India in the Multipolar World

The 21st century is not China’s century. Nor will it remain America’s. The geopolitical and geoeconomic conditions that enabled Britain to become ‘Great’ in the 19th century and claim that century for itself, building a global empire, and that enabled the U.S. to emerge as the dominant world power of the 20th century do not exist for China or anyone else today. The ‘unipolar’ world of the British and American empires was a historical aberration. European scholarship wrongly viewed all great powers in history as ‘global powers’. The global moment of many of them was shortlived. At best, they were all continental powers. Multipolarity or polycentric dispersal of power and prosperity defines the normal state of the world today.

The second edition of the Raisina Dialogue (held in New Delhi in January 2017) tackled the theme of “The New Normal : Multilateralism with Multipolarity”. In today’s rapidly changing world, most countries are neither friends nor enemies, and anxieties are rising. Given the interdependent nature of the current global age, it is vital for the key powers to recognise the interests they have in common. It is only when we learn to see the world through the eyes of others that it will be possible to even attempt to try to find solutions to the key challenges we face. India insists on its independent policies and calls for a seat in the UN Security Council. At the same time, it has been involved in global networks much as the G20 in order to help address international crisis.

Initially, India had to devise alternative definitions of power-by, as Jawahar Lal Nehru put it in the mid-1950s, adopting a negative sense of power as resisting. Thus, India refused to participate in cold war alignments : it avoided treaties much as nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and it kept away from markets and international trade. All these structures it saw as skewed in favour of the powerful. The Gandhian idea of boycott defined India’s stance towards the global order. But now New Delhi is trying to build relations with colossal powers by using the ‘Manmohan Singh doctrine’ of economic engagement founded on deepening trade relations. There is no simple or single identity that India can or should seek to project at the global level. India is too large, too complex, too open and too immediately argumentative a country to find any accurate and adequate description of its interests in some singular, tidy identity or form. It will need to find ways to both bridge its internal divisions and diversities, and to act as a bridging power in an international domain that is increasingly fraught and fragmented : bridging between rich and poor states, between the west and China and between various means of managing conflict. It is only through its multiple identities and as a bridging power that India is playing a constructive role in redefining the global order.

As with many other developing countries, India’s experiences of colonial rule have historically affected its attitude towards the international relations. This stance was defined by the assertion that India would not leave itself dependent upon the decisions of countries in the industrialised and wealthier world. The wishes of the “international community” had to be resisted as the underlying intentions were assumed to be fundamentally untrustworthy. The stance adopted by India in international forums on development issues, including trade, reflected this view, as did its attitude towards issues of non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. But New Delhi now actively seeks participation in setting the agenda for a range of global issues where India has an increasing interest such as climate change, trade and non-proliferation; correspondingly, foreign policy is increasingly defined by India’s economic goals. The economic imperatives behind India’s foreign policies include not only the search for markets and reliable energy sources—whether hydrocarbons or non-renewable sources but also for high technology.

The evolving nature of India’s positions on issues of international concern is clearly visible in the field of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. India has been seen by many in the west as a dissenter on these issues, yet it was a vaciferous supporter of both non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament during the period when the two superpowers were busy building up their nuclear arsenals and conducting a series of nuclear weapons tests. India was one of the first non-nuclear states to sign and ratify the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. This position became even more clearly articulated after China’s first nuclear weapon test in 1964 when India felt threatened by a belligerent neighbour.

India is geographically placed in a troubled and unstable region. It has been subject to several cross border terrorist attacks, of varying magnitude, and it has ambitious and tumultuous neighbours in equal measure. It is home to the third largest Muslim population in the world, both Shia and Sunni, and has a declared policy of secularism and yet the threat posed is by islamic extremism. India faces the challenge of dealing not only with the ramifications of its multi-ethnic population in terms of the even-present potential of increased instability, but with the altogether different conundrum of having two nuclear armed and not necessarily friendly countries as neighbours, China and Pakistan.

As India becomes more aware of the benefits it has reaped and is reaping from globalisation, it is likely to remain active in international discussions and negotiations. India’s reactions to the agendas set by other countries, which led some in the west to perceive India as a “naysayer”, are likely to become a thing of the past. Over the last few decades, India has repositioned itself and has succeeded in establishing stable relations around the world. Not confining itself to only Russia, India has taken strides towards America, traded with China and even Pakistan.

Despite the weak state of global economic governance at the start of the financial crisis, the international community was able to act cooperatively and prevent a replay of the ‘beggarthy neighbour’ policies that plagued international relations during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The G20 summit entered the lexicon of global governance, marking the end of an era where America, Europe and Japan dominated world affairs and the beginning of one in which there exists potential for a new, more balanced relationship between mature and emerging economies. The list of areas requiring urgent international cooperation is long, ranging from international finance and inter-national trade to climate change and natural resources. As Afghanistan reaches for a measure of stability and engages the Taliban, as Pakistan and India seem ready to revive their security dialogue, and as Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate in stabilising Afghanistan is on the rise, regional cooperation in the forum of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to strengthen security dimensions, seems to be promising. A central challenge in Asia is to improve regional geopolitics by fostering greater interdependence, especially in relation to energy. Strategic friction over energy can be forestalled and economic growth and commercial competitiveness bolstered through institutionalised arrangements in Asia that seek to safeguard energy supplies and maximise resource conservation and efficiency. Interstate cooperation can help marshal new resources to aid the development of prosperity. Along with energy, cooperation on security of sea lanes has become essential to avert strategic friction in Asia. Yet energy and maritime security cooperation cannot be institutionalised or sustained on a long-term basis without expanded political cooperation as well as transparency on military expenditures. The bipolar world after the II World War that gave way to the unipolar world post-cold war has now given way to the multipolar world. America no longer made efforts to improve relations with Pakistan (against the hawks within own country, most of whom consider themselves to be fanatically pro-American) and reopened the stalled Singh-Musharraf dialogue.

Issues of terrorism in the Indian sub-continent cannot be successfully addressed by dealing solely with those who are regarded as prime targets of the international community at any particular point in time. Domestic, regional and global security rests upon the adoption of a more holistic approach towards terrorism, which seeks to address the interplay of security, political, economic and even social factors, within a framework that encourages and facilitates multilateral engagement of all the regional players.

There is, at present, little prospect of achieving an international agreement on ‘consumption’ or on “resource use per capita”. On the contrary, much agreements remain a pipe dream; we have not even started ground work analysis. Despite a call by leaders at the 2002 World Summit on sustainable Development in Johannesburg to develop a frame-work for sustainable consumption and production, we have not yet seen any baseline figures. However, there have been drives in the world. And one cannot say that China is taking the place of America. The interdependence of countries has increased to such an extent that it is impossible to categorise one or two countries as the pole(s) of the world. American engagement in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq etc. present to us the glaring examples of the shape that the world is taking. The countries are no more self-sufficient but dependent on others too. And other countries too besides America are engaging multi-laterally like the Russian presence in Syria leaving the vested interests aside. What needs to be seen is the way the countries are engaging with each other. India’s visit to Israel recently exemplifies the Indian understanding of the multipolar world and the need of the hour to engage with it.

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