India: Poised To Assume A Leadership Role In The Global Economy And A Symbol Of The Aspirations Of The Developing Countries

Thursday, November 1, 2007 - 01:00

The Editor interviews the Hon. Nirupam Sen, India's Ambassador to the United Nations.

Editor: Ambassador Sen, would you tell our readers about some of the high points of your career in the Indian Foreign Service?

Sen: Well, I'm very hesitant to speak about things that are really personal, because we are civil servants and our job is really to articulate government policy and to promote bilateral and multilateral understanding, and to make accurate reports to our own governments, rather than to project ourselves. Nevertheless, one of the most interesting postings in my career was the years I spent in Moscow as Minister-Plenipotentiary during the time when we were witnessing a turning point in world history - between 1989 to1993 - including perestroika and the events that followed, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of a separate entity of the Russian Federation and the extremely dramatic and intense political processes that followed thereafter. The other high points were my two postings in Sri Lanka, the first as Deputy High Commissioner, during the Indian Peacekeeping Operation, and then later as High Commissioner - Ambassador - up to 2004, after which I came directly to this assignment. This assignment too has been a highlight because of the very interesting and important events that have taken place here. For the first time in the 60 years of the existence of the United Nations, we have witnessed a very intense process, since 2004, of the UN reforming itself in order to better reform the world. These have been the high points, in the sense of being the most interesting postings in my career.

Editor : Please tell us about the work of the Indian Mission to the UN. What is India trying to accomplish at the UN?

Sen: The first thing that India is trying to accomplish is to reform the organization itself to enable it to meet the challenges of our time, in areas where it is already active, and secondly, to enable the UN to play a more pivotal role in fields where it is no longer doing so, but where it ought to do so. This is because, in the field of public good, the United Nations is the universal body. Therefore, as we confront global problems, whether it is climate change, technology flows, financial flows, or on making trade an instrument of development, the UN should play a far more central role. Even in the reform process, with regard to reforming the international financial architecture, the UN should play a more central role.

Editor: You have been witness to so much change: what was essentially a bilateral discussion during the Cold War is now much more diverse and diffuse.

Sen: Well, generally the world has evolved considerably and in several phases. There was the Cold War phase, then the post-Cold War phase, and perhaps we are today in a post-post-Cold War phase. That is one way of looking at it. A second way of looking at it is within the United Nations itself. There was, for instance, a phase when the Security Council was deadlocked because the checks and balances operated to the point of checking and balancing everything during the Cold War - you will recall the practice of veto and counter-veto. Thereafter, there was much greater cohesion in the Security Council in taking action, which inevitably meant that the earlier role of the General Assembly would become somewhat less.

But today we are once again at a phase when the role of the General Assembly is increasing. So it is important to see how we can reform this institution in such a way that the UN becomes a more effective instrument. That is the change that is taking place in the overall global discourse, whether you look at economic or political problems. For instance, with regard to issues relating to the international financial architecture, it was not possible, during the Cold War or the immediate post-Cold War period, to look at a reform of the IMF to see how it could play its role better. Today we are aware of the vulnerabilities of the international financial system - the problems with surveillance, the problems with regulation, globally - these problems were kept within manageable limits by the structure of the international system then.

On the other hand, many new developments had not yet fully flowered; I mean the process that we refer to today as globalization in all its forms. Since these things have happened, it is important for the United Nations to deal with them, especially since it is clear that the structure that it was built upon in 1945 is no longer relevant. Economically, as you know, when the IMF was created, you had a system of quotas, a certain selection process and a certain level of transparency - which incidentally compares very unfavorably with the level of transparency of the U.S. Federal Reserve System.

The reason for giving you these examples is to illustrate that there is a certain inexorableness at the current juncture with regard to the process of examining how these things can improve, and this is where the UN can and should play a more central role. This issues are being discussed now in the UN.

This argument is equally true of the Security Council, which was created immediately after the Second World War when a certain structure was prevalent in the world. Today the world created by Yalta and Potsdam has ended: a number of countries from Eastern and Central Europe have now joined the EU, for instance. On the other hand, we witness the rise of a number of developing countries, India among them. That is why, irrespective of issues in the WTO or issues relating to industrial, economic and climate change matters, the G-8 is not able to provide solutions to these problems. Hence we have the G-8 and the five outreach countries, the O-5, working together.

It would be completely irrational to think that in the Security Council the same structure can continue when it does not continue anywhere else in the world. Because of the change of discourse which has followed as a result of the fundamental change in political and economic forces in the world and its structures, and because of the need to deal with some of these problems that are really global problems, there is a need for very thoroughgoing change required in both economic and political dimensions. As far as the UN is concerned, we are trying to find ways of making the UN the instrument of this change and the process of change itself. As Mahatma Gandhi used to say, you have to become the change that you wish to see.

Editor: Speaking of India's growing role in the world, would you comment on India's candidacy for Permanent Membership on the Security Council?

Sen: India is a distinct civilization; a country with more than a billion people; a country with a rapidly expanding economy, which has become an important player in the world. It is a country with a highly developed science and technology sector, including capabilities on the cutting edge of technology; it is also a country with an effective and efficient military force - here I'm referring to the UN context, where we are one of the biggest providers of peacekeeping troops to UN operations. For instance, India's logistical capabilities have grown enormously, something the world, including the U.S., recognized during the recent tsunami crisis.

All of these are important assets in terms of maintaining peace. Therefore, to bring these capabilities to bear in finding solutions that are optimal from the political and economic standpoint, we need to bring such a new force to act to assist in the solution of global problems by making them easier to solve. In doing so, the solutions that emerge would be seen to be both more optimal and more legitimate, especially by developing countries. Thus these solutions would be more widely accepted. So I think there is a very clear case, both in practical terms and in terms of sheer rational ethics, politics and economics, justifying India's inclusion in the Security Council. It is not a matter of saying that it is because of India's prestige or because India is powerful, or because it is a growing power: India should be there because it has capacities and because it can contribute to the solution of many of the world's problems in a manner that enables the world to see the solutions that emerge as more enduring solutions because they would be more optimal, more legitimate and more widely accepted.

Editor: Would you tell us about India's role as a bridge between the developed and the developing nations?

Sen: Certainly. I would say that India is a bridge both in politics and economics. On the one hand, India is active in all the forums we discussed earlier; on the other, it is a country with a rapidly growing economy and with cutting edge technologies. This enables it to be with the developed world in contributing to the solution of many problems. But this is equally true of India's liberal credentials, which should not be underestimated given India's role as the world's largest democracy. This is not merely rhetoric or a slogan; quite clearly, if India had not been a democracy, then the idea of democracy would have been reduced to a theory only applicable to developed countries; it would not be a practically realizable idea. Indian democracy plays a huge role internationally and is a fact that is practiced every day in India.

India is a bridge also because it is a developing country. It has areas of poverty which it is addressing, just as many other developing countries are addressing it, and it is doing this successfully in a way that shows to the rest of the developing world that through a democratic path, through a path involving opening the economy, one can address problems better. It is in this sense that India can play a crucial role, including within the UN. For instance, in the UN context, India is an important dialogue partner for the developed world, such as the European Union. On the other hand, it is also an important member of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, which is the biggest group of member states within the UN.

My last point on this relates to the functioning of Indian democracy. As a pluralistic democracy, with so many different faiths and cultures coexisting, India is able to show in actual practice a successful dialogue between different faiths and cultures, because India actually displays, on a daily basis, a very remarkable interaction and coexistence among all faiths and cultures. This makes India a uniquely living bridge, capable of negotiating the problems of this globalized world - I would even say as a bridge to the future.

Editor: As globalization proceeds, are there ways in which the process can be better managed? Are there ways in which to share its benefits in a fairer and more equitable way? What has India to offer in such a dialogue?

Ambassador: As I said, what India has to offer is twofold: what India itself is doing domestically and what India is doing in the UN.

On the domestic front, the current government's major achievement is that it is able to do what was thought to be impossible during the Cold War. In the old days, it was thought to be impossible to square the circle, as it were. Today, what India is trying to do is precisely that: to square the circle, and so far we have been reasonably successful. But just as we embarked on the bold experiment of universal democracy on such a scale, when the country was left in shambles in 1947 at the dawn of our independence, we are similarly attempting to square the circle - essentially to combine an open economy, increasing our competitive edge and increasing the rate of growth of our economy with social welfare measures that are unprecedented. This is an equally unprecedented experiment, given the size of India's population and the low level of development at our independence. Welfare measures that have been recently taken, which I would highlight, are the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, which assures each household guaranteed employment for more than 100 days. A second measure was recently passed by our Parliament, extending social security for workers in the informal sector. The third important measure that I would single out has an important bearing even on climate change, because it relates to deforestation and management of forests: our Parliament passed an Act called the Forest Dwellers' Act. These are ways in which domestically we are working to make globalization more socially relevant.

In the UN, we are working to achieve the same goal by bringing to bear the influence of debates in the UN upon other forums. We are working to make the advice of the Bretton Woods institutions more relevant and more effective through reforming these institutions. For instance, the advice given by IMF to the South East Asian economies during the financial crisis a decade ago was less than optimal - easing liquidity would have been more appropriate rather than the advice given by the IMF to tighten liquidity. This is quite unlike the advice given by the Fed to handle the problem of subprime mortgages. There is much that can be done to reform the international financial institutions.

Similarly, in the case of the international Intellectual Property Rights regime, we need to look at how we want to effectively address climate change. For instance, to have effective mitigation and adaptation strategies, we need to have more affordable technology flowing particularly to smaller states that are more vulnerable to climate change. The IPR regime must balance rewards for the innovator with concern for the common good of mankind.

We can make these processes more optimal, both nationally through force of example, and internationally, through the actions we are taking to reform the international system.

Editor: What about the future? Are you optimistic about the multilateral discussion and the role of the United Nations?

Sen: I am very optimistic about multilateral discussions and about the role that the UN can, and will, play in the future. This is for the simple reason that the world's problems today are global problems, and no one nation, however powerful, can resolve them on its own. In a practical sense multilateralism is a necessity. In a globalized world, multilateralism is necessary at a more theoretical level as well, since such a world can only be managed multilaterally. Personally, I think that the future of multilateralism is very bright.