Can India Refocus the G-20?

Here’s my piece on India and the G-20 published in The Mint

Link and text below.




Coming on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visits to Tel Aviv and Washington, DC was the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Much of the media attention on the two-day summit focused on US President Donald Trump, his bilateral meetings with key heads of state, and whether the Trump administration would use the meeting to push a narrower agenda for globalization where protectionism and parochialism, not partnership, is emphasized.

The resultant communique revealed that current US policy runs against the consensus among G-20 countries, particularly in areas like trade and climate change. The communique called for new trade deals to be reciprocal and non-discriminatory, swiftly dispensing with now seemingly archaic notions of trade liberalization. The US aside, the other 19 countries affirmed the importance of climate change, declaring the Paris Agreement as “irreversible”. More broadly, the summit signalled that countries like India—deeply reliant on an open international economy to further growth and development objectives—must find a way to work with Trump bilaterally where mutual interests converge, and around him multilaterally to address shared challenges like trade protectionism, climate change, terrorism and migration.

What do the Hamburg meeting and the broader international context in which it was held portend? The summit made headlines for proceedings that took place outside the official meetings. The scale of protests and violence pointed to a palpable and growing public discontent with globalization. International politics around economic growth and security are being localized in a virulent way. The apparent gulf between matters discussed at the global level and their relevance for citizens across countries has seemingly widened.

Going ahead, it is difficult to see how the G-20 can continue to serve as a forum to address concerns affecting the international economy, for these issues are not solely economic any more. The G-20 should move to focus more on, if not mitigate, deep underlying chasms in the international economy that threaten global stability. For instance, issues pertaining to education, skills and unemployment; weaknesses in reviving manufacturing, the rise of digitization and automation that suppress economic demand and accelerate economic dislocations, the resultant patterns of forced migration that generate racial and ethnic resentment and sustain macroeconomic imbalances, all continue to be given short shrift. It may be unreasonable to expect the G-20 to meaningfully tackle these issues since the forum was conceived as an informal consensus-sharing mechanism on salient global economic issues. Not discussing them, however, will ensure such problems fester, which will only accentuate differences between leading economies, leaving them to be addressed at some point.

India has a clear interest in and opportunity to refocus the G-20 agenda. The interest is driven by the reality that India’s rise has been largely driven by closer engagement with the global economy. Globalization has become a sine qua non. Multilateral engagement on economic and financial issues has become a clear priority. India also experiences, in varying degrees, some of the problems highlighted above—unemployment (particularly amongst its youth); bottlenecks in manufacturing; and dislocations generated by potential restrictions on India’s skilled workforce abroad, and from increased automation in the technology and services industries.

Moreover, there now exist constituencies in India that have a material stake in an open international economy and who would generally be supportive of a more vocal India raising such matters in global economic circles. In fact, in 2015, India exported $276 billion worth of goods and services, with industries like petroleum, automobiles, machinery and biochemicals leading the list. Despite a negative trade balance (since imports exceeded exports), there is no evidence to suggest that insular economic policies are on the anvil. The political economy is rapidly evolving.

Second, there is a clear opportunity in that Indian officials seem well-equipped to play an agenda-setting role at the G-20. Indian representatives have worked to gather support at previous G-20 summits on issues that affect India—governance reforms at the International Monetary Fund, tax evasion and information-sharing arrangements. There is scope to build on this and raise issues that are more political than just technical in nature.

India’s actions at the G-20 summit suggest that this is possible. In Hamburg, the Indian delegation worked to secure G-20 support to release a separate, stand-alone statement on terrorism, particularly focused on cutting off funds to militant groups. Modi himself led the effort. From their initial reticence a few years ago to let the G-20 consider climate change, India now used the summit to openly acknowledge the need to implement the Paris Agreement. Should the Indian economy slide further or experience sudden disturbances, there is no reason to believe that India, under the Modi government, might not be more assertive in raising other relevant issues at future G-20 summits. This way, multilateral engagement could serve to complement the government’s robust economic diplomacy with other countries.


Response to Governance Commentary on Global Governance

As posted on Governance Journal’s Blog, a response to Coen and Pegram’s commentary on Global Governance Research.

