At the India Global Forum, India’s Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar and UK’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed a range of issues from climate change to UN reforms, to the health security emerging as a geo-political issue, to the challenges Big Tech poses for democracies.
India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed the developed world must do more, and put up the money, to tackle the challenge of climate change and global warming.
They were participating in a discussion at India Global Forum, the annual meeting of some of the world’s leading decision makers and intellectuals, last week.
On the disappointment among people that the G-7 did not go far enough to achieve net zero carbon emission by 2050, Jaishankar said: “There aren’t too many climate sceptics in our part of the world. The real issue isn’t recognising the problem; it is resourcing the solution. The real worry is: We’ve seen promises year after year and we’ve seen a continuous inability to live up to those promises. We have technologies, we have solutions. The challenge is to make them available, make them affordable, make them accessible. We can’t say on the one hand, it’s an existential issue and not do anything about it. Then let us see the resources.”
Joining the discussion, Blair pointed out that the key to meeting climate goals is accelerated development of science and technology so that the world can push ahead towards a more sustainable future, from greener aviation fuels to more environment-friendly methods of agriculture.
More importantly, and in line with Jaishankar’s opinion, Blair said the developed world is going to have to put together the capacity to fight the challenge of climate change.
“The wealthy part of the world, which created the problem, has to put in place the resources for the developing world, as it grows… in a more sustainable way. The developed world will have to put together the finance to develop the technologies needed… Interest rates are low… and the world’s not short of capital in any way. It just needs to be put together in a structured way. It’s not impossible. The more we get practical the better it’s going to be,” the former British Prime Minister said.
“India will carry on growing. By the middle of this century, India, the US and China will be the three largest economies in the world. They will be the giants. If we want India to grow sustainably, we’ve got to be there as a partner,” Blair added.
Asked whether, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, health had emerged as a geo-political risk, the Indian Foreign Minister said: “One of the paradoxes of our times is that all the real problems are global – climate change, terrorism, pandemic… but our responses tend to be national. Unless we collaborate internationally, we’re not going to be able to get on top of these problems.”
“Health is a major geo-political issue and akin to security,” said Blair. “We still have a lot of work to do on the pandemic. We’ll have to create a global infrastructure on pandemic preparedness. We’re in a new era and we need to create a new architecture to deal with it.”
Turning to the issue of vaccines, Jaishankar said the reality is nobody can make vaccines by themselves. “The world has to come together if we have to scale up vaccine production. Compared to last year, in 2021, there is a willingness on the part of the world to work together on this problem. I hope we see much more international collaborations in terms of response systems,” said Jaishankar.
“The Covid issue cannot be solved nationally. It can only be done globally. Governments, including mine, have tried to find a balance between national needs and global requirements. Some have succeeded. Some haven’t. But eventually, we need to get on the same page,” the Indian minister added.
On the issue of vaccination, Blair said: “The reason why it’s important to get the world vaccinated is not so much as a humanitarian gesture as it’s in our interest, because if we don’t, we will get fresh variants that may circumvent the vaccines we have… The G-20 this year will be a big moment for pandemic preparedness. There are some 14 vaccines. It should be possible to coordinate that… who should be producing vaccines for Covid. Everyone’s trying to beg, borrow or steal. This is a global failure.”
“On vaccine production, the question is: How do you serve national interest, at the same time how are you a good global citizen? I don’t think the two are contradictory. Smart policies can easily reconcile the two,” said Jaishankar, adding: “The problem with enlightened self-interest is it needs enlightenment. Not everyone gets it.”
Addressing the issue of whether multilateralism is living up to new global challenges, the Indian Foreign Minister focused on the need to reform the entire UN system.
“Look around you. Are you using anything that’s 75 years old? That’s a long time. It needs a refresh; it needs an update. We can’t have people who benefited from one point in history to freeze it and say that’s how the world’s going to be forever,” he said.
Echoing his fellow panellist’s view on this but with caveats, Blair said: “I agree that something that’s 75 years old needs changing, but maybe the best way to make the change is to do it on a somewhat more ad hoc basis looking at the particular issues you wish to tackle.”
He pointed out that it’s very hard to get an agreement on UN reforms, because the countries that have positions don’t want to give it up. Candidly placing Britain in that group, the former British Prime Minister added: “Yet, you can’t justify a situation where India is not a permanent member of the Security Council. But then, what about Japan and Germany?”
Discussing the interplay between Big Tech and democracy, Blair, who was at the helm of British affairs from 1997-2007, agreed that Big Tech companies have enormous power. “Of course, consumers are using them, they are liking their products. But almost all of them are what I would call public interest companies today. The impact of Big Tech companies on our lives is enormous. My institute published a paper last year on you need a regulatory framework within which they operate,” he said.
At the same time, he added, it is important that the entire focus of the tech debate should not be only on Big Tech. “There are innovations going on in technology the whole time. The 21st century technology revolution is equivalent to the 19th century industrial revolution. It’s going to change everything and a lot of these developments are extremely exciting and full of possibilities. If you look at a country like India, it is becoming a centre of technology innovation.”
Weighing in on the side of those who advocate regulating Big Tech, he, however, added: “We should also bear in mind that technology has immense capability to liberate and advance humankind.”
He also flagged two big issues that policy makers must keep in mind. The first is the digital divide and the fact that hundreds of millions of people don’t have access.
“Another thing to bear in mind is that you’re going to have competing centres of tech innovation today. The power of China in the technology sphere is something we need to be focused on. We have to make sure we stay fully competitive not just in the West but also in the East as well given that China is going to be such a major player in this space and in the 21st century. We’re going to have to bear in mind that there will be competing centres of technology innovation today. The power of China in the technology sphere is something we need to be focused on and make sure we stay fully competitive,” he added.
Jaishankar agreed with Blair Big Tech and their technology innovations are forces of progress and taking the world in directions that are of great benefit but added: “In a democratic society, we have to ask ourselves, Big Tech is there with a big presence in my life… where’s the responsibility that comes with it? They have huge power. Where’s the accountability? This is not an issue limited to India. They harvest our data, as they elsewhere in the world. So, you have the opposite of the American Revolution, which is to have representation and no taxation.”
Pointing out that one way of looking at the issue is as a governance issue, a political issue and as a democratic issue. “The other (issue) is the influence they command. International relations have been devised as an interplay among state-based players. What happens when you have non-state players who are, in some ways, bigger than many states? These are questions that need debating. They can’t be brushed under the carpet saying you shouldn’t question them as then you are attacking freedom of speech. It serves their interest,” Jaishankar said.