Atlas in chains

For status or stature?

India in the multilateral system.

India’s voice carries significant weight today in multilateral forums due to its enhanced economic performance, political stability, and nuclear capability. Yet, as India’s status is rising, its stake in some forms of multilateralism is diminishing. In almost every international forum, India has explicitly engaged with smaller groups of powerful nations to affect outcomes at the expense of the more broad-based universalist approach it traditionally espoused (or claimed to) toward multilateralism. But will manoeuvres within narrow power-based caucuses in multilateral regimes yield stature in the absence of meaningful commitments to the resolution of global problems?

Atlas in chains
Image: Chiaralily/Flickr

India’s diplomacy is geared overwhelmingly to promoting India’s interest bilaterally. And beyond its immediate neighbourhood, in which its relationships with several countries—notably China and Pakistan—remain vexed, it has proven itself a very effective bilateral player. For example, in the Middle East, on which India is quite reliant beyond its need for energy supplies, it has transitioned smoothly from focusing a great deal initially on Egypt, the Palestinian cause and Iraq, to working hard today on relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all important to India in different ways. New Delhi understood the geo-strategic significance of Turkey long before many in the West did. In the Middle East, India has been more successful at protecting and advancing its interests than any other single country we can think of.

India’s bilateral successes, however, are not always mirrored by its achievements in the multilateral sphere. Here, generations of Indian diplomats have frequently performed brilliantly but (paradoxically) without achieving much for their country; while others, by taking relatively unyielding stances on issues that might otherwise be resolved through compromise, have tended to earn India the label of “spoiler” or “obstructionist” in multilateral settings. Meanwhile, Indian employees of multilateral organisations (particularly the UN Secretariat, the World Bank and the IMF) have mostly reflected great credit on their country.  

We draw below on four substantive fields of foreign policy or forums of significance to India’s multilateral stance to tease out some challenges and successes for India, returning to our central question in our conclusions.

Patterns of engagement
Post-independence India was an enthusiastic supporter of the multilateral system until its set-back at the UN over Kashmir in 1948, which made New Delhi a more tactical and sceptical player, distrustful of Western stratagems and potential betrayals at the UN and elsewhere. In particular, New Delhi retained a strong suspicion of attempts, often by the West, to over-ride state sovereignty. Even in its approach to peacekeeping—India’s most celebrated contribution to the UN, through its generous provision of military and civilian staff—it has always emphasised the need for consent of the parties involved.

During the Cold War, India’s non-aligned foreign policy and the desire to carry greater weight internationally than its frail domestic economy and military resources would permit led to rhetorical jousting at the UN that, while accurately highlighting Western hypocrisy at times, also exposed India’s own double standards (for example on Hungary and Suez, both in 1956).  

Following another setback with the UN over the Bangladesh War of 1971 and India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974, India’s relationship with the multilateral system went into stasis, to be revived only with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the UN as a forum for co-operation on security issues (starting with a strategy in 1987 regarding the Iran-Iraq war).

In the early post-Cold War years, the multilateral system experienced an era of euphoria. India often impressed, as at the 1992 Rio Summit on climate change where Kamal Nath and Nitin Desai both played important roles. But occasionally New Delhi opted for a refusenik stance, for example at the conference hammering out the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, where many (and not just in the West) saw it as a “spoiler”.

As India’s own economy grew after the domestic reforms of 1991, its diplomacy increasingly focused on promotion of the country’s economic interests. Notions of Third World solidarity, while surviving in the occasionally rhetorical flourish, were largely dropped. Claims of solidarity had little meaning in WTO negotiations where African agricultural interests could often be at odds with those of India, as Amartya Sen commented tartly in attacking some of New Delhi’s high-minded public pronouncements belied by negotiating positions focused narrowly on Indian interests.

Fixing the high table
As India’s economy took off in the 1990s, India’s interests in relation to the UN system began to change. Its economic success cast it as a model for many other developing nations, but also gave India a larger stake in international rules and order. Thus, India began a transition from being a reluctant and selective ‘rule taker’ to seeking to join the ‘rule makers’. Hence, the new saliency of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the only international body authorised to mandate the use of force, and the new ambition to secure a permanent seat.

