India: The Global Bridge-Builder on the Ganges

Brückenbauer am Ganges 

Beitrag von Brahma Chellaney

Erschienen in: Ausgabe Juli/August 2008

Auf dem Weg zu einer multipolaren Weltordnung tun sich Brüche auf: Die ressourcenhungrigen Schwellenländer beuten die wirtschaftlich Abgehängten aus. In Asien verbünden sich demokratische Staaten gegen autokratische Regime. Indien kann dank seiner demokratischen, konsensgeprägten Traditionen helfen, diese Spaltungen zu überwinden.

…ie Weltordnung ist noch nicht multipolar und nicht mehr unipolar. Amerika hat es in dem Jahrzehnt seit dem Zusammenbruch der Sowjetunion bis zum Ende der neunziger Jahre verpasst, unter seiner Ägide eine liberale Weltordnung zu etablieren. Das mag die Vermutung nahe legen, die heutige sei eine nichtpolare Ordnung, in der vielfältige Bündnisse zwischen verschiedenen Akteuren der strategische Imperativ sind. Aber durch das Auftreten neuer Protagonisten auf der geopolitischen Bühne ist es nur eine …

English version:

Bridge-builder on the Ganges

India’s Ascent in a Rapidly Changing Global Order

Brahma Chellaney | New global fault lines are evident as power — economic and political — has shifted eastward. Yet, the current international structures shun this reality — to their own peril. As a conduit between the East and West, India can help promote collaboration and consensus.

Internationale Politik, Vol. 7-8 (2008)

While the world is not yet multipolar, it is no longer unipolar, as it had been from the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse to at least the end of the 1990s — a period in which America failed to fashion a new liberal world order under its direction. What we have today is a world still in transition. This may appear to some as a nonpolar world in which multiple engagements between and among different actors have become a strategic imperative. But with the emergence of new players in the geopolitical marketplace, it is only a matter of time before multipolarity begins to characterize the international order.

The ongoing power shifts are primarily linked to Asia’s phenomenal economic rise, the speed and scale of which has no parallel in world history. Seat of ancient civilizations and home to the majority of the world’s population, Asia is bouncing back after a relatively short period of decline. Asia’s share of the world’s economy totaled 60 percent in 1820 at the advent of the industrial revolution. It then went into sharp decline over the next 125 years. Today, it already accounts for 40 percent of global production — a figure that could, according to some projections, rise to 60 percent within the next quarter of a century.

The shifts in economic and political power foretell a much different world — a world characterized by a greater distribution of power, but also by new uncertainties. As history testifies, tectonic shifts in power are rarely quiet. Such shifts usually create volatility in the international system, even if such instability is short-lived. The new international divisiveness may reflect such a reality. Indeed, with the revolution in technology over the past 25 years, we live in a world of rapid change. But unlike in past history, the qualitative reordering of power now underway is due not to battlefield victories or military realignments but to a peaceful factor unique to the modern world: rapid economic growth.

The paradox is that the power shifts are happening even as the United States remains the world’s sole superpower and thus militarily preeminent. Yet the reality is that after the triumphalism of the 1990s, this decade has helped underscore an erosion of US soft and hard power, with many seeing Iraq, Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and the Middle East muddle as symbols of such decline. In an era of greater international fluidity as well as political and financial turbulence, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted, “Whenever Americans start talking about idealism and optimism, international audiences groan.”[1]

Today’s international divisiveness, in part, mirrors the reality that power and influence are no longer one and the same in international relations. Despite its preeminence, the United States’ influence has been on the decline — a trend unlikely to be reversed even with a new administration in Washington. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the United States to set the international agenda on its own or just with its traditional allies. To secure issue-based support, the United States now has to reach out to states beyond its network of traditional allies. At the same time, one must concede that, for the foreseeable future, the United States is likely to remain the most decisive force in international politics and security.

