India and the United States have both traditionally valued their roles in international institutions and used those institutions to enhance their global standing and pursue their national interests. But the two countries have not always prioritised the same institutions, nor have they always worked well together in their multilateral activities. Notably, as their bilateral relations warmed dramatically in recent decades, improvement in multilateral cooperation tended to lag, especially in the legacy institutions.
India was a founding member of the United Nations but has always chafed at its absence at the high table of world affairs, currently dominated by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Seven elective terms on the Council have given India lots of experience but no entry to the club. Today the quest for permanent membership is one of the highest goals of India’s foreign policy. Delhi has welcomed the support for Indian membership expressed by presidents Obama and Trump but sees little prospect of near-term progress.
Instead it has turned its attention to building support for two shorter term goals — promulgation of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and ensuring Pakistani individuals and organisations responsible for attacks against India are designated under UN sanctions procedures (with a notable success in May 2019 as China ended its block on the terrorism designation of Masood Azhar).
India has chafed also at two other institutions that were founded along the lines of the goals of the great powers after World War II. For years, India argued for the restructuring of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to accommodate the needs of the developing world. Today India has moved toward creating or joining other organisations which have a similar development focus, but which are not perceived to be controlled by western nations.
Two organisations that India helped to create, and which symbolised India’s role in the global south are the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77 (G-77). Both were perceived in the US as anti-West and challenges to the Western-led global order. India’s leadership in these institutions contributed to tensions in US-Indian relations during the 1960s and 1970s. India is still a participant in both but has found its national interests often diverging, especially from those of the least-developed countries. They continue to be useful to India in garnering broad support for its initiatives at the UN, especially in the General Assembly.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is an organisation that India once welcomed but has now downplayed because of political differences with Pakistan. There has been no summit in six years and India has turned its attention to regional organisations that exclude Pakistan.
The new institutions
Two major challenges to the World Bank and IMF emerged five years ago with the Brics (Brazil Russia India China South Africa) Development Bank (now the New Development Bank) and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The US has viewed both organisations as a threat to the primacy of the Bretton Woods institutions and to their rule-based approach to lending and investment, participating in neither. India as a member of the Brics consortium was one of the founders of the National Development Bank and has overcome its antipathy toward China-led institutions with its embrace of the AIIB.
On another Chinese initiative -- the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- India was the only significant absentee at the first Shanghai summit in 2017. India was driven as well (or perhaps primarily) by sovereignty concerns over BRI projects in Kashmir. The US was represented but within a year followed India’s lead in rejecting the organisation as a debt trap for developing countries and as an attempt by China to set international standards unilaterally.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) consists of the nations bordering the Bay of Bengal (plus Nepal and Bhutan). Headquartered in Dhaka, BIMSTEC pursues some of the goals of the original Saarc group but focuses on India’s east and thereby conveniently excludes Pakistan.
New to India
As India’s global influence expands, it has sought with modest success to join existing groupings, some with US support and some without. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) admitted India (and Pakistan) in 2017. The US has become increasingly negative toward SCO as relations with China and Russia have worsened and as the SCO has moved increasingly toward military cooperation. India’s motive in joining perhaps was to tie itself more closely to the nations of Central Asia where it sees a natural affinity and a hinterland of the future.
By contrast, the United States has welcomed India into membership-only arms control organisations, once the US-India nuclear deal was signed in 2008. India has joined the Australia Group (regulating biological and chemical weapons exports), Wassenaar Arrangement (controlling transfers of conventional arms), and Missile Technology Control Regime (missile proliferation). Membership in these groups allows India to be one of the decision-makers in setting the rules for these domains. India is still waiting on its application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the most high-profile of these clubs. India’s application to the NSG is currently blocked by China, which is supporting a parallel application from Pakistan.
Multilateralism in the national interest
India’s commitment to the global community is long-standing and growing. It has shown a willingness to cooperate with countries like China at the same time as it has significant policy differences. That willingness pays dividends. Similarly, its policy differences with the US on trade play out in international organisations allowing some insulation from the improvement in bilateral relations. As Howard and Tezi Schaffer note in their book, India at the Global High Table, when multilateralism conflicts with strategic autonomy (or, more generically, domestic self-interest), the latter wins out. In this respect too, India is no different from the US.
Donald Camp is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @donacamp.
Breaking Down Elections 2019 is a series of articles by experts of Center For Strategic and International Studies that will go beyond the headlines to provide a deeper look into what the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections means for the Indian polity and electorate.
First Published: IST