In a recent commentary for Governance, David Coen and Tom Pegram argue that the best way to improve global governance research is by synthesizing advances from three disciplines – International Relations, International Law and European Public Policy to enable scholars map, grapple with and overcome hindrances to global public policy-making. Though instructive, their agenda will not explain why ‘global governance is not working’ since their focus does not extend to the politics around the gridlock in global governance today.

The gridlock, I argue, is linked to two developments which undoubtedly deserve more scholarly attention: West’s opportunistic multilateral impulses and the intent of rising powers to establish other multilateral frameworks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BASIC Climate Change Group, India-Brazil-South Africa Forum (IBSA), BRICS and other recent initiatives like Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDB). Going ahead, we need not focus entirely on the ‘global’ per se but on the ‘domestic’ in key countries to probe and elucidate their fluid attitudes and preferences toward the multilateral order and its rules.

As Coen and Pegram rightly identify, we are confronted by a spate of global problems in areas like finance, energy, climate change and health. Problems that many claim cannot be adequately addressed by existing governance mechanisms. And there is a general understanding that this gap has generated an institutional gridlock.[i] But this gridlock is not by any means new. A cursory peek into the negotiations of any major multilateral treaty over the past two decades reveal a polarized political climate where countries in the ‘North’ and ‘South’ clash over the rules of international rule. To be sure, the number of issues on the multilateral agenda have risen; issues also appear to be more complex. What has perhaps changed now is that countries are less willing to address trans-boundary problems in the formal multilateral order. This has presented political options for industrialized countries and emerging powers that both have exercised.

The first development is the West’s growing opportunistic engagement with the existing multilateral order. In the last ten years, the US Senate has either rejected or stalled a raft of relevant international treaties on labor, cultural rights, armed conflict, nuclear weapons, law of the sea, disability rights and discrimination against women. Funding is often withheld for multilateral institutions and purposes. Intermittently, Washington supports institutional restructuring in the IMF and the World Bank but seldom backs it up by action. In international health, western donors have begun to earmark their financial contributions for particular initiatives and tasks – multilateralism à la carte, siphoning funds away from the WHO’s institutional prerogatives.[ii] Rules around international trade are now wittingly entangled with intellectual property concerns, environmental protection checks and labor rights. This selective multilateral disposition appears to have domestic sources that revolve around diminishing public opinion toward international organizations, internal financial constraints and efficiency concerns vis-à-vis multilateral processes. No doubt, political economy also factors with rules being negotiated to advance particular interests within industrialized countries. To better understand this dynamic, more detailed empirical work is needed.

And the second trend, ostensibly linked to the first development, is the resolve of rising powers to establish alternate mechanisms to further mutual cooperation on issues like climate change, maritime security, health, trade and infrastructure. There is a political logic to these arrangements. Pooling collective and growing economic power boosts their political clout when negotiating international rules. Bargaining power also gives these countries more space to protect their flank when proposed rules conflict with their development or security interests. This collective bargaining is not a recent phenomenon as entities like the G-77 have long been a staple of the multilateral landscape. But there is a general acceptance that, this time around, the stakes are much higher since the economic clout of emerging powers have considerably grown distinguishing them from the bottom rung of developing countries. This leaves them less than tolerant of institutions and rules that do not reflect their interests. However, even as structural factors may explain the rise of these arrangements they cannot account for their gradual deepening. As newer initiatives like the AIIB and NDB emerge and evolve, we need to better understand and explain why emerging powers are opting to develop and deepen new arrangements while retaining one foot in the main multilateral camp.

As Coen and Pegram assert, a great deal of insight has been given to map and understand how governance works at the global level. The time has come to understand why governance is ‘not working’ at the global level.

[i] Hale, T., Held, D., & Young, K. (2013). Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It Most. Polity.

[ii] Sridhar, D., & Woods, N. (2013). Trojan Multilateralism: Global Cooperation in Health. Global Policy4(4), 325-335.

Army and Nation – Steven Wilkinson

When people compare India and Pakistan, one of the most frequently trotted out differences is their civil-military relations. Despite common colonial legacies that also extend to military training and recruitment, common histories and geographies, why the noted divergence in the way civil-military relations are structured and managed? Why have military coups been so common in Pakistan than in India which till date has not experienced one? Steven Wilkinson offers a incisive argument in his latest book, Army and Nation, analytically dissecting the reasons behind this curious state of affairs in the subcontinent.

