The inaugural Project Syndicate On Air, a new monthly video series in which Project Syndicate’s distinguished contributors engage with journalists and editors from the newspapers that publish them, was a heated discussion on all the world’s hottest political issues.
Former UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor, an MP for the Indian Parliament and author was questioned by Jonathan Stein, Managing Editor of Project Syndicate, Alexandros Koronakis, Editor in Chief of New Europe, and Dhiraj Sabharwal, Deputy Editor and Head of the Foreign Policy Department at the Luxembourg newspaper, Tageblatt. Watch the full video, or read the full interview below.
Jonathan Stein: Welcome to this Project Syndicate forum; I am Jonathan Stein, Managing Editor, and with me is Dr Shashi Tharoor, something of a renaissance man, member of the Indian Parliament, a diplomat, former senior UN official, and the author of numerous bestselling books, both fiction and non-fiction. And joining us also is Dhiraj Sabharwal, Deputy Editor and Head of the Foreign Policy Department at the Luxembourg newspaper, Tageblatt, and Alexandros Koronakis, Editor of New Europe, based in Brussels. This is one of the first of these events bringing together our esteemed writers and the newspapers that publish them, and I’d like to get the ball rolling with a couple of questions of my own before turning it over to Dhiraj and Alexandros for further questions.
Shashi, we’re here in London and the topic on everybody’s minds is Brexit, and the Brexiteers and the Government have specifically identified India as a fast growing country with which they are intending to do fast and easy trade deals. What’s your reaction to this ambition of post-European Britain?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: Well, I met a couple of British Ministers who came by India after Brexit – after the Brexit referendum result I mean, the Brexit itself hasn’t really happened yet – and I was very intrigued by the contradictory and yet very useful and pointed messaging they were doing. They were conveying two messages at the same time. The first was, ‘Hey India, don’t worry about us becoming less international. We’re actually now going to be less constrained in doing a deal with you and opening up our market and you coming to us, and sort of a trade agreement between us.’ That’s message number one. But number two, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction of this, is, ‘Hey Indian companies that have been based in Britain in order to work in Europe, don’t worry, nothing is really going to change. We’re still going to be connected to Europe. You can continue in London and more companies can come and open up in London in order to target the European market.’ Now, that’s obviously the right message from a British point of view, but I think a lot more is dependent on how it’s actually delivered in practice.
Jonathan Stein: Alexandros, do you want to follow up on this Brexit theme?
Alexandros Koronakis: Indeed. When we talk about these trade deals, speed is of the essence and the UK Government seems to be convinced that they can get these trade deals to happen very quickly. How long do you think it will take to set up such a trade deal, even with a very friendly country?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: Technically, I don’t know what the legal position is. Can Britain sign an independent trade deal when it’s still part of the EU? I think it will have to wait until it’s actually got its Brexit finalised and that means it could use that time to prepare very effectively the ground for a possible deal immediately afterwards.
Alexandros Koronakis: Indeed and if I may just ask, you’re a politician not just of India, but of the world, how do you see the UK coming out of this after leaving the EU?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: I don’t think the British fully appreciate what they were getting into. I think there was a slight – I think they just wanted to convey a signal, but they didn’t want their lives to be turned upside down, and there is a lot of what the Americans call buyer’s remorse after the vote in this country. Having said that, a lot will depend on the terms of the exit.
Jonathan Stein: Speaking of buyer’s remorse, the other question that is on everybody’s mind here, and probably everywhere, is the US election, the Trump takeover of the Republican Party. Now, it’s looking less and less likely that Trump is going to win, but it’s still possible and I’m wondering, do you see any parallels between Trump and Prime Minister Modi in India? Both seem to be feeding on nationalism and populism. What’s your take?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: I wouldn’t go that far, because I think their styles are actually quite different, but there is, if you like, a trend in world politics that does link them and that also extends to people like Mr Erdogan in Turkey, Mr Putin in Russia, the Hungarian leaders, and a few others, which is to say that there seems to be a trend in which in order to grapple with the sense of uncertainty and even powerlessness, or lack of cultural and political autonomy, that has been engendered by recent years, including the phenomena of economic globalisation, the lowering of barriers between countries and so on that because of these trends, a number of people are looking for leaders who will be nationalist, who will affirm the traditional verities, who will hark back to a great and glorious past for people like them – that is the ones who are motivated by this thinking – people who at the same time will resist the encroachments of the outside world, and I think this combination of cultural nativism, a certain muscular reassertion of the greatness of your own country, and at the same time a considerable suspicion of foreign influences, whether economic, whether cultural, whether personal. Those trends are visible in all these leaders and of the support bases of all these leaders. One could have added Ms Le Pen in France as well.
Jonathan Stein: So let me just press you a little bit on India. Is it set on a path of intolerance? You’ve written several articles for us at Project Syndicate on prohibition, cow vigilantes, homophobia, censorship. Is Modi releasing forces that he may not be able to control, are we in a sort of Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of dynamic?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: Well, you can’t reproach the Government, the Government hasn’t specifically taken any negative steps, but by condoning these tendencies throughout the country, throughout Northern India in particular, I believe that they have permitted certain forces to run rampant, which they will in the long-term wish they had not.
Jonathan Stein: Let’s bring in Dhiraj. What would you like to put to Shashi?
Dhiraj Sabharwal: Speaking about Modi and nationalism, I think it’s much more important to talk about foreign policy with Pakistan relations. If you look at something you have said, you were always promoting the idea of India has a state with an army, but Pakistan has an army with a state. Right now, the [inaudible] conflict, everything is escalating. Do you feel that India is not trying to vouch in on that kind of nationalism to promote much more conflict and not diplomacy? What’s your take on that?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: People in India have felt rather helpless about the fact that for 25 years now we have seen repeated terrorist attacks from across the border, ranging from half a dozen victims to the horror of 26/11 in Mumbai in 2008 when 166 civilians were killed in two, three days of sustained rampage by terrorists from Pakistan. Now…
Jonathan Stein: But is this going to escalate? I mean, what is the danger? You’ve got two nuclear states. What actually is the…?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: But you see, can you accept a situation where one nuclear state repeatedly unleashes a weapon like terrorism feeling secure that there will not be any retaliation for it because they’re a nuclear state? I mean, that is in a sense a form of nuclear blackmail that no self-respecting state can indefinitely tolerate. So I think what India has done is actually a calibrated, measured, and proportionate response.
Jonathan Stein: And you note in your recent column that it really seems to have taken the Pakistani military off guard. I mean, it caught them off guard.
Dr Shashi Tharoor: Because for so long we haven’t done anything like this and even when there have been cross-border incidents, neither side has gone out of its way to publicise it in order to dampen down the situation getting out of control. This Government this time decided they would not; not only would they not keep it quiet, they would actually make a public announcement with some operational details, not too many, and this has in fact actually energised the Indian public into feeling that the right signal has been sent to Pakistan, namely don’t keep doing this, because every time you do it now we’re going to do it back to you, and ultimately two can play this very unpleasant game.
Jonathan Stein: It’s been nearly a decade since you left the United Nations, having come close to becoming Secretary General, and while you were at the UN you overlapped with Antonio Guterres, who is the Secretary General designate. What do you make of him? Is he the right man at the right time?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: I think so, I think so. He is a good man, he is a competent man; he was an effective UN high commissioner for refugees, which is of course a particularly appropriate background to have in today’s world. He is also somebody who I think has demonstrated through these five ballots that he has pretty widespread support, which is very necessary in a job like this. He led every single ballot, which is unusual, and what is striking with that is that that means he had a significant number of non-permanent members backing him all along.
Jonathan Stein: You had a follow-up question on this.
