In the first week of June, the 17th edition of an event called the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum took place at a particularly tense moment in European history. Among its programmed events was an interview with India’s Minister for External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. In a tweet following the event, the minister modestly summed up the interview in these words: “Animated discussion, reflecting a perspective from India and the Indo-Pacific.” It was that indeed, but much more.
The GLOBSEC Policy Institute defines itself as a think tank and “a leading authority on security matters in Central and Eastern Europe.” The announced mission of its annual forum is to facilitate “the free exchange of ideas” by providing “a meeting place for stakeholders from all sectors of society.”
Like most institutions that claim the title of think tank, GLOBSEC is less focused on thinking than on implementing an ideology and an explicit activist agenda. This year’s conference, it boldly announces, “will serve as a platform to mobilize the West’s support and action for Ukraine.”
GLOBSEC selected the seasoned journalist Maithreyi Seetharaman to interview Dr. Jaishankar. Chartwell Speakers describes the broadcaster as specialized “in connecting the dots between business, policy, civil society and the economy.” She turned out to be the perfect choice for GLOBSEC. Seetharaman’s personal worldview clearly aligns with the objectives of the conference. Less interested in the “free exchange of ideas” than the think tank’s agenda, she focused on the real purpose of the interview: mobilizing “support and action for Ukraine.”
The West’s Trickle-Down Diplomacy
Seetharaman sets the scene by reminding her interviewee that the issue of the day is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Perhaps influenced by her own ideology, that of a top-down world embracing trickle-down economics, she prefaces her questioning with the curious remark that the Ukraine war is now “trickling in terms of effect… to the rest of the world, the East, the global South.”
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Seetharaman’s illustrious career over the past 20 years has propelled her through some of the top media outlets specialized in financial and economic news, including Bloomberg, CNBC and more recently Fortune. Her rhetoric even in this seemingly innocent introduction to the interview reveals that she has fully absorbed this fundamental notion of economic ideology used traditionally to justify wealth inequality.
To kick off the conversation, Seetharaman then employs an artistic metaphor. “Paint us a little bit of a picture of India and how India’s being impacted,” she begins. With a few bold brushstrokes Jaishankar quickly passes in review the topics COVID, India’s economy, China and Afghanistan. After evoking India’s tension with China, he cuttingly drops the “useful reminder to Europe that there are other things happening in the rest of the world that perhaps Europe does not pay enough attention to.” How is that – he seems to be suggesting – for a “a little bit of a picture” of “the rest of the world?”
Seetharaman then intervenes with a question she deems important submitted by a member of the online audience: “How interested are the Indian people in the war in Ukraine? Is it a major concern, or a minor one?” The suggestion that it may be a minor one sums up the tone the journalist develops throughout the conversation that minimizes India’s importance with regard to the real issues in the world. It contains an implicit reproach of Indian indifference to what Westerners see as a defining existential drama.
The minister responds with a detailed explanation of the nature of the impact of events in Europe on both the Indian government and Indians themselves. This provides the first opening for what Seetharaman considers the big question, and indeed perhaps the only question: the problem of India’s traditional stance of “non-alignment.” To make her point, she brings up the question of India’s importing of oil from Russia, which she sees as the nation’s defiance of the West’s campaign to cripple Russia’s economy. Assuming the role of a police interrogator, she aggressively frames her question as an accusation of criminal behavior: “Is that profiteering? Is that looking out for your own interests? What does that really mean for the foreign policy of India and how do you tie non-alignment with nine times more oil imports out of Russia?”
Politely and in appropriate detail, Jaishankar explains why the question of imports has nothing to do either with alignment or non-alignment. He points to a double standard, given that Europe, enthralled by American sanctions, is still allowed to consume Russia gas. He adds that Western sanctions on Iran’s oil had already cut off India’s most reliable traditional source.
Undaunted and seeming not to have processed the minister’s remarks, Seetharaman follows up with another accusatory question. “How do you then sit back,” she asks, “and define Indian foreign policy at this point where the West seems to be quite vociferous in trying to curtail funding for the war in Ukraine whereas by purchasing this oil for its national interest, India is being asked, ‘are you funding this war?’”
Her rhetoric is not only insidious and transparent but also insulting. Accusing the government of her own forebears of “sitting back” and presumably playing deceptive games cannot be considered either good journalism or acceptable diplomacy. She is directly challenging India’s and her interviewee’s integrity. And of course, Jaishankar has just answered exactly that question.
Maintaining a polite tone, the minister responds saying, “I don’t want to sound argumentative” to her clearly argumentative question. He then comes back to a point he had already made, this time in the form of a rhetorical question. “Tell me that buying Russian gas is not funding the war? It’s only Indian money and oil coming to India which funds but it’s not gas coming to Europe that funds?”