Another factor has also contributed to the divisiveness: While we know the world is in transition, we still do not know what the new order will look like. The impasse or lack of movement on key international issues, therefore, should not come as a surprise. These issues include climate change, nuclear disarmament, international terrorism, global pandemics, and the Doha round of world trade talks. The most pressing challenges today are international in nature and thus demand international responses or solutions. Yet the existing international institutions, including the United Nations, are proving inadequate to deal with such global challenges, in part because such institutions no longer reflect the prevailing power structure. Their representational deficit, and the ensuing impact on their capacity to play an effective, forward-looking role, have become glaring.

The more the world changes, however, the more it remains the same in some critical aspects. The information age and globalization, despite spurring profound changes in polity, economy and security, have not altered the nature of international relations. In fact, the rapid pace of technological and economic change is itself a consequence of nations competing fiercely and seeking relative advantage in an international system based largely on national security.

Nearly a century after chemical arms were introduced in World War I and more than six decades following the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world is at the threshold of new lethal and precision weapons, as underlined by the ongoing research on lasers, information weapons, space-based platforms, anti-satellite weapons, and directed energy systems. Technological forces are now shaping geopolitics and power equations in ways unforeseen before in history.

We live in a Hobbesian world, with power coterminous with national security and success. The past century was the most momentous in history technologically, with innovations fostering not just rapid economic change, but bringing greater lethality to warfare. Consequently, the 20th century was the bloodiest. Weapons of mass destruction and missiles came to occupy a central military role. In the new century, the advance of technology and the absence of relevant safeguards or regimes evoke possible scenarios of deadly information and space warfare. Such are the challenges from the accelerated weaponization of science that instead of disarmament, rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to outer space.

Once the economic power structure changes internationally, shifts in military power will inevitably follow, even if in stages. Seen against the ongoing changes, the transatlantic order of the past 60 years will have to give way to a truly international order. The new order, unlike the current one founded on the ruins of a world war, will have to be established in an era of international peace and thus be designed to reinforce that peace. That means it will need to be more reflective of the consensual needs of today and have a democratic decision-making structure.

Until that happens, the new global fault lines will continue to signal rising geopolitical risks. The tensions between internationalism and nationalism in an era of a supposed single “global village,” for instance, have raised troubling questions about international peace and stability. With greater public awareness from advances in information and communications technologies encouraging individuals and even some states to more clearly define that identity in terms of religion and ethnicity, a divide has emerged between multiculturalism and artificially enforced monoculturalism. The rise of international terrorism shows that increased access to information is both an integrating and dividing force.

The political, economic, and security divides are no less invidious. The world is moving beyond the North-South divide to a four-tier economic division: the prosperous West; rapidly growing economies like those in Asia; countries that have run into stagnation after reaching middle-income nation status; and a forgotten billion people living on the margins of globalization in sub-Saharan Africa. These marginalized people have no stake in globalization. The international neglect of Africa has created a vacuum that China has sought to exploit by aggressively building commercial and political links with a number of African states.

There is also a global resource divide, with the resource-hungry employing aid and arms exports as a diplomatic instrument for commodity outreach. As the specter of resource conflict has grown, the contours of a 21st-century version of the Great Game have emerged in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Competition over oil and gas resources, driven by rapid economic growth in Asia, indeed constitutes one key dimension of the emerging Great Game.

The ongoing global shifts in economic power are manifest from the changes occurring in the energy and materials sectors, with the growth in demand moving from the developed to the developing world, principally Asia. Energy prices are going to stay high and volatile for the foreseeable future, given these shifts and the soaring demand in countries like China and India, which together are projected to double their oil demand between 2003 and 2020. However, despite the total consumption of energy in the Asia-Pacific having grown by 70 percent between 1992 and 2005, per capita energy consumption is still relatively low by international standards: 749 kilogram of oil equivalent in 2005, compared with the global average of 1,071. Not only will per capita consumption grow sharply in Asia, “on the supply side, Asia’s strong demand environment for energy and basic materials, coupled with its low labor costs, means that the region will increasingly become a global producer of aluminum, chemicals, paper, and steel.”[2]

Slaking the tremendous thirst of the fast-growing Asian economies and meeting the huge demands of the old economic giants in the West are at the core of the great energy dilemma facing the world in the 21st century. Finding an energy “fix” has become imperative if the Asian and other emerging economies are to continue to grow impressively and if the prosperous countries are to head off a slump. Such a fix would have to be rooted in three essential elements: low-cost, preferably renewable alternatives to fossil fuels; greater energy efficiency; and minimizing or eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions. The ongoing structural shifts in global energy markets carry important long-term political and economic implications, in addition to challenging the stability of these markets.

