Articles - August 2020

Bridging Diplomatic Centuries

H.E. Syed Akbaruddin
Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

He is, in the nomenclature of the Indian Civil Service, a “1985 batch” Indian Foreign Service officer.  One of twelve candidates selected by national competitive examination to enter the diplomatic corps that year, Syed Akbaruddin was born in Kerala but grew up in Hyderabad, Telangana in south India.  Both of his parents were university professors and his father served as India’s Ambassador to Qatar.

Looking back on his youth, Ambassador Akbaruddin recalls that he “had a passion for studying international relations.”  Matching his profession with that passion became a personal goal.  He recalls thinking that “if you could get a job that matches your passion, then you are never going to be bored at work.  If you follow your passion, you will have satisfaction.”

He remembers India’s Common Civil Service Examination as a “staggering” year-long process.  “There were then 153,000 candidates, for a total of 600 available jobs.  Depending on your inclinations and your ranking in the examination results, would get an option offering you a choice of positions.  The higher your score the broader the options available from which to select.”

That was 35 years ago.  “I was fortunate to get my first option – the Foreign Service,” Ambassador Akbaruddin states modestly. His examination scores also afforded him the opportunity to study Arabic and to select Cairo as his first posting.

Chronologically, Ambassador Akbaruddin’s career bridges the end of the twentieth century to the first decades of the twenty-first century.  Intellectually, his experience spans the end of the Cold War to the struggling emergence of a globalized world order and the neo-nationalist reactions to it. Technologically, his skills include both the era of painstakingly crafted diplomatic cables and the communications revolutions that have spawned satellite surveillance, the relentless immediacy of 24-hour news cycles and widely available street-level internet connections.  Experientially, his career traverses not only bilateral diplomacy and superpower competition but also the global realities of pandemic viruses, climate change, international terrorism, regionalized conflicts, sustainable development goals, complex international supply chains and relentless technological development.

Ambassador Akbaruddin is a multi-talented diplomat whose skills meld the subtleties of classical Metternichian statecraft with India’s historically diverse political order.   His postings range from the culturally rooted intricacies of politics and diplomacy in West Asia to the global institutions of multilateral diplomacy to the bureaucratic complexities of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.  His commitment to life-long learning, viewed through the lens of potential diplomatic uses, leads him to delve into the nuances of evolving social media applications as they translate into the “soft” world of digital public diplomacy.  His passion for sports allows him to adapt the gamesmanship of India’s star wicket keeper on the cricket pitch to the perseverance necessary to attain diplomatic accomplishment. Diplomatic Connections was privileged to meet with Ambassador Akbaruddin in his office at the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador, you are Muslim in what is a predominantly Hindu country.  Throughout India’s history there have been periods of conflict and periods of community between Muslim and Hindu.  There are many questions in the news today about the issue of Hindu identity and Indian citizenship, for example.  Has the reality of your being Muslim in any way impacted your career?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: Never have I seen myself as anything but a civil servant who is Indian first and Indian last.  Such factors of cultural identity, whether Hindu or Muslim or any other tradition, have not percolated into the civil service selection process.  There meritocracy prevails.

Diplomatic Connections: Your first assignment as a junior diplomat was at the Indian Embassy in Cairo, where you also studied Arabic.  But, you have served in several countries around West Asia over the years.  Could you tell us a bit about your experiences in the region?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: One of the requirements is that once you study a language you have to accept assignments in that region.  Once my Arabic studies were completed, there were several possible postings open in the Middle East.   Of them, Saudi Arabia – Riyadh was perhaps the most prominent.
Saudi Arabia happened to be a country with a very large number of Indians.  There my work was largely consular related issues and the needs of the large Indian expatriate community then working in Saudi Arabia.  India’s economic engagement with Saudi Arabia, much of it energy related, was also starting to grow.