Wilkinson’s argument comes in three parts. First is the ‘socio-economic, strategic and military inheritance’ that Pakistan received in 1947 compared to India. The amount of trained officers and officials, state institutions, army and stocks of capital and goods, (not to say level and quality of political leadership although this facet comes later) it received through partition left Pakistan considerably weaker than India as a coherent unit. And this was added on to by additional strategic challenges on the Western front, the need to pay their armies and soldiers and that they had to defend a much larger Eastern front against India which burdened the exchequer immediately. Pakistani Generals had no other option but to remain in the driving seat given extant threats and weaknesses, which they sought to balance. Second is the differences in party institutionalisation. India and the Congress in particular had deep roots within communities across the countries with substantial mass backing. This was not the case with the Muslim league in Pakistan that essentially retained the support of the aristocrats in certain provinces without ever obtaining mass support for their policies. This difference allowed India and the Congress party to create a broad political structure that could be used to manage divisive conflicts that emerge, which might have inflamed had they been left unattended. Politics filled the void in India and the army, given party weaknesses, filled the void in Pakistan. And thirdly, Wilkinson argues that coup-proofing, procedures and policies that governments take to distance the army from politics, were far more elaborate and implemented in India than in Pakistan. This involved keeping military institutions fragmented, less cohesive and much less likely to band together when cornered. But this as we saw in 1962 resulted in the army’s defeat to China that stemmed from poor intelligence, weak lines of communication between Nehru, his military planners and the army and the disdain both had for each other.

The book is well structured. Wilkinson prefaces his argument by examining the inheritance of India’s colonial military structure and how its operational being stoked conflicts amongst various groups in pre-independent India. Next, he moves to consider how WW II impacted the British Raj’s army composition and attendant policies aimed at muting criticism of recruiting from certain regions. Chapter 3 looks at how Nehru and other Congress leaders dealt with civil-military challenges and the strategies it deployed to minimise military’s threat. Chapter 4 looks at the impact of the China war, 1977 emergency and 1984 Blue Star operation on civil-military strategies in India. Preoccupied by these events, the political establishment did not weaken or alter the cumbersome command and control structures that Nehru and others had instituted in the 1950s to control the army. Chapter 5 considers the current state of the Indian army and civil-military relations that explains why those structures continue to remain today despite calls for reform of the Armed Services establishment. Wilkinson argues that the ‘intensification of caste, religious, and regional politics in India over the past 20 years and the distributional claims these identities have threatened, but not so far overturned, the army’s ability to recruit from its traditional communities for its single and fixed class units.’ Despite massive political changes and regionalisation, the army has thus far been largely immune from existing political pressures but there are indications that this might diminish in the near future. Chapter 6 explores Pakistan’s experience with civil-military relations, explaining why these three factors have contributed to coups over its history. Wilkinson ends with some general lessons from both experiences of managing the civil-military divide, including the timing and sequencing of civil-military relations, hedging armies with paramilitary forces and structural reforms linked to coup proofing.

Wilkinson’s research, arguments marshalled, evidence used and they way they are conveyed are top notch. The quantitative evidence on recruitment into the Indian army are gleaned from effectively to make a case for the politics associated with army operations in India. And linking civil-military relations to the politics of independence and the way parties and leaders functioned in India firmly embeds the army and its functioning within the Indian polity. Given these positives, i will dwell on one minor oversight and how it influenced civil-military relations: fluid cold war environment that forced both countries to adopt distinct survival strategies as new nation states on the world map. India chose to diversify and stay largely neutral and Pakistan aligned. To do and accomplish this, certain actors will be privileged within the country – politicians in India and Generals in Pakistan. More work needs to be done on establishing how the cold war and its vicissitudes influenced Indian foreign policy and the perceptions of its leaders going ahead to get a better sense of how institutions that had a role in foreign affairs influenced their country’s trajectory.

