Manoj Joshi, The Wire 06/01/207
Hardeep Singh Puri’s book highlights the interconnected world where mistrust, violence and injustice are increasing while international covenants fray, and stresses the need for a collective legal framework to deal with them.
Going by the introduction, the presumption is that Hardeep Singh Puri’s book, Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos, was finalised early in 2016. Developments since then have only confirmed its central argument – the world remains a dangerous place with challenges that have become ever more complex. It needs a collective effort to provide an international legal framework to deal with them. The UN system offers one, provided it can be made to work.
Unfortunately, the recent history of the system – at whose apex is the UN Security Council (UNSC), tasked with ending conflict and fostering peace in the world – has not been a happy one. We have seen it all too frequently deadlocked and bypassed, and often impotent in the face of unilateral “perilous” interventions. The denouncement in Syria is unfolding and as of now there are no signs that the UN will or is even capable of taking charge.
As a diplomat, Hardeep Singh Puri has cut his teeth on a range of issues — the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka, managing ties with the US in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a trade specialist in Geneva. But clearly his life-changing experience has been his experience as the permanent representative of India at the UN in New York in the 2009-2013 period – including the period in which India was a non-permanent member of the UNSC in 2011-12 – and as president of the council in August 2011 and November 2012 and chairman of its counter-terrorism committee from January 2011 to February 2013.
Perilous Interventions, he notes in the afterword, is motivated by the parlous state of our interconnected world where mistrust, injustice, inequality and violence seem to be increasing and politics, leadership, international covenants fraying. These in another period would have been seen as the words of an idealist. But in today’s world there is a desperate realpolitik need to restore a world that functions within the framework of the rule of international law and convention and emphasises democracy and compassion.
One of the great values of the book is that it provides a short but insightful education into the “perilous interventions” that have so damaged the world order. He navigates with great clarity through the contemporary history of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Crimea or Ukraine and Sri Lanka, and uses his personal experience as India’s representative in the UN to see how the idealistic expectations of the UN systems have broken down.
This is a lesson India learnt early in January of 1948 when our complaint of Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir was turned into the “India-Pakistan” question. We were lucky, we went under Chapter VI, had Chapter VII been applied it could have led to external intervention in the region with unforeseen consequences.
Puri has had occasion to look at the various instrumentalities that are involved in our reaction to crises – governments, big powers, lobbyists, special interests, the media, think tanks and so on. But there is also the issue of political leadership, and this is best brought out by the Russian reaction that Puri describes under President Dmitry Medvedev and later Vladimir Putin. Of course, leadership is a key issue because the course of Middle Eastern history could well have been very different if George Bush had been more competent and Tony Blair less cynical. Ironically, the CIA officer who interrogated Saddam Hussein after his capture now agrees that Iraq may have been best off if the dictator had been left to run it.
Another issue relates to the role of the western think tanks, lobbies and ‘experts’ in promoting intervention. Syria again is a major case where the western narrative is completely one-sided and only now after the failure of western policy are people questioning it. It is of course known that powers like Qatar which played a major role in promoting the Syrian conflict, are also big donors to American think tanks.
The interventions discussed relate to the big powers – US, UK, France and Russia. Or they relate to Saudi Arabia, an economic big power, backed explicitly by the US. But there is one which is different – the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. It was completely outside the UN system, but it had subtle US backing. In 1985, having decided to shift Indian policy, Rajiv Gandhi got US approval, even telling journalists that the US agrees that India should play a larger role in the region. Puri served at a crucial position as the senior political diplomat in Colombo and had first-hand experience of the subject that he has now written on.
At the end of the day, this book is about global governance and the systems that we use to exercise it. Clearly, what we learn is that the system is now dysfunctional. It is either ignored, manipulated or paralysed in the face of a crisis. There is nothing new that is happening today – a new US president whose grip on foreign affairs is questionable and whose team comprises of ideologues who bear great responsibility for the mess the world is in today. We appear to be entering into a phase where international agreements like UNCLOS are fraying – as are borders in countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Somalia.
In themselves interventions are not necessarily bad. We have the example of the Indian intervention in Bangladesh which took place despite the US’s opposition. However, it is in the interest of world order to make the UN system work the way it was intended to. While that system took into account the fact of power politics, it did not cater for the prolonged power transition that is taking place.
Looked at any way, Puri’s book is a must-read for all those interested in global affairs and concerned over the deterioration of the international system. As the days go by, the situation seems to be getting worse. We need to find that space where a mutuality of interests not only prevents states from using force outside international law, but also strengthens the system where violation of international law is punished.