Perspectives at Alpbach

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

IN the introduction to his prolix but classic 13th century novel, Water Margin, the author Shih Nai-An writes:

A man should not marry after thirty years of age; should not enter the government service after the age of forty; should not have children after the age of fifty; and should not travel after the age of sixty. This is because the proper time for those things has passed.

Shih Nai-An would give me 50 per cent marks. I have flouted items one and four of his obiter dicta. I married after thirty and have, in my 72nd year, just returned from a most enchanting four-day stay in Alpbach, in Austrian Tyrol. Alpbach has been named the most beautiful village in Europe. What took me there? A conference, of course. I am only too aware that seminars and conferences have become a growth industry where non-governmental organisations (NGOs) hold forth,delegates are half awake and the speakers are a mixed lot. So I avoid, as far I can, accepting invitations to seminars, symposia and conferences.

However, Alpbach is very different and in some ways unique. The European Forum Alpbach is among the most influential think tanks (I wish I could find some less hackneyed discription) not only in Europe but beyond Europe. World leaders attend the annual Alpbach conference/symposium in the last week of August. Indira Gandhi addressed the Alpbach conference in 1982. Even twenty years later her visit is recalled with admiration, respect and warmth. Other world famous personalities who have participated include Jacques Delors of France, Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, P.V. Narasimha Rao, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, Yitzak Rabin, Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, Arnold Toynbee, Salvador de Madariaga (the Spanish political thinker), Karl Popper (1902-1992), Amartya Sen and Moshe Dayan of Israel.

It all began in 1945, "when the human and intellectual catastrophe of the Second World War was finally over". Two men, the Viennese student Otto Molden and a junior professor of philosophy at the University of Innsbruck Simon Moser, sowed the seeds of what in 1949 became the European Forum Alpbach.

For the past several decades, Dr. Erhard Busek is the president of the Alpbach Forum. He is a thinker of the first rank and also an energetic, no-nonsense organiser.

This year's subject was: "The New Foreign Policy - New Topics, Levels and Players".

The opening session on August 25, was chaired by the Chancellor of the Republic of Austria, Wolfgang Schussel, who was Foreign Minister for many years. Frankly,I was disappointed with this session. The Chancellor spoke as if he was walking on eggs and skirted the U.S. adventurism on Iraq. So did the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic. To my great surprise, no mention was made of the United Nations Security Council. I could, to some extent, understand their caution and reluctance to take on the hyper superpower. The lady Foreign Minister of Austria, Benita Ferero Waldner, mentioned India and Pakistan.

THE next day the Forum was devoted to "Who makes Foreign Policy" - government, Parliament, civil society, NGOs, terrorists, and opponents of globalisation. This was a lively and animated session. The panel of five sat on the dais. The other delegates and the audience in the floor. The chairs, I thought, were deliberately made uncomfortable, so that no one slept.

The audience consisted mostly of young people who asked sensible and provocative questions. The conclusion broadly was that foreign policy and diplomacy were no longer the exclusive domain of Foreign Offices and stiff-necked diplomats. The intrusion of the media was there to stay. This had its minuses and pluses - trivialisation of serious subjects was one glaring defect. On the other hand, the media were a vigilant watchdog and governments could no longer stifle them or brush under the diplomatic carpet unpleasant truths.

The session on "International Crisis Prevention and Crisis Management" produced more heat than light. The delegate from Israel, Prof. Martin Von Creveld, caused an uproar when he said that Europe was no match for the United States in any area and he quoted Mao Zedong - Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.

In my intervention I reminded the Professor that Mao's successors had abandoned his theory of power. China had been cautious since his death. They waited 50 years to integrate Hong Kong into China peacefully. So also with Macao. On Taiwan too it was willing to wait.

"Alternatives to the Clash of Cultures" was another subject discussed. Samuel Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilisations, was rubbished by one and all. While his article in Foreign Affairs in 1993 was well written, his book was both misleading and dangerous.

In the discussion on "New Demands and Tasks on Foreign Policy", the American delegate, John D. Stemple (at one time Consul-General in Madras) spoke of faith diplomacy and brought in Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Intervening, I reminded him that India was a secular, pluralistic democracy, and Jammu and Kashmir was a symbol of our secularism. More Muslims lived in India than in Pakistan. We had never accepted the two-nation theory. What was distressing to note was Pakistan's success in converting even reasonably intelligent people to its point of view.

I WAS on the panel on the "Future of the European Union - A View from Outside". In brief I said that Indian democracy and secularism were a miracle and a great tribute to the Indian people. In India, we celebrate diversity. We believe in unity in diversity. Europe should reflect on this and not shun diversity. If the Indian experiment had failed, it would have worldwide ramifications. Europe should know that we were against hegemony and could not be pushed around by anyone. We also want Europe to know that we have always wished for good neighbourly relations with Pakistan, but had been a victim of state-sponsored cross-border terrorism for many years. The U.S. had discovered terrorism on September 11, 2001.

I made six points:

1. India valued its relations with the European Union, which along with the U.S. was our largest trading partner. Like the European Union, India believed in multilateralism and not unilateralism to tackle crisis and problems.

2. We were concerned with the growing tide of protectionism in the European Union.

3. Europe in the years to come will undergo severe demographic change. Its population graph will go down and this will have profound consequences on the labour markets in those countries.

4. The European Union's agricultural policy had many flaws. The E.U's common agricultural policy needed change. Subsidies go to a small fraction. The amounts are large. (The E.U. argues that without subsidies most farmers would perish.)

5. Turkey's entry into the E.U. was the litmus test for the E.U. If Turkey is denied entry, the consequences will be adverse and worldwide. Turkey was a secular country and if it is denied entry, the Islamic fundamentalists will have a field day.

6. E.U.-U.S. relations are of great significance to the rest of the world. We support the E.U's position on West Asia. (I deliberately did not use the term Middle East). However, it was in the E.U's interest to narrow its differences with the U.S. while reminding the U.S. that going it alone on Iraq would not help E.U.-U.S. relations.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment