David don’t preach

Miliband’s India visit should serve as a cautionary tale for young diplomats

Published:January 20, 2009 1:39 am

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband came to India to convey his government’s engagement in the aftermath of 26/11,he spent a night in a UP village,he blogged. But that has not been the sum of his tour. Statements made by Miliband in official meetings and in published articles have drawn the foreign offices of India and Britain into a flurry of private briefings and official clarifications that the bilateral relationship could have done without. Yet,even as the issue looks set to blow over,you have to feel for Miliband. He has,in the course of a few days,become a textbook example of how not to conduct foreign policy. The young and personable New Labour star who would be leader of his party will be cited as a cautionary example for diplomats on probation.

To be Britain’s top diplomat cannot be easy. British foreign policy has for long required prefaces about why London matters. Tony Blair was perhaps most forthright when he went along with George W. Bush’s Iraq war by emphasising Britain’s “special relationship” with its transatlantic ally as a source of its global clout. Miliband has imbibed that lesson,but acted upon it clumsily. In concert with his un-nuanced critique of Bush’s “war on terror” just days before regime change in Washington,he chose to insinuate proximity to the Obama team to get his Indian counterparts’ interest. It is in the context of talking about his reading of the incoming Obama administration that he urged India to “incentivise Pakistan” by showing movement on Kashmir.

Whether this will indeed be the new thinking in Washington will be confirmed in coming days. But Miliband must know that diplomacy is about manner,about making your intervention without preaching or referring to a powerful ally to show clout. But his reference to Kashmir was also distasteful. It neglected the context of the recent assembly elections in the state. It also shifted the discourse from the need to bring the perpetrators of 26/11 to justice,to the Kashmir issue. It is not just that India must be prepared to state its case on Kashmir in a more self-assured,less prickly manner. It is also that Miliband imperilled his government’s credibility as an honest broker in building global coalitions.

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