Foreign Policy as a Public Good

If Good Governance was defined for foreign policy, what would it constitute?


Should we consider our country’s foreign policy and the effective execution of that policy as a ‘public good’?


That seems novel at first sight. But reflection suggests that just as citizens have a right to safe water and a clean environment, they are entitled to an external policy framed and executed by their government that serves their interests, meaning: citizens can travel to foreign countries in safety and ease; businesses and other organizations can work effectively with foreign counterparts, advancing home country interests across a broad front; we enjoy peace and security in our neighborhood; and finally, framework conditions are created for cooperative, harmonious relations with foreign nations for political, economic and social benefit. Globalization and interdependence has made external cooperation more essential than ever before.


Good governance (GG) as a concept has been defined in varying fashion at the UN, the World Bank and elsewhere; it is primarily applied to domestic affairs, especially development activities. For instance, UNESCAP defines this in an undated document in terms of eight major characteristics. Wikipedia calls GG ‘an indeterminate term’ because people use it in a flexible way. The common elements in most definitions are:

•Participation by stakeholders
•Effective, efficient use of public resources
•Democracy and human rights, respect for citizens

How might we adapt GG to foreign affairs and to the delivery of India’s foreign policy, i.e. diplomacy?


A first essential is for the country to articulate its foreign policy, and convey this to citizens and to the world community. In a fashion, national leaders do this in major speeches, be it at the United Nations, especially at the start of the annual session of the General Assembly in September each year (by unwritten convention now a kind of global summit, attended by leaders from 70 or more countries). In India broad-scope foreign policy statements are made at: budget debates in Parliament, major parliamentary discussion on foreign policy, the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech from the Red Fort ramparts, important bilateral visits, national conferences, party conclaves, and the like.


Many countries publish carefully drafted documents that set the strategic objectives of the country’s foreign policy, sometimes called ‘white papers’. India has seldom published foreign policy white papers. All ministries present annual reports in Parliament, at the start of the Budget Session each February. MEA’s Annual Reports are fine documents for reference on the minutiae of external relations, but one would look in vain there for a clear over-arching master narrative of policy objectives.


Is it not time to set out in clear terms the principal objectives of Indian foreign policy? Some argue that doing so would tie us down in an undesirable fashion, removing an essential element of flexibility that has been our policy hallmark. Some point to the doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’, which according to them would also militate against a written policy statement. Others claim that since there is usually a hiatus between what countries say and what they actually do, it might become an embarrassment, a millstone around our necks. A few assert, we have managed very well for neigh seven decades without such a document; why rock that boat now?


These assertions require consideration. When we speak of strategic objectives, these are framed in broad-brush strokes, without compromising on operational flexibility. It is an error to imagine that this produces a ‘straitjacket’. Further, ‘governance practices’ evolve all the time, responding to new circumstances. People are more directly interested in foreign affairs than before, a product of globalization, which merges domestic and external issues. Further, countries that set out such objectives usually employ a three-level cascading matrix: national objectives, a series of goals under each, and finally, specific targets for each goal. Nomenclature varies, but such three-levels are customary. Take for instance ‘Performance and Accountability Report’ produced by US State Department. The Philippines sets out its foreign policy objectives in six-year cycles, coinciding with the term of its president. Setting performance targets for embassies, or other subsidiary units, is unrealistic without articulating strategic objectives.


A second requirement for GG is to accept multiple national entities as contributors to national foreign policy, i.e. other ministries and state agencies, plus different non-state actors (NSAs, used here in a benign sense, referring to civil society, business entities, thinktanks and academia, cultural and social organizations, the media). This involves a mindshift, especially in treating NSAs as legitimate ‘stakeholders’ in the foreign policy process. It also entails building learning into the organization. Some Indian ministries now work closely with NSAs, including Finance, Commerce, Environment, Telecom and others. MEA works with thinktanks, but not as yet with NGOs. It gives contract assignments to some research entities, and selectively funds thinktanks. But say unlike Mexico, it does not have a dedicated unit for such outreach.


In India this is bundled into an expanding remit of the Policy Planning Division. No forum exists for periodic discussion with thinktanks, say through a closed-door encounter with leading entities. China offers a stark contrast: its highest policy-making forum, the ‘Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group’, is chaired by President Xi Jinping (membership not made public; believed to include Premier Li, the Foreign Minister, top PLA figures and others); it regularly meets heads of the major thinktanks, principally funded by the government. Further, this Group also meets with leading Chinese and international experts, for focused discussion on cutting edge themes, including international affairs; about six to eight such discussion sessions take place each year. Namibia holds a four-day retreat, attended by the President, PM, the cabinet and top civil servants at the seaside resort of Swakopmund each December where African and international experts are invited to speak. Such governments act as learning entities, exposing decision-makers at the very apex of power to new thinking.


