Home / Opinion / The myth of rule-making in the international order

Commentaries abound on how emerging powers like China and India are being excluded from institutions in the international order. Exclusion ostensibly prevents them from becoming rule makers that presumably would allow them to make or create rules that help address problems like climate change or nuclear proliferation that no one state can address alone. India, in particular, receives attention as one state itching to help write rules and norms, if only given the chance. Such views, though nice to hear, are utterly ignorant of the history or politics of the international order. We need to ask three questions before making pronouncements on the international order and if it can accommodate rising powers like India: a) How sincere are Western countries to sharing power in the international order? b) How are rules made or “written" in the international order? and c) Is it in the interest of rising powers like India to shoulder burdens that do not comport with their interests and capabilities?

First, it is time to dispense with notions that the US and Western countries that lead the international order are open to meaningfully sharing power with rising powers like India. The international order was constructed following World War II to manage geopolitical exigencies wrought by the Cold War. Over time, international organizations took on different priorities, particularly facilitating liberalization and the opening up of global markets. New rules were needed to advance the interests of a booming private sector which acquired more clout in Washington, Brussels and London. Trade agreements were used to open new markets for American goods. Diplomats from Western capitals proved assiduous in defending private interests while pushing developing countries to liberalize further—sometimes against their own interests. Simultaneously, they never shied away from exempting their countries from rules when it suited them or harmed domestic interests. Negotiations on a number of agreements from the 1980s on issues like global warming, disarmament and tobacco control were marked by American and, occasionally, European reticence to make rules globally applicable. When such rules conflicted with their interests, American and European officials consistently refused commitments to help address collective action problems like arms control, climate change, tobacco control and human rights. Expecting deep reforms to take place in this system, which resembles an oligarchy, is wishful thinking. The international order has been liberal but only for a small minority in the West.

Second, it is difficult for any one country, even the US, to function as a rule maker. Here it is important to clarify that being a rule maker is distinct from stitching together ad hoc coalitions to tackle problems like the Syrian crisis, thwarting denuclearization in the Korean peninsula or negotiating a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb Iran’s nuclear programme. Rule makers purportedly work within multilateral fora to address existing trans-boundary problems. Negotiating international rules in such settings entails dealing with over 100 different national agendas and as many interpretations on how they perceive a policy problem should be addressed. Rules that emerge out of this process reflect countless trade-offs and bargains that occasionally produce agreements that are open, vague, voluntary and non-binding. Countries can, at best, work with coalitions to influence rules in their favour. Making rules is absurd. Since the early 1990s, India has, on numerous occasions, worked with both developing and, when possible, developed countries to frame rules that advance India’s objectives. And India has done so from a position of constraint. Framework conventions on climate change and tobacco control would not have been produced had India not worked behind the scenes to shape those rules. Trade negotiations from the Uruguay Round onward have seen an India willing to concede when liberalization increases market access for Indian products. India has had the capacity to play this role. It makes sense to soberly follow this approach instead of blithely clamouring for a chance to be a rule maker, whatever that means.

Third, it may not be in India’s interest, now, to seek or acquire greater responsibilities in the international order, particularly given the obligations that necessarily accompany such responsibilities. Issues like intervention, humanitarian crises and nuclear proliferation require nifty diplomatic coalitions to address. Leadership is an onerous task. Countries eager to lead on these challenges generally have the required diplomatic resources that can be readily deployed to address contingent challenges. Such countries have also, more often than not, achieved high levels of development which means that their diplomatic energies are not sapped when trying to boost levels of investment and growth at home. India does not have this luxury. Institutionally, India’s overriding focus on securing its periphery and improving its growth trajectory serve as constraints to higher ambitions in the international order. India’s diffidence when dealing with crises in Syria and Libya testify to the difficulties that come with greater responsibilities. Occasionally, India’s economic interests conflict with or complicate policy choices, as was the case when the Donald Trump administration began to walk back on the JCPOA with Iran, a move that could imperil import of crude oil from Iran. Leading while trying to sustain growth is complex and not always prudent. Also the very real constraints that accompany development offer India a political strategy to eschew burden-sharing responsibilities until they can be balanced with domestic commitments.

It’s time to take a step back and ask such questions before pontificating on the selectively liberal international order and whether it can accommodate rising powers like India into the mix. Better to wait.

Karthik Nachiappan does research focusing on India’s multilateral behaviour.

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