Bruce Jones – Still Ours to Lead

Bruce Jones – Still Ours to Lead

Perhaps the most rankling aspect of Bruce Jones’s new book on global governance is the title. Still Ours to Lead is a title that smacks of ignorance and parochialism reflective of the broader impulse ingrained in Washington of American leadership writ large. The book examines the current multipolar international order, the range of public goods problems that exist, the diversity of newer rising powers that are involved in addressing them and the state of the dominant power (U.S.) and its ability to lead coalitions to address those emergent challenges. Jones argues that in this multipolar era, the only state capable of mounting and mobilising the effort to address large, systemic, sometimes wicked and globally salient problems is the United States. The capacity of the US in identifying problems, assessing their implications and building coalitions to address them is unparalleled and a role that no other state can fill. To make the case for sustained American leadership, Jones recounts how a series of challenges like climate change, conflict resolution, maritime security are being tackled in the world. He also looks at US’s challengers, the rising powers and their role in the system. Like others, he argues that these powers have an incentive to cooperate and an impulse to compete as they ascend up the order. Also, as a bloc, these countries have little common interests despite their propensity to increasingly band together in various parts of the world on an annual basis. China, India and Brazil get top billing amongst these powers. 

One of the book’s pluses is the exploration of how some key public goods challenges are being tackled by all these powers, major and emerging. For instance, Jones details how piracy is being tackled off the Gulf of Aden by a coalition of several powers under the leadership of the US. Jones is also one of the first to brief us on the shifting situation in the Arctic and how various powers are positioning themselves to cash in on the oil reserves. However, the book fails from providing a complete conceptualisation of the international order. In Jones’ book and world, a state-centric international order pervades. Nowhere to be seen are international organisations that work to manage several key global challenges with member states in tow. Also missing are other institutional vehicles and non-state actors that are now playing an important role in managing global problems. This is not just a plain oversight. We cannot grasp the management of ebola as the virus raged without considering the role of the Gates Foundation or private pharmaceutical companies that played in controlling the spread through their drugs. We can make similar cases across the global governance landscape of other actors that are making their mark in areas like climate, food and energy security. Moreover, and this might be the most problematic part of the book – Jones fails to adequately question whether American leadership is an unalloyed good. As we have seen, this is not the case in many issues, principally those concerning war and intervention. If anything, American leadership has demonstrated that it has the potential to cause havoc as much as it can supply leadership. It is another matter if other countries do not step to provide leadership, which they invariably do not. But resting the duty and responsibility on the US, without challenge, can be dangerous. To better grapple with the challenges and issues going forward, we need to consider each case separately, look at the range of countries that have a stake or interest and work to craft coalitions or groups willing to address the issue. The politics of the moment should trump the politics of the past in making that judgment. 

No One’s World – Charles Kupchan

The recent signing of a spate of climate agreements between China and the United States have reignited debates on the return of the ‘G-2’ – a putative partnership between the two most important countries on earth to collaborate and tackle pressing collective action problems that confront humanity. Ideas about a G-2, however, was preceded by Ian Bremmer’s claim that we live a G-Zero world where no major power or the hegemon has the power nor capability to singularly address major global problems. In a G-0 world, anarchy reigns. Dovetailing with this idea comes Charles Kupchan’s recent book No One’s World which aims to advance a similar argument – that the international order is currently in and will be in a state of institutionalised anarchy where multiple powers who hold multiple and distinct views on international politics and governance will vie with each other for supremacy and leadership. In other words, the world as we know it characterised by American primacy and leadership has given way to a world where America is one amongst the major powers or nations hoping to effect change in international politics. Kupchan makes this argument by parsing through centuries of history, charting how the West ascended to its place at the top and remained there fora long while before being buffeted by several crises that also precipitated the rise of a slew of emerging powers.

After that, Kupchan presents the rise of the rest, contextualising how they ascended and importantly, giving due attention to their differential visions of the world and politics and how that will only widen cleavages between major powers in the world today. The key argument here is the notion that contrary to what many liberal internationalists claim – a normative chasm has emerged between major powers on critical matters of politics and governance that cannot be easily reconciled through commerce and international cooperation. What ensues is a power struggle within the order between major powers. To allay the potential and expectedly pernicious costs of this competition, Kupchan calls for greater humility and understanding from Europe and the United States, impelling them to work together to create a workable accord such that a more amenable future can be charted out for global peace and prosperity. Unlike other scholars, Kupchan also details the malaise that has afflicted the west over the past decade and the resultant loss of economic and geopolitical influence. Paralleling this waning is the rise of rest that Kupchan breaks down into different categories – Autocrats (Communal or China, Paternal or Russia and Tribal or the Emiratis), Theocrats that fuse religion and statecraft (Middle Eastern Countries), Strongmen (African leaders), Populists (Latin American countries) and ‘other’ difficult democracies (India, etc.). These countries are presented as the ‘other’ countries that have conceptions of order and governance and are keen on conforming to so-called universalist ideas and visions of modernity. Their respective countries and political traditions are shaped by historical trends over generations which appear resistant to socialisation. 

