Polaris | Indian Interests and the Liberal Order

In positioning itself as a leader of the liberal international order, India can better defend its core national interests.

In his capacity as a contributor to the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 forecast, my German Marshall Fund colleague Daniel Twining asked several experts from around the world a simple question: “What is the impact of the ‘rise of the rest’ (particularly China and India) on the liberal international order? Will it mean the end of the Western world?”

The results, accessible at http://gt2030.com, are fascinating for their variety. Jeffrey Gedmin leads several voices in suggesting that the West’s priority must be getting its own house in order. Indrani Bagchi, among others, foresees  an imminent return to the logic of balance of power. Walter Lohman, John Lee, and Steve Szabo believe that India is far more likely than China to play a constructive, if independent, role in maintaining a liberal order. Pramit Pal Chaudhari agrees, but perceptively notes that India’s hesitation arises from its functional approach to democracy, its lack of military capacity, and its continued efforts at nation-building.  C. Uday Bhaskar and Dan Kliman think that India will be among the key ‘swing powers’ in the emerging international system.

A number of contributors strike contrarian tones. Abraham Denmark posits that the decline of the west has been greatly exaggerated. David Kang similarly notes that the rising powers, unlike the United States, have not exhibited an ability to generate followers. On the other hand, Hugh White argues that the United States has no choice but to accept China as an equal, while Mark Leonard believes the United States is engaged in a foolhardy attempt at enmeshing China and India into the international system at the expense of its European allies.

My own essay—here—focuses on a somewhat broader conception of the liberal order than the rather contentious institutional and relational aspects. By going back to the Atlantic Charter—the remarkably concise 376-word document agreed upon by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941, which provided the basis for much of the post-war international system—one can derive a clearer sense of its elements. In essence, the  Charter catalogues eight ideals—peace, sovereignty, self-determination, economic development, open markets, defense of human rights, access to the commons, and collective security—that we may take for granted today, but which were radical, almost naively idealistic, concepts at the outset of the Second World War and before decolonisation. Although it inspired the UN, World Bank, IMF, G-8, NATO, WTO, and EU, the Charter makes no explicit mention of specific institutions. Institutions, we ought to remember, are not ends in themselves, but rather means by which to preserve and advance norms and ideals.

Although most Western discussions about India’s role in the international order have exhibited an inordinate focus on human rights, defense of the commons, and collective security—realms in which India is wary about becoming increasingly involved—the other tenets of the liberal order are far less objectionable. India wants a peaceful periphery and stable global system that allows its economy to develop in a manner that benefits its populace. It also jealously guards is sovereignty, independence, and system of governance.

India is not alone in these respects. As I note in my essay, with 7 in 10 people living under electoral democracies now in the developing world, the ownership of liberal values may have already passed on from the West.  Two-thirds reside in just 13 countries: India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Philippines, Turkey, Thailand, South Africa, Colombia, Ukraine, Tanzania, and Argentina. Given the disparities in size and military potential in its favour, as well as its longer history of democratic governance, India is uniquely primed to take a leading role in defending a set of ideals that also advance its core national interests.

The transition from West to rest consequently presents a long-term opportunity for New Delhi to assume a unique global leadership role, one that is too big to miss. But we Indians should never underestimate our ability or willingness to miss opportunities. The latest growth figures (5.3% last quarter) are not encouraging. The obsession with the ceremonial trappings of global leadership—specifically, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council—are also woefully distracting. And the politics of timidity  cannot be perennially rewarding. Staking out a leadership role in this respect is not inconsistent with the logic of  ‘Nonalignment 2.0‘. Perhaps its time we took the plunge.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.