image: 
Thumbnail images: 

India has just begun its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This is a critical time in the history of the United Nations as it has failed miserably to forge international cooperation to combat Covid-19, the greatest existential threat faced by mankind. The clamour for reforms will heighten, even though much cannot be expected to happen. But this is the time that Indian diplomats posted to our missions to the UN in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi have to be at their best. Some of the fundamentals of multilateral diplomacy are outlined here from the point of view of someone with considerable multilateral experience.

 

In its simplest definition, multilateralism is an alliance of multiple countries, pursuing a common goal. It does not have to be universal or exclusive and the requirement is only to have common objectives and purposes. The UN is not a world government, not a Parliament of the world and it is not even a democratic institution. It is simply a structure with certain rules and procedures for dialogue, negotiations, consultations and agreement, if possible for the common good. Sovereignty of each nation is fundamental and even if there is any compromise on it, it will be temporary and conditional. It is basically an exercise in words, written, spoken and unspoken. And that is why I borrowed the title of my autobiography from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Words, Words, Words.”

 

Only some Indian diplomats may be assigned to do multilateral work and if the UN was not situated in some glamorous cities, many may not even have opted for it. Even Nairobi is a pleasant city to live in, except for the crime situation. But having had four multilateral postings abroad and one in the MEA, not by meticulous career planning, but by a conspiracy of circumstances, I would certainly say that officers should gladly accept multilateral assignments as they constitute the most exciting work in the Foreign Service.

 

However, expertise in multilateral diplomacy is not considered adequate to get to the very top of the Foreign Service. Hardly any multilateral expert has become the Foreign Secretary in recent years. For that, the clinching factor is the expertise on China, Pakistan and other neighbours. Though you may have battled with China and Pakistan at the UN, only bilateral battles matter for leadership positions.

 

It is not just the pride of representing India or being called Mr. India, as most of delegates cannot pronounce the names of Indians, but dealing with 193 countries at the same time and getting to know their patterns of behaviour and the pressures applied on them cannot be replicated. Building constituencies among them not only based on ideologies or mutual interests, but also personal interests like food, sports and games, literature and culture and then using them to your advantage are a challenge, but worth taking.

 

Individual skills and personal attributes are fundamental to a multilateral diplomat as they do not trade in goods or services, but in ideas and concepts, some of which may be still in the making. Indian diplomats at the UN are often hailed as wordsmiths because of their ability to supply the right word at the right time to make peace break out after harrowing hours of negotiations. We also have the reputation of being peace makers between warring factions when we find a word, which will satisfy them both. Without signing treaties or making pronouncements, multilateral diplomats create history. Because of the felicity of words that Indian diplomats have, some western delegations used to ask why Indians were more forceful than the Palestinians and the Namibians in making demands on their behalf!  The contributions may not be remembered long by others, but the diplomats will never forget that one simple word that they contributed was the basis of a global consensus. There are many legends at the UN of the exploits of V K Krishna Menon and others from India.

 

Multilateral work also gives the officers a lot of leeway in negotiations. In most of them, we can experiment with words and ideas within the framework given by the government. I often say to other delegates that they might be able to change my mind, but they would not be able to change my instructions. But, in fact, there is much you can do within the instructions to favour them and earn IOUs, which can be cashed when you need them in another context. The only principle to be kept intact is credibility in these manoeuvres. Saying different things to different delegates in confidence is a cardinal sin. There is nothing confidential in the corridors of the UN.

 

The hierarchy of nations is a reality in multilateral fora, but the hierarchy among diplomats is not relevant. The person who occupies the chair, whether a Third Secretary or a Foreign Minister, is a “distinguished delegate” and this imposes a major responsibility. But there are several layers of discussion before a crucial issue is settled and the matter can be sorted out by a senior colleague in the so-called “Seventh Committee”, the Delegates’ Lounge, over a Bloody Mary! Almost any mistake can be corrected in speeches or in voting through the established procedures of the Secretariat. I have corrected the speeches of some visiting political delegates, who tried to change Government policy surreptitiously through their statements. The Secretariat has a strong memory of the positions of states over the years and if a delegate says something different, they will verify whether it was a change of policy or just a slip of the tongue.

 

In the UN, we get to know the relative importance of each country, whereas, in bilateral posts, we tend to think that the place you are posted is the centre of the world. The Permanent Members are a class by themselves, but beyond that, there are many countries whose voices are heard with respect. The individual personality of the diplomat, even of a small country, can make a real difference occasionally, particularly if he/she has a group to support him. Vanuatu, a tiny country in the South Pacific made waves in the environmental negotiations on behalf of the Association of Small Island States. In multilateral diplomacy, collective bargaining has immense value.

 

As a leader of the Non-aligned Movement, (NAM) India used to enjoy great influence during the Cold War. Recently, we had moved away from that position deliberately and the Prime Minister did not even attend a NAM Summit. It was heartening to read in Ambassador T. S. Tirumurti’s speech at the UN yesterday: “India will be a voice for the developing world.” There have been many occasions when India was able to attain our objectives through the NAM or the G-77 solidarity. We may have to resort to some of the old NAM techniques in the new situation. I remember the occasion, when the US tried a “quick fix” to solve the issue of new permanent members by including Japan and Germany as permanent members and close the door. There was no unanimity in NAM about a formula for change, but we joined together to oppose the “quick fix” and defeated the move.

 

The UN is a complex world and nobody has mastered all the rules and regulations. The joke about the UN financial regulations is that “all the old experts have retired and the current experts are on tour abroad!”  The Secretariat sometimes exploits the ignorance of the delegates and one way to stardom is to master the UN Charter and the Rules of Procedure of the UNGA and the UNSC. Some of the apparent restrictions in certain rules may turn out to be a boon if you can locate the right clause at the right time. You will be hailed as a messiah for the moment. Similarly, diligent research on the subject being discussed will be of immense value to enrich your interventions. One legendary Saudi Arabian diplomat was known for his ability to speak on any subject at any time. He would walk into a conference room, ask his neighbour as to what the agenda item was and ask for the floor immediately to make a stunning speech.

 

Those who are posted in our multilateral missions occasionally have a chance to get deputed to the UN in Professional posts. Very often, the Government would say that the officers concerned cannot be spared; there have been many cases of officers getting deputation or resigning from the Foreign Service to join the UN Secretariat. Personally, however, I found representing India to the UN preferable to joining the Secretariat, unless it is a senior post.

 

Many may wonder whether it will not be a bore to listen to endless speeches on known positions of different countries day in and day out. That is indeed so, but delegates will soon learn the art of selective hearing. If anything is said out of the ordinary, it will be caught and given to the press. Now with the new gadgets, debates can be followed and reported from anywhere. There is no dearth of mirth in the conference rooms when the wrong speeches are read or literal translation of certain words lead to wars of words.

 

I only hope that the new norm will not deprive the next generation of diplomats of the attractions of globetrotting and building friendships around the world on the advent of online diplomacy. The dynamics of the conference rooms, small and large, are an essential ingredient of the charm of multilateral diplomacy.

 

To make our multilateral diplomats more effective, it may be advisable to train new recruits in multilateral diplomacy at the Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service. We should also have a cadre of specialists in multilateral diplomacy in the missions and MEA, generally rotating between the two. Many important countries have this system. We should have a system of grooming officers and deputing them for the elected and appointed posts at the high levels of the UN Secretariat. Whether something happens in the UN or not, the process itself is important for the members to be active and effective at the United Nations to promote their interests.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.