As US President Donald Trump appears before the United Nations General Assembly this week for the first time and outlines his controversial worldview, the Indian delegation led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has an opportunity to build on the new pragmatism in Delhi’s multilateral diplomacy. The NDA government has over the last three years begun to chip away at the ideological posturing that has long been the hallmark of India’s UN diplomacy. Advancing this transition to realpolitik at the UN should be Swaraj’s main political objective in New York.
The EAM should not let the inevitable bickering with Islamabad on Kashmir overwhelm its pursuit of many other political objectives at the UN. The international context of Kashmir has largely evolved in favour of India since the 1990s, when Delhi was at the receiving end of much criticism. The rise of India has encouraged the US and its European allies to put commercial and geopolitical imperatives above proclaimed concerns on human rights and non-proliferation.
More broadly, the era of knee-jerk interventionism that followed the end of Cold War may be winding down, thanks to the declining political support in the West for meddling in other people’s affairs. If contesting the interventionist orientation of American foreign policy has long been considered politically suicidal in the United States, Trump reveled in whipping up nationalism in the name of “America First” and pitting it against the internationalism of the foreign policy establishment. While this played well during the campaign, the question over the last few months has been how much of the campaign rhetoric the president might retain and which parts he might discard. In a preview of Trump’s speech, which is expected to articulate the administration’s multilateral thinking, his aides pointed to four broad themes that the president will highlight — peace, prosperity, sovereignty and accountability.
Peace and security have always been at the top of American presidents’ outreach to the United Nations. Washington has also long insisted on “accountability” and “efficiency” in the UN functioning and threatened to choke funding if the world body did not reform itself. The new element in Trump’s speech is the emphasis on “sovereignty”. After the Cold War, both liberals and conservatives in America pooh poohed the notion of sovereignty. Both believed that American power could be deployed for good around the world — whether it was the promotion of democracy or preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
If sovereignty of other states had to be violated in pursuit of these objectives, then so be it. The eastern powers, China and Russia as well as the rising nations in the South, demurred against the diminution of state sovereignty. Trump has, however, complicated the east-west and north-south divisions by injecting sovereignty — especially American sovereignty — into the discourse. During his election campaign, Trump criticised multilateral alliances like NATO as “obsolete”. He dismissed the United Nations as a “talk shop”. Trump also attacked the multilateral trading system as “unfair” to the United States. He walked out of the negotiations on Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris accord on mitigating climate change.
During the last eight months, Trump, who made “globalism” a term of political abuse in America, has had to moderate some of his positions. Under pressure from the foreign policy establishment, Trump reaffirmed the importance of NATO and other alliances. Rejecting criticism that he is an “isolationist”, Trump has used force in the Middle East, extended American military presence in Afghanistan, and threatened to bomb North Korea. There has also been unconfirmed speculation that Trump might reconsider his rejection of the Paris accord.
Consistency has certainly not been the hallmark of Trump’s articulation of US interests. But there is no question that he has blurred the traditional lines of debate on intervention and sovereignty. This can’t but be welcome for Delhi, which has long cautioned against undermining state sovereignty.
As old ideological divisions break down at the UN, Delhi must now take the lead in promoting practical solutions to international challenges. It must also remember that multilateralism is not an end in itself, but a means to pursue India’s national interests. India’s thinking on global issues has in recent years moved away from defensiveness to claims of leadership. Nothing illustrates this better than India’s policy on climate change under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From being the naysayer, India played a key role in generating consensus in the Paris talks on climate change at the end of 2015. When Trump turned the US policy on climate change upside down, Modi reaffirmed India’s support for the Paris accord and promised to work with other leading powers.
The NDA government has also mobilised multilateral pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting cross-border terrorism but has run into resistance from China, Islamabad’s ally. Beijing has reminded Delhi that multilateralism can’t really be separated from great power politics.
Finding common ground on specific issues with the US, China, Japan, Europe and Russia in smaller plurilateral fora has indeed become an important part of India’s multilateral diplomacy. That is why the trilateral engagement with the top diplomats of US and Japan on the one hand and the BRICS foreign ministers on the other have become important fixtures on Sushma Swaraj’s calendar in New York.