A new multilateralism

Having recast key bilateral ties, Modi now has a chance to end Delhi’s defensiveness in approaching the world.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:September 21, 2015 12:05 am
Narendra Modi, narendra Modi US trip, Modi US visit, Modi San Francisco visit, modi silicon valley visit, india us ties, digital economy, india digital economy United Nations summit, India news, nation news Entrenched opposition to reform, barely concealed xenophobia on the left and right of the political spectrum, and deep-rooted suspicion of the West meant it was very difficult to overcome India’s defensive approach to globalisation.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to the United States this week for engagements ranging from the United Nations in New York to Silicon Valley in California, the demands of multilateralism have begun to loom larger on India’s diplomacy. New Delhi’s challenge is not just about reforming the UN and winning a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. For, a seat at the high table is of no consequence if India does not modernise its multilateralism.

Whether it is Modi’s meetings with US President Barack Obama in New York or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley, India’s approach to critical issues like climate change and internet governance is likely to figure at the top of the agenda. At the UN itself, the challenges of sustainable development and reforming international peacekeeping are being taken up for special discussion this year.

Having recast many of India’s key bilateral relations, Modi now has an opportunity to end the defensiveness that had crept into India’s multilateralism in recent decades. India, under Jawaharlal Nehru, punched way above its international weight at the UN on issues ranging from human rights to nuclear arms control. India was not a permanent member of the UNSC, but it had big ideas on governing the world. By the 1960s though, India’s multilateralism had degenerated into what Shashi Tharoor called a “moralistic running commentary” on world affairs. As India’s “third worldism” reached its peak in the 1970s, Delhi’s multilateralism became increasingly dysfunctional.

As Delhi set more ambitious global goals — such as the New International Economic Order — India’s voice became less effective. Some of its campaigns — notably the one for the New International Information Order — ran headlong into India’s core political values like democracy. It was no coincidence that Delhi’s rhetoric on the New International Information Order coincided with the imposition of Emergency at home four decades ago.

Worse still, India often acted against its own interests on the world stage. In the 1970s and 1980s, Delhi opposed the very technologies that would empower its people and improve its international leverage — for example, direct broadcast satellites and transborder information flows — all in the name of territorial sovereignty.

Delhi’s dysfunctional multilateralism was made more acute by the relative decline of India’s economic weight. The situation was only reversed in the 1990s, when India began to post higher growth rates. That India’s reform era coincided with the end of the Cold War, however, created political complications. The new hubris in the West, that history had come to an end, was matched by the conviction that supra-national institutions could replace the traditional sovereign units of the global system and fix all problems in the world through effective interventions.

If the new Western rhetoric made India nervous about the internationalisation of the Kashmir question, Delhi was constantly torn between the imperatives of economic reform demanded by the new era of globalisation and limited domestic support for structural change. The adaptation, therefore, was grudging and incremental.

The new realism guiding Indian diplomacy after the Cold War recognised that an improved relationship with America was one instrument to fend off various multilateral pressures. It rightly saw that Delhi could not end the atomic apartheid against India through pious rhetoric on nuclear disarmament and the claim that it had an “impeccable record” on non-proliferation. The change in India’s position in the global nuclear order would only come through a political deal with the dominant power in the international system. That precisely was the meaning of the historic civil nuclear initiative of 2005 signed by then PM Manmohan Singh and then President George W. Bush.

But entrenched opposition to reform, barely concealed xenophobia on the left and right of the political spectrum, and deep-rooted suspicion of the West meant it was very difficult to overcome India’s defensive approach to globalisation. As elsewhere on foreign policy, Modi has signalled some interesting shifts in India’s multilateralism.

After initially rejecting the Bali accord on food security, Modi worked with Obama to find a mutually acceptable compromise. On climate change, Modi has hinted at greater flexibility by underlining the urgency of mitigating climate change and India’s commitment to constructive outcomes at the Paris talks later this year. On internet governance, Modi has moved India from an excessive state-centric approach to “multistakeholderism” that recognises the role of the private sector and civil society.

These changes fit into Modi’s ambition of making India a “leading power” on the global stage. Any substantive reorientation of India’s multilateralism, however, must rest on three broad principles.

The first is the recognition that multilateralism really matters for India’s future growth and national security. India’s expanding economic interdependence — trade is now nearly 50 per cent of the GDP — demands that Delhi must actively shape the international environment by becoming a rule-maker. Being a conscientious objector might have been politically cute once, but it could be rather costly at the current juncture.

Second, India cannot treat multilateral diplomacy as a boutique corner of the foreign office dispensing moral platitudes. It must be a tool for the pursuit of India’s national interests as well as the expression of its universalist ideals. Finding a better balance between the two imperatives is the key to successful multilateralism.

Third, Delhi cannot forget that multilateral negotiations are deeply influenced by the nature of international power hierarchies. While it must bargain hard, Delhi must also have the flexibility to make reasonable compromises. Unlike in the past, India today has the economic weight and the market size to negotiate effectively and generate sensible outcomes that are in tune with its national interest as well as global public good.

The world is probably ready to accommodate India’s special interests on such global issues as climate change and internet governance if Modi moves Delhi down the path of pragmatic multilateralism. For the PM though, the challenge is really at home, where getting the system to reform itself or discard the inherited defensiveness has not been easy.

