Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order

Shaping the Emerging World – India and the Multilateral Order: Edited By Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Bruce Jones 

India’s multilateral character and behaviour is receiving greater scrutiny as its economic and geopolitical clout ascends. Of late, a veritable flood of books expounding on India’s global role adorn book shelves; amongst these, this particular volume edited by three noteworthy scholars on India and Multilateralism considers maps India’s recent trysts with the multilateral order. The ambitious volume that aims to explain whether India can emerge as ‘one of the shapers of the emerging world order’ is structured in three parts. The first – introduction presents a broad overview of India’s current multilateral trajectory, it’s opportunities and constraints and delineates a framework to record and assess India’s multilateral conduct before ending with a summary view of the domestic and international forces affecting India’s multilateral role. Part II covers Indian perspectives on multilateralism by surveying the dynamics of India’s multilateral conduct. Part III looks at the domestic and regional drivers of Indian multilateralism, giving coverage to some salient economic and political factors shaping and, importantly, inhibiting her multilateral impulses. And part IV furnishes us with a comprehensive overview of India’s multilateral behavior on issue areas like climate change, disarmament, humanitarian intervention, maritime governance, resource and cyber-security; its approach within the UN as a peacekeeper, in the UN Security Council and the IFIs; and its outlook toward developing forms of international collective action including south-south (BRICS, IBSA), plurilateral mechanisms (G-20) and other issue based formations (BASIC).

Needless to say, the scope of the volume and the range covered is impressive; contributors to the volume map India’s positions on a litany of issues and institutions across the multilateral landscape. On the whole, the reader points to an India that is, by and large, hesitant vis-à-vis multilateral diplomacy. One the one hand, India is generally wary of greater engagement, evincing ambivalence toward international norms and rules that clash against its interests. Despite these misgivings, on the other hand, India finds value in using these very constraints to restrain major powers from acting against its interests. Occasionally, it has punched above its weight and sought greater recognition at the high tables of international politics, including the UN Security Council. But more often, India has opted to fashion an arms length relationship with the multilateral order evidenced by its resistance to international agreements in areas like international trade, climate change, international arms control and disarmament. Normatively, India straddles a middle path. In principle, New Delhi is committed to advancing international human rights, preventing genocides and protecting citizens against variant threats; but in practice, serious reservations exist when having to deal with these problems.

Various contributors effectively capture this marked ambivalence by examining India’s positions and behavior across issue areas. Going further, the volume treads new ground by expanding the canvas to include other areas like cyber-security, maritime diplomacy, and international financial cooperation, deftly elucidating why these issues matter and India’s approach in tackling these complex challenges. All three issues have attained prominence in recent years given their importance to the smooth functioning of the global economy and national security. Also, there is a chapter that tackles India’s food-energy-water challenge as a unifying one, a defining feature of global challenges that are often interconnected and require policies that reflect internal coherence. Historically, India has been good at defending its interests within single-issue domains but going ahead it needs to anticipate and understand how changes in one area affect and influence other issues. In addition, the final chapter covers the reasoning behind India’s growing participation in several plurilateral and minilateral groupings like the G-20, BRICS, IBSA and BASIC, etc. The authors argue that it is unclear if India’s interests are advanced through greater involvement with these groupings despite their organizing rationales but they do herald the reality of a world order that is far more fissiparous and diffuse. No doubt, future accounts on Indian multilateralism will consider the scope and seriousness of these emergent groupings as they evolve. By expanding our understanding of these issues, the volume renders a valuable service.

But the range and ambition is marred by some problems that undercut the volume’s utility as a reliable primer on Indian multilateralism. The first problem is foundational. Some of the core assumptions that underpin the volume are problematic leading to claims that do not sufficiently hold up. The volume assumes that India’s stellar growth of the past two decades has closed the purported gap between New Delhi and the multilateral system and this budding convergence engenders an India that has ‘critical interests’ in nearly every major multilateral regime. Out of this convergence, then, results an impulse to shoulder a greater burden in the provision of global public goods and what prevents this from being realised are a spate of deficits – institutional, geopolitical and domestic that act as putative roadblocks. However, the notion that India has critical interests across the multilateral milieu and has more to gain by engaging with and influencing the multilateral order is a contestable claim. Notwithstanding its rising power, India remains a poor country littered with myriad development deficits thus its engagement remains contingent on improving the human condition of her citizens and the processes through which domestic politics and citizens determine that trajectory. At places, the volume does make this reality apparent but there exists a normative disposition toward more cooperation that needs to be questioned.

The second problem is analytical. Given the underlying premise, the volume charts India’s multilateral behaviour on a continuum marked by attitudinal differences toward existing rules; they could, thus, function as rule-makers, rule-takers, rule-shapers or rule-breakers. Despite providing a metric, the authors do not discuss how these different metrics are formed or what factors or variables contribute to attitudes toward prevailing rules. Moreover, existing rules are essentialised without sufficiently examining their innate nature, writ, and legitimacy. Rules are a consequence of power politics, reflective of the interests and priorities of those with the power to uphold the system. As a result, using these rules as a benchmark to measure and assess the behaviour of other countries is bound to generate accounts that are biased. A sound and more grounded analytic base could have greatly assisted given the wide-ranging nature of the volume, providing authors a compass to gather their insights on each issue covered.

And finally, more emphasis of the domestic front, especially the intricacies of politics, could have strengthened the volume. To be sure, the introduction and few chapters state and cover the importance of domestic factors in the determination of international policy stances but a more rigorous conceptualization of the domestic-international linkage is lacking. If this component becomes sufficiently theorised, it has the potential to robustly track and explicate India’s multilateral postures across a series of issues. Some scholars have made inroads on this front. Kishore Dash has demonstrated how strong political leadership enabled India to elicit more amenable outcomes when negotiating with the IMF. Rob Jenkins and Jason Kirk have examined how developments in Indian federalism are affecting India’s relationship with the World Trade Organization and the World Bank and vice-versa. As states clamor for more power and authority within the Indian polity, the multilateral agenda stands to get further entangled with Indian politics. Moreover, the burgeoning presence of other interest groups like the foreign diaspora, media groups, business lobbies and think tanks within the Indian policy space provides scholars possibilities to probe their role and influence.

Few other blind spots exist. Despite its expansive range, the volume does not cover India’s role in global trade. Neither is there any coverage on India’s role in shaping norms of global development and international development assistance. This is an area where India has contributed since the early 1950s given its role as a leading recipient of overseas development assistance. As India grows into its role as a donor, it will become worthwhile to consider the norms that govern their development assistance and the modes through which they are channeled. International public health also does not feature in the reader. Finally, the volume could have benefitted from a concluding chapter connecting the various strands discussed and sketching a research agenda for future scholars to pursue given the paucity of work on Indian multilateralism.  

In sum, it appears that the volume was conceived as a mapping exercise and it fulfills that objective with admiration by marking India’s imprint across a vast multilateral terrain. But ultimately, for some of the reasons stated above it leaves us asking for more.