Thursday, January 26, 2017

TEDx Choice School Talk January 25, 2017

TEDx Talk by T.P.Sreenivasan

Diplomacy in Uncharted Realms

The whole world is an uncharted realm today. On January 20, 2017, the world changed beyond recognition, on account of Donald Trump, the new President of the United States. The world was already volatile, but there was predictability about friends and foes. Global issues were also well defined, even if there were no agreed solutions. But today, many uncharted realms have emerged in the diplomatic world. US and Russia seem to be moving towards a cordial relationship. The value and relevance of the UN are being challenged. The whole concept of climate change is considered a Chinese hoax. A new war has been declared on “Islamic terrorism”. A 2000-mile wall is going up between the US and Mexico. These constitute a fundamental disruption of the comfort zones of diplomats around the globe. But this is not the first time that diplomacy is required to operate in uncharted realms. The end of the second World War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the advent of the Internet and Wikileaks had posed such challenges. Diplomacy has proved itself capable of not only adjusting itself to the changes, but also of helping to establish the new norm and dealing with post-truth.

Diplomacy is the oldest profession. Doctors may contest this by saying that their profession is as old as the surgery done on Adam to remove one of his ribs to create Eve. Engineers may say that God had used his engineering skills to create the universe out of the chaos. But surely, diplomats were needed to create the chaos.

Many have tried to define diplomacy. A diplomat is an honest person sent abroad to lie for his country. Diplomacy is meant to tell someone to go to hell in such a way to make him look forward to the trip. Diplomacy is walking on thin ice without getting into deep water. The difference between a diplomat and a lady is that when a diplomat says yes, he means may be, when he says may be he means no, if he says no, he is not a diplomat. When a lady says no, she means maybe, when she says may be she means no and if she says yes, she is no lady!

Like everything else in the world, diplomats find a mention in the Indian epics, Hanuman in Ramayana and Krishna in Mahabnarata. It was only their superhuman qualities and fighting capability that saved them from disaster. Hanuman flew into Lanka with a message of peace. But shooting the messenger was in vogue then as now. His tail, which was set ablaze by the enemy became a potent weapon, which destroyed the whole capital and Hanuman returned home triumphant and war began when diplomacy ended. Lord Krishna had a similar experience when he tried to negotiate a fair deal for the Pandavas. He retreated and the Kurukshetra war ensued.

More recently, with the emergence of sovereign states, the days of the plenipotentiaries began. Heads of states dispatched their eminent citizens across the seas to make war and peace at will and occasionally reported their exploits by diplomatic bags. They had the power to sign treaties, threaten use of force or declare war to secure their needs. A diplomatic assignment to a cannibal country was risky, particularly if the head of state characterized your predecessor as delicious! Some returned triumphant, others wounded or dead. But they were the golden days of diplomacy. Diplomats were men and women of leisure, who spent time on golf courses or at bridge tables. Many worked only on days when the diplomatic bags arrived with good or bad tidings. Odd phone hotlines with some countries gave access to political leaders to their counterparts, but they were cumbersome to use and not very reliable.

Then came faster transportation, which made travel easier, better communications like telex and fax. Diplomatic bags became less important and the pace of diplomacy picked up speed. But the work consisted of reporting on the host country and projecting the image of your country. A bit of imagination and language skills were helpful in diplomacy. We gave up trying to reach the news home ahead of the wires and began more analytical reporting. Mere news was of no value. Diplomats were relieved of the responsibility to report news, but began conveying more insights and analyses.

The advent of CNN in the eighties was a big blow to traditional diplomacy. Actual scenes from around the globe began to stream into the foreign office and questions began to come from there for local analysis. The pace of work became faster and without cell phones, it was difficult to stay away from office. But the bigger blow was the realization that CNN images were often doctored to influence public opinion. The eyes and ears of the diplomats became crucial to find out the truth. If anything, the role of the diplomats became more crucial. There was a demand for a counter channel to tell the truth. Till then, it was all the more necessary for diplomats to go in search of the truth. Correcting the impressions by cable channels became a major preoccupation of diplomacy and the diplomats rose to the occasion.