Also, with the rise of unconventional transnational challenges, a new security divide is mirrored both in the failure to fashion a concerted and effective international response to such threats, including transnational terrorism, and the divisiveness on issues like climate change. Efforts are needed to bridge the divide between the traditional security threats and the new unconventional threats that are increasingly the focus of international attention and concern.

Yet another global divide is centered on political values. At a time when a qualitative reordering of power is reshaping international equations, major players are playing down the risk that contrasting political systems could come to constitute the main geopolitical dividing line, potentially pitting an axis of autocracies against a constellation of democracies. The refrain of the players is that pragmatism, not political values, would guide their foreign-policy strategy. Yet the new Great Game under way plays up regime character as a key element.

Ordinarily, the readiness to play by international rules ought to matter more than regime form. But regime character often makes playing by the rules difficult. In modern history, the fault line between democrats and autocrats has at times been papered over through a common geopolitical interest. But today the failure to build greater political homogeneity by defining shared international objectives carries the risk that, in the years ahead, political values could become the main geopolitical dividing line.

It is well established that democracies rarely go to war with each other, even though democratic governments may not be more wedded to peace than autocracies. What role outsiders can play to help democracy take root, however, remains a difficult issue internationally. Yet that issue looms large in relation to Asia. Unlike Europe where democracy has become the norm, only 16 of Asia’s 39 countries surveyed by Freedom House are really free.[3] And as shown by the World Press Freedom Index by the Paris-based international rights group, Reporters Without Borders, a number of Asian countries are among the worst suppressors of freedom, with North Korea ranked at the very bottom of the 167-nation list, Burma 163rd, China 159th, Vietnam 158th, Laos and Uzbekistan 155th, Bangladesh 151st, Pakistan 150th, Singapore 140th and the Philippines 139th.[4]

With the Asia-Pacific region becoming more divided in the face of conflicting strategic cultures, major democracies are likely to be increasingly drawn together to help advance political cooperation and stability through a community of values. It can hardly be overlooked that China’s best friends are fellow autocracies, including pariah states, while those seeking to forestall power disequilibrium in the Asia-Pacific happen to be on the other side of the values-based divide. In that light, political values could easily come to define a new geopolitical divide.

What may seem implausible globally, given America’s lingering tradition of propping up dictators in the Arab-Islamic world, is thus conceivable in the Asia-Pacific theater as a natural corollary to the present geopolitics. It was China that took the lead in 2001 to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to help unite it with Eurasian strongmen in a geopolitical alliance. Designed originally to bring the Central Asian nations under the Chinese sphere of influence, the SCO is today shaping up as a potential “NATO of the East.” Yet, when Australia, India, Japan, and the United States started the exploratory Quadrilateral Initiative in 2007,[5] Beijing was quick to cry foul and see the apparition of an “Asian NATO.” A Chinese diplomatic protest to each Quad nation followed.

The Quad, founded on the historically valid hypothesis of democratic peace, was supposed to serve as an initial framework to promote security dialogue and interlinked partnerships among major Pacific Rim democracies. Such collaboration is already being built. As an idea, the Quad will not only survive the current vicissitudes, but it also foreshadows what is likely to come. But for the divergent geopolitical interests at play, the differing political values would not matter so much.

More broadly, there is need to improve global geopolitics by building cooperative political approaches that transcend institutions whose structure is rooted in a world that no longer exists. The reality is that just as the G-8, to stay relevant, has initiated the so-called Outreach for dialogue with the emerging powers, the five unelected yet permanent members of the UN Security Council can no longer dictate terms to the rest of the world and need to share executive authority with new powers.

