From High Ground to High Table: The Evolution of Indian Multilateralism

Article excerpt

Independent India's multilateral strategy was designed defensively as a means to provide the country with some leeway in an intensely competitive bipolar world. Today, India casts itself as an emerging power intent on exerting the bilateral and multilateral influence that the country's founding leaders had long aspired to. Obsolete frameworks such as nonalignment and developing world leadership have mostly been jettisoned in the process. However, questions remain about India's willingness and capacity to take on global responsibilities to match its global aspirations. This article traces the evolution of India's multilateral approach and examines its multilateral stance through several prisms: the UN Security Council, the World Trade Organization, global climate change negotiations, and some emerging international groupings of states in which India plays a role. Among our conclusions is that, in India's diplomacy, much depends on domestic factors. KEYWORDS: India, multilateralism, non-alignment, United Nations Security Council, World Trade Organization, climate change, BRIC, !BSA, Group of 20.

THE EVOLUTION OF INDIA'S APPROACH TO MULTILATERALISM OVER RECENT decades constitutes a silent, but as yet incomplete revolution. From idealist moralizer to often pragmatic dealmaker, India's transition mirrors its rise-- second only to China--from the confines of severe poverty and underdevelopment. India's voice carries more weight today in multilateral forums largely due to its enhanced economic power, political stability, and nuclear capability.

India spent many years after independence in 1947 struggling to achieve the international status that it expected because of its civilizational greatness and geopolitical uniqueness. But a lack of material resources and military capability long prevented it from securing a place under the "diplomatic sun."' The Cold War global confrontation between East and West. offered shelter through alliances, but threatened India's newfound independence. During those early years, India turned to multilateralism as a way of magnifying its in fluence in international affairs until it could exert influence more materially.

Today, in almost every international forum, India has explicitly engaged with smaller groups of powerful nations to affect outcomes at the expense of the more broad-based universalist approach that it traditionally espoused (or claimed to). India does not extensively rely on the multilateral treaty-based system, preferring instead bilateral relationships with major and regional powers in almost every field of international cooperation from trade to nuclear technology.

India today has outgrown its Cold War role as a third world, non-aligned nation to exercise influence as an emerging power through global governance by oligarchy--be it as part of the Five Interested Parties in the World Trade Organization (WTO); the Brazil, South Africa, India, and China (BASIC) group at the Copenhagen climate change negotiations of 2009; or the Group of 4 (G4) coalition of countries (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) demanding permanent membership in the UN Security Council. By choosing this variation on multilateralism, India is buying into a strategy developed largely by the United States, Russia, China, and several Western European powers to co-manage international economic and, to a lesser degree, security systems. However, India has so far been tentative about its willingness to assume much responsibility within these systems. Public opinion in India may well be ready for such a transition, but it is not yet clear that much of India's often conservative establishment is.

First, we trace the evolution of India's approach to multilateralism from 1947 to 1991. Then, we look at India's performance in four substantive fields of foreign policy or multilateral forums of significance to India: the UN Security Council; the WTO and its Doha Round negotiations culminating in 2008; international efforts to combat climate change through the Copenhagen and Cancun UN conferences; and some emerging international groupings of states in which India is playing a role. …