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Amid Hard Times for Multilateralism, New Delhi Triumphant Over G20 Presidency

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Amid Hard Times for Multilateralism, New Delhi Triumphant Over G20 Presidency

India may be optimistic about its G-20 presidency, but the prospects for a transformative multilateralism are currently dim.

Amid Hard Times for Multilateralism, New Delhi Triumphant Over G20 Presidency

A man walks past a display made as part of a G20 working group meeting the city is hosting in Lucknow, India, Sunday, Feb.12, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

As India takes up the mantle of the G-20 presidency with a year-long series of meetings starting up, it is difficult not to notice the triumphant mood in New Delhi. In a December interaction with university students, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar outlined his desire to elevate the summitry from a drab government affair to a festival. The elite foreign policy commentariat in New Delhi sees the G-20 presidency as heralding the arrival of India on the world stage as a pre-eminent power. The sense of optimism and the renewed agency is unmistakably prevalent in the op-ed pages as the mandatory cursory references to the worsening geopolitical environment and global macroeconomic strains are invariably followed by a laundry list of policy proposals that India would do well to implement.

The Difficulty of Multilateral Cooperation

The increased salience of India’s deft diplomacy has been reinforced by its prominent role in hammering out the joint statement at the Bali summit amidst the friction generated by the war in Ukraine. Without downsizing the value of New Delhi’s efforts, however, those events reveal the pessimistic prospects for transformative multilateralism: If so much diplomatic capital is spent just on finding common ground in terms of perfunctory statements, what hopes is there for more significant action?

The multilateral body’s response to the economic and health crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has been delayed and unsatisfactory and stands in stark contrast to the coordinated response during the 2008 financial crisis. It also does not help that consensus-based decision-making and lack of effective enforcement mechanisms lead to the watering down of policy measures. Critiques have also railed against overreach in terms of the multilateral body’s agenda moving beyond macroeconomic management.

The success of New Delhi’s plan to position itself in the multilateral forum as a consensus builder, provider of digital public goods, and the voice of Global South is likely to be contingent upon factors beyond its control. Marked by a return of great power competition, the structural signals are not exactly amenable to multilateral cooperation which does not bode well for New Delhi’s optimism. While the G-20 positions itself as a forum to discuss economic cooperation, the possibility of the spillover of geopolitical tensions among great powers into other areas belies such neat separation. Great power competition does not necessarily preclude cooperation in international forums, but it certainly makes substantive cooperation much more difficult to achieve as relative gains concerns take precedence, threat perceptions are heightened, and balancing prerogatives take over in non-military issue areas as well. 

For all the talk of reformed multilateralism and efforts at building a favorable consensus around it, for instance, India has been unable to get a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council because of Chinese intransigence and maneuvering by Pakistan. Along with a pessimist economic outlook, the war in Ukraine and U.S.-China competition only make it more difficult to achieve consensus on concessionary multilateral measures involving costly contributions on the part of individual nation-states. 

The dysfunctional track record of multilateral bodies’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak due to great power competition is a sign of things to come. While a move away from the erratic Trump presidency under the current administration in the U.S. might serve to assuage concerns about the worst kind of breakdown, the Biden administration has only turned the heat up in terms of competing with China and did not offer new access to U.S. markets to trade partners under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

The Federal Reserve’s monetary tightening only serves to intensify the pain for developing countries. Apart from its lack of cooperation with authorities in sharing details of the COVID-19 outbreak and the famed “Wolf Warrior” diplomatic hectoring, China has also been reluctant to provide substantial debt relief measures to developing countries. Beset by the double whammy of successive lockdowns earlier and the recent outbreak of cases, unsound Chinese economic fundamentals also seem to preclude substantive support from Beijing to shore up green financing and debt distress relief in the short term.

Even on issues like climate change where cooperation is desirable, multilateral efforts are likely to be scuttled by considerations of great power competition and incompatible state interests. As Paul Poast has noted, climate change is likely to produce winners in the short term and the immediate losers are mostly small and developing countries. Conflicting interests would make for less ambitious pledges and measures in multilateral forums. Further, the challenge of spillover in terms of geopolitical tensions affecting climate negotiations cannot be overlooked. In August last year, China suspended bilateral collaboration with the U.S. over climate change in the wake of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. While talks were resumed a few months later, the incident underscores the earlier point about the salience of geopolitical rivalry and the future likelihood of issue spillover.

