On August 19, 2013, during a debate on the “Protection of civilians in armed conflict” at the United Nations, Asoke Kumar Mukherji — India’s permanent representative to the United Nations — argued that “the protection of civilians is primarily a national responsibility”. Hence, he continued, “contribution to national capacity building rather than intervention mechanisms should be the priority of the Security Council”. Statements such as these are hardly surprising. Indian representatives have long argued for restraint and caution in matters related to intervention. Yet, in the case of Syria, it would appear that an Indian argument for non-intervention is one shared by Western incumbents (mainly in the United Kingdom, the United States of America and France), most of whom till recently were all set to let loose the dogs of war. This, of course, does not mean that President Barack Obama, the British prime minister, David Cameron, or President François Hollande agree with, or even recognize, the tenor of India’s argumentation, but that they too realize that military intervention has limited utility.
In the case of the UK, Cameron had little choice but to place brakes on the urge for war. Surprising those at 10 Downing Street, the British parliament voted against intervention (285-272). President Hollande’s once bullish rhetoric that military action will “strike a body blow” to the Syrian regime carries little weight. Apart from the fact that the president backed down — following Britain’s inability to commit to international intervention and the US’s less-than-sure approach to the same, the French people have spoken out against the use of military force. According to one survey, 37 per cent of those polled believe that any military action will turn Syria into a hotbed for Islamists; 17 per cent are simply not convinced that the Assad regime used chemical weapons; 18 per cent argue that strikes or some form of limited intervention will only invite retaliation against French interests.
In the US, the mood for war is all that more confusing to ascertain. On September 24, during a speech at the UN general assembly, Obama made clear his intention to use the rest of his presidency to work with Iran — where President Hassan Rouhani has plainly articulated his intention to engage the US and the West more generally — and negotiate a settlement between Israel and Palestine. As for Syria, whilst the president argued that it was “an insult to human reason” to suggest that “anyone other than the regime carried out” chemical attacks, he avoided the question of the use of force in the near future. Instead, he alluded to present discussions with President Vladimir Putin to find a “diplomatic resolution”, stressing that Syria’s chemical weapons are to be first placed under international control and then “destroyed”.
To be clear, for reasons of both war fatigue (Britain and the US want nothing more than to withdraw from conflict, such as in Afghanistan) and electoral preferences (where Hollande and Cameron find themselves bound by popular and elite opinion), the fighting within Syria attracts little or no attention whatsoever. From the outset, major Western actors seem to have come around to India’s position from the start: that military intervention can do little to stem the tide. Yet, the question of intervention, or the metrics used to assess when military intervention is warranted, lingers on. On the one hand, and from an Indian point of view, back-benching the issue of intervention may well suit both bureaucrats and their political superiors. Whilst no doubt a talking point between the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and Obama during the former’s visit to Washington, there has been nothing to suggest that the question of ‘protection’ in armed conflict got a serious hearing.
Indeed, those designing the prime minister’s visit perhaps saw little value in focusing on contentious debates. Implementing the nuclear agreement with the US and confirming defence contracts quite rightly take precedence. But further, a question that India’s policy elite may ask themselves is, why not take the lead in matters related to intervention? Rather than leaving it to the US, Canada, or Britain to formulate arguments with regard to what is popularly known as the doctrine of the responsibility to protect or ‘R2P’, why not consider new and usable language to define the parameters for intervention or non- intervention as the case might be? The argument mooted in this article is hardly meant to suggest a thirst for intervention. Instead, it simply highlights an opportunity for leadership that may, at first, seem counter-intuitive to Indian interests. In fact, these are hardly at odds with India’s purported longing to shape the future — even in some minimal way — of world politics.
While the debate around intervention and R2P more specifically has little currency among Indian experts, the fact remains that civil wars and internal strife are likely to remain a dark but real feature of international politics. More and more, the very notion of sovereignty is being challenged by opposing forces from within the State. This, of course, does not mean that opposition to the status quo is welcome (the current case of Egypt is a clear reminder of the unsettlement that follows revolt and rebellion) or that opposition necessarily leads to regimes being overthrown (Syria being a case in point). Rather, it is to suggest that the question of intervention will not go away with a settlement — as unlikely as it seems at the moment — in Syria or with various degrees of agreement in recently post-rebellion States like Libya. Arguing for “capacity building” seems less relevant when the population has reached its capacity for torment and subjugation.
However, if the Indian argument is to balance the need to work with national regimes with the view to invite concessions to opposing forces in keeping with political processes, then perhaps this needs to be highlighted much more clearly. There are provisions in the R2P structure for assistance and working with governments or investing in early warning mechanisms to detect the potential for violence. A constructive use of India’s political space within the UN might be to leverage its standing with almost all members of the Security Council — with the partial exception of China — to find agreeable language to at least investigate pragmatic means to engage conflicts before they erupt. Taking a lead role has its downside: it requires wearing the robe of responsibility. Yet, India today is well placed to take the lead in re-structuring a doctrine that has little credibility among emerging States, most of which view it as nothing more than a mask for some form of imperialism. This is, of course, hardly the case.
Looking to the future, India could think of building on its chosen rhetoric around capacity building. Rather than leaving such words to the imaginations of critical audiences inside the UN, it is perhaps a worthy idea to begin investigating how such measures and suggestions could be incorporated in a global doctrine that need not belong to, or be authored by, those away from India. For sure, the US and Britain have lost both the appetite and the desire to engage in a debate that was once thought to have served as an expression of their advance in international politics. It is time for countries like India to take the lead, but to do so India will have to begin to think seriously about leadership.