The internet, with its multiple sources of information at lightning speed turned the diplomatic world upside down. At one point it appeared that diplomacy had become redundant. But the internet came, as observed by writer Pico Iyer, without an owner’s manual. Consequently, the internet is different things to different people. Diplomacy did not end, but the internet became a tool of diplomacy. The Wikipedia and other open sources of information, subject to correction from outside, provided basic authentic information. But the opportunity the internet offered to manipulate the truth also dawned on us. The emergence of post-truth in 2016, impressions rather than facts determining public opinion owes its origin to the internet.

The Internet, however, undermined confidentiality, a fundamental ingredient of diplomacy for centuries. Of course, spying went on side by side with diplomacy even before, but today, diplomats have to presume that all that they say or do will be public sooner or later. Julian Assange founded Wikileaks in 2006 with the purpose of hacking confidential diplomatic documents and managed to release 10 million documents by 2015. The consequence was the loss of credibility of many Governments, particularly the US. Today, for every diplomat, the elephant in the room is the hacker, who is likely to reveal all that is said and done in the world of diplomacy. In the case of Snowden, who was an employee of the CIA, he deliberately leaked documents to show that the US had global surveillance programmes.

The revelations by Assange and Snowden embarrassed many, but they also showed that many countries, particularly India, were principled and transparent in their diplomatic pursuits. Not a single Indian diplomat had said anything in private, which he would not have done in public. It is possible that Assange and Snowden disciplined US diplomats into being truthful in their diplomatic discourse. So while the internet has weakened the confidentiality of diplomacy, it has strengthened the integrity of diplomacy. Diplomats have to compete with hackers like Assange and Snowden to establish credibility. The channels provided by monitored cables and services of Wikileaks give governments an advantage, but diplomats still hold sway over international relations.

As a diplomatic tool, the internet has been very beneficial. Heads of states and Governments today can speak to each other at will, but the limitations and pitfalls of such direct communications are only too evident. They would rather have their ideas conveyed through professional diplomats, rather than risk misunderstanding. They communicate their views on twitter and a time may come when they befriend each other on facebook!

Public diplomacy is a product of the communications revolution. The involvement of the citizens in formulating and implementing foreign policy is a gift from the internet. Many Governments around the globe have begun to inform their public about diplomatic alternatives, decisions and initiatives. Technology has brought diplomacy, which was confined to the elite, to the people.

Diplomacy is a conservative profession, which does not embrace change very easily. But it has been transformed beyond recognition in a relatively short period. Though it has remained elitist and its sartorial elegance is still preserved, its methodology has adjusted itself to the needs and dictates of the times. Diplomacy has proved itself capable of operating in uncharted realms. It began with a sedate and plenipotentiary track, picked up speed to match the communications revolution, exposed inaccuracies of cable channels, used the internet as a tool of diplomacy. It survived the machinations of Assange and Snowden. Diplomacy remains relevant and indispensable as no machine can replace the human brain and ingenuity. Diplomats have learnt to use technology for their advantage rather than retreat in the face of the onslaught of technology.

The question today is whether professional diplomacy will outlast the doings of an individual, however powerful he may be. History shows that diplomacy will prove its relevance in any uncharted realm.

Thank you.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Foreign Policy: The Third Act The Hindu

Modi’s Foreign Policy: The Third Act

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Any contemporary situation appears to follow a pattern described by Shakespeare years ago. The third act of  his plays is the “climax”, which is characterized by acute complications in the story, with no clear indication of future events. Having introduced the dramatis personae in the first act and revealed their concerns and intentions in the second, the Bard is at his creative best in the third act. The situation gets from good to bad and from bad to worse and the spectators breathlessly watch things go wrong in a bewildering manner. They have to wait for the fourth and the fifth acts to witness the denouement, whether it is wedding bells or funerals. 

Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy in the middle of his term is very much like the third act of a Shakespearean play. The entry was dramatic, full of surprises and even exciting. He strode like a colossus on the world stage with his freshness, energy, decisiveness and oratorical skills. India became visible, active and even assertive. His optimism was contagious and the whole country began anticipating the good times he promised. India would not be a mere spectator on the seashore of world affairs, but a participant, claiming its legitimate place on the tables, round, square, rectangular and even horse-shoe shaped. He took the bull by the horns, whether it was Pakistan, China or the United States. Lack of diplomatic experience appeared to be an asset rather than a liability as he let loose his legendary ‘yagaswam’ or the ritualistic horse to conquer the world. The first act was perfect.

But in the second act, when Mr. Modi began encountering complex issues, rivals and adversaries, things appeared complicated. Hesitations of history loomed large and quick fixes were not available. There were too many boxes crying out for standard solutions as he searched for out of the box outcomes. All the charms he tried on Pakistan and China went unrequited. He faced the same ghosts of the past, which had confronted Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. All the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten the air around. High expectations resulted in deep disappointments. But there was joy in the progress made in certain countries, where he followed the path laid by his predecessors.

In today’s third act, Mr. Modi is sadder, but wiser. The confusion of the Shakespearean climax has gripped him. On the one hand, he is receiving dubious praise from the world that he is the one who set off the trend towards the right in 2014, leading to Brexit and Trump. On the other, the advent of Mr. Trump has brought the whole world to a standstill, jeopardizing even the new symphony he had painstakingly choreographed with Barack Obama. An evergreen friend, Vladimir Putin, appeared not just sulking, but also flirting with China and Pakistan to spite him. He had to be pacified with huge military contracts and an assurance that old friends are better than new ones. But, even at the recent Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar, the Russian envoy stated that the allegations against Pakistan by India and Afghanistan were totally baseless. It is clear that the fissure in India-Russia relations remains serious.

With Pakistan, neither the charm offensive nor the surgical strikes have made any difference. The situation is worse than what it was in 2014, when the ceasefire was in force and the terror attacks were not frequent. The policy of the previous Government that no comprehensive dialogue was possible without ending terrorism, often violated by India itself off and on, was completely disregarded by Modi when he invited Nawaz Sharif to India, proposed foreign secretary level talks, held NSA level talks and sent the External Affairs Minister to Islamabad to propose a comprehensive dialogue. The surge in terror attacks prompted the surgical strikes, which Pakistan refused to even acknowledge. Intermittent shooting on the border, expulsion of diplomats, suspected of spying and India’s open support to Baluchistan and boycott of the SAARC summit have brought the two countries to the brink of war. The lesson learnt was that seventy years of animosity and conflict cannot be wished away without major concessions on either side. Constitutional, legal and emotional issues rule out such concessions.

The whole castle in the air that Mr. Modi built in his first address from the ramparts of the red fort about the progress to be achieved by the combined efforts of SAARC countries lies shattered as the future of SAARC itself is uncertain. India invited BIMSTEC to interact with BRICS and not SAARC precisely to encourage a regional group without Pakistan in it. Another latent issue in SAARC was the possible admission of China. A majority of the members of the Association were in favour of China’s admission, though China is not part of the region. But the argument used by them was that since India and Pakistan were made full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a similar courtesy should be extended to China. If the Islamabad summit was held, India would have been alone in opposing China’s admission. Such a situation was averted by the cancellation of the summit. It should be noted that the absence of the other member countries in Islamabad did not necessarily mean support to the Indian position. It is the height of irony that regional cooperation in South Asia has come to such a pass as Mr. Modi reaches the midpoint of his Government.

