The Elephant in the Room
The biggest pain in Asia isn't the country you'd think.
Think for a moment about which countries cause the most global consternation. Afghanistan. Iran. Venezuela. North Korea. Pakistan. Perhaps rising China. But India? Surely not. In the popular imagination, the world’s largest democracy evokes Gandhi, Bollywood, and chicken tikka. In reality, however, it’s India that often gives global governance the biggest headache.
Of course, India gets marvelous press. Feature stories from there typically bring to life Internet entrepreneurs, hospitality industry pioneers, and gurus keeping spiritual traditions alive while lovingly bridging Eastern and Western cultures.
But something is left out of the cheery picture. For all its business acumen and the extraordinary creativity unleashed in the service of growth, today’s India is an international adolescent, a country of outsize ambition but anemic influence. India’s colorful, stubborn loquaciousness, so enchanting on a personal level, turns out to be anything but when it comes to the country’s international relations. On crucial matters of global concern, from climate change to multilateral trade, India all too often just says no.
India, first and foremost, believes that the world’s rules don’t apply to it. Bucking an international trend since the Cold War, successive Indian governments have refused to sign nuclear testing and nonproliferation agreements — accelerating a nuclear arms race in South Asia. (India’s second nuclear tests in 1998 led to Pakistan’s decision to detonate its own nuclear weapons.)
Once the pious proponent of a nuclear-free world, New Delhi today maintains an attitude of “not now, not ever” when it comes to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As defense analyst Matthew Hoey recently wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “India’s behavior has been comparable to other defiant nuclear states [and] will undoubtedly contribute to a deteriorating security environment in Asia.”
Not only does India reject existing treaties, but it also deep-sixes international efforts to develop new ones. In 2008, India single-handedly foiled the last Doha round of global trade talks, an effort to nail together a global deal that almost nobody loved, but one that would have benefited developing countries most. “I reject everything,” declared Kamal Nath, then the Indian commerce and industry minister, after grueling days and sleepless nights of negotiations in Geneva in the summer of 2008.
On climate change, India has been no less intransigent. In July, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, pre-emptively told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton five months before the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen that India, a fast-growing producer of greenhouse gases, would flat-out not accept binding carbon emissions targets.
India happily attacks individuals, as well as institutions and treaty talks. As ex-World Bank staffers have revealed in interviews with Indian media, India worked behind the scenes to help push Paul Wolfowitz out of the World Bank presidency, not because his relationship with a female official caused a public furor, but because he had turned his attention to Indian corruption and fraud in the diversion of bank funds.
By the time a broad investigation had ended — and Robert Zoellick had become the new World Bank president — a whopping $600 million had been diverted, as the Wall Street Journal reported, from projects that would have served the Indian poor through malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and drug-quality improvement programs. Calling the level of fraud “unacceptable,” Zoellick later sent a flock of officials to New Delhi to work with the Indian government in investigating the accounts. In a 2009 interview with the weekly India Abroad, former bank employee Steve Berkman said the level of corruption among Indian officials was “no different than what I’ve seen in Africa and other places.”
India certainly affords its citizens more freedoms than China, but it is hardly a liberal democratic paradise. India limits outside assistance to nongovernmental organizations and most educational institutions. It restricts the work of foreign scholars (and sometimes journalists) and bans books. Last fall, India refused to allow Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan journalists to attend a workshop on environmental journalism.
India also regularly refuses visas for international rights advocates. In 2003, India denied a visa to the head of Amnesty International, Irene Khan. Although no official reason was given, it was likely a punishment for Amnesty’s critical stance on the government’s handling of Hindu attacks that killed as many as 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat the previous year. Most recently, a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally mandated body, was denied Indian visas. In the past, the commission had called attention to attacks on both Muslims and Christians in India.
Nor does New Delhi stand up for freedom abroad. In the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council, India votes regularly with human rights offenders, international scofflaws, and enemies of democracy. Just last year, after Sri Lanka had pounded civilians held hostage by the Tamil Tigers and then rounded up survivors of the carnage and put them in holding camps that have drawn universal opprobrium, India joined China and Russia in subverting a human rights resolution suggesting a war crimes investigation and instead backed a move that seemed to congratulate the Sri Lankans.
David Malone, Canada’s high commissioner in New Delhi from 2006 to 2008 and author of a forthcoming book, Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy, says that, when it comes to global negotiations, “There’s a certain style of Indian diplomacy that alienates debating partners, allies, and opponents.” And looking forward? India craves a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, seeking greater authority in shaping the global agenda. But not a small number of other countries wonder what India would do with that power. Its petulant track record is the elephant in the room.