Diplomatic Connections: Your time in Riyadh, which coincided with Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait (1990-91), presented some unique opportunities as well.  Did it not?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: I was able to spend time in Kuwait after Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi forces were defeated in Kuwait.  It was a good experience for a young diplomat because everybody else found it very difficult to go to Kuwait as a post-conflict zone.  At that time hundreds of oil wells were burning in what amounted to a “scorched earth” policy as Saddam’s troops withdrew from Kuwaiti territory.
That was an encounter that I would not have missed for the world.  Such opportunities for gaining first-hand experience come but rarely.

Diplomatic Connections: The second phase of your career has been built around your work in a variety of multilateral institutions both at the United Nations in New York and elsewhere.  How would you distinguish multilateral diplomacy from bilateral diplomacy?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: As a young diplomat, multilateral institutions provide you space and a platform like no other.  You have to think on your feet.  You have to respond in a high-pressure environment, sometimes before quite senior diplomats, and are expected to articulate your country’s views.
Multilateral experience early in a diplomatic career is an incalculable benefit for professional development.  In that atmosphere, you tend to grow much faster, become more confident, and develop the poise and insight needed to respond to sensitive and complex situations.

Diplomatic Connections: If young diplomats gain experience in multilateral diplomacy, are they not also likely to experience a good deal of frustration?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: Frustration is an ever present temptation in all diplomacy, never more so than in multilateral diplomacy where the results may seem less tangible than bilateral diplomacy.  It is not unusual for young diplomats to go through phases of self-doubt.  The work can seem nebulous and frequently it does not produce immediate results.

Diplomatic Connections: Where then does the positive reinforcement come in the work of multilateral diplomacy?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: Multilateral diplomacy works on a normative plane that brings a different set of values to global diplomacy.  It brings to the table questions of critical values, ethical conundrums and transnational challenges that may not be tangible but, in the longer term, represent steps toward an evolving global order.
If a country and its diplomats can contribute in ways that add value to the discussion of global norms and explore critical questions – environment, human rights, peacekeeping, sustainable development or global public health, there is a satisfaction that is very different from drawing up a bilateral contract or a trade negotiation or a political agreement or untying a difficult consular knot.

Diplomatic Connections: Multilateralism has come under a great deal of criticism in recent years as it confronts a renaissance of nationalism and the sovereignty on steroids arguments that accompany it.  How should multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations, respond to this nationalist challenge?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: Reinvigoration and change is good for all organizations, whether that change is prompted by factors that are inimical to the organization or by positive factors.  These calls for multilateralism to change need not be seen as a threat.  Instead, these calls for change should be seen as an opportunity to reinvigorate the United Nations institutions and to reset ourselves in order to have greater relevance in people’s lives.

Diplomatic Connections: You also have substantial experience in public diplomacy and the use of social media as digital diplomacy.  You were the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs for several years before assuming your current position here at the United Nations.
How do you see the relationship between diplomacy and its need at times not to be wholly transparent and the media, whose call is always for more not less transparency?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: Foreign affairs professionals and foreign affairs journalists cannot get along without each other.  If journalists are to understand diplomacy, they have to engage with the diplomats.  Diplomats, if they are to serve their masters well, must develop the capability to communicate to a larger public.  That requires working with journalists who are always there behind the scenes seeking information and interpreting that information for their audience.

Diplomatic Connections: India is currently a candidate for a non-permanent Security Council seat (2021-2022).  Essentially, states seeking a seat have to campaign for that position, do they not?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: The UN is not a lone ranger’s game.  It is a game of partnerships.  It pays dividends if you reach out in an effort to engage friends as partners.
In the specific case of the non-Permanent Seat, it is an election for the Asian seat on the Security Council.  We were able last year (2019) to convince the Asian group to endorse India, which means that there is one candidate for that seat – India.  But, that hasn’t stopped us from engaging all the other member states.  My staff and I respectfully try to meet as many colleagues as possible
and to ask for their support.

