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Does diplomacy matter? Yes, it does. As long as there are nation states and relations among them and among international organisations, and global civil society need to be managed and conducted in an orderly manner, diplomacy will be indispensable. I would go further and assert that diplomacy matters even more today as the salience of trans-national issues, issues with a global dimension such as the pandemic that we are struggling against or the Climate Change emergency that is round the corner, these contemporary challenges are amenable neither to national or even regional solutions.

We have anarchy in the cyber world, which is now embedded in the fabric of our lives. Only through multilateral efforts and international collaboration could one hope to bring a degree of order into a domain that is now a critical part of modern societies and economies. You cannot tackle Climate Change by sending in armies. Air strikes will not work against a raging pandemic. Only through diplomacy could cooperative solutions be explored.

The use of coercive power of the state will remain a necessary instrument to safeguard the security of its citizens. But what has become increasingly clear is that the use of such coercive power has increasingly limited utility.

The nature and practice of diplomacy may have changed as the world around us has changed and will continue to change. There is now a multiplicity of actors involved in the practice of diplomacy. There are heads of state who are fiercely tweeting, there are corporate leaders with awakened souls and philanthropic intent, and the very many non-state actors, some benign, some malign and some positively lethal. This multiplicity of actors places foreign ministries and professional diplomats within a much broader construct than in the past.

Then there is the impact of technology, the tyranny of the instantaneous over the tempered and deliberated insights delivered with nuance and even refinement. And yet in essence, diplomacy has, remarkably, very stable anchors, based on consistent and enduring principles.


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So, what are these anchors? What should we understand as the essence of diplomacy? Let me give you a practitioner’s perspective.

One, diplomacy is an instrument designed to achieve objectives set out in a nation’s foreign policy. I describe it as a delivery system for a weapon – to borrow an analogy from the military. Even the best delivery system cannot deliver on a bad foreign policy; the reverse is also true. India’s Neighbourhood First policy is a sound policy. If it cannot manage its own immediate periphery efficiently, it cannot hope to play a larger regional or global role.

But the delivery system in terms of the scale and quality of human and material resources devoted to implementing this policy is anaemic. The commitment to improving connectivity and regional economic integration is frustrated by the many roadblocks deployed by over-active security agencies.

Two, diplomacy continues to rely on representation, communication and negotiation. These require special skills and temperament among diplomatic actors, such as empathy, linguistic felicity and above all credibility. These continue to be essential even in our age of instantaneity.

Representation is important because thereby you are telling a story about your country – what it stands for, what it aspires to become. Communication means conversations and dialogue; not talking past each other but trying to understand where each side is coming from. This is how you establish trust and credibility despite holding different national positions. Negotiations mean willingness to explore compromises, to find mutual accommodation. Diplomacy cannot work when issues are posed in black and white. It can only operate in zones of grey. In a multi-state landscape, states cannot define their interests in absolute terms, disregarding the interests of other states. National interests can only be conceived in relative terms, with some more important than others.


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India’s foreign policy has gone through different articulations since it became an independent state in 1947. There has been non-alignment, then multi-alignment and strategic autonomy but whatever the label used, there is a consistent theme. As a major power destined to play a significant role in world affairs, India will ensure that on matters of vital interests, decisions will be taken in Delhi and not in some foreign capital. But this also means that India will take relatively autonomous decisions on matters of vital interest to it. Decisions cannot be based on absolute readings of national interest, nor are all issues of the same importance to national interests. “A prince must be prepared to make concessions on matters which are not of vital interest to gain ground on those which are.”

During negotiations on the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement, the question arose whether we should insist on being recognised as a nuclear weapon state in the proposed agreement or whether we could settle for being defined as a “state with advanced nuclear technologies such as the United States” and enjoying the same rights and entitlements. We agreed to the latter formulation because the objective of having access to international cooperation in civil nuclear energy and to international nuclear commerce and high technology were of much more practical value. In any case, this was an agreement about civil nuclear energy and not about India’s nuclear weapons. India’s strategic weapons programme remained unaffected and not subject to any international scrutiny.


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What do I see as current challenges to diplomacy?

One, diplomacy is to prevent war. The outbreak of war means diplomacy has failed. Relative to the importance of keeping the peace in an age when war can mean incalculable destruction and human tragedy, it is grossly under-invested in. India has a modest corps of about 1,000 diplomats and its external affairs ministry has a minuscule budget. This is a story repeated in many countries across the world. Far more resources are deployed for the military. This trend is likely to continue and intensify as more nationalist forces devalue international engagement and reduce support for international organisations.

Two, diplomacy is increasingly being associated in popular discourse with appeasement, with a soft state, with an unwillingness to take categorical positions. Diplomacy is often made into a caricature of itself, for example, the “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” or diplomacy with truly “Chinese characteristics”. Wolf Warrior is the very anti-thesis of diplomacy. A willingness to negotiate or to explore compromises is seen as a sign of weakness, while risky military adventures receive public acclamation. Reaching for the gun has become an instrument of choice. Diplomacy must be in the frontline of inter-state relations. Resort to arms must be the last line of defence, not at the frontline.

Three, the coercive power of the nation state needs to be circumscribed in its role, that is, to provide internal security and external defence. It is mostly irrelevant in finding solutions to the critical challenges thrown up by a more globalised and inter-connected world. It is only through diplomacy that nation-states can navigate this complex geopolitical terrain. Coercive power must yield to persuasive power as the instrument of first resort.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary of India and a Senior Fellow at CPR.  Views are personal. 

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