Good diplomats know how to deliver tough messages to important counterparts without creating havoc. It’s a three-part process. First, you need to butter up your target with compliments. Second, you have to express your concerns firmly, but not hysterically. Third, you must hint at a compromise that will let everyone save face. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power showed off this “charm, criticise and compromise” approach in New Delhi last week. The topic was UN peacekeeping. The goal was to resolve growing tensions over the performance of Indian troops in troublespots like South Sudan and the Congo.
US diplomats, and even UN staff members, argue that Indian units are too cautious in reacting to threats. This has been brought into sharp focus in South Sudan, where Indian peacekeepers have guarded thousands of vulnerable civilians on their bases but refused to take more robust action against marauding militias. Such incidents are hurting India’s longstanding reputation as a pillar of UN operations.
Outgoing ambassador to the UN, Asoke Mukerji, has sternly and cogently picked apart criticism of Indian troops’ performance. The Security Council, as he points out, has often pushed missions away from peacekeeping towards peace enforcement or outright war-fighting in the face of mounting violence. The P5 still risk relatively few of their personnel on UN missions, although China has recently promised to send up to 8,000 extra troops. Meanwhile, Delhi appears to be pulling back from UN missions. India has not sent troops to the UN’s two newest operations in Mali and the Central African Republic.
More broadly, however, top Indian decision-makers don’t seem engaged with UN peacekeeping. In September, US President Barack Obama convened fellow leaders at UN headquarters in New York to discuss the organisation’s missions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended. But neither his speech nor body language indicated a fascination with blue helmets.
The very fact that Obama hosted this summit points to a small but repeated irritant in US-India relations. The current US administration sees UN missions as useful, if flawed, mechanisms for maintaining international stability. And Power feels that UN troops have a moral obligation to take tough action in the face of serious challenges.
This was the core of her message last Friday. She didn’t have to work to butter up her audience, talking about India’s “astounding” contribution to UN operations since the 1950s and 1960s. Box ticked. Then she moved to the difficult bit. Power admitted that the UN’s decision to deploy peacekeepers in risky environments “created a predicament for India and many traditional contributors to peacekeeping”. She went on to present an indirect but clear critique of the Indian forces’ failure to use force on UN missions.
This was presumably meant to make Indian officials squirm. But Power had not just come to Delhi to spread discomfort. She also had a compromise to present. The Obama administration has, she noted, been pushing countries to “step up” and deploy more troops on UN missions. Obama’s September summit generated pledges of up to 50,000 new soldiers and police, and many appear ready and able to go on the hardest assignments. This being so, Power underlined, “countries that have qualms with the mandates, or doubt their capacity to do what is asked of them, should no longer feel pressured into deploying to missions simply because nobody else will”. This may sound dismissive, but it is in fact an olive branch. If India really does not believe in what the UN is doing in places like South Sudan, it has an opportunity to get its troops out.
This does not mean that the US wants India to give up on UN missions altogether. India could still play a leading role in places where the mandates are less sensitive. It can also buttress the UN system by deploying more specialised assets, like field hospitals and engineers, rather than combat troops, and using its experience in UN missions to train up-and-coming peacekeeping nations. India could establish a positive role as the guiding start of more or less standard peace operations, while other countries focus on peace enforcement. This would be a substantial, serious and relatively low risk responsibility. Either way, Power has offered India a way out of an unnecessary but nasty struggle with the US, with relatively few hard feelings.
This article was originally published in The Indian Express on November 24 2015