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India’s Vision Towards Multilateralism and International Law in a Multipolar World

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

Whenever we research and criticize about the potential of a nation-state in terms of its vision and understanding towards rendering something to the international community to become a leader, we usually have three specific underpinnings we cater to: (1) the power quotient, i.e., how the state drives and creatively manipulate or influences the world order and its own stakes based on calculated domestic and foreign interests, (2) the legitimacy quotient, i.e., how the state upholds the idea of international law, whether anarchic, rules-based, aristocratic or even theocratic and (3) the order quotient, i.e., what kind of human world order is in process and growth or decline as a whole and in various sectors of regionalism. We have seen how the United States emerged after 1945 as an ethnocentric power that led the future vision of the Westosphere, followed by prominent powers like Russia, China, India, the European Union and Nordic bloc countries and even ASEAN, GCC and African Union member states to some extent. It is accepted that at a more universal level, the patterns of diplomatic engagement and advocacy of various countries shape the world’s problems and so does happen with India as well.

For example — it is worthy to criticize the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for the Saudi-Turkey politics and manoeuvres with regards the killing of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but we must never forget that Saudi Arabia under MBS is trying to change the narrative and future vision of the state beyond the Shia-Sunni conception and the wave of slacktivism that started with Egypt and MENA countries in 2008. It is nearly the same with Russia that despite President Putin’s weird intentions towards NATO, the Council of Europe and the European Union, we must never forget that his foreign policy and strategy are Europeanized, and central to the idea that a united Europe must legitimize and give relevant power-share to its member-states, and not just a few like France, Belgium, the UK and even for that matter, Germany.

With honest humility, morality is important in diplomacy. However, we cannot pose our disagreements or agreements based on moral or experiential biases. Diplomacy is more or less a vector quantity — which may weigh down some subjective proposals and ideologies, but in the end — it is dynamic, different and needs to be practical.

Since multipolarity is already affecting the global order, and the ethnocentric and globalist vision of world order once championed chiefly by Angela Merkel, Jacques Chirac, David Cameroon and the four US presidents before Donald J Trump is in tatters, due to normal and actual causes, the world order may turn out to be normally protectionist and would endorse limited and interest-centric globalization, because the moral legitimacy of the world order that makes the free world as free and much institutionalized as possible, is based on the countries in the Global South regions, such as Africa, the Middle East, Russia and Asia-Pacific, including Australasia. It, therefore, becomes a curious question to ask what kind of a world order vision would India like to posit in terms of multilateralism and international legality.

India's Moralism: cultural and ideological backends

India, in general, assumes its diplomacy on moral grounds, differently. Although morality supersedes the Kantian-Kelsenian vision of traditional American International Law and will be integral as it has since 1945, India’s morality considerations are more universalist, and due to the fact that its domestic interests are not clearly aligned due to the constraints, the Central Government faces, as usual, it is clear that at least for half a decade or so, India’s moral compass in diplomacy will be based on the abstraction of its domestic and foreign interests. However, in order to understand India’s vision — we need to realize that Indian diplomats, like administrative representatives in various parts of the executive branches of the Central and State Governments in India, are inherently bureaucratic. This bureaucratic tendency of Indian diplomats stems from the Brits since the East India Company and then the British Raj had controlled the Indian subcontinent. Although under former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Narsimha Rao, Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, the bureaucratic trait had started to thaw and rejuvenate, the trend is as slow as it has been, even under the helm of PM Modi, despite his well-proposed skills to micromanage the economy and bureaucracy, which is centralism. Despite the fact that India’s bureaucracy is imperfect, the multipartisan vision of Indian diplomacy under the BJP, the INC and even the Third Front to a limited extent must be lauded to at least drive India as a moralist country. Here are some of the most interesting featurettes of Indian diplomacy under the Modi Government which we must keep a watch on:

  1. Diplomatic moralism based on proactive regionalism and cultural pluralism

  2. Legitimization and rejuvenation of international law without any overly callous state interests

  3. The policy of positive disruption and constructive change to enhance the civilizational commitments of the rules-based international order

