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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 8 New Delhi February 10, 2018

Win some, lose some: Carving a Diplomatic Pathway for India

Tuesday 13 February 2018

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

The recent victory by India in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a significant diplomatic victory, literally erasing the setback on the Masood Azhar case in the UN Security Council (UNSC) a month ago. The ephemeral pleasures notwithstanding, as many as nine members of the UNSC were ganged up against India, including the permanent members and other developed countries until the penultimate round of voting. India, therefore, needs a saleable and sustainable diplomatic narrative to overcome resistance from established powers and match its teleology as a rising great power.

Perhaps the most desirable reward for India would be a permanent seat in the UNSC. However, not much development has taken place despite promises, alliances, pressure group politics and the protracted debates on benchmarking. India is also under-represented in most international institutions and decision-making bodies in economic, security and scientific-cultural organisations. Not a single UN or any other international body is headquartered in New Delhi or anywhere in India. We don’t even have a ‘Davos’ kind of venue to host regular international summits. Therefore, basking in the ICJ victory amounts to ‘missing the wood for the trees’.

India’s under-achievement on the diplomatic front is partly explained by its hotch-potch profile in international relations. According to the American Interest magazine website, India is placed at the sixth position on cumulative ranking of great powers. It is also the sixth largest economy in the world with a nominal GDP of $ 2.45 trillion, just marginally behind the UK which is a $ 2.5 trillion economy. However, on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis, India has a GDP of $ 9.49 trillion, and is placed much ahead of the UK’s $ 2.5 trillion. India is also the fourth largest military power. However, the Indian share in global trade is less than two per cent. India also does not figure in the top thirty countries of soft power ranking prepared by the USC Centre on Public Diplomacy, Portland, USA.

The above examples are just representative; we miss out on many benchmarks of great power ranking and, therefore, lack the persuasive power to solicit intended outcomes in international relations. Additionally, as former US Ambassador to India Robert D. Blackwill says, ‘gone are those days when economic affairs used to take a back seat behind political and military issues. The theater of contest as well as engagement has shifted to geoeconomics in contemporary international relations.’ Despite a rising economic profile, India still does not have the manifestations or the instrumentalities of being an effective player of geoeconomics. Perhaps that explains why we are yet to firm up our response to the Chinese master-stroke of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

India, therefore, needs a three pronged diplomatic pathway. First, all diplomatic energies should be aimed at seeking comprehensive national power (CNP) for India. Right from independence, India has been playing the diplomatic pied piper; only that nobody followed us. The hollowness of our diplomatic appeal lay in the absence of hard core economic, military and technological prowess. As Bharat Karnad lays it quite bare in his book (Why India is not a Great Power, 2015), ‘soft power alone will not propel India into the great power club or that Bollywood dance or drama, or touring sitar-strummers and classical dance troupes will make much of a difference’. India needs a non-conflictual environment in and around it so as to concentrate on developmental efforts. Diplomacy can serve as the most cost-effective defence mechanism and enable India to manoeuvre its rise without great power conflicts.

Second, diplomatic engagement, even with rivals, is recommended for a semblance of harmony. Vibrant diplomatic strategy can dilute coercion, and promote cooperation and ethical conduct in immediate neighbourhood and wider inter-national relations. Rather than getting into the trap of individual diplomatic successes and failures, India should use them as building blocks to consolidate the diplomatic outreach. As Anne - Marie Slaughter would advise in her recent book (The Chessboardand the Web, 2017), ‘we no longer need to win, but we do need to be seen and recognised, to belong, to matter, to share and participate’. India, therefore, must reach out to all: declining great powers like the UK and France and neighbourhood rivals like China and Pakistan.

Third, India needs to overcome the structural constraints in diplomatic outreach. Many parts of the world do not have diplomatic representation from India. There are simply too many Afro-Asian and Latin American countries which would like to have mutually beneficial relations with India but miss out being in our company. Therefore, India needs to expand the diplomatic chessboard to small and marginal countries and engage them in mutually advantageous relationships. The network or connectography in a world of complex interdependence should not be symbolic but a comprehensive and meaningful one where large number of countries have ‘stakes’ in building relations with India.

The ICJ victory could well be a result of India’s diplomatic mustering and perhaps reflects the power transition in international relations. But the momentary gain needs to be iterated across the spectrum and the outcome made more predictable in future diplomatic games. That is possible only when India’s economic empowerment is complete and the country emerges as a true economic, military and technological great power with lasting impact on international relations.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed here are personal.

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