The China scene looks less troublesome, but nothing has changed for the better in India-China relations in the last thirty months. No progress has been made on the border and none of the other issues between the two countries has been addressed. The China-Pakistan collusion continues and the long term measures being taken by China like One Belt One Road are designed to dominate the whole of Asia. Mr. Modi, on his part, has made no secret of his inclination towards the US, Japan and Australia and his concerns about the South China Sea. But happily, there have been very few incidents on the border and the economic activities continue, but mostly to suit the Chinese themselves. The balance of trade is heavily in their favour.

The situation on the western front should be a matter of satisfaction for Mr.Modi. The designation of India as a major defense partner has taken India-US relations to a higher level, which entitles India to have the same facilities for technology transfer as the allies of the US. Even after the election of Mr. Trump, the US Congress has approved the related legislation. Mr. Trump is unpredictable, but available indications are that, except on migration issues, India-US relations will remain strong in the future. Mr. Modi has his work cut out for him in befriending Mr. Trump in his fourth act.

The mixed picture on foreign policy that we see is an inevitable consequence of extraordinary global developments and the bold initiatives taken by Mr. Modi. The final judgment on his foreign policy shall have to await the correctives he will apply in the remaining part of his first term. The complications resulting from demonetization has affected Mr. Modi’s image, but his reputation as a man of decisive action has remained intact. The reports that Mr. Modi had secured the largest number of votes for the Time Man of the Year award were not surprising, even though Mr. Trump became the clear winner on account of his game changing victory and its global impact. Like a Shakespearean hero, Mr. Modi appears entangled in a web of intricate issues in the third act, but the remaining acts will determine his impact on the global scene.

(The writer is a former ambassador, who currently heads the Kerala International Centre.)

New Year Wishes and Thoughts

New Year Wishes and Thoughts 2017


Gone are the days when, at the dawn of the New Year, we had colorful cards with well scripted lines to decorate our homes and carefully crafted letters to share news and thoughts to strengthen the bonds of friendship and love. Now inboxes are flooded with mass produced pictures and videos, effortlessly forwarded over different platforms. I am sticking to the old method of wishing you the very best for 2017 with some random news and views. My hope is that all your dreams will come true in the New Year.

Humanity has come to terms with technological innovations disturbing our comfort zones to cause game changing disruptions. But 2016 showed that disruptive changes will be brought about as much by politics, philosophy and practices as by technology. We have realized that the genie of technology cannot be put back in the bottle to confine it to some spaces. Its all-encompassing reach has changed every narrative, political, social, cultural, literary and philosophical.

Establishments have crumbled everywhere as the storm of protests over failed expectations rage. People have begun to leap into the dark in the hope of securing better days. Democracy itself has lost its sheen, though it is through democratic means that regimes are changing. As globalization recedes, nativism and ultra-nationalism have begun to assert themselves. The world may eventually become a better place, but the pangs of a rebirth will take its toll. We should be prepared for a period of uncertainty and adjustment ahead before new establishments take shape. Trying to stem the tide of history will be futile.

On the family front, we have been fortunate enough to have glad tidings throughout from all, except for some mobility issues for Lekha, which have not dampened her spirit or altered her dedication to charity. Both Sree and Roopa went through the turmoil of professional changes, but both of them settled in well in their new surroundings, without disrupting the hectic routines of Durga and Krishna, which includes classical dance for Durga and soccer for Krishna. Sree’s move from the Metropolitan Museum to the City of New York as the Chief Digital Officer has become a case study in courage and use of social media to search for new horizons. Shree and Sharu have also been happy, particularly with the growth and development of Shivaay in Dubai. At three years and six months, Shivaay’s future profession is not yet  determined as his choice has moved so far from chef to musician to police chief to fire chief!

I completed my assignment with the Kerala Government, but I am still engaged in teaching and international studies, with even less spare time than before as my written and spoken words are still in demand at home and abroad. My policy is to answer the phone when it rings, not knowing when it will stop ringing.

