Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Science, Technology and Diplomacy A NIAS Talk

Science, Technology and Diplomacy.
By T.P.Sreenivasan

The bewildering developments in the recent past have brought international affairs to a standstill at a cross roads of history. A definite shift towards the right, increasing xenophobia, nativism, irrational antipathy towards established norms, readiness to leap into the unknown and reliance on post-truth for judgments are clearly identifiable as the trends of the times. Democratically elected leaders tend to remain loyal to their voters and not to the entire electorate, thus casting aspersions on democracy itself. An uncertain and volatile world is paralyzed by some ill-conceived policies of some leaders. Indications of impending withdrawal of the US inwards and its inattention to world affairs have already encouraged Chinese expansionism. The world is waiting breathlessly to see what turns and twists the new US Administration will take.
I speculate that the disruptive tendencies in political life of the world may have their roots in the disruptive innovations in science and technology. Innovate or perish is the call of the times. The unprecedented technological upheaval without an owners’ manual or restraining radars may transform the way the society is organized. Immanuel Kant had observed in 1784, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” The question today is whether democracy will survive big data and artificial intelligence, as automated societies will acquire totalitarian features. It appears that the genie of innovation may have to be put back into the bottle to give its growth some guidance. China is already considering “institutional surveillance” and “persuasive computing” to apply restraints on technology. For China, such controls are instinctive, but the rest of the world too has to think of preserving social cohesion and protecting the basic rights of citizens.
Long ago, when I was on my first posting in Tokyo, I was told that a time would come when we would print our newspapers at home, a prospect which could not even be imagined. Today, we can print the New Yok Times before the New Yorkers wake up to see their print edition stacked up at the door. Today, we are close to replacing manufacturing by 3-D printing. Children born in 2017 will never hold a steering wheel or own a driving license as driverless cars will be in use by the time they grow up. The fourth industrial revolution is upon us. We need more diplomats with scientific training, but we also need rational scientists to preserve and protect human values.
The most sensational development in war, the event that changed the course of history, the dropping of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was proclaimed by Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist, not a politician. He quoted from the Bhagavad Gita:
“If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One..
I am become Death,
The shatterer of worlds.”
Such is the grip of science and technology on politics and diplomacy. In fact, every twist and turn in global affairs can be attributed to a particular scientific advancement. Maritime development brought colonialism in its wake, the invention of the steam engine engendered the industrial revolution, the transportation revolution created the global village, the atom transformed war and peace and the internet changed everything. Like all other professions, diplomacy, caught in the world wide web. has changed beyond recognition.
Science and technology have become key drivers in international relations and knowledge of trends in advancement in various fields is an essential prerequisite to effective international negotiations. Increasingly specialized expertise has become essential as negotiations today deal with specialization and integration. Major powers have realized that promotion of values and foreign aid will not generate gratitude and that their strength lies in the global acceptance of their contribution to science. Nixon’s visit to China and the Chinese embrace of American technology set off bilateral cooperation between the two countries and established bilateral mechanisms, which have grown ever since. Soviet influence in India stemmed from the scientific training received in the Soviet Union by generations of Indian students. It is the dominance of its fundamental research that will ensure US dominance in the world for a long time to come.
The United Nations was created to rid the succeeding generations of the scourge of war, but on its seventieth anniversary, the Secretary General of the UN claimed that the greatest accomplishment of the UN was that it had immunized the world’s children against infectious diseases. Most of the present preoccupations of the UN were not anticipated in 1945. Infectious diseases, environmental degradation, electronic crimes and weapons of mass destruction and HIV/AIDS cannot be eliminated without international cooperation in science and technology. Tapping into the growing science base beyond a nation’s borders has become imperative for the pursuit of the truth and promotion of trust among nations. Diplomats cannot lie abroad for the good of their country any more as science is the business of establishing truth. Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein had exhorted the scientists, not diplomats to address the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
According to the Royal Society of London for improving Natural Knowledge, science diplomacy has emerged as the use of scientific interactions among nations to address the common problems facing humanity and to build constructive and knowledge based international partnership. In Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power, science and technology is a primary ingredient. The concept of science diplomacy is gaining increasing currency in the US, UK, Japan and elsewhere. It is still a fluid concept, but can usefully be applied to the role of science, technology and innovation in three related areas:
·       informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice (science in diplomacy);
·       facilitating international science cooperation (diplomacy for science);
·       using science cooperation to improve international relations between countries (science for diplomacy).
Scientific values of rationality, transparency and universality are the same the world over. They can help to underpin good governance and build trust between nations. Science provides a non-ideological environment for the participation and free exchange of ideas between people, regardless of cultural, national or religious backgrounds.
Science diplomacy seeks to strengthen the symbiosis between the interests and motivations of the scientific and foreign policy communities. For the former, international cooperation is often driven by a desire to access the best people, research facilities or new sources of funding. For the latter, science offers useful networks and channels of communication that can be used to support wider policy goals. Foreign ministries should place greater emphasis on science within their strategies, and draw more extensively on scientific advice in the formation and delivery of policy objectives.
The constraints to science diplomacy include regulatory barriers, such as visa restrictions and security controls. Immediately after September 11 2001, more stringent travel and visa regimes in countries like the US and the UK severely limited the opportunities for visiting scientists and scholars, particularly from Islamic countries. Although efforts have been made to relax some of these strict controls, there are still significant problems with the free mobility of scientists from certain countries. Such policies shut out talented scientists and hinder opportunities. Security controls can also prevent collaboration on certain scientific subjects, such as nuclear physics and microbiology. Although these policies are based on legitimate concerns over the dual use potential of some scientific knowledge, they should also take into consideration the diplomatic value of scientific partnerships in sensitive areas to help rebuild trust between nations.
Coincidentally, the trend today is for engineers, doctors and scientists to join the diplomatic service. This has changed the character of the service from a generalist dominated service to a technologist oriented service. The emphasis is shifting from political and trade issues to technological issues. Many problems of the global commons such as climate change, epidemics and disasters need a combination of management of resources and technical understanding. More than any time before, science, technology and diplomacy combine to find solutions to global problems.
Thank you.

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.)