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Forging a national platform for global relations
Sunday, October 30, 2011

New Delhi :  An Indian theory of international relations? With the tectonic shifts of power from the West to the rest, diplomats and academics of international relations from around the country came together to forge a national platform to debate India's role in the changing international order and the need for an indigenous culture of strategic thought.

In a pioneering initiative, the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs organised a two-day conference (Oct 22-23) in collaboration with the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank. The conference sought to rope in the academia to contribute to foreign policymaking and help develop intellectual underpinnings for India's growing role in the 21st century world.

Billed as the first "national conference of international relations", it sought to move the discourse on international relations beyond Delhi-centric institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to include other academic institutions around the country which are engaged in the study of international relations (IR).

The IR specialists came here from Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Srinagar in the north, Shillong, Guwahati, Kolkata, Patna and Cuttack in the east, Chennai, Puducherry, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram in the south and Mumbai and Pune in the east.

The conference also broke new ground with the joint secretaries of key divisions in the ministry like Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan, SAARC, East Asia and Africa holding special briefing sessions with academics.

The purpose of the conference, as Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said, was to help "the IR community to establish a strong and sustainable platform that fosters a closer and more active engagement amongst the scholars themselves and between the scholars and Ministry of External Affairs."

With India currently in the Security Council as a non-permanent member and aiming for a permanent seat on the global high table, the need to plug the intellectual resource gap has been felt acutely for some time. Compared to other developed countries and emerging economies, India's foreign service remains woefully understaffed with around 700 diplomats manning the headquarters in New Delhi and in 120 missions and over 50 consulates around the world. Even a country like Brazil has 1,197 diplomats.

Besides, there are only a handful of world-class think tanks and research institutions specialising in international relations. Area expertise also remains woefully thin. "The harsh reality", as Vice President Hamid Ansari said while inaugurating the conference, "is that the study of international affairs in our country is episodic, emotive and inadequate".

It is against this backdrop that the ministry decided to enlist academics and specialists in the process of policy formulation and projection. "We are aware that research carried out by them can add considerable depth and texture to MEA's deliberations on foreign policy issues. Rigorous analysis of these issues can help us generate policy options as well as impact assessments," said Mathai at a dinner he hosted for scholars and IR specialists at Hyderababd House.

Alluding to the growth of the Indian economy and India's rising prominence on the global stage, Mathai said India will increasingly need "specialists in International Relations who can study, analyze and interpret major developments". "As will the need for area and language studies. An International Relations conference themed 'Shifting Sands: India in the Changing Global Order', therefore, is an idea whose time has come."

The conference generated a host of ideas that could help evolve an indigenous culture of strategic thought. Amitabh Mattoo, an international relations expert and the director of the Australia-India Institute, tossed the idea of developing an Indian theory of international relations, that is rooted in India's history, culture and specificities of its evolution.

Though there was some disagreement whether there could be an Indian interpretation of leading concepts in international relations like power, hegemony and balance, most experts agreed on the need for India to evolve its own world view of its place in the shifting global order.

Ansari, a former ambassador and an outstanding diplomat, outlined the concept in his inaugural speech. "Our understanding of countries and people that we deal with cannot be based solely on academic output of foreign institutions," he said.

"We need to evolve a uniquely Indian understanding, based on the historical context of our relations with other nations and peoples, as also contemporary realities and concerns. We need our own culture of strategic thought," he said.

The conference has taken note of two of his important ideas that could blossom into concrete projects: the creation of a national resource base of foreign language professionals and making archival records available to scholars. (IANS)


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