Friends walk in and walk out of our lives, particularly when we change countries and continents frequently. But the few that remain and the new ones that get added are a blessing. The year 2016 also had its losses and gains. Amazing game changing friendships also came my way. The way of preserving relationships is to build bridges across different levels without expecting absolute reciprocity.

An untoward incident of January 29, 2016 when I learnt the value of turning the other cheek to those who do not know what they do has made me better, not bitter. I was taking on the sins of others as some of the controversial issues such as involving a business group at an exorbitant cost in the Global Education Meet and proposals for Academic Cities and Higher Education Zones were not mine. But I was disheartened by the resistance to change, disloyalty and lethargy in the Government, which inhibit the full realization of Kerala’s potential. Every negative action turns the clock back for us. Educational reform will come to Kerala, like computers, too little too late. Happily, many ideas of reform, rejected in Kerala, find place in the national agenda. My idea of a totally liberal education without constraints tallies with the thinking in Delhi.

The Kerala International Centre (KIC) is not just my second home, but a part of my home itself. It has created a small group of people, not only diplomats, journalists and Generals, but also others, who have a sustained interest in foreign policy. We meet, we argue and differ, but even consensus breaks out occasionally. A new KIC initiative to launch a Literary Forum was much appreciated. Several poets, some established and some making their debut, made an impact. We expect a healthy competition between strategic thinking and literature in the KIC in future.

The NSS Academy of Civil Services (NACS), which I now direct, has made a mark by sending several of its alumni to the Civil Services. Some Districts in Kerala are administered by our alumni and some missions abroad are manned by them.

Many of you have sent messages of goodwill and good wishes in various forms. This is by way of acknowledging and reciprocating all of them. Let us hope that our paths will cross in the New Year, at least in cyber space.

Lekha joins me in wishing you a happy New Year and beyond.

January 1, 2017

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Stuck in the Terrorism Groove

Stuck in the terrorism groove

Kashmir news - Read latest and Breaking English News of Bihar on Pradesh18.
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“It ill behoves a country like India with a long record of using its UN membership for the common good to fall in one groove, however important that issue may be.” PM Narendra Modi with Brazilian President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and South African President Jacob Zuma at the BRICS Summit in Goa.
“It ill behoves a country like India with a long record of using its UN membership for the common good to fall in one groove, however important that issue may be.” PM Narendra Modi with Brazilian President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and South African President Jacob Zuma at the BRICS Summit in Goa.

Instead of isolating Pakistan at every forum, India must broad-base its diplomatic outreach 

For India, a country that has worked in multilateral fora for nearly 70 years on a global agenda, subsuming its interests in pursuit of the global good, the recent tendency to focus on a single issue like terrorism does not seem appropriate. Such an approach only confirms the suspicion that it is using terrorism as a convenient weapon to battle Pakistan diplomatically. Like Queen Gertrude says in Hamlet, people have begun to say: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
The way to India’s heart

