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Foreign Office Challenges:NEED FOR OUT-OF-BOX IDEAS, by Prakash Nanda,3 August 2009 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 3 August 2009

Foreign Office Challenges


By Prakash Nanda

On assuming charge on 1 August, the new Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, said that “though our foreign service counts among the best in the world, in a rapidly evolving world situation, the task is to further augment our diplomatic and professional capabilities as we are called upon to play an even more prominent role in world affairs. This will be an important area of focus in my new responsibilities”.

Although, Rao did not say it in so many words, it is undeniable that that apart from the continuing relevance of traditional diplomacy, which, in essence, deals with political and security interests of the country, economic diplomacy, environmental diplomacy, public diplomacy, increasing need of accountability of the Foreign Office to the Parliament and media are all equally significant in this age of globalisation.

The new Foreign Secretary has expressed confidence that she is looking forward to dealing with all these complicated issues and that her task is going to be “absorbing”. While one wishes her all the best, it is relevant to ponder over whether the ever-increasing inter-actions of New Delhi with the outside world should be the sole responsibility of the Indian Foreign Office.

If the country has done well by the Government not holding any more “the commanding heights of economy”, will it not be better if likewise the Foreign Office changes its mindset of occupying the commanding heights in matters pertaining to external affairs and shares the responsibility with other organisations, both Governmental and private?

This is not to suggest that the Foreign Office is no more relevant. The point is that as is happening in other parts of the world, the Foreign Office can retain the driving seat in the country’s international behaviour by metamorphosing itself “from the role of the gate-keeper, to that of the coordinator”.

In fact, some foreign offices have already evolved to the next stage, “the networked catalyst”. For instance, Germany has allowed its provinces to deal in many matters directly with European Union. Some border-provinces in China have been empowered to deal with the neighboring countries on some economic matters.

So has been the case with many ASEAN and Latin American countries. In fact, Australia has gone to the extent of replacing its trade commissioners in its American consulates with US nationals under the belief that they would better sell the Australian products and interests --- and thus save money!

Secondly, as the U.S. and leading European nations have proved, it is much more productive if the inputs to the foreign policy-making come freely from media, think tanks, universities and civil society.

Of course, in India these institutions, compared to their western counterparts, are relatively poor; and that is because most of them continue to be fed by the External Affairs Ministry in some form or the other (most of the personnel in our think tanks are former Government officials). Besides, the Official Secrets Act is a huge impediment. It sustains broader closed-door culture of the foreign policy bureaucracy that must be eliminated.

But it is a transitory phase and these non-Governmental institutions are bound to play a more decisive role in days to come through the judicious use of the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act that might offer scholars a chance to access Government documents that have long remained off limits. 

Otherwise too, with the increasing globalisation of the country’s economy, foreign policy matters are now affecting the day-to-day lives of the ordinary citizens and thus becoming electoral issues. As a result, Parliament, unlike in the past, is witnessing more debates on foreign policy and its suggestions or inputs can no longer be ignored.       

On the other hand, it is equally worth questioning the health of the Foreign Office itself. The fact remains that the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), whose personnel run the Foreign Office and manage the country’s external relations, is a remarkably small service, given India’s global aspirations. With fewer than 800 professional diplomats (though total staff of the Ministry is about 3500, professional diplomats number about 700).

Not only that. It’s an annual budget of just over half a billion dollars in fiscal year 2006–07, the service is stretched across 119 resident missions and 49 consulates around the world. In contrast, the Chinese Foreign Office has a total strength of 4500 and the country spends 1.23 billion dollars every year. The corresponding figures for Germany are 6550 and 3.2 billion, UK 6001 and 3.7 billion, Japan 5500 and 2.92 billion, the US 19667 and 10 billion.

Additionally, though the IFS still attracts talented youngsters and has drawn platitudes for its competence, the overall impression in other State Capitals is that Indian diplomats are essentially reactive, not pro-active. American expert Stephen Cohen once titled a chapter on Indian diplomacy as “India which says No”, his reasoning being that Indian diplomats often reflect “a defensive arrogance and acute sensitivity to real and perceived slights”.

Unlike foreign services of the developed countries, the IFS does not have any provision for a lateral entry into the service at middle levels from think tanks, universities, corporate sector and media, even for short durations. It may be noted here that the U.S. allows a small number of positions in its Foreign Office to officers from other allied countries, including France and the UK, as a means to expose these officers to Washington’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.

The US also has a hiring category of “technical appointee,” designating individuals who are neither permanent civil servants nor political selections vetted by the White House. These technical appointees serve a maximum of four years and offer outside expertise --- academic, scientific, or private sector --- that might not otherwise reside in the bureaucracy. In return, appointees benefit from seeing the internal processes of the US Government. A programme of this sort in the IFS is worth considering.

Moreover, after 1966, no significant administrative reforms have been undertaken in the Foreign Office. Recall, that year the former MEA Secretary General N R Pillai, had presented a report, which has been partially implemented. In May 1983, the Samar Sen Committee gave a report on strengthening the Indian Missions abroad, but it was not implemented. 

In 2000, the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had asked senior officials for a report on reforms in the service. His successor Yashwant Sinha who wanted to strengthen economic diplomacy, appointed a committee under NK Singh to suggest ways. But nothing came from the moves of these two Ministers. The reason? Neither of them stayed long as Foreign Minister to implement their ideas.

The moral of the story: It is time for fresh ideas and approaches. As an emerging global power, India must not hesitate to take all the remedial steps to reinforce all its diplomatic tools, including the foreign office. ----- INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)




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