MEA has done well to institute in 2009 a system of annual conferences of ambassadors and senior officials. What is needed is to use these events, and other methods, for broadened connections with other foreign affairs stakeholders, as also in a quasi-training role, as done by the Germans and some others. For the past four years, MEA’s Public Diplomacy unit operates a fine program of outreach to universities across the country, with over 30 former members of the IFS annually going on speaking engagements, sensitizing academia and students on foreign affairs issues, and speaking with students on a career in the Service.


A third area for action is to offer citizens a clear ‘charter’ that sets out the facilities that they have a right to expect from MEA and its network of embassies and consulates spread across the world. These include consular services that fall in two clusters. For Indian citizens: passport and legalization of document services; consular protection to those in need, including those arrested in foreign countries; assistance to the vulnerable including workers that go abroad, be it to the Gulf region or elsewhere; and emergency evacuation in times of foreign conflict or disturbance, where India’s record is outstanding. Over 20 million new passports are issued each year, simplified progressively, with computerization, new Sewa Kendras and a broad efficiency drive; it now works well.


For foreign citizens, facilities for travel to India are dramatically improved with the introduction of e-visas, now offered to citizens of some 80 countries. For foreign citizens of Indian origin, the diaspora that is of rising importance, this involves issue of ‘overseas citizen’ cards and monitoring of the facilities that go with that. With the Ministry of Overseas Indians Affairs (created in 2004) under the Minister of External Affairs in the Modi government, a process of merging it with MEA seems evident. This should avoid duplication, which was a major flaw in the earlier arrangements.


Fourth, transparency and accountability are implicit in some of the above actions. MEA has been remarkably successful in public communications in recent years. The positives include: intelligent use of the official spokesman, and articulate presentation of major foreign affairs issues. Prime Minister Modi has in effect become the ‘Chief Communicator’ on external issues. MEA is today one of the most savvy users of ICT, utilizing a range of social media tools. It is much ahead of most foreign ministries across the world. Indian envoys also make effective use of the social media, driven mainly by individual initiative.


Does this transparency produce sufficient accountability? Most of the time. Yet when it comes to release of official documents, MEA’s actions have been patchy, i.e. fine steps juxtaposed with old restrictive mindsets. In recent years, MEA has released tens of thousands of files to the National Archives for public access, but most offer slim pickings to the research scholar; important, substantive papers have been held back. Yet, MEA released a major collection of Pakistan papers, published in a 10-volume compilation by AS Bhasin, India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007: A Documentary Study (2012); that bilateral archival collection joins similar multi-volume publications covering ties with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, plus a collection of ASEAN papers, all thanks a new approach to document release by MEA, besides meticulous work by AS Bhasin. Further, the Association of Indian Diplomats, which brings together over 200 retired ambassadors, has helped MEA screen tens of thousands of files, but final release of these papers is down to a trickle because MEA joint secretaries (i.e. division heads) are overworked and often unable to give final clearance. Cannot clearance be delegated to the former ambassadors, say via a select committee?


Fifth, equity and rule of law: We may see it two dimensions, how public is treated and human resource management within MEA. People approach MEA on non-consular issues mainly for information. MEA’s RTI (right to information) apparatus seems to work well and smoothly. As for MEA’s human resource management, the story is similar to the rest of the public services. Some good actions have undertaken, within a conservative framework where promotions to high ranks are guided by seniority. Merit is applied mainly in the assignments given to individuals.


To sum up, good governance in foreign affairs boils down to:

•Effective public communication of objectives, outcomes and issues that await resolution. This is not ‘open diplomacy’ a la Theodore Roosevelt; the negotiation process covering delicate issues, bilateral, regional or global, must always remain confidential; but people have to be taken into confidence on main policy objectives. This also needs informed public debate.
•Acceptance of legitimate roles of state and non-state actors, especially outreach to the latter, plus facilitating their participation in the foreign policy process.
•Continual monitoring of citizen services, plus a charter of rights for the citizen.
•Transparency of actions, and release of archival documents, overcoming mindsets of permanent secrecy.
•Accountability of actions, via clear articulation and application of performance norms.

If MEA were to undertake production of a new public document, setting out the strategic objectives of Indian foreign policy, the very act of drafting and finalizing this, thorough an open process would serve multiple GG goals. It would involve a range of actors, state and non-state; it would become a unifying action of public outreach. Others have done this – a fresh example is the way Germany produced a major document: ‘Review 2014: A Fresh Look at Foreign Policy’. This 58-page paper describes in exquisite detail the process through which consultation was carried out within and outside the German Foreign Office. Such action in India, adapted to our circumstances, would singularly serve good foreign policy governance.


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First Published 15th August 2015