One point on which the world ridiculed Pakistan in the past was that it could not think beyond Kashmir, whatever the forum and the topic for discussion. India is today on its way to opening itself to similar criticism — that it is stuck in the terrorism groove. India’s warnings about terrorism in and around South Asia fell on deaf ears for more than 20 years, but the revelation that the 9/11 attacks were the handiwork of terrorists with similar affiliation to those who were attacking India changed the whole situation. Now there is no doubt that the “mother ship of terrorism” is Pakistan. No one disputes the attributes we have given to Pakistan in this context. But for India to pursue isolation of Pakistan on this count at every forum and to make it a litmus test of every country’s friendship to India does more harm than good. Every speech of the Prime Minister, regardless of the venue and the topic of discussion, is a ringing denunciation of cross-border terrorism.
The BRICS Goa summit was turned into a battle of wits between India and its guests as to how far the group could go in identifying itself with India in isolating Pakistan. Moreover, India made no secret of its motivation and made it clear to its guests that the way to India’s heart was by targeting Pakistan. Given the fact that no one wants to create enemies in such diplomatic conclaves, many of them, particularly the Chinese, may have felt uncomfortable to be caught in an awkward situation. Eventually, China acted as Pakistan’s proxy in the discussions in Goa.
The outcome of the Goa meetings could have been projected as a diplomatic victory for India if the expectations were not pitched so high by the Prime Minister himself. What we have is a condemnation of terrorism in all its manifestations, a consensus position of the UN itself, without a definition of terrorism, which has eluded the international community even after 9/11. The global concern over the growth of the Islamic State (IS) appeared to take precedence over the special situation in South Asia as the IS is now “spread over” more than 30 countries and others dread its expansion. India should take the opportunity to speak strongly against the IS and project cross-border terrorism as another manifestation of the same problem. Building a broader constituency against terrorism is more beneficial than focussing on its own specific situation. By narrowing down exclusively to the action India expects from the international community to meet its concerns, such as declaring Pakistan as a terrorist state, may not have the desired effect. It will also not persuade China to lift its veto over including Masood Azhar on the UN list of terrorists.
A single dignified and forceful presentation by India to multilateral fora, leaving it to the member countries to tackle the issue effectively, would be more appropriate. Anticipating the possible outcome and calibrating India’s requests accordingly should have been the strategy to be adopted. Otherwise, the wide gap between India’s assertions and the language of the outcome will be visible to all. Together with India’s application for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and aspiration to permanent membership of the UN Security Council, the country appears to be knocking at too many doors instead of offering global solutions to global problems. India recently modified its position of “eligibility” for permanent membership to its “right”. Such assertions will have no impact on others unless its demand is projected as part of the need to correct the imbalance in a crucial world body.
A new course of action

India confining itself to the terrorism groove shows lack of direction when it has altered the dynamics of its relations with Pakistan by carrying out surgical strikes. Having taken precipitate action, India should move in a predetermined course of action. The old pattern of terrorist attack by Pakistan, angry verbal reaction by India and resumption of dialogue does not make sense anymore. If such a course has not been prepared, this is the time to frame such a course of action. This could consist of informing the international community of the state of play, combatting terrorism on the ground with measured use of force, and dealing with the internal situation in Jammu and Kashmir with a view to eliminating internal support to cross-border terrorism. Other options available to India such as amendment of the Indus Waters Treaty, trade sanctions, and so on should also be considered. Efforts to isolate Pakistan as part of the strategy contradicts India’s established position against internationalising the Kashmir issue.
The clear lesson to be learnt from recent experience is that the world at large does not see terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as part of the global terrorism which threatens international peace and security. The recognition by the UN that Kashmir is a disputed territory influences the policy of most nations, including those who are friendly with India. A broader framework for the terrorism debate shows a way out for those who support India without wanting to get embroiled in a dispute.
India’s pursuit of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that was tabled in the UN General Assembly in 1996 has very little chance of success. It was seen at that time as an anti-Pakistan measure. The convention received some attention by the legal committee of the UN in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but it got stuck in the old argument that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
India’s advocacy of nuclear disarmament is an excellent example of the country subsuming its interest in the desire of the global community for a nuclear weapon-free world. It was only when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime became discriminatory that India stepped out of it and took a firm decision not to sign the treaty. On the question of fissionable material, India stands ready to join the negotiations on the Fissionable Material Cut-off Treaty rather than plough a lonely furrow. India harmonised its position with that of the developing countries in environmental negotiations to protect its interests and succeeded up to the point of formulating the Kyoto Protocol.
It ill behoves a country like India with a long record of using its membership of the UN for the common good to fall in one groove, however important that issue may be. Multilateralism accepts constant reiterations of national positions, but to forge a consensus, the positions should be integrated with common concerns to the extent possible.
T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Director General of the Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.