India will have to craft a new strategy for managing its ties with great powers
In thinking about the challenges for India’s foreign policy in the next 10 years, it is useful to remind ourselves that there is no future: There are many possible futures. The course of international politics over the coming decade will be shaped by many imponderables—not least the choices that states and powerful individuals will make. At the same time, it is important not to boil everything down to leaders and decision makers. This may be particularly tempting in the age of Donald Trump. Yet, as Karl Marx famously said, people make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Structural features and larger trends may be better guides as we ponder the decade ahead.
Four such features stand out in the global landscape. First, globalization has slowed down. Since the crisis of 2007-08, there has been a sharp decline in capital flows, especially cross-border bank lending. Trade has stagnated since 2008 and there has been a policy backlash. This was evident even before Brexit (Britain’s decision to leave the European Union) and Trump’s election. Dissatisfied with the World Trade Organization and concerned about the rise of China, the Barack Obama administration had sought to push mega-regional trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Even these are now dead in the water. Similarly, there is a nativist backlash against immigration in Europe and America. Nevertheless, pedalling back from the regimes of global trade and migration will be a costly, messy and risky business.
Second, a clutch of emerging technologies will impinge in multiple ways on world politics. The combination of big data, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, 3D printing and the emerging Internet of Things is already challenging the business models of multinational corporations and their integrated supply chains. Going forward, it is bound to have an impact on the nature and location of global manufacturing and services. These technologies will also transform the sinews of military power and change the character of wars in the future.
Third, the relative decline of the US is now undeniable. We don’t need to buy into the blather that American dominance ensured decades of peace and stability in Asia. Think only of the wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. Nor do we need to assume that America is indispensable to sustaining international institutions and multilateral agreements. But the fact remains that rising and resurgent powers like China and Russia will seek to challenge American dominance. If the US responds by asserting its military preponderance or its financial clout, we will see a bout of great power crises. Increasing tension between great powers will also provide a fillip to terrorist groups—both by giving them greater space for manoeuvre and by making them attractive as proxies for the bigger players.
Fourth, liberal democracy has lost its ideological sheen. The financial crisis and ensuing global slowdown have underscored its weaknesses as a form of governance. The election of demagogues like Trump makes a mockery of the claim that liberal democracy is the summit of human history. Even the Churchillian argument about democracy being the least worst form of government seems difficult to sustain. The waning of democracy’s ideological appeal will facilitate the return of more straightforward forms of power politics.
Flowing from these, we can identify three major priorities for Indian foreign policy. For starters, India can no longer presume to benefit automatically from globalization. Our trade policy will have to be a lot more nimble in the years ahead to face the challenge of slowing globalization and related developments like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (an international transport network that aims to connect the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe). We would also need to focus on building our domestic markets and integrating the rest of South Asia with it. And we have to ensure the international mobility of our skilled workers.
In navigating these shoals, our ability to leverage and build on new technologies will be crucial. Our software industry, for instance, is already feeling the heat from the combination of global slowdown and technological acceleration. Without embracing the so-called fourth industrial revolution alongside sure-footed external policy, our competitiveness will be eroded.
Finally, India will have to craft a new strategy for managing its ties with great powers. Over the past 25 years, India managed to accommodate itself in a unipolar world and globalization under American hegemony. Now it will have to operate in a multipolar order with at least three great powers and a global economic order that is racked with tensions. This type of great power politics has not been seen since 1914. As India makes its way in this unfamiliar terrain, it will above all need enhanced capacity for strategic judgement.
Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here