In 1991-92, India sat as an elected member and, with some foresight, sought to temper Western enthusiasm for armed intervention (in Kurdish territories, in Africa, and in the Balkans). In 1996, India ran again for an elected seat. It competed with Japan and lost massively. Indian diplomats complained of the debilitating effects of Japanese “chequebook diplomacy”—and doubtless this factor played a role—but New Delhi ignored the impact of its caustic performance at the CTBT conference earlier that year, which alienated not a few of its Non-aligned Movement (NAM) friends.

New Delhi was wary of the expanding scope of the UNSC’s remit, and the Council’s continuing interventionism, and—especially after 1996—came to see a permanent seat in the body as important to its interests. In the run-up to a 2005 UN Summit, India developed a proposal for UNSC reform, banding together with three other permanent seat claimants: Brazil, Germany and Japan (the G-4). It allowed for a couple more permanent seats for Africa and a few more elected ones for other nations.   

In spite of a determined push from all of the capitals involved, the effort failed. The G-4 had essentially argued their case on the basis of entitlement, given their weight in international relations and their financial share of the UN’s bills (while India also stressed its contributions to UN peacekeeping). But the wider membership failed to see what such reform would achieve for it and worried about whether a significantly expanded Council could remain effective.  

Not much has happened on the file since, except that New Delhi has racked up rhetorical support for its candidacy from all but Beijing among the existing permanent members. However, both Washington and Moscow are known to be deeply sceptical of devaluing their own status and capacity to game decisions in the UNSC by inviting others to share it. Beijing doubtless shares their disposition and the UK and France have done nothing to make reform happen. Beijing remains unalterably opposed to a Japanese permanent seat and is, at best, ambivalent about an Indian one. Thus, India’s quest for status at the UN, however legitimate, has not translated into stature.

Trading universalism for individualism
Post-1991, India’s economic reform program and consequent growth rates provided it a reason to engage more meaningfully with the rules-based multilateral trade system. Although certain areas—labour rights, intellectual property rights, services, agriculture, and quantitative restrictions—remained sensitive, India wanted others to open up their markets to resurgent Indian production. It developed a positive as well as negative agenda, promoting openness to trade in services, on which India was emerging as a global leader.

In 2004, India was included in a small high-powered group at the WTO called the Five Interested Parties—along with the United States, the European Union, Brazil, and Australia—that superseded the traditional “Quad” of the United States, the European Union, Japan, and Canada. India’s inclusion was a sign, beyond its economic significance, of widespread acceptance of India as a genuinely important player in multilateral negotiations.

The Doha Round discussions in 2008 proved a brass knuckles affair amidst a burgeoning global food security scare and at a time of high political stakes in India in the run-up to the 2009 national elections. India and Brazil confronted the United States on agriculture. Rather damagingly for India, in the final reel, it was abandoned in its hard line by Brazil (which, like many African countries, on balance, wanted an agreement even at the price of greater compromise).

Kamal Nath, India’s commerce minister, had stood out in his vehemence within the negotiations. He was quoted as saying “I reject everything” in response to a compromise paper others seemed to be prepared to swallow. He was alone in seeming to claim credit for the talks’ failure, with EU, US and Chinese negotiators, who had contributed considerably to the overall deadlock, only too happy to deflect responsibility on to him. In India, Mr Nath was largely portrayed in heroic terms for protecting India’s interests. However, after the election, Mr Nath was moved to another portfolio and replaced by Anand Sharma, known for his emollient style. India promptly called in over 30 leading trade ministers to New Delhi, doubtless to allow this change of personnel and style to sink in fully, and to cast India again as a co-operative player rather than a wrecker. In reality however, since then, New Delhi (like Washington) has mostly eschewed multilateral approaches, favouring bilateral and regional trade agreements instead.

