important not for that reason alone. India was completely marginalized at the same conference last year. In 2011, it managed to keep a toehold on the margins of the meeting aside from the significant bilaterals that have little to do with conference itself. But this year was different — and the difference was instructive. The practice of getting stakeholders in international security to Munich annually under the agenda of a Wehrkundetagung or Defense Conference goes back to 50 years ago, immediately after the Berlin Wall physically cut off the ideological and political East from the West in international affairs. But even after the event was formally renamed the Munich Security Conference five years ago because its old name was no longer sustainable, it has robustly attempted to remain the most prestigious global forum for regularly releasing test balloons on trans-Atlantic relationships.
However, for the first time this year, no longer able to ignore the collective rise of new powers at the centre of the global stage, the 400-odd usual suspects in Munich from 90 governments had to make way for a complete segment devoted to “Rising Powers and Global Governance”. It was in this exclusive segment of the conference which focused on India, China, Singapore and Brazil that the national security adviser spoke some home truths.
Paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi’s memorable reply to a question — what he thought of Western civilization — that “it would be a very good idea”, Menon said as much, that global governance would be a good idea. But as a consummate practitioner of diplomacy, he tried not to be offensive: “Those who fear the readjustment in decision- making that should come with shifts in the distribution of power in the international community look to global governance to prevent it...Global governance would be a good idea, but that there is no imminent sign of it breaking out...The fact is that the world today suffers from a deficit of global governance. In most areas, global governance is notable by its absence.”
In a reality check on the incessant clamour in India to get membership of every conceivable forum in global affairs that presumably vindicates the country’s growing status, Menon pointed out that “there is no shortage of international institutions with over 300 multilateral organizations in existence today. But their legitimacy is declining and effectiveness questionable.”
It will come as a disappointment to lobbies in India, which want New Delhi to jump on the bandwagon of the West and become part of military misadventures such as in Iraq and Libya, that he upheld Indian caution as having been vindicated. “Take Libya or Syria for that matter. The governance deficit may, in fact, be one reason why the consequences of intervention have been so different from what was promised and, I assume, expected by its sponsors... There is little evidence of global governance in the management of relations between major powers or in the handling of crises.”
Menon’s was a refreshing departure from the general tone of obsequiousness to the West that Manmohan Singh has encouraged since he became prime minister. Singh’s speech at Oxford in July, 2005, when he accepted an honorary degree from his alma mater springs to mind notwithstanding the amends he made the following year when he addressed a similar gathering in Cambridge. In a tone reminiscent of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s action in challenging the global status quo with nuclear tests in 1998, Singh’s national security adviser used words that have not been part of the UPA’s foreign policy lexicon in the last nine years: “I do not hear emerging powers calling for a revolution. Presumably that would come if the emerging powers felt that the international system no longer responded to their needs of domestic development and transformation. That could actually vary from sector to sector.”
Perhaps, this explains why Menon’s speech has not seen the light of day through the government’s normal communication channels. At a more serious level, it also raises the question of who speaks for the government on foreign policy.
A day after Menon said in Munich that “the so-called Arab Spring could actually be seen as the revenge or return of politics”, the foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai, inaugurated a seminar in Kerala on the Arab world’s “march towards democracy and its implications”. Mathai was not so definitive about making a judgement on the Arab Spring. Further, the foreign secretary raised an important question: “Except Bahrain, which sits on the Shia-Sunni fault line and where the demonstrations were contained through regional effort, all other countries which have witnessed large scale popular movements, are non-monarchies… Do monarchies enjoy greater credibility amongst the populace?”
Sometime back, a UPA minister gave short shrift to the process of policy-making within the government and instructed Indian diplomats in two cities to go out on a limb and express support for a repressive monarchy caught in the Arab Spring. Because such gratuitous — and unsavoury — support went against the values that India has upheld since Independence, the diplomats dug in their heels and the minister was forced to back off. Given that background — and it was not an incident in isolation in the last nine years — it is tempting to go along with Menon’s erudite, realistic and self-assuring assessments in Munich. However, the UPA government’s ground realities on record leave a gap between ideas and their practice.
This year’s Munich conference was instructive because it demonstrated, once again, the need for India to cast its lot with like-minded countries like Brazil and the importance of countering the ceaseless campaign by some lobbies outside the government to spoil relations with China. The Munich Security Conference would not have given what Menon prefers to call “re-emerging” powers — because “rising powers think of themselves as actually restoring the historical norm in terms of the international hierarchy” — the importance they got this year if these countries had not been acting in concert at the UN and elsewhere. United they shall rise further, but divided, their rise shall be robbed of its worth and they shall be undermined by the established powers.
India’s partner in this evolution, Brazil, was equally explicit in Munich. Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, said “there is a healthy recognition that the US and Europe alone are not able to determine outcomes in situations that require international coordination, whether in the economic and financial sphere, whether in the sphere of climate change or environment, and also, in the sphere of international peace and security. Therefore, it is important that other voices are heard.”
China’s vice foreign minister, Song Tao, who was a counsellor at Beijing’s embassy in New Delhi a decade ago, said in Munich that “emerging economies should shoulder common but differentiated responsibilities” from developed countries: “To ask emerging economies to assume the same international responsibilities as developed economies is to ask a passenger who boards a train at Frankfurt to pay the full fare for the journey from London to Munich. This is not fair, and it is beyond the capability of emerging economies.” India must be alert to such a trap that established powers could prepare for rising powers as the latter are seated at the high table.