Renewed Third World Agency?

Positioning India as a swing power and deftly navigating between the West and Russia in the Ukraine war, Jaishankar is obviously not oblivious to the strains coming from operating in a constrained geopolitical environment. In fact, the Jaishankar doctrine is premised on “advancing national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions.” New Delhi, in this view, should use proactive diplomacy to extract as many gains as possible from this competition in a single-minded pursuit of national interest, even if it leads to seemingly contradictory positions. 

Jaishankar’s views find resonance in analytical accounts stressing the renewed agency of developing countries in the form of new non-alignment. As the West gears itself up to compete against a potential Eurasian hegemon and a revanchist troublemaker, developing nations face the painful choice of picking sides and bearing the unintended consequences of the competition. On the other hand, the competition also opens up the scope for rising, swing powers to extract concessions from both sides in the case of renewed agency. India and Brazil’s handling of the Ukraine war and Western sanctions reflect this return to a hard-nosed non-alignment.

However, the track record of the non-aligned bloc in the Cold War should serve as a cautionary note for this somewhat wishful progressive reading of geopolitical alignments. As C. Raja Mohan noted astutely, internal or external security challenges meant that the postcolonial solidarity and Cold War neutrality soon gave way to alignment with one side or another for balancing or regime survival imperatives. For one, India’s proximity to and territorial dispute with China means it can’t play one side against another with equal poise, as was the case in the Soviet-U.S. competition. Other developing nations might well be able to extract concessions from a West constrained by the compulsion of relative power shift and concerned about the alignment of swinging powers, but it need not translate into ambitious multilateral initiatives required to meet pressing challenges.

The new era of strategic competition is likely to lead to partial decoupling, economic blocs, friend-shoring of supply chains, and a splinternet. The delivery of global public goods by way of multilateral arrangements involving competing great powers will increasingly be stymied by the reshaping of the global economic order in a way that leaves less room for maneuvering for developing nations.

Playing the Status Game

While the constrained structural environment does not bode well for multilateral engagement, India’s G-20 presidency has also come under criticism for playing the status game. The argument goes that India’s obsession with enhancing its stature on the global stage by taking the mantle of Global South leadership and playing the role of mediator amidst warring factions serves as a distraction. The diplomatic efforts invested in this role play as a responsible stakeholder only serve as a distraction from the pressing security needs of countering Chinese aggression. Seen in the context of India’s relatively small diplomatic corps and overall capability differential, the priorities require a course correction. 

Without denying the urgency to meet the China challenge, this line of argument seems to misread New Delhi’s intentions. Certainly, prestige is a consideration in the Indian strategic worldview, but effective multilateral cooperation on transnational problems to create an enabling environment for India’s developmental aspirations seems to be the more urgent and overarching driver of India’s G-20 presidency. That geopolitical competition makes it harder to achieve substantive results is an altogether different issue. India’s efforts at engaging the Global South can also be read instrumentally in terms of pursuing shared self-interest and courting favorable treatment in multilateral forums. 

Further, the timing of the G-20 presidency and the Modi government’s past track record of using foreign policy for electoral gains point to the less talked about potential domestic drivers of India’s international engagement. Without giving an official justification, India postponed its presidential term by a year in 2020. While the COVID-19 disruption might be a possible reason for India’s reluctance to hold the summit, the impact of the year-long events on domestic politics also warrants attention

In light of the growing salience of foreign policy in electoral politics, the Modi government’s narrative of India as a vishwaguru – a global teacher – and an assertive actor on the world stage will be reinforced by the presidency, which will soon be followed by national elections. The vigor with which the administration and ruling party have conducted G-20 side events engaging youngsters in the form of youth chaupal and university connect serves to underscore the point. India’s hosting of stakeholder meetings across almost 50 cities not only amounts to marketing India to the world but also serves to generate domestic awareness of the high-profile engagement which can be milked for electoral gain. It is in this sense that the concerns with status relate to India’s G-20 presidency.