September 3, 2011

Redefining responsibility

As India emerges on the global stage, much has been made of its increasingly influential role in multilateral institutions, especially in the context of its recently won tenure on the UN Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member. Many observers view India’s membership of the Council as a so-called audition for any future role that India might play as a permanent member of the body. This gloss on India’s membership has played directly into debates both in India and abroad on whether an emergent India can be a globally “responsible” power by shouldering the costs of providing global public goods, especially security.

In practice, however, the notion of responsibility as a facet of India’s multilateral policy has generally been interpreted by observers and analysts outside India in two ways, neither of which fully coincides with India’s own conception of its role in the world. Responsibility is viewed either as a test of the India-US relationship, or as the extent to which India can unshackle itself from its traditional foreign policy moorings of non-alignment and obsession with sovereignty. Both views are considered flawed from an Indian perspective, and rightly so. On the first point, there is no meaningful sense in which global responsibilities should require an emergent India to subordinate its own interests to those of the United States. On the second point, the very assumptions of India’s foreign policy moorings are problematic — neither non-alignment nor sovereignty have ever been inviolable tenets of Indian foreign policy, and to think that India’s recent behavior at the UNSC reflects either strand of thinking is a mistake.

A brief look at four key security issues debated and decided at the UNSC since January 2011—pertaining to Libya, Cote D’Ivoire, Syria and Iran—suggests that India’s decisions were motivated primarily by pragmatic considerations and a wariness of the UN’s rapidly expanding role in civil conflicts around the world, a trend that could potentially undermine both the effectiveness and legitimacy of the organisation. In this sense, the notion of responsibility that India has based its policies on is one that emphasizes deciding each case on its own merits (a clear break from any sort of Cold War era doctrinaire mentality) and considering carefully the practicability of UNSC decisions and their impact on the legitimacy of the body in the international system.

The UNSC decision to intervene in Libya was the most important test of India’s multilateral policy at the UN. Faced with pressure from the UK and France, and an increasingly convinced US, India chose to join ranks with China, Russia, Brazil and Germany in abstaining from the resolution to deploy force in order to protect innocent civilian lives. Although the media largely quoted India’s objections on grounds of sovereignty, these concerns played a very small part in the overall case for abstention made by Delhi. India’s official objection in fact placed greater emphasis on two factors: the lack of a clear understanding of the situation on the ground and hence of the potential efficacy of military intervention, and the impact of financial sanctions on the well being of the Libyan people. A third objection, which was omitted by Delhi in the final draft of its statement, highlighted the commercial value of the India-Libya relationship and the adverse impact that military intervention might have on it. An important subtext of the Indian decision was the implication of support for military action in Libya on India’s relations with the Arab world in general, and with its own large Muslim population. Moreover, as both Kanti Bajpai and C. Raja Mohan have separately argued, given China’s increasing influence in the developing world and Beijing’s own abstention, India could not be seen to uncritically support Western intervention in a developing country against the consent of that country’s government.

The case of Cote d’Ivoire was at once more straightforward and more complex for India. Occurring around the same time as the decision on Libya, the issue at hand was whether the UNSC should intervene on behalf of an election candidate that many external (including regional) observers had declared to be the real winner, while the incumbent resorted to military force to suppress opposition and remain in power. India’s initial opposition to UN intervention was centred on the need for impartiality in peacekeeping operations, which should ideally focus on protecting civilians and compelling both sides to abjure the use of force in settling the dispute in question. Eventually voting in favour of intervention, India argued that peacekeepers “cannot be made instruments of regime change,” a statement that sat well with its abstention in the Libyan case. Once again, the primary consideration was that of the efficacy and legitimacy of an operation that clearly picked a side in an ongoing civil conflict in a developing country.

In the case of the emerging and ongoing crisis in Syria, India has taken a cautious approach, emphasising the importance of finding domestic solutions before contemplating any UN-sanctioned resort to force. In April 2011, as the situation in Syria deteriorated, India continued to stress the lack of reliable information regarding events on the ground, in particular regarding the identity of the perpetrators of atrocities.