Climate change
Following the 1972 UN conference on the environment at Stockholm, India amended its constitution and domestic laws to accommodate international conceptions of environmental law, but it largely refrained from costly international and domestic environmental undertakings while calling for international financial aid to help developing countries with environmental projects. So long as India projected itself as poor (if proud), this approach made sense. But with a transition to “India Shining” rhetoric, and a growing place for India in international decision-making, it was no longer sustainable.

After national elections, in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference of 2009 and following many years of neglect, the environmental portfolio in New Delhi was entrusted to Jairam Ramesh. India’s position had long been to stick closely to the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, under which industrialised countries committed to specific targets for emission reductions while developing countries were not required to do so under a “common but differentiated” responsibilities approach adopted since the Rio Conference.

Mr Ramesh sought to develop a strategy for Copenhagen in keeping with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reported determination that India should be “part of the solution to the problem.” Mr Ramesh himself argued that “India must listen more and speak less in negotiations” as its stance is “disfavoured by the developed countries, small island states and vulnerable countries.” He was challenged by India’s long-time negotiators for opening India to concessions without having obtained reciprocal commitments. He bobbed and weaved in Parliament, but elsewhere stuck to his guns on India needing a more forthcoming negotiating position.

Mr Ramesh’s arguments recognised that India could not stand idly by as its own environment headed toward serious degradation, and also that India needed to be in a position to offer something positive as it wanted to play in the big leagues. In the event, India offered voluntary emissions goals that would be subject to international “consultation and analysis” but not scrutiny or formal review.

The Copenhagen talks were widely perceived as a fiasco. However, the outcome served India’s diplomatic interests very well in allowing it to be “part of the solution” which turned out to be a last-minute accord, offered by the four BASIC powers (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) and the United States and acknowledged—however reluctantly—by the conference plenary. This underscored India’s place as an indispensable negotiating partner on key global challenges. Unlike its posture at the WTO in 2008, when China shielded itself behind an assertive India, at Copenhagen India allowed China to take the heat for frustrating officials and NGO activists.

At the follow-up conference in Cancun in late 2010, featuring an over-hyped consensus outcome, India again came off as an agent of compromise and accommodation without actually giving anything away, although Mr Ramesh’s subsequent comments that all countries needed to accept “binding commitments in some appropriate legal form” surprised many. Interestingly, at Cancun, India and China squared off against Brazil and South Africa, both looking for more convincing international commitments. While again criticised in India for “selling out”, Mr Ramesh seems to have positioned India well for future negotiations without jeopardising any of its core interests.

On balance, in developing India’s global stature, Copenhagen and Cancun were both at least mildly successful. In contrast to its positions at the WTO in 2008, India demonstrated agility in the run-up to both climate change conferences, and dexterity during the meetings, allowing it to emerge as one of the forgers of a compromise at Copenhagen and one of the nations willing to push negotiations forward at Cancun.  

Nuclear divide
Nuclear weapons have been the prickliest thorn in India’s side in its multilateral relations. India’s position on issues of nuclear non-proliferation and testing has been marked by the consistent articulation of a vision of global disarmament and non-proliferation at odds with what most other countries have wanted, dressed up in what Amrita Narlikar has described as “high-minded moral rhetoric.” Until its nuclear deal concluded with the United States in 2007, India had been condemned to diplomatic isolation on this issue for four decades.

India was involved in the drafting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the early 1960s. However, it refused to sign the treaty in 1968 on grounds that it was discriminatory, dividing the world into the nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, (and keeping in mind the need to eventually respond to China’s nuclear test of 1964). The subsequent ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ of 1974 cast India into international nuclear purdah, with the five recognised nuclear weapons states and others erecting a new regime to stigmatise it and any others challenging the NPT. New Delhi’s efforts to derail the CTBT in 1996 were predictably unsuccessful.