Alexandros Koronakis: On the UN specifically, and on the race for the Secretary General, we’ve been following quite closely, especially with the two Bulgarian candidates who in the end faced off, do you think that cost Bulgaria the possibility of a seat, given that current Vice President Georgieva looked like quite a strong candidate?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: No, I think they had their best candidate in the fray in Irina Bokova. Look, the conventional wisdom, which I myself articulated in a column in Project Syndicate as far back as a year ago in September 2015 was that you would have an East European Secretary General, because East Europe’s turn was widely accepted including by the West (by Western Europe), and on top of that, it would have to be an East European candidate who would not attract a Russian veto, because so many of the other East Europeans were seen as too pro-West in recent years, plus that a woman would be desirable. Now, you had one candidate who ticked all these three boxes, and had a fourth box of actually having run a UN agency for almost two terms. The problem Miss Georgieva was she was one of the East Europeans who was seen as more West European than East, and I think she would have run into trouble with some of the Eastern countries. So it just so happened that Mr Guterres who you can’t get more West European than Portugal, but there he is, surprised everybody and now he is the fourth West European Secretary General. I mean, no region of the UN has actually had as many. They were already ahead of the rest with three, Africa has had two and everybody else has had one, so East Europe really seemed to be ready for its turn, but they will have to wait another 40 years to find out.
Jonathan Stein: Dhiraj, you had a question.
Dhiraj Sabharwal: Maybe an evergreen about United Nations Security Council, if you look at how they deal with Syria. Don’t you feel that it is right now, because it has been going on for 50, 60, 70 years about the debate when will they reform in a way that also countries like India and everybody can have their word. Right now, do you feel that Security Council reform is tractable or anywhere near possible?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: It is sadly nowhere near, and I still remember – I was at the UN when Mr Boutros-Ghali in 1992 that Security Council reform had to be done and dusted in time for the 50th anniversary of the organisation in 1995. Well, the 60th anniversary has gone by, the 70th anniversary has gone by, and we’re no closer. But my worry with this is not just that it hasn’t happened or that India, as a result, left off the high table, my bigger worry is that the longer this carries on, the more irrelevant the Security Council’s composition will appear to others and, therefore, the greater the risk that its decisions will lose in legitimacy because they are not seen as made by a body that is sufficiently representative. Can you imagine, for example, 10, 15, 20 years from now any South Asian country being sanctioned by the Security Council with India not being consulted? Do you think India will feel honour-bound to follow the Security Council’s decision? What happens if a major country ignores a council resolution, a sanction in particular, which is binding? The same perhaps for a country in Southern Africa with South Africa not at the table or a country in Latin America with Brazil not at the table and so on.
Alexandros Koronakis: I wanted to move to Syria a little bit, because what we have seen is a long conflict that started from civil unrest, a civil war to now this international conflict, and the refugee crisis that has stemmed from it. Europe is in conflict internally about how to deal with that. We have the European institutions, which have an approach that they have tried to put forward successfully (in theory), in practice, the member states haven’t followed through. What is your vision for a long-term resolution of this conflict? We are looking to a political solution, but then what’?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: I am very sad to say that I don’t believe there is a solution possible, even if the war were to miraculously end tomorrow, which as you can see is nowhere near happening. The country is no longer the country that it was before the war started. Populations have been displaced colossally, both internally and externally. If you want to send Syrian refugees back home, they may no longer have a home to go to, or that home may exist, but it would be in the hands of people who are inimical to those who have left. You may actually have a humanitarian crisis with no apparent solution for the foreseeable future.
Alexandros Koronakis: Do you expect that these millions of displaced children either within Syria or outside Syria, do you think they will ever return to try and rebuild?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: To be honest, I don’t think so. I think what we are going to have to see eventually at war’s end, would be a few returning who are willing to do so, but otherwise a massive regional and global resettlement effort. I was very encouraged, for example, that for the first time an Arab country outside the immediate vicinity, namely the UAE, announced it would take, I think it was 11,000 they said, they would take 11,000 Syrian refugees. That is a first, and when it happens and the pictures in the Arab media of Syrians coming for permanent new homes in an Arab country, that could set a healthy example. Obviously, 11,000 is nothing against the numbers we’re talking about, but it is a very important symbolic gesture, and I would like to see other Arab countries doing that. I think the sooner that some Syrians accept that the only viable future for them is elsewhere and more important, the sooner the rest of the world accepts that that is the only solution and works – as they did with the Vietnamese in the late 70s – to implement such a solution, I don’t see a way out.
