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Distant affiliation - New Delhi should adopt a holistic approach towards the UN

Diplomacy- K.P. Nayar

Although it is not Asia's turn to elect one of its own as secretary general of the United Nations for the next five years - with the possibility, by convention, of a second five-year term - India has brought no credit to its diplomacy by abdicating its due role in the process of finding a successor to Ban Ki-moon.

The refrain in the National Democratic Alliance government runs somewhat like this: we are not members of the UN security council. The security council will ignore everyone outside the council and the views or actions of those who are not council members will have no impact on the election. Another argument is that since an Asian has held the post for 10 years, it is the turn of Eastern Europe, which has never had the post. So the refrain continues on the lines that India should let the East Europeans decide on their candidate and all others will simply rubber stamp the name when it comes from the security council to the general assembly. Why should we do anything else?

A big-power-in-the-making like India, which aspires to be permanently in the security council, ought not to follow a hands-off approach like this in the choice for one of the most important jobs in the world today. Because it happens routinely, most people do not even notice that India officially responds to everything said by the UN secretary general or his office that has to do with India or to South Asia, which has a bearing on New Delhi's interests.

Besides, like it or not, for better or for worse, the fact of the matter is that India had put up its very own candidate the last time a UN secretary general was being chosen. Not to have anything to do at all with this year's choice simply smacks of selfishness to a point where the selection appears to matter only if there is any element of self-interest in the succession to the former South Korean foreign minister-turned-UN's chief executive.

As a riposte to such oft-heard refrain in the Narendra Modi government, let us look at what is actually happening in the selection process away from the horseshoe table, which has come to symbolize the security council chamber because of the shape of the table around which council members make the most important decisions affecting the world body.

Apart from the unprecedented 'interviews' of candidates in full public glare by the general assembly from April 12 to 14, reported by this newspaper, candidates for the secretary general's job also appeared at a historic open debate on Wednesday last week in the Civic Hall of New York's Flatiron district.

Some 250 New Yorkers chose to seek answers from four of these aspirants on a day when the Big Apple's media gave top billing throughout the news cycle for another election in the city: the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries for which all the candidates remaining in the field from both parties were appearing at several events in New York. An indication of the wide global interest in a public selection process for the next secretary general was that an incredible number of 25,000 people from all over the world sent questions via e-mail to candidates who presented themselves at the Civic Hall.

A similar public debate is being organized in Central Hall Westminster on June 3. The choice of the hall has special significance for the UN because that is where Trygve Lie, the UN's very first secretary general, was picked.

Both the London and the New York events are the result of efforts by civil society and the media. Local United Nations Associations are also part of these efforts. Even if the Modi government did not want to play an overt role, it could have prodded civil society and non-official UN-related organizations in India to take such initiatives. Both the London and the New York public debates have been in the making for a year.

So the NDA government would have had to plan ahead and get involved a long time before the selection process for Ban's successor was set in motion. Such things don't happen with the snap of political fingers or executive fiat.

India needs to stop thinking of its role at the UN in compartments - such as in its half-hearted efforts for a permanent seat at the horseshoe table or by frittering away its global political capital in getting South Delhi elites elected to UN sinecures. Instead, New Delhi should adopt a holistic approach to the world body.

In addition to New York, there are three other places which are known among international civil servants and multilateral diplomats as "UN Cities". Among them is Geneva, the second largest UN centre - after its Turtle Bay headquarters in Manhattan - in the Palais des Nations built in a park overlooking Lake Geneva with a spectacular view of the Alps and, at times, of Mont Blanc too if it is a clear day.

Then there is Vienna, which is a charming city on its own. The Vienna International Centre or VIC, designed by the Austrian architect, Johann Staber, to house specialized UN agencies adds to its attractions. Exactly 20 years ago, the UN designated Nairobi as its only UN City in the Third World. Elated, the Kenyans gave the UN land in Gigiri, on the outskirts of their capital, which has "an almost perfect climate with warm sunny days and cool evenings."

Additionally, there are five cities around the world which the UN counts as "headquarters cities" because of its large presence through agencies such as, for example, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. These headquarters cities are London, Madrid, Montreal, Paris and Rome.