Kupchan’s breakdown is refreshing from earlier accounts that list the rest as a homogenous and monolithic creed when in fact these countries vary greatly. However, by doing so, he also effectively dismisses elements in these countries, special interests and other interests, that are actively pushing these countries to reform and converge. Moreover, Kupchan also fails to adequately account for and of the leadership inclinations in these countries and their growing desire to organise themselves through mechanisms like the BRICS and its offshoots. There is not but one game in town anymore. Options exist and these countries are now exercising their will in that respect. Also, Kupchan fails to realise the growing fissures within the west itself. In fact, over the recent past, countries like Japan and Germany, staunch American allies for over fifty years have been irked by American preponderance and are chafing against it more than ever before. Across all these countries, domestic forces and elements will direct their onward trajectory in the international order. It is thus important to look and deftly map and outline their agency to get a better sense of the ‘rest,’ their attitudes to the ‘west’ to gauge the coming ‘global turn.’

Uday Singh Mehta and Karuna Mantena: Empire and Liberalism

Uday S Mehta – Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought

Karuna Mantena – Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the ends of Liberal Imperialism

It is irrevocably clear that empire was an unvarnished disaster for nations that had been resisting colonial rule for centuries. But the colonial project itself was undergirded, justified and legitimised by liberal tenets, forwarded and propagated by a series of mainstream liberal thinkers and writers in Britain. British liberal thought was closely linked with the operation and understanding of the colonial project abroad and liberal ideas were used to root and cement the need for an imperial power and its rule. Two books cover this association in exemplary ways speaking to the larger ideas and thinkers that deployed various epistemes and theories to justify the continuation and consolidation of imperial rule across the world and critically, India, over the course of two centuries.

Uday Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire’s critical contribution is to stake out and mark the clear contradictions and inconsistencies within modern liberal thought and how these ideas served to propagate imperial fiat. The key connection here is the notion of unfamiliarity of peripheral regions and territories and the accompanying desire to extend colonial rule and governance in order to make them more more functional and governable. Key thinkers like Bentham, James and J.S Mill and Macaulay are part of a group of influential liberal thinkers that endorsed empire through this justification. In contrast, legendary conservative thinker and write Edmund Burke stood at the other end, valiantly questioning these obtuse invocations whilst exhorting the core difference that lies between the colonies and the metropole. As Mehta argues, ’no thinker or statesmen in the 18th or 19th century expresses anything like the moral and political indignation that Burke voiced against the injustices, cruelty, caprice and exploitation of the empire.’ By enlightening us with the hypocrisy surrounding these ideas and thinkers, Mehta impels us to comprehend the rather pervasive and disconcerting gap between the use and salience of ideas such as representative democracy, rule of law, individual rights that all these thinkers advocated for and their selective championing of them.

