Brookings India Column: Changing Dynamics of International Relations

4 Mar

Courtesy of Brookings India

Key Insights:

  • Global leadership is severely lacking, even though the world is no longer unipolar and there are a number of emerging powers
  • Regions that lack integration and non-state actors continue to undermine global security and stability
  • Environment challenges need to become a priority in international relations, and must be approached with a new mindset
  • While the relation between India and China is competitive, the two countries have several opportunities to collaborate on global issues

2014 is going to see some very significant changes in South Asia with implications for national priorities, regional arrangements, and the emerging global order.  In the context of such transitions, Brookings India hosted three prominent foreign policy experts, Ambassadors Husain Haqqani, Kishore Mahbubani, and Shyam Saran, to discuss their perspectives on the current global landscape, and how they see South Asia – and indeed India – fitting into this setting.

On the whole, the panel agreed that there was much to be optimistic about the current global order.  Ambassador Mahbubani provided some statistics to support this optimism: the number of people dying in interstate wars is the lowest that it has ever been; the world is on the verge of achieving total elimination of absolutely poverty by 2030; and there is a vast explosion of middle classes all over the world – in Asia for instance, the middle class will increase from 500 million today to 1.75 billion in 2020. The make-up of the international order is also manifestly different than it was a few years ago, in that there is no longer any one country that dominates the world.  Instead, many more capitals are shaping international relations.

The scenario however is not completely positive, and as one panelist noted, there are many unpredictable factors that undermine stability and security in the world, and should thereby cause us to nuance our optimism. Some of the most poignant challenges that were discussed include:

Absence of Leadership: As a panelist noted, there is widespread pessimism about the quality of leadership in the world. While American leadership appears to be weakening, Europe too has abdicated any role in global security. Similarly, another panelist questioned the ability of any of the emerging economic leaders to play a security role in the event of an attack by a terrorist group or non-state actor. While the world is indeed becoming multipolar, no one country can individually punch enough weight to provide the level of security that the United States can.

Another panelist provided some insight about how this lack of global leadership may stem from the implicit tussle between countries that have hitherto been dominant and those who are now beginning to assert their power. While emerging powers are accused of not being responsible leaders, the real problem is that their idea of global responsibility is in conflict with the desires of the established powers. Consequently, even when emerging powers try to take responsibility, their actions are not necessarily welcomed by the established powers. For instance, the U.S did not see Brazil and Turkey’s intervention in the Iran Nuclear Crisis favorably. As a consequence, the concept of global responsibility must be redefined.

Panelists also discussed how around the world, leadership within countries was similarly uninspiring, but as one of them pointed out, the rise of the middle class will lead to governments and leaders needing to be more responsive to the concerns of their people. He cited the example of China, explaining that “even China that lacks democracy has seen a greater democratization of society and leaders need to be responsive to the wishes of the people. While the era of ‘heroic’ leadership is over, the world will see more ‘responsive’ leadership.”

Ungoverned Spaces in the World: While war is unthinkable in Europe because of the regional integration, the absence of stability in regions – such as, South Asia, West East, and North-East Asia – that lack the same level of integration is a matter of concern.  Similarly, non-state actors, terrorist groups, and nations like North Korea lie outside the ambit of “governed spaces” and pose significant threats to global security.

Panelists discussed the threat of such ungoverned spaces and unpredictable actors in the context of South Asia, where regional cooperation is severely lacking, with the region being bogged down by both internal and interstate politics, and several unresolved issues holding the region back.

Looking ahead, developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan will shape the future of the region. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan may lead to conflict and restlessness in the region. Panelists expect Pakistan to attempt to play a more strategic role in Afghanistan, and noted that the leadership in India must be mindful of such challenges and prepared to respond accordingly.

Panelists were divided on how helpful enhancing people-to-people relations could be in improving the dynamics of this region. One panelist held that repeated meetings between leaders would dramatically alter the chemistry of India and Pakistan’s relations.  But another panelist disagreed, explaining how “the ideological tempers of South Asia cannot necessarily be understood,” and adding that as long as terrorism and Islamist fundamentalism is alive in region there cannot be any conclusive dialogue or integration.

Environment: While large parts of the world that were hitherto mired in poverty are seeing rapid economic prosperity, a lot of this prosperity has happened at a high environmental cost. From Europe, to South Asia, the Arctic, and Antarctica, this is an age of ecological excess, and unless there is leadership that can ensure ecological sustainability, the world might end up with greater conflict. One panelist even believed the biggest crisis facing the South Asian region is the ecological crisis, with the degradation of the environment in South Asian countries, and the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas. He expects the impact of this crisis to become the defining factor in the region’s future.  The ecological challenge then circles back to the problem of leadership, as multilateral forums are unable to tackle these crises due to a large number of competing interests. So far, the attitude in climate change negotiations has been to extract the most from the other side while providing the least. Unless this mindset is changed, countries can’t make much headway in ameliorating environmental issues.

Relations between India and China: The rise of China, and indeed its relations with India will be a defining factor in international relations in the near future. While the panel was mindful that the relationship between India and China is a competitive one and marred by border disputes and relationships with Pakistan, they noted that there has been a fairly effective management of what could have been a much more fractious relationship. Additionally, a panelist also pointed out that India and China find themselves on the same side of the fence on many global issues – whether it is adjusting global institutions to reflect the interests of emerging powers, or fashioning new institutions in new domains such as cyber and space, which are not governed by any existing global relations.

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