When the UN was looking for a regional centre in Asia for its agencies, the Thais were enterprising enough to offer incentives to draw them in. Now, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific has its headquarters in Bangkok. Including regional offices, there are 35 UN establishments in Bangkok today.

The question naturally arises as to why India could not get its share of this UN pie despite New Delhi's pious support for the world body from its inception. If New Delhi had taken a holistic view of the world body in terms of what the country could get from it instead of what India could give the UN and competed successfully to become a UN City or at least the leading regional centre for Asia, by now it would have produced more man days of employment that anything 'Make in India' appears poised to achieve in the remainder of Modi's present term as prime minister.

Talking to those in the Bharatiya Janata Party who influence the Modi government's foreign policy, it becomes obvious that one reason for the hands-off approach to selecting a new secretary general is the view in the ruling party that Shashi Tharoor's candidature 10 years ago was his personal effort and not a national cause. It is the same negative attitude that the previous Congress-led government adopted when there was brief consideration of Indian names with BJP leanings for the post of deputy secretary general.

India maybe hands-off, but those seeking the top UN job are not hands-off on India. In New Delhi, the country's influence on the global stage is often underestimated, but other countries have confidence in India's ability to influence matters at the UN. So it was not a surprise that Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and administrator of the UN Development Programme, discovered B.R. Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary a few days after she declared her candidacy for the secretary general's post. She was the keynote speaker when the birth anniversary was observed at the UN for the first time.

Another candidate, Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, rolled out the red carpet for Modi and spread it all over the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - of which she is the director general - when the prime minister visited Paris last year and was invited to the Unesco headquarters. Other candidates are not lagging behind.


HINDU, APR 16, 2016

All about the Obama Doctrine

The first decade and a half of the 21st century has witnessed a fundamental change in India-U.S. relations unparalleled in the history of the two democracies. President Bill Clinton demonstrated a tilt towards India during his second term, and subsequently the George Bush presidency brought about a transformational shift in the relationship. Relations have been on an upswing ever since, with the Obama presidency proceeding on the same course.

Discerning observers nevertheless see subtle differences in the approach of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Both Presidents have been warm towards India and appreciative of India’s democratic credentials. President Bush, early in his second term, dispelled any notions that the decision to reach out to India had a hidden subtext, viz . strengthening India to function as a counterweight to China. President Barack Obama has been more circumspect, as his world view includes a more accommodative attitude towards China.

The difference, according to strategic analysts, lies in their approach. Mr. Bush acted more on the basis of his instincts — an outstanding example being the manner in which he went out of his way to ensure the successful conclusion of the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Deal without seeking any quid pro quo. Analysts argue that Mr. Obama is more a practitioner of realpolitik and tends to see most issues through this prism.

Radical shift in priorities

In the light of this, recent references to an “Obama Doctrine” should be of vital interest to Indian policymakers. The so-called doctrine is embedded in a series of interviews that Mr. Obama gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine. Compiled into an essay, it takes on the character of a doctrine, though the President himself may be chary of acknowledging it as such.

Mr. Obama is hardly a “Beltway” politician. It was known even before he came to Washington that he held strong views on foreign policy issues. These differed from those of the foreign policy establishment in Washington — including of the powerful think tanks scattered across the city, and forming part of the “revolving door syndrome” familiar to Washington insiders.

That the President, while still being in office, should express his personal opinions in this manner in a series of interviews intended for publication is a surprise of sorts. One would have expected it to form part of his presidential memoirs, but clearly he intended his views to become known while still holding office. Hence, its value and the reference to an “Obama Doctrine”.

Mr. Obama withholds few punches in his interviews. He makes it amply clear that he has little regard for the Washington-based tribe of U.S. foreign policy experts (“The Washington playbook”), and even less for their enduring belief that military force is the answer to every problem. He evinces little interest in West Asian affairs and in the politics of oil unlike his predecessors. He is unduly harsh in his judgement of leaders of West Asian countries. On the other hand, he shows somewhat greater interest in the “Pivot to Asia” and the consequences of the rise of China and India in the region. All this signifies a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy priorities. It is uncertain whether policy circles in the U.S. have come to terms with the change.

