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Playing the multilateral game

Playing the multilateral game
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First Published: Sun, Jan 03 2010. 10 38 PM IST

Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg
Updated: Sun, Jan 03 2010. 10 38 PM IST
In a globalized information-driven universe, India’s national objectives of economic growth, development and poverty alleviation will depend as much on internal governance as on managing the external environment. Multilateral negotiating skills will, therefore, be important.
This became obvious with the stalemate at the 15th United Nations climate change conference (COP15) in Copenhagen last month, as the summit of global leaders—including US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—failed to achieve a breakthrough in negotiating a global treaty.
Climate change will affect India in various ways, influencing the graph of our growth and development. There are security challenges as well arising from extreme climate events and disasters. India is also in a neighbourhood particularly vulnerable to climate change. This was highlighted by the dramatic holding of an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives and, at the opposite pole, at the base of Mt Everest in Nepal. Bangladesh, leading the charge of the least developed countries (LDCs), is also extremely vulnerable, given the prospect of a rise in sea levels—all this could place pressure on migration to India.
Photo: Bloomberg
Even though negotiating a favourable outcome was extremely important, the complexity of such interactions involving multiple interests was evident in Copenhagen. With the emergence of new power structures such as the European Union, the agglomeration of the African nations, multiple economic blocs such as the Group of Eight, the Group of 77, LDCs and a plethora of players including international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and multinational companies (MNCs), negotiating key treaties has become extremely complex. The power of large states, including the US, has declined, while new influential centres have yet to firmly establish themselves. This has made persuasion in the global arena a combination of finding common interests and achieving moral suasion.
There are other international treaties on the block shortly, such as review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the World Trade Organization. These are important international agreements which are linked to our growth cycle. Clearly, multilateral negotiations have thus emerged as a key foreign policy driver. And India needs better skills and institutions to tackle this.
Hence, first, the identification of key principles of foreign policy would be an important prerequisite towards this direction. While strategic autonomy, which some have ironically classified as “isolationism”, has served our national interests for some time, this may appear anachronous in a globalized world where integration rather than seclusion is the defining norm. A national debate would still be necessary to outline the parameters of international engagement for—as the US-India 123 agreement for the civilian nuclear deal or COP15 has shown—it will be increasingly difficult for the government to impose such treaties on the nation as a fait accompli.
At the same time, what is also necessary is building a political consensus that can provide our international negotiators with firm direction and thus avoid public acrimony—as was seen in the evolution of India’s COP15 strategy. While it is not necessary for everyone to agree, we have to be on the same page finally. Walkouts from the high table leave a bad taste and reduce our international clout.
Second, a degree of sophistication is also necessary in our parliamentarians, diplomats, opinion makers and corporate leaders to generate a healthy debate on the nuances of international issues. This can no longer be the preserve of a few elite policymakers or academics—it is clearer than ever that these issue affect the grass roots. Providing research support, particularly to our parliamentarians, has become important: The expansion of the Parliament library service on the lines of the US Congressional Research Service is called for.
Third, NGOs and companies are also important stakeholders in global negotiations—their view would have to be incorporated. The media is another important institution which will play a positive role in facilitating public opinion—it has to be made a partner in the process, despite whatever incorrect negative perception it generates.
Fourth: Once we identify our national interests, we have to evolve strategies to leverage these. Winning over like-minded players is essential. Here numbers as well as stature is important, as negotiations at the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency demonstrated in 2008. Without the personal intervention of then-US president George Bush, many nations would not have supported the nuclear waiver for India.
Fifth, the congruence of issue-based interests, rather than the legacy of old partnerships and rivalries, would denote the right support to common causes. India and Pakistan, ironically, were on the same page in climate negotiations, despite differences in virtually all other fields. Similarly, forums as Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and Ibsa (India, Brazil and South Africa) would have to be used for joint lobbying.
Sixth, our diplomats need to build skills in international negotiations, with sound technical knowledge, multilingual capability and a flexible approach—the barriers of bureaucracy must be broken.
With a national output of $3.3 trillion (in purchasing power parity terms), India is seen as a bridge between the developed and the developing world. Thus, effective multilateral negotiating skills are a prerequisite to thinking of our foreign policy. India certainly needs to work hard at being a good, and effective, global citizen in the future.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is editor, South Asia Security Trends. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jan 03 2010. 10 38 PM IST