In a recent proposal publicized by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India with regards to India’s sole candidature from the Asia Group in the UN General Assembly for the 2-year non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council, Dr Jaishankar, the External Affairs Minister has focused on the 5-S principle chiefly, which itself is plausible but based on the 3 key (non-exhaustive) features of Indian diplomacy as of 2020. Now, all of the three features of Indian diplomacy are central to the different schools of diplomacy which India has adopted. The current government is comfortable to shift from the Nehruvian vision of non-alignment to a partnership-centric multi-alignment. Interestingly, India has coupled Gandhi’s pacifism with proactive regionalism based on the Indic values of South Asia. These Indic values are neither ethnocentric, nor they impose repetitive narrations on issues such as human rights, justice enforcement, sustainable development and knowledge society. Here is an excerpt from India’s statement on February 13, 2020, by Ambassador K Nagaraj Naidu to the UN Security Council in the Open Debate. The issue of the open debate was Transitional Justice in conflict and post-conflict situations:

Too often, the international community adopts a technocratic, one-size-fits-all approach that can be damaging. Transitional justice has become steeped in western liberalism, often appearing as distant and remote to those who actually need it most. Rebuilding social capital and livelihood systems is harder than restoring infrastructures and institutions. It involves redefining relationships, promoting public deliberation, creating a healthy civil society, facilitating the healing process, as well as making institutions both trustworthy and effectively trusted. […] There is also a perception that transitional justice mechanisms have been providing ‘a form of ideological obfuscation’ that is intended to ‘divert attention away from those who benefited (and still benefit) from and in the system’. Specifically, we note that the historical injustices inherent to colonialism are rarely the focus of transitional justice.

We usually discuss the CAA-NRC issue and the dilution of Article 370 in general and use these issues to analyse India’s diplomacy. However, there is yet much to be understood beyond the mainstream issues that come into public domain. India has supported both Israel and Palestine since their inception and the concept of a 2-state solution and has also opened the way to become a member of the Advisory Commission of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. India’s vision towards Sustainable Development and International Environment Policy is growing, and as we know — that there are certain severe inconsistencies in the domestic context, and India has to grow out and revisit its capitalist tendencies economically and ecologically, it would be appropriate to ascertain that like Europe is developing its capitalist infrastructures based on the Kuznets curve model unlike the US model, India too, based on much of its cultural-naturalistic understandings, will surely develop and improve its initiatives towards more coherent environment conservation and rejuvenation strategy, such as the New Forest Policy (NFP).

Can India reshape the international legal and political system?

Often, the state of the world order is connected with the idea of Kissinger, and it is being proposed that due to the Saudi-Russian ‘debt war’, the US’ revisionist approach towards multilateralism and international organizations, the development of the post-Brexit foreign policy of the UK under Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Dominic Cummings and Rishi Sunak and the peaceful rise of China, it may seem that the decades-old international legal system will cripple. However, the reality is completely different. If we compare the Global North and Global South regions carefully, then we will understand certain competing and causative trends emerging:

  • The Balkans (East Europe and Eurasia) now needs more representation. Amidst the COVID19 outbreak, a total of 33 European Countries, who are the members of the Council of Europe, derogated the human rights treaties such as the European Convention of Human Rights. However, the key reasons for the derogation stem from the issues within the EU and the CoE, because nation-states needed a coordinated and multilateral response, which in general did not happen, as in case of Italy.

  • Africa is now mobilizing itself considering Djibouti’s military domination gained by China & Xi Jinping’s artificial and inconsistent economic ambition based on mercantilism, like the Belt and Road Initiative and also due to the loss in China’s credibility for the international leadership. Even the African Group, along with EU member-states, India and the P5 except for the US and China with others, supported a World Health Assembly Resolution (WHA73) for an independent investigation into the sourcing of the COVID19 outbreak, which failed due to Taiwan’s back off for gaining observer status in the WHA.

