Can India be a rule shaper?

Influencing the multilateral order is in the country's national interest as the dividing lines between them have blurred

September 12, 2013 12:29 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:41 pm IST

As India moves toward its seventh decade of independence, it faces a defining period. As the world’s biggest democracy with an economy among the world’s ten largest, India’s status as a re-emerging global power is now not just recognised but increasingly institutionalised: a seat in the G-20, increasing clout in international financial institutions, growing acceptance as a nuclear-armed state, and impressive peacekeeping credentials under the United Nations.

Meanwhile, geopolitical shifts have created simultaneous opportunities and challenges: the opening with the United States; the rise of China; the global financial crisis; the so-called Arab Spring; the mounting crisis between Iran and the West as well as key Gulf states; and the growing international tussles over energy, climate, food, cyber and the oceans. India’s rapid growth came through participation in the multilateral order, and now its development strategy makes it dependent on a stable globalisation. India has growing economic, trade and energy stakes in literally every corner of the globe. Much of that trade and energy flows via the Indian Ocean, where India is an established maritime player but where it also faces new threats and pressure to ramp up its engagement.

At this stage in its history, India has critical interests in every major multilateral regime, and vital interests in several emerging ones. The boundaries between Indian self-interest and the contour of the multilateral order have blurred. In short, India has no choice but to seek to influence the evolving multilateral order to sustain itself.

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged in his Independence Day address, India’s economic well-being is now directly linked to ensuring a healthy world economy: “Countries today are more integrated with each other than ever before. We have endeavoured that our foreign policy exploits this fully to India’s benefit.” Thus it has become imperative for India to not only govern itself better but also to contribute to shaping the evolving multilateral order.


Commentary on India’s posture on the multilateral order asserts that it has often been little more than a defensive crouch; that non-alignment was rooted in a geopolitical strategy, but Indian policy has not fully reacted to changing geopolitics and geo-economics; that India has not yet genuinely sought to shape the resulting global order. What is certainly true is that India’s posture on the multilateral order has not changed as quickly or dramatically as the order itself.

While India has always been a key international actor since Independence it had little choice but to be content with being a rule taker — adhering to existing international norms and institutions. After the Cold War New Delhi has flirted with being a rule breaker — challenging the present order primarily for effect and seeking greater accommodation in existing global institutions. This is apparent in its quest for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, membership in the various technology control regimes and desire to play a greater role in international financial institutions.

Uneven poise

India is unevenly poised in the international system. On the one hand it increasingly has the people, the tools, ideas and financial strength to bear costs while on the other its per capita GDP is not just the lowest in the G-20 but more than 50 per cent lower than the next lowest member, Indonesia; and a mere three per cent of that of the United States. What does it mean for India’s global role that only 32.4 million of its total population of 1.2 billion pays taxes and that the total tax revenue collected as a percentage of the GDP is among lowest in the G-20? Or that India ranks last among the G-20 in terms of police officers per capita? Or that India’s 900 or so diplomats are around the same number as those of Singapore or New Zealand?

Notwithstanding these limits, India’s interests dictate that it take on the role of a rule shaper — contributing in partnership with others to shape emerging norms and regimes. India has already played this role on climate change, where it fought hard for the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ to be woven into the fabric of climate negotiations. That still holds, though it’s starting to be ever more necessary to differentiate among the differentiated — the yawning gulf between China’s energy realities and India’s, for example, are starting to strain the two nations’ tactical alliance. On other issues like food, oceans, and cyber security, India has as yet had little to say — but it has deep interests at stake. Now is the time for India to invest domestically and wield its influence internationally to help shape an effective multilateral order for the coming era.

(Bruce Jones is director and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu is senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. They are, along with Pratap Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, co-editors of Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order .)

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