Forsaking old friends

U.S. Presidents normally provide direction — or changes in direction — to U.S. foreign policy. The “black hole” and the Achilles heel of the pronouncements that coalesce into the Obama Doctrine is the near-total distrust or disdain that he displays for long-established relationships and allies. Added to this is a reluctance to accept his foreign policy mistakes, preferring to put the blame on allies and friends.

Some of the harshest criticism is reserved for the leaders of Saudi Arabia with references to the West Asian sheikhdoms as “free-riders”. At the same time, he sees an emerging Iran as a bright patch as far as West Asia is concerned. Implicit in this is that the President is preparing to jettison Saudi Arabia — despite it having been the U.S.’s staunchest ally for the past half century — and readying to embrace Iran. Egypt, another long-term U.S. ally, is similarly seen as expendable.

Among other leaders Mr. Obama is contemptuous of is Russia’s Vladimir Putin — perhaps understandable because of events in Ukraine and the West’s debacle in Crimea. What is more surprising are his views on the leaders of France and the United Kingdom — especially the latter. This possibly stems from his experience of the Libyan imbroglio, for which he blames French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. His pungent criticism of Mr. Cameron as a mere tactician lacking in strategic vision does sound the death knell for the “Special Relationship” that has been part of U.K.-U.S. entente since the end of the Second World War — unless it is resurrected by another President.

Mr. Obama’s version of the Syrian “chemical weapon crisis” is disarming to say the least. Most of the world saw the U.S. “retreat” after having drawn a redline against use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as exposing the weakness of the U.S. The Saudis equated the U.S. action to “drawing lines on the sand” as Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud observed. Yet, Mr. Obama projects it as a moment of victory, in having avoided the use of excessive force to check Syria.

The impression conveyed is of realpolitik carried to an extreme with the core logic of the Obama Doctrine being: that the U.S. no longer needed to engage in geopolitical competition with powers like Russia and China; the collapse of countries like Egypt was of little consequence to the U.S.; the primary concern was to avoid risking the lives of U.S. citizens unless the vital interests of the U.S. were directly involved; and to get others to do the hard work of fighting on issues relating to ensuring a rule-based international order and defeating terrorism.

Unlike the vast majority of the U.S. establishment, Mr. Obama does believe that the U.S. confronts a security deficit or that U.S. credibility will be undermined unless there is greater investment in military power. On the other hand, he seems to believe that “faced with infinite demands and finite resources” to fulfil its leadership role, it is preferable to take recourse to the “long game” instead of embarking upon peremptory action: “Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence”, “American strength abroad derives from its resilience at home.”

Lessons for India

From India’s standpoint, there are several aspects of concern relating to the Obama Doctrine. India may need to “deep dive” into what exactly the doctrine signifies, at a time when the U.S. is anxious to firmly establish a strategic hand clasp, to “counter China’s assertiveness in the South and East China Seas”.

India has no conflict of interest as far as the South and East China Seas are concerned. It risks provoking China if it gets more deeply engaged on U.S. insistence. Under the Obama Doctrine, the U.S. cannot be expected to come to India’s aid in the event of an India-China conflict along the disputed land border or anywhere else.

We can already discern how the doctrine is being played out to India’s north-west. The U.S. has been willing to sell F-16 fighters and attack helicopters to Pakistan, so that Pakistan can fight its battles in Afghanistan and the region — despite India’s concerns about this move. The U.S. has also been willing to placate Pakistan on the nuclear issue, even implying that Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons programme was possibly a response to India’s Cold Start doctrine.

U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, during his recent visit, spoke of the strategic confluence between India and the U.S. as one of the defining moments of the 21st century. He also referred to the new Framework for the India-U.S. Defence Relationship (signed in June 2015) as intended to increase strategic cooperation to help safeguard security and stability across the region and around the world.

In the light of the Obama Doctrine, it might, hence, be worthwhile to take a closer look at such entanglement with the U.S. India must be careful that its approach to China is not conducted through the prism of U.S. strategic interests. We need an independent policy in keeping with our national interests in the region and beyond.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal



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