Saturday, April 26, 2008

Words, Words, Words

Last week I surfaced from a long-term writing project to go to a book reading: T.P. Sreenivasan, India's former Ambassador in Vienna, reading from his book "Words, Words, Words, Adventures in Diplomacy." Tunku Vardarajan, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, moderated the event at the Indian Consulate on East 64th street.

Getting there after the preliminary munch-time was over, I found T.P. (who I knew when he held the key post of Deputy Permanent Representative at the United Nations in the early 1990s), already at the lectern. He was saying nice things about Vardarajan, who had obviously just finished introducing him. The large and stately public room of the Consulate (which is in a palatial mansion steps from Fifth Avenue), was filled almost to capacity. With a plate of spicy chicken wings in hand I tip-toed into a seat at the far end of the room and spent the next hour or so listening to a very personal account of recent history.

The first chapter in the book, "My Story," tells of T.P.'s progress from a small village in Kerala, where his father was a school teacher, to the elite Indian Foreign Service, a process that included passing a competitive examination and immediately thereafter, fending off scores of marriage proposals. The other chapters recount, with a nice surfeit of interesting anecdotes, the highlights of a diplomatic career that took him, after the UN stint, to Washington at a time when the growing post-Cold War intimacy between India and the United States hit the speed-bump of the May 1998 nuclear tests, and then to Vienna, where he represented India in the Governing Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Words, Words, Words is more than a memoir. It is an important book about Indian foreign policy, dealing with issues of central importance, served up lightly by a master raconteur. But perhaps the treatment (and the title) do a disservice to the substantive content of the book. T.P. is one of India's foremost experts on the Indo-US nuclear deal and he could have steered perceptions of the matter in a way that none of the various policy axe-grinders can. But then he might have moved on from his status of dispassionate retired diplomat by accepting the responsibility of chairing* an eminent panel on the future of the International Atomic Energy Agency. That panel, he told the audience at the Consulate, had agreed at its last meeting that nuclear energy would and should have a renaissance.

When it came time for audience participation, I asked T.P. to take a step back from that statement and consider the larger issue of whether India should follow the Western model of development. To do anything else, he said, would be too expensive.

This is a matter that cannot be so easily dismissed. Indians (and all of Africa, Asia and Latin America), must seriously consider if nuclear energy should have any role in their future, for it only makes sense in an economic model based on high and wasteful consumption of all resources; if we take that route, there is no way to avoid general environmental disaster.

The issue of nuclear energy is, of course, also inextricably tied in with that of nuclear weapons. If we reject nuclear energy, we are rejecting nuclear weapons; perhaps not right away, but eventually. The argument of nuclear hawks is that this would be suicidal; we must hang on to our nuclear weapons to avoid intimidation. Thus, we must have nuclear energy, even if it generates thousands of tons of deadly radioactive material we have no safe way of handling. The argument is impregnable in its circular rationale.

The trick of dealing with that argument is to sidestep it altogether. Nuclear weapons exemplify the peak of the raw violence that has given coherence to the Western model of development from its very beginning. Without violence that model cannot survive. It is no accident that it developed during the most brutal and bloody period of human history, that the rest of the world sank into great poverty at the same time, or that its impact on the natural environment has been so deadly that other species are now being driven to extinction at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs disappeared. The model is fundamentally untenable.

Of course, it will be expensive to escape this state of affairs. It will also be highly risky. The greed and fear that drive violence are without vision. But people are not. They can be stirred to look beyond personal advantage, as indeed, can nations and international agencies. No matter what the expense or risk we have to try. And in doing so it is good to remember that always, at the beginning, is the Word.
* See Ambassador Sreenivasan's comment for correction


Bhaskar Menon said...

"J" likes the paragraph about violence being inherent to the Western model of development and says the ending of the post is "excellent."

"Jen" writes:
"But but but--
In the end, he is still advocating nuclear energy and therefore nuclear weapons production?
You sort of waffle at the end, but it appears you do not agree?"

Bhaskar Menon said...

Ambassador Sreenivasan writes from Kerala, India:

I saw your post on my way back, but could not respond to it till I
came home earlier today.

Thank you for coming and also for your generous words. I see your
point about writing about grave matters with a lighter touch. But I
thought that that was the way to get some readers! I do intend to
write on the nuclear deal, as soon as it reaches some temporary

On your question about our energy policy, I thought I said much more
than the point about expense. We had planned on a particular energy
mix 60 years ago and built our economy on that basis and it would be difficult to alter the policy. In fact, the climate change mitigation factor has made nuclear energy the first option for those who have the scientific infrastructure. The nuclear renaissance is a reality,
though some countries are still nervous about nuclear energy. (Incidentally, I am not chairing the IAEA Panel. I am only the
Executive Director. Dr. Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of
Mexico is the Chairman.)