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Multilateralism’s future

Multilateralism’s future

Amit Das Gupta, Krishnan Srinivasan |

According to opinion polls there is no country in the world where national sovereignty ranks higher in importance than in India. This is to be expected after a long period of colonial rule and it manifested itself in a non-aligned foreign policy attempting to secure maximum freedom for decision-making. Under very different conditions, Europe chose a different path. In moves towards economic and political integration and as early as 1951 in the framework of the European Coal and Steel Community, six countries ceded some sovereign rights to a supranational institution.

Today many more member states of the European Union have surrendered even more inherent rights. Those nations belonging to the Schengen Union trust their partners to control the external borders of the union, while internal frontiers are completely open. Even the right to set the budget, considered among the most essential for a sovereign state, is no longer an exclusively national affair among members belonging to the Eurozone.

The last bastion of national sovereignty appears to be foreign affairs, where the EU has remained very much an intergovernmental organization, but this has also now atrophied with the European Parliament blocking the refugee pact with Turkey.

Many EU members feel disturbed that major decisions are taken by institutions that lack democratic legitimacy. Over the past years, Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban has cared little for the EU apart from the financial benefits of membership. Poland has followed his example and Erdogan&’s Turkey, having negotiated for closer association or even membership in the EU over many decades, has brusquely turned its back on Brussels. In Austria the election of a xenophobic and right-wing populist President has recently been avoided by only a few thousand postal votes. Strangely, all this has not yet triggered any fundamental debate about the future of the EU.

However, 23 June could mark a watershed in European history. On that day, British citizens will be asked to vote for or against continued membership in the EU, 43 years after the United Kingdom belatedly joined the European Economic Community (EEC). This is the outcome of domestic politics using the lure of national sentiment. Britain with its memories of two World Wars won, the heyday of its Empire, decades of wealth in splendid isolation, a special relationship with the United States and centuries since 1066 of repelling Europe whether in the shape of the Armada, Napoleon or Hitler, has always been less than enthusiastic about European integration. The lessons from devastating World Wars for Europeans was greater cooperation, but the British found security in the trans-Atlantic alliance, though British governments clearly saw benefits from the integrated common market as compared to Commonwealth trade preferences. Margaret Thatcher was the first to make use of this contradiction in 1984, when backed by nationalist sentiments at home, she negotiated a rebate for the UK which reduced the British contribution to the EEC budget while maintaining British benefits from Brussels at the same level. Prime Minister David Cameron has now tried the same gambit of cultivating anti-European feelings in his country for securing benefits and opt-outs from the EU. Basically these cover welfare benefits to immigrants and exemption from the EU&’s goal of ever closer union.

But today Cameron finds himself in the role of Goethe&’s sorcerer&’s apprentice. The spirits he had invoked actually ignore his commands, and the anti-European UKIP Party and the anti-EU wing of his own Conservative Party have become important factors in British politics. Cameron was interested in a better deal for the UK from a reformed EU, but now he might have to manage a so-called Brexit (British exit). Whereas nearly all the political, commercial and financial savants have been warning of the severe consequences of a Brexit, including a rise in unemployment and a lowering of living standards, the outcome of the vote is an open question. The supporters of Brexit play on patriotic emotions, invoke the emotive issues of sovereignty and unrestrained immigration, and urge electors to emancipate themselves from the shackles of ‘diktats from Brussels’.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the mood is not very different. After the fundamentalist anti-establishment Tea Party Movement had blocked any compromises between Democrats and Republicans in the derided Washington establishment, Donald Trump has used the opportunity as an outsider to seize the Republican presidential candidacy by appealing to national sentiment rather than to practicalities. Among his campaign promises are to cancel all US trade agreements and to review alliance systems like NATO, and while American security and business circles might be appalled, his agenda finds much public support. If Trump gets the chance as US President to implement such policies, American foreign affairs would become even more unilateral than they are now.

In India, American foreign policy causes mixed feelings. While nobody appreciates being bullied, there is also some admiration for the bully if only for having the hard power assets to browbeat others. The USA therefore is an exemplar for jingoist Indians, whereas Europe is viewed as being nothing more than a big consumer market lacking political and military muscle. India has never been much of a champion of multilateralism, ever since it brought the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations Security Council in 1948, when it did not secure impartial judgments but decisions subserving the interests of the big powers. Nehru favoured creating space to exercise foreign policy options, which policy came to be termed non-alignment — w hich has much in common with unilateralism. 

Multilateralism, however, has many aspects, and India is among those who have hugely profited from those aspects that go hand in hand with globalization like open trading systems and borders, which have brought Indian strengths to bear in this century. Its well-trained, English-speaking and professional communities are in demand all over the globe, and the now well-established diasporas have a political impact that exceeds traditional Indian diplomacy&’s greatest expectations. Today&’s rather harmonious Indo-US relations, for example, could not have been accomplished without the Indian lobby in the United States. A world that returns to a rivalry of national egoisms, protecting trade, closed borders and restricting migration would be a negative development for India. At stake would be much more than India&’s future prospects as an influential player in world affairs.