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Business News/ Opinion / Debunking myths about India’s multilateralism

Debunking myths about India’s multilateralism

They propagate perceptions that have outlived their utility and prevent us from better understanding what considerations influence India's diplomacy

Every September, the international community’s attention focuses on New York for the annual UN General Assembly. Photo: iStockphotoPremium
Every September, the international community’s attention focuses on New York for the annual UN General Assembly. Photo: iStockphoto

As it happens every September, the international community’s attention focuses on New York for the annual UN General Assembly. The Indian delegation is sizeable—not least in its agenda. Besides meetings with leaders from 20 states, Indian officials are participating in discussions on UN reform, counterterrorism, climate change, human rights and peacekeeping. The annual event also gives us an opportunity to audit and clear up some longstanding myths that cloud our thinking and judgement on India’s multilateral diplomacy. These myths propagate perceptions that have outlived their utility. Problematically, such views prevent us from better understanding what considerations influence India’s multilateral diplomacy, how her behaviour, influenced by strategic considerations, has changed over the years, and why it is important to view India’s multilateral positions in the context of the country’s economic trajectory.

India is a multilateral naysayer: India is generally regarded as a “naysayer" while negotiating international rules and while interacting on multilateral issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, trade, etc. By identifying India as a multilateral naysayer, analysts point to instances when India has either blocked multilateral efforts from going forward, refused to accede to rules that others have agreed to or has blocked multilateral negotiations. Defensiveness, these analysts claim, has restrained India’s potential and multilateral ambitions. The criteria that analysts use to make this judgement is unclear and rather myopic. Almost all states enter multilateral settings with a set of concerns they hope to secure without conceding much in return. Defensiveness is de rigueur. Negotiations are characterized by attrition where compromises and breakthroughs are made on the margins. India’s defensiveness has to be placed and understood in this context.

Ideas, not interests, predominantly shape India’s multilateral postures: Another enduring myth is that ideas and ideologies shape India’s multilateral postures. Interests are lost in the picture. Early on, India’s multilateral interventions at the UN were shaped by the political currents of the time, particularly decolonization and the desire for autonomy in foreign policy and development. But over the years, these ideas have given way to positions that are influenced by rational considerations. Unsurprisingly, interests have come into play and become more salient as India’s engagement with the international economy has grown. Growth has generated convergence in some areas, like trade, public health, intellectual property rights, and increasingly on issues like climate change. India has pushed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/World Trade Organization to liberalize tariffs in industries like services and agriculture where Indian firms have a competitive advantage. At the World Health Organization, India endorsed a strong set of rules to curb rising tobacco use worldwide, having seen the raging effects of tobacco consumption at home. Political economy constraints have made Indian negotiators more sensitive to international rules that either advance or harm the material interests of specific interest groups. Ideas are not entirely lost but a heavy reliance on rhetoric alone does not negate the presence and significance of interests.

Multilateralism is mostly about power politics: There is a tendency among Indian analysts to focus inordinately on big-ticket multilateral issues, like nuclear proliferation and arms control, international trade, climate change, and the UN Security Council. As a result, India’s positions and behaviour in these areas overtly colour our perceptions of India’s multilateral diplomacy. No doubt, these issues matter and India’s ability to deftly manage them redounds to her position in the international system. But multilateralism is far more prosaic and defined by incremental advances made within international organizations. India has negotiated international rules covering issues like tobacco control, desertification, food security and agriculture, labour, disability rights, and refugee rights. Unsurprisingly, India’s positions on these issues are shaped by how bureaucrats are confronting that particular policy problem (like tobacco use or the rights of people with disabilities) and whether multilateral engagement could help remedy the problem at home. When that is the case, Indian negotiators have proactively influenced provisions and protocols of these rules. Moreover, India’s positions on such issues are also influenced by other ministries (health, agriculture, environment, commerce, etc.) which have different interests and priorities from diplomats from the ministry of external affairs (MEA). Institutions affect India’s multilateral postures. A focus on the MEA alone dents our grasp of India’s multilateral diplomacy.

New pragmatism in India’s multilateral diplomacy: Has India become newly pragmatic in its multilateral disposition? Pragmatism here would imply being more amenable to cooperating with other states and international organizations, adopting progressive and collectively minded stances on issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation and being open to “leading" on such policy issues when it benefits the international community. Such diagnoses are oblivious to the political economy around India’s multilateral behaviour. It is unreasonable to expect India to adopt more pragmatic stances when the conditions for such behaviour are absent. Cooperation thus becomes a Trojan horse to nudge India to accept commitments that may not be in the national interest. Evidence suggests that India has been pragmatic in its multilateral interventions since the 1980s—to advance and defend its core interests through multilateral engagement, resist or abstain from international rules when necessary, and be open and willing to proactively shape and ratify such rules where national and global interests converge.

Karthik Nachiappan does research focusing on India’s multilateral behaviour. Comments are welcome at

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Published: 27 Sep 2017, 11:52 PM IST
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