In addition, Delhi focused on the need for domestic stability while searching for domestic political solutions to Syria’s internal problems. In August, India, Brazil and South Africa sent a three-person delegation to Damascus to meet with President Assad and his foreign minister in the hopes of arriving at a negotiated solution to the crisis. Meanwhile, responding to India’s call for more information on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, released a detailed report on violations by Assad’s government that hinted at the possibility of crimes against humanity. As India took on the Presidency of the UNSC for the month of August—for the first time in 19 years—the Indian representative Hardeep Puri expressed the desire to bring an end to hostilities in Syria, as well as to implement a ceasefire in Libya. Mr. Puri’s statement on Syria was necessarily ambiguous, given increasing US pressure on India and China to support intervention in Syria.

Finally, on Iran, Delhi has walked a tense tightrope between the need to maintain its own material interests and bilateral relations with Tehran, and the need to at least meet the United States and other Western powers halfway on the Iranian nuclear issue, which is indeed a serious concern for Delhi in its own right. Since 2006, India has displayed remarkable alacrity in managing both sides of this equation. On the one hand, Delhi has consistently voted against Iranian interests at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and at the UNSC. On the other hand, Delhi has done its best to reaffirm to Tehran the importance of their bilateral relationship and to keep channels of economic and cultural contact open. The recent controversy over oil payments owed by India to Iran is a case in point. India complied with UNSC sanctions and US pressure against the use of the Asian Clearing Union currency swap system of oil payments to Iran, while at the same time looking for creative alternatives to ensure the continued flow of oil from Iran, India’s second largest supplier. Although the impasse took six months to resolve, during which time Indian companies sought alternative supplies in Saudi Arabia (a politically contentious decision but much less so from an economic standpoint) and Tehran threatened to cut off supplies, Delhi was eventually able to pay off a large amount of its oil debt and at the time of writing Iran had issued a statement assuring India of continued supply.

In each of the cases discussed here, India has sought to achieve a delicate balance between its own strategic interests and the increasingly interventionist role of the UNSC in international politics. Moreover, in keeping with earlier calls by Delhi for UNSC reform, India has taken pains to reiterate the need for greater information and consultation in the decision-making processes of the Council. In its March 2011 statement on the Cote d’Ivoire vote in the UNSC, the Indian representative clearly expressed dissatisfaction with “the tendency to hurry the process of adopting resolutions.” On balance, therefore, India’s behavior at the UNSC so far has been motivated far more by concerns of strategic interest, organizational effectiveness and legitimacy than any naïve considerations of the India-US relationship, non-alignment, or sovereignty.

India’s counsel at the UNSC has been one of caution. In this sense, it has acquitted itself rather admirably as a responsible global player, advocating against ill-prepared interventions in the developing world (Libya) and attempting to uphold the credibility of the UN as an impartial agent of conflict resolution (Cote d’Ivoire).

Whenever possible, India has viewed military intervention as an option of last resort, to be employed when all potential domestic avenues have been exhausted (Syria). And finally, just as any other nation in international politics would do, India has been careful to protect its own material and strategic interests when voting at the UNSC (Iran, Libya).

What, then, does India’s approach to multilateralism mean for its longer term interests? Sumit Ganguly has articulated two strong critiques of this approach—first, by acting irresponsibly, India risks jeopardizing its strategic interests vis-à-vis its growing partnership with the United States; second, India pays too high a moral price for its inaction in cases of clear humanitarian crisis. On the first point, it is worth noting, as Srinath Raghavan has recently argued, that India’s relationship with the US is more a partnership than an alliance or a relationship of subordination. Moreover, while short-term differences may continue to create hurdles, the long term trajectory of the partnership remains healthy and in fact better off for being predicated on a shared understanding of divergent interests. On the second point, one must remember that abstention does not amount to opposition. In the Libyan case, the Western powers were able to carry the day with the support of the League of Arab States and the African Union. If India’s role had been one of a swing voter, perhaps its decision might have been different. More importantly, India has been careful not to lose sight of the “human protection” aspect of contemporary UN activity—Delhi’s critiques of intervention have focused on efficacy rather than desirability.

Contrary to many criticisms of India’s actions at the UNSC so far, one can find clear traces of a well thought out approach to crises as they arise, and a focus on procedural clarity and organizational effectiveness that behooves a rising power wishing to act responsibly on the global stage. Most importantly, in a world where the notion of global responsibility is changing rather rapidly, India’s policy of prudence and caution will ensure that it does not over-extend itself globally while trying to manage daunting challenges at home.

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