From Oil to Wheat
Seetharaman then seeks a new angle of attack that she has some difficulty articulating. She asks her guest to explain “the second aspect that India’s foreign policy being questioned [about] at this point.” Instead of “aspect,” she could have said “the second invented accusation.” This one concerns measures Indians have taken to ban wheat exports in a time of need, with Russian and Ukrainian exports blocked and the global South facing possible famine.
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The journalist asks if the minister sees that as “supporting Russia… or is it a completely different element that we don’t understand in the West?” With a wry smile, Jaishankar replies: “I think the answer is B. You don’t understand in the West.” He then helpfully explains to this journalist supposedly specialized in the workings of the economy that it was an element of the West’s ideology that is to blame for this restrictive policy. India was forced to adopt these measures to keep its wheat exports out of the hands of speculators in Singapore and Dubai, who in this time of crisis have been seeking to monopolize the market with the intent of selling at higher prices to high income countries, while neglecting the most needy.
This exchange reveals a reflex that now exists among all the proponents of the Western coalition in the media. Any action taken by a friendly country that fails to conform to the most arbitrary and ill-thought-out dictates of the NATO-allied West can be deemed to be “supporting Russia.” This marks a return to the “global war on terror” reasoning of George W Bush, whose binary logic informed us, “if you are not with us, you are against us.” Bush, however, had the excuse of being physically at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In contrast, today, even while bullying the world into joining its effort to cripple Russia’s economy and undermine Vladimir Putin’s presidency, neither the US nor Europe wants to be seen as being literally at war with Russia.
Jaishankar uses the occasion not just to clarify that it is mere fantasy to suppose Indian complicity with Russia, but especially to highlight the fact that the West’s approach to management of supply to the needy nations of the world leaves a lot to be desired. He cites the disastrous management of vaccine distribution that was monopolized by the wealthy nations, victimizing the poor and prolonging the pandemic’s global effect.
The Wall Street Journal as the Font of Truth
Seetharaman then reads a question submitted by a member of the online audience, who cites the authority of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), this time accusing India of the transhipment of Russian oil. The minister mockingly dismisses the very idea of transhipment as a nonsensical fantasy. Seetharaman seems astonished that Jaishankar’s should dare to deny something the WSJ reported and asks him if he deems it “inaccurate.” Though superficially accepting his denial, she immediately tries to reframe the accusation by asking whether India may be playing the role of “conduit to any Russian oil transactions.”
This exchange reveals two important facets of today’s Western propaganda. The first is that unfounded suspicions of practices that deviate from Western norms are routinely presented as facts by the most “respectable” organs of the press. The second is that readers of such supposedly informative journals – whether it’s the WSJ, The New York Times, The Economist or The Washington Post – accept as unvarnished truth reporting that is little more than speculative rumor. Like the adepts of Q-Anon, they have difficulty accepting any denial of such invented accusations, on the grounds that these organs of the press are above reproach. That impression alone facilitates the work of political and economic propagandists.
At this point a Lithuanian journalist stood up with a new accusation, that India was “essentially ignoring war crimes in Ukraine, not condemning Russia, not doing sanctions.” Referring to its “struggle” with China, the journalist asked “how do you think you’ll be trusted by others after that?” Correctly perceiving the question to be a mix between a reproach and a threat by powerful Western nations not to back India in its differences with China, Jaishankar returns the question. He reminds the journalist that since “Europe collectively… has been singularly silent about many things which were happening, for example, in Asia, you could ask why anybody in Asia could trust Europe on anything at all.” Turnabout, as the proverb tells us, is fair play.
The minister clarifies once again that what the journalist claims is “mischaracterizing our position” and explains why. More pertinently, he points to the absurdity of the implied reasoning, characterizing it as “a transaction” following the idea “that I come in one conflict because it will help me in conflict two,” adding this pertinent remark: “That’s not how the world works.”
Once again, instead of processing what the minister has just explained, Seetharaman tries to reformulate the same accusation in very much the same terms. “You have a problem with China on the border,” she begins before continuing with the question, “what position does that leave you in when it comes to seeking support if further incursions are done?” To bring home the seriousness of her claim, she poses another question coming from “one of the foremost geopolitical strategists on Wall Street,” who wants to know to whom, in a moment of crisis, India would look for support, the US or China? The questioner refers to this as “a defining moment that comes out of the defining moment that we face with Russia right now.”
Europe and the West Have a Mindset Problem
Perceiving this challenge to be a frank attempt at psychological bullying by a particularly bellicose group of ideologues, Jaishankar reacts by providing what should be remembered as one of the best political quotes of the 21st century. “You know,” he intones, “somewhere Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.” India has been living with that mindset for more than two centuries.
