When foreign policy comes home
Traditionally, foreign policy has been perceived, principally, as the preserve of States and governments. The subject matter was considered to cover issues beyond our borders. External was the keyword. It meant the focus was on what happened outside, with limited implications for the inside. It was not principally about us, but about what was happening to others.
Consequently, foreign policy could be addressed in a manner different from how the vast majority of issues that were internal were to be addressed.
In a globalised world, this is changing. Foreign policy is becoming less foreign than it was. Issues racing up the foreign policy agenda are those that don’t only impact people far away but all of us too. This may not be a new phenomenon. For example, countering terrorism has been on the global agenda now for decades. It has also been one of the most evocative issues, in terms of public perceptions, about India’s foreign policy for ordinary Indians. However, the number of such issues and the pace at which they are climbing up the global list of priorities has accelerated considerably.
If the environment and climate crisis have, for some time, been enshrined as a global concern, the pandemic has resulted in public health and its associated downstream impacts becoming a foreign policy staple now.
With more than 270 million individuals classified as migrants — perhaps the largest number recorded in human history — human mobility and migration will only grow as a foreign policy priority. Since digital technologies have percolated down to the lives of ordinary people, the transboundary roles of such technologies are figuring in global forums. Outer space, the so-called final frontier, is likely to become another ungoverned space with important consequences for activities on terra firma. The breadth of such subjects has grown in plain sight.
Several more can be listed. For example, the quintessentially sovereign right to tax will now be regulated. India agreed with more than 135 countries to a new way to tax the biggest multinational corporates through the recently agreed upon global minimum tax. The agreement will change the terms of how and where certain conglomerates will be taxed.
If foreign policy is no longer foreign, in the terms we considered it in the past, do the structures and systems that have been in vogue for long not need to be tuned to new realities?
The wise who explain global politics describe desirable global outcomes as global public goods. By this, they mean that the products are for the good of the public, globally. Rarely is it explained how the public, as a stakeholder, is to be engaged in this activity. Suffice it to say that the public benefits. In traditional international relations theory, public interest is what public officials deem it to be. International organisations, who say they act on behalf of “we the people”, behave in much the same manner, never pondering to reflect on whether they actually represent the people and, if so, which people. In any real test of reflecting the people’s will, these institutions would fail miserably. Yet they evade calls for change, except at the margins. In short, there are no ready-made templates to adapt to, at the domestic and the international level.
Granted, there is uncertainty about what these changes mean for the theory and practice of foreign policy. However, for countries such as India, this is not an issue of academic interest. Globalisation has established a direct linkage between the external and internal. The good news is that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s repeated calls to merge the “local with the global” in terms of industry and services, reflect a deep understanding and appreciation of the connect. Global supply chains are visible aspects of the benefits of embedding the local with the global. PM Modi has been vocal in articulating this.
Other aspects of global engagement beyond trade and commerce too are now ripe for this two-way connect. The bad news is that as new issues which impact our national development grow in global importance, geopolitical concerns are leading to their “securitisation”. Rather than enabling greater global cooperation, these new jurisdictions are fast becoming arenas for competition. Some are being weaponised in ways not fathomed previously. Cybersecurity and health security are two arenas that transcend the traditional boundaries between external and internal affairs that have become areas of contestation. Artificial intelligence and data protection are next in line. Other issues are also being moved from the sidelines to centre stage. For example, last week, the Human Rights Council in Geneva took a small step towards the universalisation of the right to a sustainable environment.
These are signals of a new and different foreign policy agenda that India needs to address. It is not to be interpreted that peace and conflict on our borders and beyond are no longer of importance. They will remain significant. It only means that, in several other domains, our boundaries are not where we imagine them to be. We need to look at external affairs as intrinsic to internal affairs in ways that we have not done previously. It also means there is an inevitable necessity to adjust and adapt our thinking processes, structures and personnel to the evolving foreign policy situations that we now confront. There is plenty of knowledge and wisdom in our systems and associated environment to address the changing scenario. It is time we focus on doing so now.
Syed Akbaruddin is a retired diplomat who served as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. He is currently the dean of Kautilya School of Public Policy
The views expressed are personal