How Modi Should Play the Global Game of Thrones

The PM needs to make better use of India’s diplomatic energy and talent than the childish squabbling with Pakistan that we have seen over the past few days.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at G4 Summit in New York last month. Credit: PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at G4 Summit in New York last month. Credit: PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla

Rabindranath Tagore, on a visit to the US to raise money for Visva-Bharati, once ran into John Rockefeller, who instinctively assumed this dark, bearded man in odd clothes must be a beggar, and pressed a dime into his hand. None of the American CEOs Narendra Modi met would have made any such mistake.

Whether he gets the investment, manufacturing, trade and technology he was looking for will depend on what he does over the next few years, but his performances were mesmeric. However, now that the Prime Minister has ended his triumphal swing back and forth across the United States, hypnotising his audiences like a chubby pendulum, it’s time to wake up from the trance he induces, the willing suspension of disbelief that comes with it, and to ask if perhaps he also lulls himself into a stupor. What he said on foreign policy issues was often muddled, and it did not help that reports from the Indian journalists with him were the dying declarations of moths flying into an irresistible flame.

Wasting time on a Terrorism Convention

In California, the Prime Minister claimed that the UN had not defined terrorism in 15 years and asked how long it would take to fight it. This is odd, when India has plaintively claimed for those fifteen years to be one of the battlegrounds in the Global War on Terror.   It is also odd because the General Assembly has in fact adopted a definition of terrorism in its “Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism”, adopted  in 1994, reiterated after 9/11 in January, 2002.

“that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them;”

It is true that the world is stuck on definitions in the draft Comprehensive Convention against International Terrorism that India proposed in the mid-1990s, when the UN only had a raft of sectoral conventions that banned specific acts of terrorism – nothing that addressed the issue comprehensively. After 9/11, though, the Security Council has adopted a series of resolutions on terrorism, acting under Chapter VII measures, which makes them mandatory. A definition of terrorism is unnecessary, because all that is needed, from SCR 1373 onwards, is a determination that an individual or a group commits acts that the Council considers to be terrorism. This might be and is arbitrary, and means that names are placed on the list only if the P-5 agree. Even with China’s foot-dragging, most of the groups and individuals we want to ban already are on the Council’s list. If Pakistan does not comply with the Council’s requirements, we should highlight this, which we do not.

Clearly, the Prime Minister has been persuaded that the Comprehensive Convention will give us more, since, apart from yoga, this was the only initiative he flogged in his speech to the General Assembly last year. He has brought it up again, and the External Affairs Minister echoed him in the general debate this year, but a Convention now will be academic. If its provisions make Pakistan uncomfortable, it will make itself immune from scrutiny simply by refusing to become a State Party. It cannot be compelled to join, any more than we (or Pakistan) can be to accede to the NPT, the CTBT or the International Criminal Court. It is a pity that the Prime Minister wastes his time on a chimera; it would be an even greater pity if India frittered away energy and diplomatic capital in its pursuit.

It was also not very wise, speaking to an audience that included US law-makers, to link international terrorism with global warming as the two global challenges that remain. Firstly, for most developing countries, and certainly for India, ending the poverty that cripples the lives of billions is the supreme challenge. So too are all the problems that batten on it, including disease, malnutrition, illiteracy (and, in our case, open defecation), which most developing countries would insist are challenges they can overcome only with the help of others, or, as the Prime Minister said, only if humanity unites to meet them. Secondly, it ignores other current challenges that the world faces, including refugees, and the whole complex of issues around cybersecurity and cyber-freedom.

Most importantly, this plays into the hands of the OECD, led by the P-3, who want to project climate change as the greatest current threat to international peace and security, together with terrorism, and would much rather have the Security Council become the forum where decisions are taken. On terrorism, that suits us, on climate change it would be a disaster, since the first casualty would be the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which in his speech at the UN Summit on Sustainable Development the Prime Minister described as “the bedrock of our collective enterprise”.

Reform at the UN is far from done

On Security Council reform, the Prime Minister took the lead, apparently believing that the decision adopted on the last day of the 69th session of the General Assembly was a breakthrough that must be exploited. The G-4 countries met at his request, but only to reassure each other that they were the worthiest candidates possible. That contrasts with the decisiveness of the first summit, after which the G-4 tabled a draft resolution in the General Assembly in 2005. Sadly, they did not coordinate with the African Group, which put out a competing draft, the two were played off against each other by their adversaries, neither was pressed to a vote, and the G-4 suffered a calamitous loss of nerve and confidence. The decision to try informal consultations followed, and has led, almost a decade later, to the collation of the responses of all states and groups which honoured the President’s request for written submissions.   This is what the 69th General Assembly adopted as its last act in September.

Opponents of an expansion of the permanent membership would much rather have had exactly the same procedural draft that the General Assembly has adopted for the last few years, just renewing the mandate for informal consultations. Rather foolishly, they tried to block a reference to the collation, even though it was a redundant compilation of positions endlessly repeated for 20 years, and often mutually contradictory.

They failed, and the Indian diplomats who thwarted them, with the help of their colleagues from Germany, Japan and Brazil, deserve unstinted praise. It is not easy at the UN to get a decision through that the US, China and Russia oppose, and the fact that the G-4 could pull it off shows that they have a fair diplomatic heft too. But it is also the case that the opponents of reform were being bloody-minded. It is hard to get votes for a position that is pointlessly obstructive, which is why they caved in and accepted a consensus. However, it would be foolish to believe that because the nay-sayers tried to block the adoption of a meaningless document, it must be meaningful. It is not, and it is not a negotiating text.

Get ready to roll the dice

If the Prime Minister is serious about getting the General Assembly to act on Security Council reform at this session, he needs to seize the initiative. This means reviving the G-4 draft, which remains valid, and tabling it again with modifications if needed, this time with the co-sponsorship of the African Group and as many others as possible. By coincidence, several opportunities will soon present themselves to prepare the ground. As next steps

  • The Prime Minister should raise this with Chancellor Merkel during her visit and get her to agree that this is the way to go. Of the G-4, Germany now carries the most influence. Japan and Brazil will agree if it does.
  • If Germany agrees, he should raise this with the African leaders he is hosting later this month, and ask them to co-sponsor a draft with the G-4 at the current session. It would be ideal if a draft can be agreed upon between officials and adopted at the summit, but if not, a decision that the G-4 and the African Group would present a joint text should be announced at the end of the summit.
  • The government should leverage other events it is hosting or co-hosting, as for instance the Conclave with Latin America and the Caribbean that the CII will hold in October in partnership with the Ministry of External Affairs, to send word back through the ministers and magnates who attend that India wants to get a decision through at this General Assembly, and will value their support of their governments.
  • Once a draft is ready, and every effort should be made to put it together within weeks, we should pull out all the stops to get our neighbours to co-sponsor. In 2005, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives came on board. This time it should be possible to enlist Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well, even if Nepal is a problem. If Pakistan is the only hold-out, that deepens its isolation on reform.

A G-4 draft, tabled with the African Group, and sponsored by a wide range of countries, including neighbours of the aspirants, would be very hard to defeat. This would be a better use of India’s diplomatic energy and talent than the childish squabbling with Pakistan that we have seen over the past few days.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission