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The liberal world order is yet to free itself from imperial bias, as a report that dubs India a ‘difficult’ country reveals

The Chatham House report groups India on the other side of a "new divide in international affairs — between open societies where citizens have the capacity to fight for their rights and those where these rights are denied".

Written by Kate Sullivan De Estrada |
Updated: January 15, 2021 9:03:58 am
The Chatham House report itself concedes that India’s importance to the UK is ‘inescapable’, and it is clear that no nation today can move forward without factoring in India. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

On January 11, Robin Niblett, Director and Chief Executive of Chatham House, the century-old UK-based policy institute also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, published a report proposing a blueprint for Britain’s future foreign policy after Brexit. Titled “Global Britain, Global Broker”, the report sketches a bold path ahead for the UK, arguing that post Brexit, Britain can remain internationally influential. Curiously, however, the report gives exceedingly short shrift to India, one of the non-European countries most touted to feature prominently in Boris Johnson’s vision of a “Global Britain”.

Most strikingly, the Chatham House report groups India on the other side of a “new divide in international affairs — between open societies where citizens have the capacity to fight for their rights and those where these rights are denied”. Along with Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, India is classed as one of the “difficult four” countries, destined to count among the UK’s “rivals” or “awkward counterparts” as it pursues its global goals. Being clubbed together in such company will shock many for its stark contrast with the position of growing importance that Western governments from Washington to Canberra accord to India, in particular, in conjunction with the emerging and implicitly liberal construct of the Indo-Pacific.

The report should be kept in perspective — it is after all, in no way a statement on behalf of the UK government. In fact, its advice to deal cautiously with India stands in diametric opposition to Downing Street’s current tack on the bilateral relationship. But Chatham House is an institution of consequence in the UK and Western policy landscape, and the report’s recommendations demand close scrutiny. The wider portrait that it sketches of a contemporary liberal international order is particularly significant.

First, it is clear that the report’s move of labelling India “difficult” is bound up with quite specific ideas about status and hierarchy in world politics. The report’s author places India and other countries in a different normative universe to the “liberal West” and then confers unequal status upon them.

Part of the justification for labelling India “difficult” centres on a critique of India’s domestic political developments. The report notes how “the overt Hindu nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is weakening the rights of Muslims and other minority religious groups, leading to a chorus of concern that intolerant majoritarianism is replacing the vision of a secular, democratic India bequeathed by Nehru”. This is no trivial observation and it should surprise no one, least of all the Indian government. Behind closed doors across North Atlantic and European capitals, diplomatic concerns — usually unspoken in public — have been bubbling since 2014 about growing religious and other forms of intolerance and the suppression of critique and dissent in India’s domestic space.

Yet the report’s second justification for recommending an arm’s length relationship with India demands scrutiny, too, and not just by Indians (regardless of their support for the current government) but by anyone keen to see an end to the inequalities of our contemporary, hierarchical world order. Predictably, the report advocates that the UK move to support democracies in the Asia-Pacific region as a means to aid these countries in avoiding political subservience to China. When it comes to India, however, the report prescribes caution: India is a reluctant supporter of liberal democracy, is “ambivalent” about human rights abuses within other states, and possesses “a long and consistent record of resisting being corralled into a ‘Western’ camp’”. These black marks against India echo with a well-worn Western liberal playbook, fraught with disappointment that India, despite being the world’s largest democracy, is a weak liberal ally in the international political sphere. It should be noted that this (Western) framing of India as an ambivalent supporter of liberal principles and institutions abroad predates the current Indian leadership by decades. India, along with other non-Western rising democracies, so the familiar charge goes, has long been unwilling to step up on the global stage to the responsibilities of “committed democracies”.

Rather than framing India’s ambivalent relationship with the international liberal order as a disappointing deviation from a superior European model (ironically, the model the UK has in part turned away from through Brexit), we might look more closely at how the international order of the early 21st century remains grounded on the myth of the formal equality and sovereignty of states. As Adom Getachew has argued in her brilliant and paradigm-shifting book Worldmaking after Empire, today’s international order remains an uneven playing field — a place of institutionalised structural hierarchy comprising “processes of integration and interaction that produce unevenly distributed rights, obligations, and burdens”. Post-colonial, non-Western states, even increasingly powerful states such as India, still do not enjoy full political and economic independence in how they make decisions at home, nor in their efforts to shape the agendas of international institutions. If this sounds fantastical to Indian ears in 2021, speak to an Indian representative working in almost any international institution, from the United Nations to Bretton Woods, and ask them if they feel constrained in their foreign policy choices and self-representations, and by whom. Pick up a copy of Hardeep Singh Puri’s Perilous Interventions, or even Shyam Saran’s How India sees the World.

For post-colonial states, sovereignty after independence, far from only being about political and economic independence within state borders, intended to go hand in hand with the project of “worldmaking”: The shaping of international legal, political and economic institutions that realise the internationalist project that Getachew calls “nondominaton”. This collective project saw some early successes, but then dwindled into failure. Full and equal membership of the international order remains, as Getachew skilfully shows, hampered by hierarchy and marked by forms of dependence and domination. Former Indian foreign secretary and national security advisor Shivshankar Menon captures this reality succinctly: For him, encouragement by (presumably Western) international partners for India to “behave responsibly” usually means “do[ing] what they would like us to do”.

What can be done to resist and challenge the implicit and explicit conceptions of status and hierarchy in the Chatham House report? Getachew cautions against “a retreat into a defensive sovereigntist position, which cannot provide adequate critical and normative resources to address the contemporary dilemmas of the international order”.

The Chatham House report itself concedes that India’s importance to the UK is “inescapable”, and it is clear that no nation today can move forward without factoring in India. The next two years will see India move into a critical period of high-profile international activity, both as an elected member of the UN Security Council and as host of the 2023 G20 Summit. India can leverage these positions of influence to centre a more demanding vision of internationalism that disrupts the civilisational and racialised hierarchies that linger from Europe’s imperial era. But to do that, India needs the critical and normative resources to inspire greater equality, legitimacy and inclusivity in the international sphere. For as long as India practises domination at home, those resources, desperately needed to push through urgent reforms of the global order, will be clear to no one — as the Chatham House report, for all its problems, succeeds in showing.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 15, 2020 under the title ‘A new global playbook’. The writer is Associate Professor, International Relations of South Asia, University of Oxford.

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