Paradoxically, it was India’s next set of tests and those of Pakistan in 1998, combined with the growing global significance of India’s market that unlocked US interest in bringing India back into the fold, if acceptable terms could be agreed. Having refused to sign the NPT, opposed its extension, and opposed the CTBT, India technically did not violate any international agreements. After an initial reflexive resort to sanctions against both India and Pakistan, Washington engaged with New Delhi (although not with Islamabad) on possible nuclear co-operation. The clock ran out on Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott’s discussions in 2000, but the George W Bush administration, as its foreign policy agenda flagged in other parts of the world, soon identified an agreement with India as a possible positive legacy item for itself.

The resulting “123 Agreement” was concluded in 2007. While some Indian commentators predictably accused South Block of selling out, most international experts believe New Delhi to have come off much better in the negotiations than the US side (presumably very keen for agreement before the end of the Bush presidency). And, when the agreement was internationally endorsed in 2008, it post hoc legitimised India’s nuclear programme and opened the channels of nuclear commerce for India. India decisively shed its nuclear pariah status, opening a path to greater recognition internationally of its emergence as not just an economic high performer but as a budding global power.

And a game is now afoot, with New Delhi a keen participant, to re-cast the nuclear weapons conversation to include not just the five nuclear weapons states recognised by the NPT but also the three nuclear-armed states outside that framework: India, Pakistan and Israel. During his visit to New Delhi last year, Mr Obama endorsed the idea in general terms. The Hindu’s Siddharth Varadarajan comments: “India and the US have assembled the basic building blocks of a framework which has the potential to transcend the NPT, while remaining faithful to the twin goals of non-proliferation and the elimination of nuclear weapons.” While still some way off, such an outcome would be a triumph for New Delhi indeed.

Global responsibilities: Is India ready?
The agreement between the US and India has led some commentators to worry over India’s commitment to multilateralism. But was it ever that strong? Most Indian policymakers would doubtless prefer a geo-strategic dispensation under which five to ten great and regional powers make the important decisions, to one of endless palaver and frequent frustration at the UN. And the wind may well be shifting in this direction.

India will morph into one of the oligarchs only if it is prepared to take on the responsibility and expense of much greater obligations than it has been prepared to entertain so far. Mr Ramesh’s strategies tend in this direction, while Mr Nath’s at Geneva in 2008 seemed more a last gasp of the old Indian diplomacy rooted in shrill adherence to principle leavened by theatrically high-minded rhetoric.

Basic questions arise. First, what kind of a power does India aspire to be, and how will it engage with others in years to come? Second, is the Indian foreign policy establishment attuned to engaging with the world not just on India’s own terms but also on ones that can appeal to others and contribute to positive outcomes? Domestic politics will play a key role in determining the outcome in India, both with respect to its positions on “hot button” international issues, but also on what price it is willing to pay to accede to power-sharing in a more multi-polar world. It is not yet clear how India will manage its domestic priorities—on trade, for example—and on that question hinges its quest, beyond status, for stature in years to come.   

Cause for thought
When a strategy fails, it is wise to consider others. If India perseveres with its quest for a Security Council seat, might it dance with different partners? The IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) grouping is a very attractive one involving the leading market-oriented democracies of their respective continents. This group might be harder to refuse than the disparate G-4. Meanwhile, India’s ambassador at the United Nations, Hardeep Puri, commented recently that India’s current tenure on the Council should not be seen as a “dress rehearsal”. Perhaps, but for the P-5 it is very much an “audition” that India will have to muster considerable dexterity to pass.

The satisfactions of status are bound to prove fleeting. Stature, on the other hand, is more lasting but consequently harder to attain. Domestic politics may pull India in one direction, India’s international ambition and diplomatic strategies in another. Its oligarchic instincts in international organisations, largely rewarded to date—including within the G-20—all point to the world’s acceptance of India’s place at many a high table. But is India yet ready for the corollary? It has not yet needed to think through the extent to which it is able and willing to take on extensive and potentially expensive obligations. That debate is now beginning.

Rohan Mukherjee is a doctoral student in Politics at Princeton University. David Malone is president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, and author of Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy, to be published by OUP in April 2011.