It was a mistake to believe that greater economic interdependence by itself would improve geopolitics. In today’s market-driven world, trade is not constrained by political differences, nor is booming trade a guarantee of moderation and restraint between states.

Better politics is as important as better economics. That requires several major steps whose initiation so far has been frustrated: institutional reforms; greater transparency in strategic doctrines and military expenditures; and cooperative approaches on shared concerns. No international mission today can yield enduring results unless it comes with consistency and credibility and is backed by consensus — the three crucial “Cs.”

Against this background, what role can India play? India’s growing geopolitical weight, high GDP growth rate, and abundant market opportunities have helped increase its international profile. It is widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging order.

Given the greater political and financial volatility in the world, geopolitical risks today are higher. As a “swing” geopolitical factor, India has the potential to play a constructive role to help mitigate those risks by promoting collaborative international approaches. It is obvious that new thinking and approaches are needed to bridge the global fault lines and build great international cooperation and consensus on the larger geopolitical issues.

India has important advantages that it could exploit to play the role of a bridge between the East and West. Not only is it the world’s largest democracy, India also is the most diverse country. With a sixth of humanity living within its borders, India is more linguistically diverse than even Europe. India is where old traditions go hand-in-hand with post modernity, epitomized by the image of electronic voting machines being carried to a village balloting station atop an elephant.

India also has its constraints. Its neighborhood is more combustible than ever, with an arc of failing or problem states posing serious security-related challenges. Democracy may be India’s biggest asset. But Indian democracy tends to function by the rule of parochial politics. Putting a forward-looking national agenda ahead of parochial short-term politics is not easy. Furthermore, partly due to its historical experiences, the Indian state is intrinsically cautious and shy rather than proactive.

Yet India has a long, historical record of playing a mainstream, cooperative role in international affairs. With its wealth of philosophy and a culture emphasizing compromise, conciliation, and creativity, India views the world as a stage not for civilizational wars but for building bridges and meeting common challenges. Over the centuries, Indian civilization has thrived on synthesis. This ability to synthesize is one of the great strengths that India needs to employ internationally.

It is such traditions that explain, for example, why India lacks the US zeal to export democracy. Instead it looks at democracy in practical terms, as “the most effective means to reconcile the polyglot components of the state,” according to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He notes: “India, striving neither to spread its culture nor its institutions, is thus not a comfortable partner [of the United States] for global ideological missions.”[6]

Yet India will continue to pride itself as a model of a non-Western democracy. While the concepts of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are normally associated with the West, India can claim ancient traditions bestowing respect to such values. As the 1998 Nobel economics laureate, Amartya Sen, has said, “A good example is the Emperor Ashoka in India, who during the 3rd century B.C. covered the country with inscriptions on stone tablets about good behavior and wise governance, including a demand for basic freedoms for all — indeed he did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle did…”[7] According to economist Sen, “The claim that the basic ideas underlying freedom and tolerance have been central to Western culture over the millennia and are somehow alien to Asia is, I believe, entirely rejectable.”

Another issue relates to India’s role in helping shape a stable balance of power. At a time of warming US-Indian relations, too much is made about America’s desire to use India to hold China in check. A durable US-Indian partnership can be built not on strategic opportunism but on shared national interests. Shared interests mean far more than shared democratic values. It appears unlikely that India would allow itself to be used as a foil against another power.

In the coming years, India will increasingly be aligned with the West economically. But, strategically, it can avail of multiple options, even as it moves from the nonalignment of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to a contemporary, globalized practicality. Given the new international equations and power shifts, nonalignment in its original form holds no relevance today. But many Indians believe that the concept of following an independent foreign policy is still relevant.

