An Interview with Ambassador Alexander Evans

An Interview with Ambassador Alexander Evans

On November 7, 2018, South Asia specialist and British diplomat Ambassador Alexander Evans gave a talk at The Fletcher School on the topics of India and great power politics in Eurasia. This interview was conducted by Lukas Bundonis and Laura Handly, Web Staff Editors with The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

FF: Could you tell us about the current great power politics in Eurasia and the key points of tension we're seeing?

AE: In terms of Asian geopolitics, I think the key factor at the moment is uncertainty. We've moved from an extremely predictable 20thcentury framework based on the Cold War thatwas superimposed on Asia, into a post-Cold War period where it looked like we might see a new framework based on norms and rules derived from a lack of nationalism and a lack of disputes. 

Perhaps, as we hit the tail end of the 20thcentury, this new framework has given way to a new realism about the way in which the world operates. That doesn't mean we're back to nationalism and conflict and war, but it means that we're back to diplomacy and hedging and uncertainty. This is happening across Asia not just between the big states, but also with the smaller states in the continent. In fact, you can often see it more visibly when you're sitting in a small state rather than a big state. 

FF: Both the United States and Russia have significant economic ties to India. How well is India navigating the competition between these two forces, and how could it better leverage its position?

AE: India is a remarkably successful diplomatic actor, and I think one example of that is the way it has managed to combine much improved relations with the United States since the1990s while still maintaining good relations with Russia. There are times when that comes into sharp relief. For example, how is India going to respond to a situation like Syria or a situation like Crimea? But I think for India, Russia is an important part of the Asian geopolitical space. India is always attentive to what Russia and China are doing together, and it doesn't want to see Russia and China move far closer together because to a certain extent, India fears that if this happens, it might be at India's expense. Despite these concerns, I do think India navigates these relationships well. You see that diplomatic practice also in evidence in the Middle East, where India enjoys good relations with Israel, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatarand the UAE. That’s quite an impressive achievement.

FF: Earlier this year, Prime Minister Modi and President Putin were in Sochi, where they declared the relationship between India and Russia to be a special privileged strategic partnership. What are your thoughts on what this relationship looks like in practice as well as its significance for Eurasian geopolitics?

AE: As I said before, the Russia-India relationship is important to both parties. However, what has changed in many ways is the social connection between Indians and Russians, which has diminished compared to what it was before. As I understand it, there are fewer Indian students going to Russia than perhaps at the peak period in the Soviet Union. But the Russia-India relationship is still a warm relationship for understandable reasons on both sides.

When trying to anticipate what that relationship will look like in the future, I think you need to step back and think about Asia as a whole and the world as a whole. For India, the difficult choices will be in navigating its relations with Russia along with China, Japan, the United States, Australia, and the Middle East. When you have a lot of partners who may not have similarly warm bilateral relations with each other, there are sometimes going to be hard diplomatic choices to make. The real test for India in the future is going to be when it is asked to make those judgment calls, and equally that will be a test for Russia if Russia had to choose, for example, between China and India in a future stage.

FF: Turning now to your considerable experience as a British diplomat, how do you assess the current state of British diplomacy? What major challenges does Britain face?

AE: Well, unsurprisingly, as a British diplomat, I'm paid to be very warm about Britain, so I'm going to say something quite positive about this. I think it's a really exciting time to be a diplomat because of three reasons. 

One, diplomacy is alive and kicking, even in the 21stcentury when many people said that diplomacy is dead. It’s more relevant today than it has been for many years because of geopolitical uncertainty in the world, and because of the relevance of political risk in judgments that frame so many different parts of national policy—from cyber to economics to trade regulation to matters of war and peace.

Second, the British diplomatic service is going for its biggest expansion since World War II. We’re growing by more than 300 diplomats overseas, as well as opening 11 new embassies and missions around the world. This is all happening against a backdrop where we're already present in most countries in the world. 

Third, diplomacy is increasingly being organized around campaigns. It’s no longer just about traditional interstate diplomacy, public diplomacy or consular work. We now have to think morecreatively about how we form coalitions to advance progress on particular issues that matter to us. Recent examples of that include the campaign against sexual violence inconflict, the campaign against illegal wildlife trade, and a growing commitment to a campaign against plastics in oceans. These are areas where we think our role as diplomats can help forge new consensus and new action against these challenges.

In terms of challenges for diplomacy, I think these will be manifold. Part of it is going to be navigating a post-Brexit global Britain and reestablishing what Britain will do in the world as an actor that is no longer a member of the European Union. I feel confident and positive about that. However, I think a big part of it is going to depend on how we negotiate on issues such as cyber regulation, where we’ll have to work with countries that may not see eye to eye with us on some of the problems around this issue.

FF: What advice would you give to the new generation of diplomats given that there are new challenges and maybe even new frameworks to deal with them? 

AE: I think some of the qualities of an effective diplomat remain consistent with the qualities that were needed 50 or even 100 years ago. Diplomats should still have the ability to listen as much as they speak. They certainly need to be endlessly curious about people and issues in today’s world. Most importantly, diplomats must still be able to build extensive networks beyond government and not just engage in building relationships with other diplomats.

All professional communities can become inward-looking, closed groups but one of the greatest challenges in the world is surprise. We can be surprised by the way in which events turn out, we can be surprised by new technologies, we can be surprised by circumstances. So, against that backdrop where we know surprise to be a reality of international affairs, we may not be able to prevent surprise, but we can mitigate its effects by building out horizontally extensive networks as diplomats and as diplomatic services by ensuring that we're properly challenging established wisdom and established policies as we provide advice to the political principals who make decisions.

Image: Meeting with Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi

Courtesy of Presidential Press and Information Office (Russia) / Wikimedia Commons


Alexander Evans is a senior official in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He served as British Deputy High Commissioner to India from 2015-2018, and was Acting High Commissioner in 2015-2016. Previously he served as a British diplomat in Islamabad and as a member of the Policy Planning Staff in London. He also served as a senior advisor to Ambassador Marc Grossman and to the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Evans was also the 2011 Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress. Before joining the British diplomatic service, he worked with a number of think tanks and in management consultancy and journalism. He has published widely, including in Foreign Affairs and The Economist, and been a frequent media commentator. A visiting senior research fellow at King's College London, Evans is a past fellow of Yale and Oxford. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.

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