Through this critical book, Mehta informs us that tensions not only resided within colonial rule itself but also the ideas that served to legitimise it. Mehta’s thesis is equally ambitious. He argues that these tensions are not unique to the practice of liberalism or imperialism in this case but they are central to liberal political thought itself. In other words, the devil is not in the practice but the proof itself. Less important is power to effect change but the very substance in those ideational elements. Unlike Mill, Macaulay and Bentham, Burke differed on one fundamental count – epistemology. A realist lens and a more grounded understanding of India and its vicissitudes gave Burke a unique perspective of liberalism and of imperial rule but one that ultimately did not make much of a difference in terms of policy. Instead of essentialising the unfamiliar, Burke embraces the inherent nature of it. Instead of supporting a misplaced paternalism, Burke calls for humility and pragmatism when dealing with a country (India) that has had a complex structural and social edifice that has managed relations between a dizzying array of groups and communities. Other liberals treat India as an abstraction that called for the implantation of liberal ideas and implementation of liberal policies. By extolling the universal, they dismiss the local and particular. As Mehta cogently argues, intellectual arguments and claims of many generations past have a resonance and importance even today. Notions of liberal imperialism are equally relevant with the ascent of a hegemon that manages international affairs and is not shy to impose its ideas and visions over a widely diffuse and diverse world. Liberal ideas function as the dominant discourse and framework through which political and economic ideas get transmitted. As a result, it is or it becomes incumbent on us to grapple with the inherent and unsteady tensions that exist within liberal genealogies themselves. Out abiding commitment to liberalism should not blind ourselves from dismissing the validity and legitimacy of governing ideologies of other traditions that have equal, if not, more writ and authority in different locales.

Karuna Mantena’s brilliant book Alibis of Empire aims to track another important thinker – Henry Sumner Maine and the role he and ideas played in the governing of the empire since the mutiny of 1857. The rebellion, as she argues, proved to be the critical juncture that led to a divergence in the ideology governing imperial rule. Until then, Britain was keen on reforming and ‘civilising’ India and to enable it to better govern itself. From the mutiny, this liberal strategy became untenable. What followed was ‘liberal retrenchment’ marked by a clear notion of difference between the coloniser and the colonised. Replacing the civilisational project and tack was a more sober one that emphasised the key cultural differences between both sets of peoples and the attendant desire to manage them through a more localised and indirect mode of governance. Universalism gradually gave way to culturalism and parochialism. Moreover, Mantena goes on to elucidate how this approach ensued in theory and practice – through Henry Maine. The fundamental shift came in the conceptualisation of the peripheral regions. From the rebellion, indigenous societies came to be seen as fundamentally divergent and as traditional social realms that was seen as resistant to modern society and modernity. And through this conception came newer and more sober forms of ideas of governance and rule. Maine’s importance and legacy here came in the form of social and anthropological theory which received a fillip given the urgent desire to get a better understanding of these ‘different’ societies. Aside from being known as a leading Victorian jurist and historian, his trysts with anthropological and social theory greatly influenced the nature of imperial rule since the mutiny. Maine’s evocative and articulate account of the primitive and feudal nature of the subcontinent were infused to craft policies that emphasised indirect rule in alliance with a region that was suffused with a range of groups and structures bound by bonds of custom and kinship. The gradually emerging post-rebellion consensus was thus characterised by a diminution in the erstwhile civilising mission and a reconstitution of power that rested on more nimble alliances with local structures of power. And this also privileged the rise of the colonial ‘ethnographic’ state that sought to use various intellectual methods and tools of knowledge to gain a better understanding of native or primitive society. Maine’s work, as Mantena claims, proved critical in this regard insofar as elevating an alternate mode of knowledge generation and production. The book effectively seeks to situate Maine and his work at the centre of a seminal shift in imperial rule, one that was characterised by the rise of indirect rule and the exaltation of the traditional society as a model to be better studied and analysed for the purposes of governing. The cases used to delineate this particular argument is legal reform and land tenure, both cases where policies were crafted and implemented with a more sober and grounded understanding of local rule and politics.

When looked at with Mehta’s work, Mantena clearly sought to address one key aspect – that of Mehta’s claim that it was liberalism itself and not the practice of it that was central to the hypocrisies of liberal imperialism. Mantena claims that tensions within liberal norms and ideas of equality, tolerance, representation emerge not from theoretical inconsistencies but as a ‘contradictory entailment of liberalism.’ Through Maine and his ideas and epistemic foundation that led to indirect rule, Mantena seeks to illustrate that it was less a consequence of liberalism than of liberalisms’ capacity to reconstitute itself when confronted with unforeseen exigencies. Late imperial rule, in this respect, was ‘strategically, temporally, and logically linked to the collapse of that earlier agenda.’ Mehta, Mantena claims, fails to adequately grapple with the vicissitudes of imperial practice and its ‘outer limits’ that is as important as the internal contradictions within liberal political thought itself. Nonetheless, both books mark important ground insofar as examining the range of ideas and thinkers that informed imperial rule in India are concerned.