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He goes on to characterize the binary logic promoted by that mindset: “Your grand strategy must be about how you will choose.” Once again refusing to acknowledge the minister’s line of reasoning, Seetharaman interrupts him by interjecting what she takes to be a truism: “There will always be two axes. At this point it’s an understood, accepted fact. You have the West, US-led. You have China as the next potential axis. Where does India fit into this?”
The minister correctly identifies this as a “construct you are trying to impose on me.” In other words, a perfect illustration of the Western Eurocentric mindset. He asserts that India is entitled to weigh its own interests and make choices that, contrary to the worldview of the West, “are not cynical and transactional.” In other words, the self-interested “buying, selling, trading” logic of Wall Street – quintessentially cynical and purely transactional – is not appropriate to democracies.
Once again, discarding what Jaishankar has just explained, Seetharaman reformulates the same question, this time in even more cynical and transactional terms. With one fifth of the world’s population, she admonishes him, “you cannot sit on the fence with regard to foreign policy matters.” She adds the warning that “non-alignment isn’t plausible if you want to take your position on the world stage.”
Jaishankar responds that the accusation of sitting on the fence “just because I don’t agree with you” makes no sense. Instead, he counters that “I’m sitting on my ground.” Seetharaman’s rhetoric is revealing. For her, the world is a stage, a hyperreal platform on which decisions are made by important people. Those who are incapable of holding forth on the stage, where, as we know, “poor players” are wont to “strut and fret” while those who don’t deserve to join them are condemned to sit on the fence. But, as Shakespeare told us, being on the stage accomplishes little. All that strutting and fretting ultimately signifies nothing.
He goes on to state what should be obvious to all, listing “the big challenges of the world” that transcend the “sound and fury” of a complex war in Eastern Europe. He identifies them as “climate change, terrorism “and the emergence of a world order,” as well as security and sustainable development goals. He implies that cooperating on solving those problems should have priority over what the rest of the world see as a proxy war for military dominance in one corner of Europe.
In this curious rhetorical fencing match, he then attempts a fatal thrust. “A lot of things are happening outside Europe,” he tells this Western journalist of Indian heritage. He informs her that “the world cannot be that Eurocentric as it used to be in the past.”
When journalism imitates Lewis Carroll
After this sally comes the final great moment of the interview. Anyone who remembers Lewis Carroll’s The White Knight’s Song in Through the Looking-Glass, will recognize the resemblance between Seetharaman and the narrator of Carroll’s poem, a poet who interrogates a man he happens upon in the countryside. Repeating the same question over and over again, the poet fails to take any account of the man’s answers, drifting off into his own speculations and fantasies. At least the narrator of the poem (Carroll’s parody of William Wordsworth), unlike Seetharaman, admits his inability to listen and process information. He confesses in the first stanza that “his answer trickled through my head/ Like water through a sieve.”
And so it is that, like Lewis Carroll’s persona, Seetharaman reformulates the same question, this time with these words: “And who will India play with? Will it be Europe and the US or will it be China and Russia?” The minister follows his nuanced answer with a serious recommendation as he attempts to appeal to the journalist’s sense of professionalism: “Don’t use necessarily a caricature version of one situation as a yardstick to pass a sweeping judgment.” Alas, that is all she has been doing for the past half hour.
Concerning the Ukraine conflict itself, he adds a thought that seems curiously absent in all official Western discourse. He reminds Seetharaman and the public that one day a negotiated peace will have to come, meaning that “it is in our collective interest to find some kind of resolution… unless you’re throwing your hands up and saying this is not fixable.”
This time it is Jaishankar who is guilty of mischaracterizing Seetharaman’s position and indeed the position of the entire Western coalition. They are not saying it isn’t fixable. They are saying it is only fixable on our terms, following the unimpeachable wisdom of geopolitical strategists on Wall Street.
These exchanges offer yet another illustration of how Western journalists are locked into an ideological program that requires them to endlessly repeat invented narratives already present in the media. In their interviews, they strive to confirm those points rather than to explore other avenues of understanding. That this happens routinely in newsrooms and editorial meetings should not be surprising. They have copy to deliver in conformity with the editorial line. But this is true even when the valuable resource for their reporting is sitting in front of them in the same room.
Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jainshankar must be congratulated for being one of the rare political voices that dares to challenge Western media to its face and find the appropriate tone for doing so.
Take Away From the Interview
India’s Minister of External Affairs put in a brilliant performance but offered nothing radically new about India’s stance. His impressive pedagogical dexterity permitted him to confirm with appropriate factual detail what is already public knowledge about India’s non-alignment. After all, he is the author of a book, The India Way, that provides the scaffolding for everything he says in this interview. Surely, Seetharaman herself, with her Indian heritage, already understood that.