The writer is consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’ and a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.

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  1. S
    Satendra kumar
    Sep 21, 2015 at 12:41 pm
    The bi-polar world and multilateralism with globalisation of the commerce and development should be recognised with the customary of culture and virtues beliefs and democratic rights with in lands laws.
    Reply
    1. G
      Gopal
      Sep 21, 2015 at 7:32 am
      Very well written article.
      Reply
      1. G
        G M
        Sep 21, 2015 at 4:11 pm
        Question is- Is Modi's approach of single handedly handling affairs (without using foreign office ) can deliver or not? So far Modi's record suggest he cannot.
        Reply
        1. M
          M.Srinivasan
          Sep 21, 2015 at 9:13 am
          Taking the lastpoint first, it is well said that cant preach moralfroma high pedstal without strengtheing oujr base. The biggest weakness (and strengthif we use properly) is our bureacracy, corrupt with colonial mind set treating its people subservient totheir interests. The productivity canbe multiplied almost geometrically, if, and oly if,ALL thepeople are allowed the initiative, independependence.. If we follow thisprinciple, we can over take china less than tenyears. That is we can become a super power. For this to happen we should shed the dfensive mindslet Defensive approach is another word in diplomacy anapproach withtimidity. We always seek the approval from the west. as if they are god fathers. This is because of the coclnial mindset of the rulers in Dealhi. Independnt thought and action should be the order of the day. but, for this to happen we shuld become extremely strong both financially and militarily ited by corrupt free strong administratin. No country can take high moral ground from a position of weakness. A wll read, pragmentic and downto eiarth practical man only compentent to be a teacher (leader). Fortunately for India, aat the moment, Modiji foots the bill. Make use ofhim and and strengthen the base of India. M.srinivasan
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          1. P
            PMMKRISHNA
            Sep 21, 2015 at 8:36 pm
            INSTEAD OF MULTILATERALISM (FOR WORLD'S WELFARE) TO MULTILATERAL MILITARISM WAS PROMOTED BY THE WEST. THEY BUILT VENDOR VENDEE MENTALITY IN THE MINDS OF PEOPLE OF NEO-RICH SAUDI AND OTHER MIDDLEAST RULERS AND THEN TO OTHER THECRATIC COUNTRIES. MODIJI IS WELL ADVISED BY LIBERAL PEOPLE OF THE WEST SUCH AS OBAMA, MERKEL AND CAMERON. THE DAYS OF REGANS, THATCHERS, KOHLS, BUSHES ARE OVER. IN THE U N ORGANIZATIONS 1.2 BILLIONS OF OUR PEOPLE ARE LEAST REPRESENTED BY THE 'SO-CALLED INTERNATIONALIST' LEADERS LIKE NEHRUS, HIS, SONIAS AND OTHER SUCH LIGHT-HEARTED POPULIST LEADERS. HARD BARGAINER MODIJI IS 'JOAN OF ARC' OF OUR NATION. HE WILL BRING US OUR SHARE OF THE CAKE
            Reply
            1. R
              Raghunathan
              Sep 21, 2015 at 7:51 pm
              The author says how India was acting against its own interests in the 1970s and 80s. But senior citizens like me can recall how Nehru frittered away a golden opportunity of becoming a member of the Security Council soon after our Independence, and instead recommended Communist China to become a member of the Security Council, when it was not even a member of the UN. So much for Nehru's legacy.
              Reply
              1. R
                Ramesh Grover
                Sep 21, 2015 at 9:13 am
                While I endore, agree, and subcibe to whatever Rajamohan has expressed, I see that the fundamental weakness of India's inner dynamics especially its economy and social order which is fragmentarily pluralistic-casteists and fragmentary in its fundamentals. As regards its economy, there is a death wish of all political parties to put India at cross purposes.mwith such a background, Modi's options are non-options.
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                1. R
                  rohitchandavarker
                  Sep 21, 2015 at 9:34 am
                  The paradigm shift in foreign affairs has be refreshing, pragmatic, decisive, purposeful & with foresight. Modi has surprised one & all with his thinking & approach on foreign policy & national security issues, considering the fact that he seemingly had little prior experience in such matters. The singular change in India's outlook has been the marked increase in visibility on the world stage. India is being seen & heard. In a short span of little over a year, he has transformed the way India would think & function. One sore point though is the total black out of India's objectives & vision with the people through the media. Modi has not talked or commented on any substantive foreign policy issue yet. His vision, presumably, is elevating India's profile & standing in the comity of nations. Achieving India's rightful place on the top. The journey is long, arduous & obstacle laden. But a start has been made & in double quick time. India seems ready & willing to accept responsibility. Multilateralism is a new concept for our policy thinkers, who have been brought up on a healthy dose of compartmentalised thinking. The outlook from the Cold War prism has to end. The cautious & defensive mindset has to give way to daring & decisive action. As an example, India, today, has embarked on an purposeful cooperation with Israel. Gone are the days when our policies were driven by the perceptions in the Arab world over our relations with Israel. India has chosen to have close ties with Iran for geo strategic & geo political reasons. Our ties with Saudi Arabia have always been crucial. In such a scenario it will be an onerous task & challenge to successfully handle issues with diametrically opposite countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia & Israel. Such challenges would be present in other areas & regions too. However, these are truly exciting times & limitless possibilities.
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