  • The United States surely has not shown any specific credentials or signs to rebuild the international order in 2020 so far, but we must not equate the US’ reluctance in the times of Woodrow Wilson in the 1920–1930s with the times we are in because — the Uighur Bill passage by the US Congress awaiting POTUS’ signature, Trump’s interests to enlarge the G7 reasonably, and even his deterrent on NATO’s spending at least is more of a revisionist venture driven by the Republican Party and the White House.

  • It may be said that the US under Trump and Mike Pompeo drives populist rhetoric to drive their electoral victories, but populism now — even in the Westosphere is thawing out due to COVID19, and we have some interesting examples. In Germany, the alt-Right AfD is not able to stand a chance against Angela Merkel’s work on COVID19, South Korea just had great elections and is emerging as a good democracy like Taiwan and Singapore and New Zealand has provided a revised liberal model of governance and humility to the world under Jacinda Ardern. Therefore, it is important to understand that even populism is a communicative ideology, and maybe neorealism will supersede a proportionate balance of conservative and liberal values in the international political order.

In such a global scenario, India is able to water down on its domestic repercussions and problems that it has faced so forth. We have seen this when Dr Jaishankar prevented a resolution vote on the Article 370 move and the CAA-NRC controversy. Delhi does have a larger opportunity to engage with the Global South countries in Africa, Central Asia and the Far East & understands very well as to how to balance the goalpost of diplomatic engagement between multilateralism and plurilateralism. In an interview before his retirement, Former Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin enumerated on the Naya Kashmir issue and its internationalisation by the international media:

In a globalized world, you can say anything is internationalized, but I don’t think there is any fear that if something is… States are sovereign, they can do what they want, but if you don’t have resonance, it’s a loss. The rest is their choice to me.

Here are some of the possible understandings as to how India can repair and reinvent the international order in its legal and political edges:

  1. Under India’s UNSC candidature proposal, the Permanent Mission and the EAM have focused on a ‘reformed multilateralism’. India’s key goal vis-a-vis the idea of reformed multilateralism would certainly be the reforms of the UN Security Council and the Peacebuilding system. Former Ambassador Akbaruddin has already engaged with the UN Secretary-General and the UNSC on this.

  2. India submitted reservations to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in September 2019, which also is a smart and trickier move in order to keep the role of the jurisdictional capacity of the ICJ intact and insulated.

  3. India has always focused on civilizational changes and has embraced its role since 2000 under former PMs Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh. PM Modi has modified and transformed the vision under his team in the Ministry of External Affairs. Thus, while the US is apprehensive to the inadequate nature of the multilateral institutions, India in the WHO Executive Board under Dr Harsh Vardhan would surely engage India’s relevance and empower the mandate of the WHO.

  4. India can transform the understanding of human welfare mechanisms and at least gauge social entrepreneurship in bilateral cooperation with the Commonwealth, African Union, SAARC and BIMSTEC under its proactive regionalism policy.

  5. India’s realization-centric approach of international legitimacy and diplomacy should be real and necessity-centric to avoid the erosion of the international legal custom. As of now, India is directed towards the same and it thus seems possible.

  6. It is true that India does have internal security repercussions to resolve, and not just maritime and border issues with Pakistan, China and the rest in Asia-Pacific. However, the current multipartisan community in India consisting of various political parties including the BJP would not be too pluralistic to divulge India’s domestic interests despite the fact that economic recovery is at the centre of India’s success.

India learns from its criticisms, and yes, it does not implement changes easily, because of the bureaucratic nature of the establishment. Nevertheless, despite various reforms, India’s bureaucracy’s problems are inertial and inherited from the past of the Cold War-level corrupt bureaucracy. Despite these issues, India has developed its moral and cultural grounds to embrace a multilateral and multipolar order at the same time. Thus, Delhi’s resilience is something which would be tested in the decade of 2020 if India really intends to expand its vision and implementation as a diplomatic and soft power success. It would be a curious matter to seek if India becomes a development power or not.


The opinions expressed in the articles published by The Bharat Pacific, are those of the authors (including our editors). They do not reflect the opinions or views of the Indian Society of Artificial Intelligence and Law Charitable Trust or its members.

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