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India's growing influence in the new international order

August 08, 2013 17:12 IST

India's growing influence in the new international order


Suman Guha Mozumder

Policy expert Richard Fontaine speaks to Suman Guha Mozumder about the implications of Global Swing States like India in the context of the global order.

Richard Fontaine, president, Center for a New American Security, has argued that the United States and its European allies can partner more closely with what he and co-author Daniel M Kilman call Global Swing States -- India, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey -- to strengthen the international order.

In a major policy paper first published by CNAS late last year and re-published in the form of an interview last month by the National Bureau of Asian Research as part of its series of publications for the Senate India Caucus, the authors argue why America’s engagement with these four countries is critical.

Fontaine, who served as foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain for more than five years and also worked at the State Department, the National Security Council and on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke to India Abroad.

How did this concept of Global Swing States come about?

We were working on this report in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, and there was so much attention on the domestic swing states, which are those states that could go one way or the other in a Presidential contest, and which as a result, receive a disproportionate amount of electoral resources and attention from the two campaigns because it’s seen that they deliver an outsized payoff for engagement with them.

So, we applied this concept with respect to the international realm, and looked at what we called GSS. We identified the four countries -- Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey -- each of which has a large and growing economy, democratic governance, significant population and occupies a strategic location in the world, and so their precise orientation to key elements of the international order are in flux.

The United States should engage intensively with these four countries because as Global Swing States, they collectively will have much to say about the direction of the future global order.

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Photographs: Ajay Verma/Reuters


'Democratic countries better placed to be active supporters of international order'

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Would you say this is different from what are known as emerging powers, which include also India, Brazil and South Africa? How different are they in terms of the conceptual framework that you are talking about?

In the focus on the emerging powers, a lot of attention has been paid to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), or the IBSA (India Brazil and South Africa) tripartite grouping.

The focus in a lot of that has been on those countries working as a block, and whether to present an alternative to the current international system, or to put emphasis in different areas of international concern than the West might do.

But what we said with respect to the Global Swing States is that these countries are unlikely to frequently work together as a block. And we’re talking more about a concept that this helps clarify the foreign policy priorities of the United States and other countries so they can see the potential inherent in these four powers.

The other distinction is that the four countries we’ve identified are all democratic powers, and doesn’t include China or some of the other non-democratic emerging powers. And this is important.

We’ve identified several areas of international order, and one of them is a sort of human rights and democratic order. Democratic countries are better placed than autocracies to be active supporters of that element of international order.

You talk about the human rights issues. According to the US human rights authorities or human rights watchdogs here, India doesn’t seem to have a very good track record of human rights. What would you say?

I think if you compare its track record to that of autocratic countries, it certainly is much better.

India, with the exception of the Emergency under Indira Gandhi, has an essentially unbroken pattern of democratic governance. It’s got a free, open, and very active press. The political system is an open one.

Certainly, there are always things that one might pick out here or there. But if you look at this compared to other countries, then I think that India has a long democratic tradition to be proud of.

But we’re looking more at the foreign policy aspect of this, and India was a founding contributor to the UN democracy fund, a member of the community of democracies.

It has been involved in quiet efforts at democracy promotion or consolidation in different countries ranging from Afghanistan to places in the Middle East. So, I think that, again, that’s a distinction between India and what you would see in other countries.

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Image: A woman casts her vote at a polling booth in Gujarat
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters

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'Need to take into account messiness of domestic politics in India, US'

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So, primarily, the focus of this concept is foreign policy, right?

That is true. We have looked at the potential for these countries to be active supporters of the international order. And we defined the international order as the non-proliferation order. It has basically five pillars -- the non-proliferation order, the trade order, the finance order, the maritime order, and the democracy and human rights order.

Obviously, their domestic behaviour impacts their foreign policy. But we were looking mainly at their external activity.

The Indo-US collaboration on civilian nuclear energy, which was said to be a very bold step towards bilateral cooperation, seems to have gone to the back burner, partly because of India’s domestic political compulsions.

If there are domestic compulsions that the government has to face in terms of its foreign policy decisions, how much do you think India can contribute to these collaborations?

The potential is great, but I think we also need to have strategic patience. If you look at both the United States and India, the great blessing is that they’re both democracies.

But democracies have some unique challenges as we saw with the civilian nuclear cooperation deal. Years now after that deal was signed, because of the liability law, we don’t have US companies active in the nuclear sector in India.

That’s something that we’re just going to have to take into account -- the messiness of domestic politics in both India and in the United States.

We’re going to have to have patience as we look to the role that India can play in the world, and the role of the US-India relationship.

I tend to be optimistic about both of those things. But it’s tempered by the realism that things are not going to necessarily happen overnight, and the relationship is going to take tending by policy makers and political leaders on both sides to keep it moving forward.

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Image: Kudankulam nuclear power project plant in Tamil Nadu
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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'It's in US's interest to have India engaged in the international scene'

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India is, as critics say, back-pedaling reforms at times. Do you think the US should still have interest in having India to collaborate with it on various issues under the Obama administration?

Yes. I think that it is in the American interest to have a strong, prosperous, and active India engaged in the international scene, and that American policy should be aimed at trying to continue to assist India’s rise while it forges a closer relationship between the United States and India.

India’s rise is good for the United States on a number of fronts. Like I said, we will have our periodic frustrations with the pace of the relationship due to the messiness of democracy on both sides. But I think the overall arc of the relationship is moving in the right direction.

You mentioned India’s relatively much better economic growth, probably in terms of GDP, in relation to other countries. Everybody knows these days that GDP has taken a beating.

With this falling GDP, and kind of a lack of reforms, how much influence can India wield in this new international order you are talking about?

I think it can wield a lot.

There are two components to the answer. One is India’s will to wield influence in the international order, which I think is growing, and that’s something that the United States should encourage. The second is its capacity to wield order.

If you look at, for example, the Indian military, it is going through a moderate innovation period, and a period of investments in the defense sector, which will give India greater potential to project power, and therefore, for example, in the maritime order, a greater ability to actively support that pillar of international order.

But you’re right. The bottom line is India’s prosperity and continued growth is intimately linked with its ability to actively support the international order.

That’s one of the reasons why American policy makers are watching so closely, whether there will be another round of economic reforms in India that will unleash another episode of higher economic growth and of course, the elections, and what comes out of the elections with respect to the reform agenda.

In many conversations with Indian policy makers, I have been told that they’re looking for inclusive growth, and that the aspiration for high economic growth has the result of reducing endemic poverty, and bringing people out of poverty, particularly in the rural areas, is a key driver of their economic strategies, but also, in a way, their foreign policy strategies as well.

If they sort of set up their foreign policy priorities with domestic development as the key driver, it’d be a mistake on the American side to lose sight of that.

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Image: US Vice President Joe Biden delivers an address at the Bombay Stock Exchange in Mumbai
Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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'India's entry to UN Security Council is a fairly difficult task'

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You said that India had taken a leading role in the international order for instance, in the United Nations, both in terms of peace keeping, and funding. But there is this issue of permanent membership of UN Security Council for countries like India, Brazil or South Africa.

Given that this concept of GSS is bought by policy makers in the US, which is one of the most important members of the P-Five, to what extent do you think would it facilitate India’s entry to the high table?

The Obama administration should be applauded for the bold steps that it took when President Obama announced, on the floor of the Indian Parliament, that the United States supports Indian membership in the UN Security Council.

I did a report with Ambassador Nicholas Burns before the President’s visit in which we endorsed that view that the United States should welcome India’s membership.

But actually achieving that membership is a fairly difficult task. I’ve been involved in foreign policy for some years, and have heard talk of reforming the UN security council for most of those years, and we’ve yet to see it.

We haven’t seen it since the 1940s. So, I think there’s going to be a number of obstacles that have very little to do with India, to actually achieving that.

I do think that the US administration made the right step in saying, look we recognise India’s weight in the world. And if there’s an enlarged UN Security Council, India should be a part of it.

So, well if you’re talking about the actual membership, I think you can be optimistic in the long term. But in the short run, I don’t know how great the prospects are for actual reform of the UN Security Council.

Image: The United Nations Security Council

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