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Can India save the world?

With US and EU losing faith in multilateral norms, the responsibility should pass on to the new rising powers, China and India, to maintain these norms, writes Kishore Mahbubani.

india Updated: Mar 21, 2008 23:34 IST

Humanity is embarking on a bizarre journey into the future. Subconsciously, we all believe (or would like to believe) that we live in a rational, well-ordered universe. The reality is closer to the opposite. If this sounds unbelievable, consider the following analogy. Imagine 660 passengers boarding a ship that is sailing into unchartered waters. After boarding, all 660 retreat into their cabins. No captain or crew is taking care of the ship as a whole.

Sadly, this is a literal, not metaphorical description of how spaceship Earth is sailing into the future. Globalisation has shrunk the world. All 6.6 billion inhabitants now live in a single interdependent universe. From financial crises to health epidemics, from borderless terrorism to global warming, we are moving into a world where more global governance (not global government) is needed to manage the growing interdependence. Instead, precisely when more is needed, humanity is either shrinking or weakening global governance. This essay will explain why. It will also argue that perhaps only one country can solve this crisis — India.

Global governance is shrinking because the West, which spun a rich web of multilateral institutions and norms after World War II, is losing faith in multilateralism. The Western powers were happy to be custodians of the main rules and processes of the global order because they were convinced that a more rules-bound universe, accompanied by greater trade liberalisation, would benefit the Western economies the most since they had the world’s most competitive economies. This conviction of economic superiority led the West to bring down trade barriers. They had no doubt that the West would win on an open economic playing field.

John F Kennedy illustrated this confidence when he said in 1962, “A more liberal trade policy will in general benefit our most efficient and expanding industries.” The boundless optimism of Kennedy has been replaced by the boundless pessimism of Lou Dobbs, who is convinced that American workers cannot compete with Chinese or Indian workers. Sadly, Lou Dobbs is not an isolated phenomenon. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have joined the race to the bottom by declaring that each is more protectionist than the other. This reflects the new psyche of the American population. Europe is not much better.

If both America and Europe lose confidence in their ability to compete, how can they remain custodians of the rules that ensure fairness and equity? To be fair, humanity should thank both first for creating the 1945 rules-based order at the end of World War II. To understand how visionary the Western founding fathers of this order were, just contrast what they did after World War II with what was done after World War I. After World War I, the world order forced Germany and Japan to go to war as they tried to expand their political and economic space. After World War II, both Germany and Japan significantly expanded their political and economic space without going to war.

If humanity can sustain this 1945 rules-based order, this will enable both China and India to emerge as new great powers peacefully, just as Germany and Japan did. But there are differences now. Both Germany and Japan emerged when America and Europe (including Germany) believed that an open global order would naturally benefit the West. Today, China and India are emerging at a time when the West is losing faith in an open global order. This growing lack of faith explains the strange behaviour of both America and Europe towards global governance.

America has taken cynicism towards multilateralism to a whole new level. Just look at the issue of America and Iran. Every few months, America goes back to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to get a resolution against Iran. It hopes to use the legitimacy of the UN to send a message to Iran that the world disapproves of its behaviour. America is right. The UN does enjoy this legitimacy in the eyes of the world’s population, despite the many flaws of the UN. But the world has also become sceptical of America’s efforts to use the UN because America had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the UN’s principles by going to war in Iraq without an enabling UNSC resolution. Most international lawyers and Kofi Annan believe that the American invasion of Iraq was illegal. Can a violator of UN principles become an enforcer? Can a thief become a judge?

In an act of even greater cynicism, America sent an Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who believed that his mission was not to strengthen but to weaken the UN. He famously declared that “if the UN building lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”.

A favourite American expression is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. There is also no such thing as cost-free cynicism. The rampant American cynicism towards the UN in particular and multilateralism in general could now dangerously erode and destroy the 1945 rules-based order when the world has never needed it more. Both China and India will be the biggest losers if this happens. Its destruction could well prevent and derail their peaceful re-emergence of both these great powers.

It is as difficult to explain the critical importance of multilateralism to a lay audience as it is to illustrate the importance of oxygen. We know that without oxygen we would suffocate but we only truly understand this if we are thrown into a room without oxygen. By then, it may be too late. Similarly, one reason why the world is a reasonably stable place is because a sea of norms has been created in all fields to manage growing global interdependence. This sea of norms is a valuable heritage that humanity has developed.

But no norms can survive on their own. Neither would a sea of norms. Norms need custodianship. With America and Europe losing faith in multilateral norms, the responsibility should pass on to the new rising powers, China and India, to maintain these norms. Indeed, both China and India want to preserve them, but only India can provide the leadership to do so. China cannot, for a simple geopolitical reason. The rise of India is not generating alarm in Washington DC. The rise of China is. Hence, China, in an effort to assuage American concerns, is deliberately trying to avoid assuming any kind of global leadership. When the Cancun trade meetings failed, Indian Trade and Industry Minister Kamal Nath could confidently explain India’s position and challenge the American and European perspectives. The Chinese Trade Minister said nothing.

By default, the weight of global leadership may fall on India’s shoulders. Fortunately, India is well-qualified to provide such leadership. Its credentials as the world’s largest democracy; its open, tolerant and inclusive culture; its unique geopolitical and cultural position as a bridge between East and West provides it a unique opportunity to provide the leadership for forging new forms of global governance that spaceship Earth desperately needs as it sails into the future.

Kishore Mahbubani is Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

He is the author of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.