Even by the topsy-turvy standards of 2017, two events last fortnight managed to further upend conventional wisdom. In the first instance, the strongman of perhaps the most closed political and economic system in the world made a passionate plebeian plea—albeit from the exclusive stage of Davos—for globalization and an open trading system, and called on nations to follow China’s “courage to swim in the vast ocean of the global market". Barely three days later, across the ocean—at the more inclusive setting of the inviting national mall in Washington, DC—the anointed leader of open societies and the free world rejected the globalized world that his predecessors had so painstakingly built, praised protectionism, and vowed to wall off the nation’s borders “from the ravages of other countries".
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While neither rhetoric is likely to convince the other or, indeed, come to complete fruition, it marks a distinctive break from the evolving global order since the end of the Cold War. The emerging global order, which was changing frustratingly slowly for those outside it (like India) was considered to be moving too rapidly by those within it (like the US). President Donald Trump’s disruption, ironically, is unlikely to preserve the ancient regime and will more likely accelerate the evolution to allow countries like China and, probably, India to shape its contours. The process is likely to be unpredictable and volatile.
Nonetheless, some scholars have sought to provide a semblance of logic to how the process might unfold. For instance, Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, suggests five possible scenarios: Concert Redux; Spheres of Influence; Fortress America; A League of Our Own; and an Ad Hoc World. These are clearly not mutually exclusive and there is likely to be some degree of overlap among them. While all the scenarios are understandably US- and Trump-centric, they do provide insights as to how other powers, notably, India and China, might use them to further their own interests in the disorderly world.
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Concert Redux is a throwback to early 19th century Europe where great powers established a “shallower, less institutionalized form of international cooperation" to ensure a no-war scenario among themselves. Such an arrangement would underline the more traditional Westphalian view of national sovereignty but would also curtail international cooperation on issues beyond preserving a no-conflict scenario. There might be some cooperation against terrorism and on non-proliferation, but this is unlikely to extend to cooperation on technology, energy or trade. Such a concert might eventually collapse, as it did in the early part of the 20th century, when the great powers were forced to compete for resources and markets. In such a scenario, India is likely to be part of the loose global concert but is unlikely to have additional trade benefits.
The second scenario envisages a regionally fragmented world where the regional hegemons, including possibly India, are responsible for providing political order and organizing economic cooperation within their neighbourhood. This would be similar to the US Monroe Doctrine in Latin America or the so-called Indira Doctrine in South Asia. However, such spheres of influence would be viable only if the major regional power had the necessary wherewithal to provide security (including deal with challengers) and ensure economic cooperation. Here, given the failure of India’s neighbourhood-first policy, New Delhi’s ability to build such a regional sphere of influence (without the help of outside powers) is suspect.
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In contrast, China, with its stewardship of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the One Belt, One Road initiative, is well poised not only to establish influence over its region but also dominate India’s neighbourhood.
The Fortress America scenario predicts an isolationist, protectionist and sovereignty-obsessed country aptly summed up as “America First" in Trump’s inaugural speech. Such an America would turn its back to the world and international institutions and would be a throwback to its historical position, maintained until World War I and the interwar period. Similar to the rise of Germany and Japan in the first half of the 20th century, such a scenario would see the growing dominance of China and Russia in the international arena and would worsen the prospects of India’s rise in the global order.
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The least likely fourth scenario is one where the US and its “advanced market" democratic allies create a “free world" coalition to enforce “containment lite" against China and Russia. This, however, is plausible only if the Trump-Vladimir Putin bromance comes to an end. Even if such a scenario was to unfold and the US sought to engage India as a democratic swing state against Russia and China, New Delhi is likely to demur, given its desire to maintain relations with Moscow.
The last scenario of an “improvisational, seat-of-the-pants" ad hoc approach to world order is the most likely. Such a scenario would be driven by the lack of an overall grand strategy and Trump’s “specific reactions to the particular challenge of the day". This approach is likely to create ad hoc coalitions and alliances to deal with specific challenges. Ironically, such an approach echoes India’s own mutli-alignment policy that has served New Delhi well. It is very likely that the ad hoc approach will prevail if Trump remains unchecked. This might just be to the advantage of India, as long as it manages to stay on Trump’s good side. That will prove to be an impossible task.
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W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings Institution.