Moralists do not make great diplomats

The Economic Times, November 2, 2001

By Pradeep S Mehta

THE GOVERNMENT has finally recognised that the country needs a negotiating strategy at the WTO. At the Cabinet meeting last week, ministers agreed to work on a so-called ‘fall-back’ position in case India’s strong stance in opposition to negotiating a new round in the absence of progress on implementation is undermined.

The US and the EU have been relentless in their efforts to push and cajole developing countries. The events of September 11 have had surprisingly little impact on the pushes and pulls at the WTO in the build up to the ministerial. Perhaps the only effect has been to make countries like Pakistan that little bit more pliable to US demands.

But in general, national governments have been behaving according to their accustomed patterns. Most of all India, which has developed a habit of waiting to the last minute before finally deciding that it doesn’t want to be left out.

The damage done by this delay has not been critical -— yet. But the failure to think through the longer term objectives of India’s trade diplomacy and devise a realistic path to achieving those ends leaves India always on the receiving end of proposals. Successful negotiators put almost all their time and effort into building coalitions.

In the past, India has found allies in large and influential developing countries like Egypt, Malaysia and Pakistan. Many other, smaller developing countries have looked to India to provide leadership on issues of key importance to them. However, for this ministerial as for previous ones, India’s allies have slipped away, tempted by lures from the US and EU, directed at these countries.

Indian negotiators should be devoting much more time to developing strong common positions with other countries where their interests overlap. Moralists do not make great diplomats, and in seeking to identify and woo coalition members, India needs to have a clear idea of where interests do and do not overlap.

Of course, this will vary across issue areas and negotiators should not be afraid to work with different groups with regard to agriculture and implementation, for example. Crucially, India should look to alliances with one or other member of the Quad to put pressure on the more recalcitrant of the major trading powers.

The long delay in coming round to a sensible “nuanced’ position at the WTO has created other problems. One is that it has shortened the time for the vital research, consultations and preparation that feeds into the formulation of the Indian position on the issues.

The able officials under minister Maran have been caught in a trap: they could not prepare for negotiations because the government was adamant that it would not negotiate. Now, with only a couple of weeks to go, they are expected to provide effective support to the delegation that will visit Doha. To expect this is to expect the impossible.

Perhaps the most harmful effect of delay is the impression that this gives to the general public. The Indian public tends to be sceptical, to put it mildly, of the benefits of the WTO.

All the government’s criticism of the WTO and its avowed refusal to take part in negotiations have deepened their distrust. The government’s modified stance comes after an intense period of one-to-one discussions with the US. To the outsider, it certainly seems as if India was pushed into acceptance of US demands.

If this was an intentional tactic of the government, then it’s one that will almost certainly backfire. Domestic resistance to any and everything related to the WTO will tie negotiators’ hands, making it more difficult for them to achieve what is in the national interest.

The government’s duty is to inform and enlighten the public rather than delude them. This should apply as much to the benefits that trade liberalisation under the WTO brings to the country as it does to the problems that this creates for certain economic sectors and groups.

Forming a strategy for India’s position and goals in WTO negotiations will mean drawing together these threads: shaping public opinion, building knowledge and expertise on the issue areas and building a coalition with those who are genuinely like-minded. Not an easy task, but such strategic thinking is long overdue.