Let me start by pointing out what a great pleasure it is to be back in college. It is natural that the subject of my speech should be foreign policy. But rather than inflict another scholarly analysis of the state of the world, what I would like to do today is approach this subject from a different angle.
A good foreign policy should work for all of you. Your daily needs of the world must be better met. And since we are a collective as a country, our national security must be ensured. In doing so, the pursuit of our aspirations must be facilitated. Foreign policy being the link with the outside world, it must enable us to draw from it what we are looking for. This can be in terms of technology or capital, best practices or even job opportunities. And of course, we would all like to be strong; we would like to look good and we would like to feel appreciated. Any policy that guarantees all of these goals has a lot to offer. That doesn’t have to sound good; it just has to pass the smell test.
Now think for a moment of an Indian student who was still in Ukraine on February 24. Concerned about your educational prospects, you now find yourself in the midst of a serious conflict. And it’s not just you; Another 20,000 of your compatriots and millions of Ukrainians are also trying to leave the country. This is when you really rely on your government for help and extrication. And indeed, this is when the whole foreign policy apparatus kicks in, as it did in Operation Ganga. It does this by facilitating transportation, and that includes trains and buses. It intervenes at the highest level in Russia and Ukraine to ensure the ceasefire for a safe passage.
An example in public health is just as instructive. When the first wave of Covid hit India in 2020, we rushed across the world to secure PPE, masks and ventilators. And we did it in a seller’s market because the demand far exceeded the supply. Ingredients for the increasingly demanding pharmaceutical industry were also in high demand. And trade by itself was not enough in such circumstances; in fact, contacts are necessary for effective access. The second wave in 2021 saw a similar spike in demand for oxygen and specialty medicine from overseas. Locating, negotiating and contracting supplies became the priority of Indian diplomacy. And he bowed his back to deliver.
Now let me explore what foreign policy might mean for you personally. As an Indian student, for example, it may be the ease of obtaining visas, the ability to travel during Covid times, and perhaps even a job after studies. If you are a business person, this could help you access foreign markets, receive information on regulations and practices and, when circumstances require, assistance in resolving problems. For professionals and workers, this can mean guaranteed fair employment contracts, a stronger sense of protection and well-being measures in times of difficulty. And for a stranded tourist, a sympathetic embassy provides much-needed rescue and support, and in more threatening circumstances, of which I have given you examples, even an evacuation. But you don’t have to be abroad to need foreign policy; it’s just as important at home.
In terms of security, external or internal, diplomacy can be preventive, mitigating or resolving. It can help raise awareness of a common threat, just as it can find partners against common dangers. So whether you’re a soldier guarding our borders or a policeman battling terrorism, a good foreign policy makes your life a little safer. And then there is the economy, with its search for investments, technologies and best practices. In each of these areas, foreign relations can accelerate India’s progress. And cumulatively, they increase employment and improve your quality of life.
But also think for a moment how the big issues of our time – pandemics, terrorism, climate change – are impacting your very existence. And ask yourself if we shouldn’t have more of a say in the search for solutions. It is also important for all of us to know what other nations think of India, our culture and our way of life. So shouldn’t we then be shaping our image and influencing the narrative? These are just a sample of how, in an increasingly interconnected world, the attitude, perceptions and interests of others are so relevant. If they are to be managed, if they are to be exploited, they are all the more necessary for a clearer awareness among us that foreign policy really matters.
The world being what it is, self-interest and convergence cannot be fully considered, especially with neighbors. Their ambitions and emotions are not always predictable, nor is their propensity to take risks. Few would have anticipated, for example, the turn India’s relations with China have taken over the past two years. Any prudent policy therefore bases its posture on capabilities and deterrence. A great responsibility of Indian diplomacy is therefore to create the widest range of options for such eventualities.
Increasingly, foreign policy facilitates the creation of new capabilities in the country. In Asia, all modernizing economies have resolutely focused their external interactions on obtaining capital, technology and best practices from abroad. Japan was the pioneer in this regard during the Meiji era, while China after Deng Xiaoping was the top performer in terms of scale. In recent years, India has also embraced this mindset. These may include information technology or automobile manufacturing, food production or food processing, subways or high-speed trains, space capabilities or nuclear energy; the fruits of foreign collaboration are there today for all of us. New challenges like green growth and climate action have started to open up even more possibilities. This is all due to our ability to identify, engage, negotiate and capitalize on overseas opportunities of interest in many areas. The most effective foreign policy is one that promotes development.
The cumulative impact of eight years of ambitious but practical foreign policy is now here for all of you. To appreciate the full magnitude of this change, one must understand the far-reaching consequences of 2014. A different worldview prompted a comprehensive review of our foreign policy. There has been a conscious effort towards a ‘whole of government’ approach and more effective budgeting to support this. The monitoring of initiatives and projects — this is called Pragati in government — has become a common phenomenon. The six main objectives that were stated to decision makers and implementers were clear. First, we need to bring about a change of mindset in the world about us. Second, the partnerships we should create should be more equal and, with smaller countries, more generous. Third, the global agenda and the big issues of our times should be shaped by India as much as possible. Fourth, foreign relations should be actively explored and leveraged for national development and progress. Fifth, the very conceptualization of foreign policy should be more people-centred. And six, our culture, traditions and thoughts should permeate our own articulation as well as influence international debates and initiatives. Yoga and Ayurveda were obvious examples in this regard.
What I have presented to you today are the building blocks that are dissected in such a way that their impact on your lives is felt. Connect the dots and watch the picture emerge. A stronger and more capable India – more true to its roots and culture – is a key factor in the broader rebalancing that characterizes our contemporary world. As we celebrate 75 years of independence, Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, there are good reasons to be confident about our prospects. But in order to do this, it is equally important that you are all fully aware of the opportunities and challenges that the world presently presents. And surely we can be once we understand how much foreign policy really matters.
(Edited excerpts from Inaugural St. Stephen’s-MRF Distinguished Alumni Speech delivered by India’s External Affairs Minister at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi on March 24)