What the rest of us can take from this fascinating confrontation has less to do with understanding India than coming to grips with the mindset of the media in the West, particularly its refusal to handle or even admit any diversity of perspective. For Western journalists, even of Asian origin, it doesn’t matter how much you already know or even what you may be able to learn from a source sitting in front of you.
What matters is your capacity to unfailingly repeat the mindset of your Western corporate and political masters. They have clearly enunciated their own unshakable geopolitical strategy, which is regurgitated in the news cycles on a daily, if not hourly, basis. They are intent on seeing it repeated ad nauseum until the public, hypnotized by the repetition, accepts their narrative as divine truth and deems no other possible truth valid.
Seetharaman may understand more than she lets on. She may well be playing a role that has been scripted for her. That would be perfectly understandable. After all, she is continuing to pursue a shining career. What is regrettable is that she seems to identify with that role.
It is worth noting that this interview has been the object of commentary across the full span of Indian media. Not one Western outlet has even referred to it. But there is a reason for that. In the West, nuanced discourse, curiosity about others and diversified perspectives are simply not considered news. News consists of two things: dramatic events of any kind and what may be called the official or authorized account of the meaning of those events.
In US media, there may be as many as two official accounts of certain events, but no more than two. The implicit rule seems to be that those two narratives correlate either with Democrat vs Republican, liberal vs conservative or even woke vs un-woke or anti-woke positions. Even then, when it comes to US foreign policy, the Democrat and Republican positions tend to align in a single direction of assertive militarism.
The rhetorical advantage of this alignment is that any other perspective than the official one will be systematically denounced as a form of complicity with the enemy. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson was thus ostracized as a Kremlin agent by a near unanimity of the media when, in the runup to the Russian invasion, he claimed that the US had no legitimate reason to engage or even take sides in a possible conflict. That take was verboten. Every visible critic of the US commitment to the war, including Carlson, was branded a Kremlin puppet.
The language of Cold War
The other takeaway is that the mindset Jaishankar refers to is not only solidly established in both official and media circles in the West but it is also clearly a worldview built around the logic of a New Cold War. It will not tolerate the very idea of multipolarity. It expects every nation and every people on earth who are not named Russia and China (or Iran and North Korea) to align with the US and implement all its policies. To call the side aligned with the West “the free world” thus becomes little more than a sick joke. No nation claiming membership in the free world is permitted to think or act freely.
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What is most surprising is that three quarters of a century after the breakout of the first Cold War that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the effective globalization of the world’s economy, the language of the 1950s is once again on the lips of supposedly serious commentators. When Seetharaman affirms “there will always be two axes” and that “sitting on the fence is not a plausible option,” it becomes apparent that it isn’t Western political philosophy, with its commitment to democracy, but the Western economic system that dictates how the world must work.
Western political philosophy has accordingly been reduced to a litany of empty slogans about democracy, freedom and human rights, as an economic oligarchy has grabbed the reins of power. The capitalist economy has become dependent on its dogma of competition that can now only be envisioned as a binary, Manichean conflict between good and evil. Multipolarity would be too confusing for Western leaders and pundits to seek to come to grips with.
Cold wars are always about ideology. But the easily recognizable ideologies of the past have disappeared or been transformed beyond recognition. US President Joe Biden has replaced the easier-to-understand rivalry between capitalism and communism by an imagined conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. But he has done so at a time when authoritarian practices have become the dominant trend in the culture of the indispensable leader of the free world. They increasingly include censorship, mass surveillance (both public and private), fomenting a climate of suspicion, shaming and jailing of those who think differently, mass incarceration and military bravado.
As a proclaimed think-tank, GLOBSEC might have used its forum to offer an example of thinking and problem-solving when it invited into its field of political research the Minister of External Affairs of a nation that comprises one fifth of the human race. Instead, it conducted an exercise in thought repression and enforcement of global conformity to its controlling mindset.
Few people in the West will have the opportunity to watch this interview, despite its obvious interest for anyone interested in global reality. It’s a pity that Americans and Europeans will continue to be told that “the whole world” is aligned with NATO’s objectives in Europe. It means they cannot even begin to suspect a more fundamental truth: that the vast majority of humanity has a nuanced view of complex political conflict in Eastern Europe.
Included in that majority are both Americans and Europeans, a thinking minority. But their voices are never heard because, as noted above, nuance has no place in the news. Whether it is Noam Chomsky or Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, people with something important to say will be allowed to speak, but their message will never be heard by more than a few. And when they do speak up, even in an interview, their words will trickle through the heads of their listeners and their interviewers, like water through a sieve. That is how effective the New Cold War censorship has become.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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