Shashi Tharoor’s New Book Explains India’s Potential To Become A ‘Major Global Power’

The liberal order of the world is facing a moment of crisis. As globalization is being confronted by nationalist economics in several countries, and many strong leaders of the world are exploiting the grievances of citizens (whether imagined or real) to discard global ideals and champion local interests, it has become more important than before, for United Nations to function as the keystone of international peace and security.

However, according to Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran’s latest book, The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative, since its inception post Second World War, there had been many instances in which the United Nations has failed in its responsibility of peacekeeping, and have been complicit in its dominant members’ ambitions to wage wars for ulterior geopolitical interests. The book states:

The central challenge is perhaps the very institutional architecture of the UN, which places the responsibility for international peace and security on the five Permanent Members of the Security Council and makes their decisions binding on the rest. The end result is that the victors of World War II retain a monopoly over violence and conflict…

The question of peace and security goes well beyond how larger powers have ignored the United Nations when they see fit. There is also the question of how interventions have and haven’t taken place. Even well-meaning interventions, sometimes sanctioned by the UN, and other times made irrespective of UN decision-making, have often been prompted by the geopolitical interests of a few states.

In Panama, the Gulf War, in Kosovo or in Haiti, the US, either acting alone, or in consonance with its NATO allies, intervened to ostensibly protect humanitarian interests. However, not all events have prompted equally strong responses. While the politics of selective interventionism has, more often than not, led to more devastation than was sought to be addressed, UN inaction has produced equally adverse results. In April 1995, this question was brought into sharp relief by events in Burundi. The then United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, spent weeks urging governments to take preventive action; though some steps were taken by the Security Council, notably through the dispatch of a mission to take stock of the situation and the issuance of a presidential statement calling for restraint, they did not prove enough to prevent a looming tragedy. Similar examples occurred in other crises. Where powerful nations did not see their interests directly engaged, efforts were not pursued with seriousness, resources and certainly not with troops.

Tharoor and Saran’s book is a comprehensive study of the emerging world order in the 21st century, and it delves into several issues that the world is facing today — be it the scepticism with which the West, especially America, is viewing the rise of Eastern nations or the politics around climate change, and the war to control cyberspace. The authors argue that India has a major role to play in shaping the regimes the world in future, given its size, growing clout, and stake in practically every major multilateral organization. The book cites:

The current international order has significantly helped India’s economic growth while meeting its trade, energy, and security interests. As a result, India now has a stake in practically every major multilateral regime, and its own self-interest can no longer be seen as isolated from the state of affairs around the world. In other words, India must influence the international order, if only to protect its own interests. It is, therefore, crucial to understand the many pressures and demands that it will have to contend with at home and as an actor in the international system. An interrogation of such expectations will be important to understand the ‘Indian imperatives’.

For one thing, India has outlined a goal to achieve a $5 trillion economy by 2024. Despite occasional hiccups along the way, the resilience of India’s economic institutions and structural macro-economic trends appear certain to support this trajectory. The uncertainty, then, lies in the global economic system. In other words, India’s ability to successfully emerge as a global economic power is dependent on its capacity to create an environment of certainty and predictability in global financial and economic regimes. And while India is increasingly a consequential geopolitical actor, its geo-economic priorities and postures remain nascent and underdeveloped. This will perhaps be the most crucial Indian imperative. Delhi must now reimagine its own role and stake in global economic governance to pursue its national interests. Its self-imagination as a leading power must reflect in its trade and economic conversations as well.

Second, India is yet to complete the twentieth-century project of building social and physical infrastructure even as it must leverage twenty-first century opportunities in the fourth industrial revolution and attendant digital shifts. These are both complex structural transformations, and India will need to engage and partner with different sets of stakeholders to satisfy the governance demands of both. To build hard infrastructure, for instance, India will rely on finance from bilateral partners from East Asia and multilateral institutions like the ADB, AIIB, and NDB (where India and China are substantive stakeholders).

Meanwhile, India will likely partner with hubs of technology like the EU, Israel, Japan, and the US to strengthen its technological prowess. However, given global tensions along the lines of technology, finance, and trade, satisfying this imperative will require India to defend and preserve its room to manoeuvre. India cannot afford to sit by as these global arrangments fragment. India must not allow a situation to arise where it will have to make choices about the partners it engages with. A satisfactory regime of the future should allow a robust partnership with OECD countries and an intimate and beneficial partnership with rising powers such as China.

Third, India recognizes that it must slowly shed its role as the leader of the global trade union and sit at the management table. To a large extent, this process is already underway. In the late twentieth century, India was a leading member of the G77, comprised entirely of developing states. At the turn of the century, India was inducted into the G20, a gathering of the world’s twenty largest economies.

Most recently, in 2019, India was invited as a special guest to the G7, an elite group of mostly Western developed economies. These developments suggest that there is both a demand for India’s stake in global governance and a realization in New Delhi that undertaking this responsibility is an Indian imperative. As India’s stake in global institutions and processes deepens, so too must its voice in the management of international affairs. Delhi must invest in consensus-building and in support of multilateral efforts and solutions to address global challenges. To do this, India will have to work with constituencies that believe in multilateralism such as the EU and other international institutions that defend and serve a rules-based order.

Finally, India will assume the mantle of the largest liberal democratic economy by mid-century. This designation will bring with it expectations and demands from the world. Put another way, leadership will be thrust upon India, whether it desires it or not. Delhi must recognize now that the preserving the liberal international order will be in India’s national interest. It certainly works in India’s favour that it is still an emerging power. It is not burdened by the anti-incumbency sentiments that most large powers must contend with. However, this period of opportunity is narrowing for India.

Already, Delhi has made clear its ambition of becoming a ‘leading power’ in the international system. The question is: does India have the will, capacity, and ideas to do so? Great powers provide solutions and roadmaps for others. India as a leading power must take this challenge and deliver on it, for its own sake and to help achieve the global ambition of a better world. From a global perspective, India seems primed to take on this role.

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