India: a hesitant rule-shaper?

India’s role in the global multilateral arena to shape emerging norms remains hesitant
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First Published: Sun, Sep 29 2013. 07 54 PM IST
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Saturday. Photo: Reuters
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Saturday. Photo: Reuters
This year’s annual United Nations General Assembly’s session in New York promised to be a turgid affair with one sonorous speech outdoing another in its somnolent efforts, especially given the absence of the likes of Hugo Chavez, Moammar Gadhafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who did enliven the proceedings. Instead, the 68th session was one of the most dramatic and underlined the salience of the UN and multilateralism, particularly for India.
Predictably, the epochal Iran-US courtship, the fortuitous progress on Syria and even the cautious meeting between India and Pakistan hogged the limelight. In all these cases, the assembly provided a convenient venue reflecting the axiom that happenings within the hall are far less significant than events without.
In the shadow of these headline-grabbing events, however, other high-level events in particular related to development and disarmament went practically unnoticed. The salience of these two issues for India’s own interests were succinctly highlighted in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech.
His assertions echo a recent volume, Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order, edited by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Bruce Jones and me, which argues that India has critical interests in every major multilateral regime, and vital interests in several emerging ones. The boundaries between Indian self-interest and the contours of the multilateral order have blurred. In short, India has no choice but to seek to influence the evolving multilateral order to sustain itself. And yet, like the Singh government’s role in domestic governance, India’s role in the global multilateral arena to shape emerging norms remains hesitant.
Were India to fail in shaping the emerging multilateral order, it will have no choice but to fall back to the role of either reluctantly following rules set by others or breaking them for effect and to seek greater accommodation. Neither option serves India’s interest.
For instance, at the high-level political forum on sustainable development, India justifiably argued that the central focus of the agenda should be on ending poverty and hunger and reiterated its position of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) between the developed and emerging economies.
However, India appears to be reluctant to acknowledge the role of governance in ending poverty and hunger in poor states even though its own food security law is premised on this notion. Moreover, while the CBDR mantra has served India well, now it is 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. Such fissure over CBDR might well emerge between India and other least-developed states.
Similarly, at the high-level meeting of the general assembly on nuclear disarmament India proposed to negotiate a global no-first-use treaty, which will, clearly, serve its interest and the cause of disarmament. However, given the visceral reaction of the five original nuclear weapon states (also the permanent UN Security Council members) to the meeting itself, let alone disarmament on the one hand and Pakistan’s blatant holding the conference on disarmament hostage on the other, it is not clear how or where India will initiate such negotiations.
Besides, to shape rules in a multipolar world, India will have to build coalitions across the North-South and the East-West divide. Ideally, India will prefer to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council and contribute to shaping the multilateral order from that high table. However, waiting for such reforms of the Council and other multilateral institutions is a luxury that India can ill afford.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Sep 29 2013. 07 54 PM IST
More Topics: UN | Manmohan Singh | Syria | US | UN general assembly |
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