If the head table stands seriously disturbed, then it is only to be expected that the rest of the room will be in even greater flux. And that is the state today with the global order as we struggle to absorb a nationalistic America, a rising China, a divided Europe, a re-emerging Russia, a normalising Japan, an insecure Asean, and an even more disturbed Middle-East. Other continents and regions are not without their own challenges, including ours. Economic rebalancing has now started to translate into its political manifestation. And that means a fundamental overhaul of the global architecture. For a nation like India that till now has had to manoeuvre against binary or unilateral dominance of other powers, this calls for a much more complex and nuanced strategy. At the same time, our own capabilities and stakes in the world outside have grown significantly. Others have started treating us as a player — and sometimes as a competitor — in a manner for which there is little recent precedent. How to increase our likes and minimise our dislikes is today a diplomatic objective, even as we seek to secure our interests and enhance our influence.
This rebalancing of the world takes place accompanied by growing nationalism across vast geographies. There is no question that the overall mood is more competitive; some would say more selfish. The very nature of politics has changed in different societies and the disapproval of those who lost out does not make it less legitimate. Obviously, every region and probably every nation has its own individual explanation. The causes can be as different as the effect. The net result, however, is a weaker collective and a greater dispersal of power. Multilateralism is one of the casualties as big powers disregard rules in pursuit of national objectives. Quite independently, alliance cultures have also eroded visibly due to the changed demeanour of the United States. Overall, global consideration and decision-making is much less coagulated than before. This not only reduces the salience of the great powers but gives more room to the middle ones, especially in the exercise of regional influence. We see that very visibly for example in the Gulf and North Africa. As players behave more nationally and agendas become more complex, plurilaterals have emerged as the mechanism to fill the gap left by weaker multilateralism and eroding alliance cultures. Convergence emerges as an adequacy standard for nations to work together. Given its history of independence and flexibility, perhaps it is only logical that India should emerge as an industry leader in this regard, whether it is the RIC, SCO, Quad or JAI.
The impact on the global commons of these changes has been profound. At one level, there is the reality of global supply chains and transnational capabilities that transcend Westphalian lines. But at a time when the challenges of climate change, terrorism, connectivity, maritime security, pandemics and digital vulnerability extend beyond borders, the inclination and ability to work together is paradoxically declining. The prospect of addressing new domains of concern such as cyber or space is less now when it should be more. The implications of the change in American posture on international commitments cannot be overstated, given that this was a key element of the post-1945 order. That other major powers have not moved beyond their national objectives indicates that the resulting deficit will remain unfilled. For its part, India has stood out as a country willing to do much more, even with its limited though growing resources. But the problem remains for the world in the foreseeable future.
Economic challenges offer even less ground for complacency. In the last many years, the world trading system has felt the pressure of gains that some accrued from structural advantages. At a stage, it had to turn political; it finally did. But today, this argument extends beyond to non-trade domains like connectivity projects, technology choices, data protection and security as well as IPR adherence. All of them have strategic connotations and to pretend otherwise is only to delude ourselves. In fact, for that very reason we have started a Technology Division in MEA. Therefore, navigating the economic world will be no less complex than the political one. Here too, nations will strive to optimise outcomes and bridge divides as they pursue their national objectives. For India, there will be the additional challenge in a more digitised world — to create the new partnerships and foster greater mobility to service a knowledge economy. Fashioning an appropriate diplomacy for tackling this set of issues is clearly a priority.
The world has a growing interest in India becoming an additional engine of growth. It is also amenable to harnessing the reservoir of talent that India could provide with the passage of time. Particularly so as it is democratic talent that is sensitive to the culture of rules. Our strong commitment to realising Sustainable Development Goals is deeply appreciated, including for its global significance. Whether it is in terms of technology, best practices or resources, there is a proclivity to partner with a nation whose prospects are clearly so assured. Our challenge is to enhance the pull factor by undertaking deep reforms and addressing long-standing governance issues. Our economic engagement with the world also requires careful deliberation and effective preparation lest we end up eroding our own capacities. How to do that best in this emerging geopolitical landscape is a complex exercise that deserves serious strategising.
The last few years have demonstrated a growing Indian capacity to contribute to the global discourse and make a difference to international outcomes. We have significantly shaped the connectivity debate at a time when the world was still confused. And backed that up with a plethora of projects, including in our immediate neighbourhood. Our single-minded campaign against terrorism has brought that issue into sharp focus in key world forums, including the G-20.
Edited excerpts from Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s inaugural address at CPR Dialogues hosted by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi on March 2