Sustainable Foreign Policy: Sustainable Development Goals As a Foreign Policy Tool

Rushali Saha - Associate, Conflict and Peace program

UN Sustainable Goals / picture credit AI trends

Sustainable development has become the international buzzword in a world crippled by a deadly virus which has made many realize that the wrath of irresponsible development is closer than anticipated. However, this unfortunately has not translated into visible conviction by nation states, as global cooperation necessary to achieve them remains elusive in the increasingly bipolar world of contemporary times. In the anarchist world of international politics, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hold more value than mere rhetorical value, but are an important asset to achieve and promote the foreign policy goals and agendas of individual countries. SDGs emerged from a shared vision to cooperate in pursuit of common international goals, but they have not been immune to the vagaries of geopolitics which hinder global cooperation necessary to achieve them. As nations look for narrower national imperatives to commit to SDGs, it is crucial to recognize their importance in achieving foreign policy goals from a realpolitik perspective. Promotion of foreign trade and investment is a crucial foreign policy objective for any nation which is in turn related to the economic development of said countries. The institutionalisation of sustainable development brought with it a new paradigm to measure global development. Specific sustainable goals such as SDG 12, which promotes responsible consumption and production, or Goal 9, which supports Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, affects a country’s foreign trade transactions. As foreign policy itself is an extension of domestic politics, incorporation of SDGs into policy making has become the need of the hour to ensure holistic development. In countries affected by conflict and extremist violence, sustainable development can provide the ground for much needed cooperation. The patterns of violence are rarely isolated from the larger regional or international balance of power equations and cannot be resolved without taking these equations into consideration. Conflict-affected countries are found to lag behind their peers in development outcomes and in such fragile contexts, achieving sustainable development becomes all the more relevant. These countries are also, more often than not, the ones with the most limited capabilities and resources necessitating the need for international or at least regional support to attain the goals which in turn requires a foreign policy to cooperate with relevant partners. Foreign policy in these cases could be attuned to focus on garnering support from outside to help end the endemic cycle of violence through sustainable development. Since the deadly 9/11 attack, the international community has come to realize its vulnerabilities in facing terrorism and under the banner of ‘war on terror’ nations came together to curb the growing menace of terrorism which has obvious foreign policy implications. Yet terrorist organisations are growing not only in numbers but also in capabilities and far right terrorism has more than tripled over the last four years. SDGs can directly and indirectly help counter terrorist efforts by addressing the conditions conducive to its spread, specifically SDG 16 which promotes Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions for peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development. Hence by addressing the socio-economic drivers of violent extremism and therein improving domestic strength to fight terrorism, sustainable development framework addresses the concerns of the broader international fight against international terrorism.

The pursuance of sustainable goals does not operate in a vacuum and is dependent on the larger geopolitical context in which it operates. As we transition to a more sustainable world, there will inevitably be a shift in international power equations and dependencies, but this transition itself depends not only on national capabilities but also on international cooperation. In this sense, sustainable development is no longer the end in itself, but becomes the means to the end as well. In turn the foreign policy considerations revolve around how domestic and international efforts to achieve these aims, would foster or hinder external cooperation and larger considerations of geopolitical stability.

Integrating SDGs into Foreign Policy : The Indian example

The foundation of India’s development agenda is the notion of "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas”, which roughly translates to ‘Collective Effort, Inclusive Growth’, which is the clarion call of sustainable development as envisaged by the United Nations. In recent years, India has been increasingly vocal about its aspirations to be not only a decisive regional but also a global power. It has not shied away from its global responsibilities and has embraced sustainable development by mapping each of the SDGs into its own development program at both federal and state level. The extent to which it has achieved the same is debatable, but the extent of India’s success towards the same will definitely be a decisive factor as to how the world views India. South Asia, despite being one of the most significant regions for international development remains the least integrated due to historic irritants in regional relationships marred by suspicion and distrust. These countries nevertheless face common developmental challenges which can be addressed through regional frameworks, although there has been some development towards the same through Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN), overall progress towards cooperation in the region has been weak. Given the inter-connected and transnational nature of the SDGs, a regional framework to achieve these goals not only overcomes the historical irritants in regional cooperation, but forms a strong foundation for win-win cooperation. Country level data from 2019 reveals that India has performed well in Goal 1 (no poverty), Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation), Goal 12 (sustainable consumption and production), Goal 13 (climate action) and Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and could provide the necessary guidance to other South Asian countries which fared poorly in these criteria. This fits well with India’s own claims of being the natural leader of the region. India has been a long standing exponent of multilateralism and Indian diplomacy during the times of this pandemic has been recognised globally as contributing to the evolution of a post Covid muliteral order. Indian efforts to this extent must be applauded, particularly its leadership of the International Solar Alliance which was internationally recognised when UN conferred on Indian PM the highest environmental honor “UNEP Champions of the Earth.” This has contributed positively to India’s soft power projection as a crucial country working towards environmental protection which in turn provided scope for international collaboration and multiple partnerships. Although India has found a reliable partner in the European Union for cooperation in the field of sustainable development and their combined efforts will undoubtedly have a decisive impact on the global course sustainable development will take, but the partnership has a long way to go to reach its fullest potential.

The world today faces challenges which cannot be tackled by a single country alone. This has been recognised by the global community when the 2030 Agenda was adopted by the UNGA as a resolution. However unlike international treaties, resolutions are not legally enforceable implying that no action can be taken against a country which does not adhere to these standards. However, as evident from the Indian example, incorporating them within a country’s foreign policy framework would help achieve its national objectives. As the world is navigating through the uncertainties induced by the pandemic, global cooperation is missing. However, it has also revealed how it is more important than ever to join forces to protect planet Earth. A Sustainable Foreign Policy is dictated by realpolitik considerations of states and is undoubtedly the need of the hour.


Rushali Saha is currently pursuing her Masters from Jadavpur University in Political Science with specialization in International Relations. She graduated from the same university with a degree in Political Science in 2018. She has previously served as the Social Enterprise Director for Responsible Charity working in the fields of education and women empowerment.

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