Editor’s Note:  On June 17, 2020 India was formally elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, winning 184 votes in the 193 member United Nations General Assembly.  It will take its seat for a two-year term starting in 2021.

Diplomatic Connections: The issue of Security Council reform and restructuring the Security Council has been a long-term concern for India.  Would you articulate the Indian government’s position on the future of the Security Council?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: If multilateral governance systems are to reflect the world of the 21st century, it is necessary to develop an equitable system that reflects 21st century values not the values of the Cold War and its aftermath.  Therefore, India asks for reform, and enlargement of the Security Council.
India believes that by any measure it is deserving of a permanent seat on a restructured and expanded Security Council.  We understand that Security Council reform and expansion is a difficult process.  Not because of India, however.  In many ways, India’s case is unique.  We are a country of one billion plus people and members of an organization whose Charter starts with the phrase “We
the peoples . . .”

Diplomatic Connections: You used the word “enlargement” of the Security Council.  What would India’s vision of a 21st century Security Council look like?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: A 21st century Security Council has to acknowledge present realities and the changing nature of power.   States must have the ability and the willingness to shoulder responsibilities.  Actors who by consequence of history were not able to contribute at the founding of the United Nations in the manner that they can contribute today should be added to the decision making machinery of the Security Council.
By any of these criteria India would fit in and be able to play a substantial role.  Who else fits in, how the Security Council should be reformed, these are as yet unanswered questions.  India is open to suggestions, but my country’s stance is that the United Nations must seriously address these questions.

Diplomatic Connections: From the time of partition (1947), the question of boundaries and control of Kashmir, the status of which has been very much at the forefront over the past year, has been contested between India and Pakistan.
How does India view the question of Kashmir’s status today?  Is it strictly a matter of sovereign authority over an area that is, from India’s point of view, unquestionably part of India?

Editor’s Note:  The region of Jammu and Kashmir has been disputed between India and Pakistan from the time of the partition of British India in 1947.  Pakistan defined itself as a Muslim state, while India defined itself as a secular state, though with a Hindu majority.  Despite the fact that Kashmir had a substantial Muslim majority its ruler at the time of partition opted to join India.  The Indian constitution granted Jammu and Kashmir special status allowing it substantial regional autonomy over internal affairs while leaving the Indian central government in charge of foreign affairs, defense and communications.  On August 5, 2019 the Indian central government modified Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that granted limited regional autonomy to Kashmir and moved to reassert its control over Kashmir’s internal affairs including public security.  Additional troops were sent to the region, curfews were put in place, suspected political protest leaders were arrested, communications were cut and internet access was interrupted for several months returning only slowly and on a limited basis.

Ambassador Akbaruddin: India and Pakistan are born from the same mother, from the same womb.  We understand each other perfectly.  Kashmir is not a question of understanding or miscommunication.  We do not need someone to come in and interpret one side or the other’s position to us.
India is a pluralistic, multilingual, multi-religious society.  India is a democracy, and there is no other parallel in human history to India’s agglomeration of one billion plus wanting to live in a democratic space.  To be sure the various parts of Indian society jostle with each other.  But then we accommodate each other.
That said: Pakistan’s philosophy is very different.  Their thought is that if you have religious differences, you cannot live together.  That is the difference in approach between the two countries.  Everything else pales beside that difference.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there a path toward peace in greater Kashmir, parts of which are under Indian, Pakistani, and – since 1962 – Chinese control?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: What we need is for both of us – India and Pakistan – to behave toward each other as normal responsible states.   States can have differences, but they need to work within certain parameters to address those differences.
India and China have a disputed border that is longer than India’s border with Pakistan.  Yet, we have found ways to work together with China despite this longstanding disagreement.  We continue to meet with the Chinese to try to resolve our border differences.  China and India might be described as “frenemies.”  We are friendly with China in some areas, and we are not friendly with China in
other areas.