Jonathan Stein: The last topic that we would like to discuss today with you, Shashi, is the media itself. You have had a lot of experience…
Dr Shashi Tharoor: Not all of it pleasant, I am sorry.
Jonathan Stein: I am sorry to hear that. I think that is probably true if just about everybody. But it does seem to be the case that it is becoming more and more difficult to cover news and politics in a coherent faithful way, when events seem to be happening with so much speed, complexity, there are problems of defining terms, terrorism, populism. Let me turn it over Dhiraj, I think Dhiraj has a very provocative take on this.
Dhiraj Sabharwal: Well, I think if you look at how we covered Islamic State for instance, we saw how much news were giving them the, let’s say, plateau for all their ideas, for their ideology, and it rests right now in the mind-set of many people. Right now, I have just read, it is a study by the Pew Research Center where they really show that they are disappearing. My question to you, do you feel that media outlets and even social media promote terrorism in a way it has never been done before?
Dr Shashi Tharoor: I am afraid that it is true and at the same time, I don’t think there is a solution to it, because you’re journalists, Dhiraj and Alexandros, would you not report an incident in which some of your citizens, or fellow residents are killed. It would be an abdication of your journalistic duty not to report it, because you have a responsibility to your own community that people should be aware this has happened in your midst. It is absolutely true that the terrorists thrive on the oxygen of publicity, that every time the media gives them publicity, that is what they thrive on. They feel that their next killing is justified because the last one got them so much attention. So it is totally, totally clear that they want the publicity, but I don’t see how in a democracy any professional media outlet can refuse to report this.
Alexandros Koronakis: We see in the US elections now that this same exact same phenomenon is happening with the Trump campaign versus the Clinton campaign. Trump is getting scores more visibility in terms of media and social media compared to Hillary Clinton. Do you think that sways the conversation in his favour, because, also, if you can tell us what you predict will happen, that will be great.
Dr Shashi Tharoor: Like Jonathan, I don’t think the outcome is in doubt. I have never believed it was in doubt. I think Hillary will win. But what is striking about the Trump phenomenon is how much of it was media-dependent. There was a famous episode that got revealed a month or so ago where Colin Powell refused to participate in a television discussion on a leading network on Mr Trump’s candidacy saying, ‘you people have given him too much publicity already, I will not participate.’ Of course, the show went ahead without him, so one person saying, ‘no, I will opt out’, doesn’t help. But the fact is that it has been estimated that Mr Trump has benefitted from something like a quarter of a billion dollars in free publicity, and in many democracies, especially ones as individual-centred as the American system, obviously, media attention put Mr Trump in front and then, of course, the more outrageous things he said, the more publicity he got for saying them and as a result, the more attention he was able to drive in the process. Quite extraordinary. I think that when you look at it again, the media will turn around and say, ‘We couldn’t have done anything different. If a politician contending for president says some of the most incredible things in the world that he has said, how can we not report it?’
Jonathan Stein: George W. Bush was positioned as somebody that you would like to have a beer with, right? This was precisely it, do you want to have a beer with your president, or do you want somebody…
Dr Shashi Tharoor: Will the president ever have time to have a beer with you.
Jonathan Stein: That’s right. I think that wraps it up for today. I would like to thank you guest, Dr Shashi Tharoor, Indian MP and renowned author, and our guest editors, Dhiraj Sabharwal of Tageblatt and Alexandros Koronakis, Editor of New Europe in Brussels. Our next PS forum will be with Lord O’Neill, former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and former UK Treasury minister. Anatole Kaletsky, the Chief Economist of Gavekal Dragonomics will be in my seat. Thank you for watching.