In keeping with this long-standing preference for policy independence, India is likely to retain the option to forge different partnerships with varied players to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings. That means that from being nonaligned, it is likely to become multialigned, while tilting more towards Washington even as it preserves the core element of nonalignment — strategic autonomy. In other words, India is likely to continue to chart its own course and make its own major decisions. A multialigned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to advance its interests and promote cooperative international approaches in the changed world.

In the Asian context, India’s interests lie in ensuring that strategic competition among the key players does not deteriorate into a major geopolitical confrontation. The deepening mistrust and nationalistic chauvinism in Asia threaten to create conditions that could seriously harm the interests of all the states. The common challenge thus is to find ways to minimize mutual mistrust and maximize avenues for reciprocally beneficial cooperation. But this can be done not by shying away from the contentious issues in Asia but by seeking to tackle them in a practical way.

India cannot but be concerned about the way the energy competition is beginning to make Asian geopolitics murkier. What is striking is that the new flurry of alliance formation or partnerships in Asia is being led by Asia’s rising powers, not by the United States, which has policed Asia since the end of World War II. In that light, Asian cooperation and security will be very much influenced by the equations between and among the major players. The need to secure stable energy supplies will drive the major players to increasingly integrate their energy policy with foreign policy, as they consciously promote diplomatic strategies geared toward seizing energy-related opportunities overseas.

Energy-driven competition must not be allowed to aggravate interstate rivalries. Mercantilist efforts to assert control over oil and natural gas supplies and transport routes certainly risk fuelling tensions. Given the lack of regional institutions in Asia to avert or manage conflict, the sharpening energy geopolitics makes the need for Asian energy cooperation more pressing. A challenge for India, China, and the other important Asian economies is to manage their energy needs through more efficient transport and consumption and more cooperative import policies. Multinational cooperation on the security of sea lanes is essential to avert strategic friction in Asia. Where maritime claims overlap, the answer to any such dispute cannot be unilateral drilling or production by one side. Disputes over what are legitimate zones of energy exploration in open seas need to be managed through an agreed code of conduct.

In an increasingly interdependent Asia, the interests of India, China, Japan and other players can hardly be advanced if they are seen as engaged in efforts to reduce the promotion of security to a zero-sum game. In fact, as the three main Asian powers, India, China, and Japan can set a model for other states in Asia by establishing stable political relationships that put the accent on mutually beneficial cooperation. Without these powers taking the lead, it may not be possible to deal with the increasingly complex security, energy, and development challenges facing Asia. Deterrence, stability, and peace have been at the heart of Asia’s growing dynamism and prosperity. These elements need to be preserved and strengthened to help fully ripen the Asian renaissance.

The challenges the world confronts today are unique. The issues are new — ranging from accelerating global warming to uncontained international terrorism — and their reach is truly global. In past history, the competition for a balance of power was centered on Europe. Even the Cold War was not really an East-West rivalry but a competition between two blocs over Europe. For the first time, we are facing the task of building power equilibrium across the world while simultaneously having to both adjust to new power shifts and deal with transnational challenges.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. His latest book is Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

[1] US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Keynote Address at the World Economic Forum meeting, Davos, January 23, 2008,

[2] Ivo J. H. Bozon, Warren J. Campbell, and Mats Lindstrand, “Global Trends in Energy,” The McKinsey Quarterly, Number 1 (2007), p. 48.

[3] Freedom in the World (Freedom House, 2006).

[4] Reporters Without Borders, “World Press Freedom Index,”

[5] The Quadrilateral Initiative was not intended to be a formal institution. However, the Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, in an article has said: “As president, I will seek to institutionalize the new quadrilateral security partnership among the major Asia-Pacific democracies: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.” McCain also has larger ambitions: A “worldwide League of Democracies” that could be a “unique handmaiden of freedom.” John McCain, “An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2007).

[6]Henry A. Kissinger, “Anatomy of a Partnership,” Tribune Media Services, March 10, 2006.

[7] Amartya Sen, “East and West: The Reach of Reason,” The New York Review of Books, July 20, 2000.

(Internationale Politik is Germany’s leading foreign-affairs monthly published by the German Council on Foreign Relations.)

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