Diplomatic Connections: Is it possible for India and Pakistan to develop a similar relationship?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: India and Pakistan must address each other’s concerns.  The more India and Pakistan can explore the realities across the table, the more the two states can move toward stabilizing the situation and civilizing the rhetoric.
What has happened since the actions taken by the India government on August 5, 2019?  Not once has Pakistan,  despite one Permanent Member of the Security Council – China - fully supporting it, offered any meaningful proposal to engage with India regarding Kashmir.  No measurable progress has been made on the issue of Kashmir.

Diplomatic Connections: After revoking Kashmir’s “special status” in August of 2019, the government of India took very strong measures to bring Kashmir “back into the fold” and under the control of the Indian central government.  From the outside looking in, actions like cutting off the internet look quite stringent.
How does India want the world and neighboring states to understand the status of Jammu and Kashmir?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: What India did on August 5th did not change anything in terms of India’s external disposition.  The borders of Kashmir between India and Pakistan are the same. What India did was to take internal action regarding the administration of Kashmir.
The status of Jammu and Kashmir is in India’s constitution.  It was not multilaterally negotiated.  The United Nations cannot address what is a question of the Indian central government’s authority over its own sovereign territory.  The future of Kashmir falls under a bilateral agreement to which both India and Pakistan are committed as signatories.

Editor’s Note:  The Simla Agreement signed July 2, 1972 formally ended the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.  Both parties agreed that “henceforth they resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiation.”  Specifically regarding Jammu and Kashmir, both parties agreed that “the line of control resulting from the cease-fire of December 17, 1971 shall be respected by both sides.  Neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally.  Both sides further undertake to refrain from the threat or use of force in violation of this line.”

Diplomatic Connections: Is there a role for the United Nations in determining the future of Kashmir, or not?  The history of international law going back to the League of Nations following World War I and then to the United Nations itself developed the mechanism of plebiscites for self-determination.

Ambassador Akbaruddin: India does not acknowledge the role of any third party in the Kashmir issue.  More than 50 years have passed and the government of India is not going to change that view. The phase of bilateral engagement to address these issues is the way forward.
The idea of a plebiscite to determine the future of Kashmir was once proposed.  But, consider what the terms of the plebiscite idea were as it was conceived in United Nations Security Council Resolution 47 (1948) following the partition of British India into the two states of India and Pakistan and the ensuing violence.
There was a three part condition designed to lead to a plebiscite.  One, Pakistan must withdraw its entire military, meaning tribesmen and organized Pakistani forces, from the part of Kashmir they occupied.  Two, as a second step, India would withdraw the bulk of its forces from Kashmir but would keep a limited presence to ensure law and order.  Once these two actions were completed, the wishes of the people would be ascertained through a plebiscite.  Number one was not done.  The second and third steps of the plebiscite plan were never implemented precisely because the first step was never taken by the government of Pakistan.
Pakistan, which did not implement the terms of the original plebiscite proposal, cannot now invoke the very terms that they earlier disregarded.  That phase is over.  The sooner everybody realizes that, the better for all of us.

Diplomatic Connections: Nevertheless, it does seem that the events of the past year in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir are different from the long-standing question of borders.  Rather, the issue of Kashmir’s status transmuted into a question of human rights under the provisions of the Indian constitution.

Ambassador Akbaruddin: That is a valid argument to raise.  Let me pose a counter question.  Why does a democracy, in this case the government of India, do this at considerable cost to its public image and at great cost in terms of human resources?  The outside world can assert that the actions of the Indian government are unprecedented.  But, the Indian government response is that the situation we faced was unprecedented.
We have an unfriendly neighbor that uses every opportunity to destabilize the situation in Kashmir.  The Indian government has taken these actions because the threats to our security are so serious that we must act to ensure that public order is maintained. This was not an easy decision for us, but we took it to preserve the most important of human rights – the right to life of our citizens.

Diplomatic Connections: You spent several years of your career at the IAEA – the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.  Given the fact that India is a nuclear weapons state and that your country has not been signatory to the NPT – the Non-Proliferation Treaty, what was your experience with the IAEA like?  It seems counter-intuitive that you would devote five highly productive years of your career to the work of the IAEA when India’s position regarding nuclear weapons has persistently questioned the restrictions on the development and possession of these weapons agreed to in the NPT.

Ambassador Akbaruddin: The IAEA has two areas of primary concern.  One, given the dual use of nuclear technology, is nuclear proliferation.  There is another area where a large number of countries have benefited from nuclear technology in terms of energy generation, agricultural development, medical applications, and the continuing evolution of techniques and monitoring programs to assure safe employment of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. IAEA deals with a whole host of nuclear questions that go far beyond the concern with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

Diplomatic Connections: Since India is a nuclear weapons state, what is India’s position on the proliferation of nuclear weapons states in the world?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: India is fully committed to non-proliferation.  Our position is that it is not fair that an arbitrary line is drawn between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states.  The notion that all those states that had nuclear weapons in 1967 may keep them while other states should not develop nuclear weapons is fundamentally unfair and begs some very serious questions about the deterrence theory that underlies nuclear strategy.
In fifty years the states possessing nuclear weapons have reduced their numbers of nuclear weapons, but both the United States and Russia continue to stockpile and deploy significant numbers of nuclear weapons.  Both countries are engaged in nuclear modernization programs and are quickly beginning work on new generations of nuclear weapons.
Those who have nuclear weapons have to start looking at disarmament in a serious manner.  These issues are too sensitive for the world to leave it to just a few states to manage.  All of the member states at the UN need to address the nuclear question.  The way to address that concern is through universal nuclear disarmament and curbing all forms of proliferation.

Diplomatic Connections: How does India’s nuclear policy translate to the dilemmas posed by the nuclear weapons development programs of North Korea and Iran?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: In the case of nuclear weapons the original sin is neither North Korea’s nor Iran’s.  The original sin is having nuclear weapons at all.  You cannot, in this day and age, tell another state, “I want you to do as I say but not to do as I do.”  If there is a demonstration effect of what these weapons mean, then some non-nuclear states will try to acquire them or at least attempt to expand their nuclear capabilities.  That said, those who have signed the NPT should adhere to its terms.

Diplomatic Connections: Another issue that has been very close to India’s diplomatic and multilateral heart is peacekeeping operations.  India has been among the most active contributors of peacekeeping forces to UN operations over decades.  What is the value to India of participating in peacekeeping operations?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: Peacekeeping is a tradition for India.  Indian forces were among the first peacekeepers in 1956 in Suez.  We continue to be among the largest contributors of peacekeeping forces today.  India has also lost the largest number of troops (169) while serving in UN peacekeeping operations of any member state.
What we gain from contributing forces to U.N. peacekeeping operations is a tangible sense of solidarity with the demanding work of pursuing international peace and security.  That sense of solidarity cannot be earned through monetary contributions alone.  It is earned through tangible contributions of human resources and even human lives.

Diplomatic Connections: Imagine that your diplomatic career is nearing its end.  Your final assignment is to train the next, the newest generation of Indian diplomats.  What would you pass on to them that you wish you had understood as a fledgling Foreign Service Officer?

Ambassador Akbaruddin: My advice to them always is to be patient.  In diplomacy there is always more time than you imagine.  Do not rush; instead, carefully calibrate your efforts.  You have more time than you think you have.  That understanding is what will pay-off in the longer term because when everybody thinks it’s over, it’s not over.  There is still time.  And that is when you can still make a difference.  Don’t ever give up hope.  There is always more time to accomplish goals than you ever imagined there will be.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador Akbaruddin, thank you for your time, your experience and your insights.  We have learned much about the ways in which India approaches the world.  And, we are deeply appreciative.

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