India Would Do Well to Remember That the Road to Global Leadership Is Not Bilateral

A narrow bilateral approach to foreign policy can stall India’s aspirations in becoming a global leader.

During Netanyahu’s recent visit, Modi steered entirely clear of talking about Palestine or Israel’s other regional concerns in public. Reuters

This month, New Delhi played host to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his historic yet contentious visit to India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled out all stops in welcoming Netanyahu, even going to the airport tarmac to personally receive him. But as he does in many parts of the world, Netanyahu drew both adulation and contempt in India from various groups.

Perhaps the most polarising factor was India’s conscious effort at ‘de-hyphenating’ Israel from Palestine. Indeed, Modi steered entirely clear of talking about Palestine or Israel’s other regional concerns in public. Much of the visit dealt with bilateral agreements and MoUs, on subjects ranging from agriculture to defence.

Some commentators cheered this as a welcome change in policy and as a sign of India’s long-awaited embrace of an important strategic ally. But to others, it was a betrayal of the past. Writing for Al Jazeera, analyst Vijay Prashad spoke of Gandhi’s staunch support for the Palestinian cause, and chided the government for saying “nothing about Gandhi’s views on the Palestinians during this visit.”

A foreign policy anomaly

Yet, New Delhi’s perceived de-hyphenation of Israel and Palestine is really just the ‘Indianisation’ of its Israel policy. For years, the country’s outspoken stance on the Palestinian issue has stood out as an anomaly in Indian foreign policy. India’s traditional approach to foreign policy, since after Jawaharlal Nehru, has been to limit its discourse to bilateral transactions, steering clear of regional geopolitical complications and sensitive political issues. It takes no stance on burning international conflicts in faraway lands, especially during bilateral state visits and high-profile ministerial meetings. Yet, on Palestine, India has been curiously vocal.

At a non-aligned ministerial last September, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj spoke of India’s support to the Palestinian cause as a “reference point” in its foreign policy. In December, India voted in favour of a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution criticising the United States for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and called on Israel to end its “occupation that began in 1967”.

In 2011, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh told the UNGA that “India is steadfast in its support for the Palestinian people’s struggle for a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

You would never find Indian prime ministers speak so unequivocally on any other global conflict. New Delhi rarely ever talks of Yemen or Syria in such a manner; it does not offer visions for a solution, or support one side or another in a dispute, apart from vague protestations on preserving peace and state sovereignty. It does not involve itself in Saudi Arabia’s disputes with Iran, or Qatar’s worsening relations with the rest of the Gulf. Africa’s civil wars are a planet away.

Insular relationships

In 2017, as Brexit was continuing to take Europe by storm, Modi travelled to four European nations – including Germany – in six days. Yet, his agenda was entirely consumed by bilateral exchanges and agreements in each of those countries, with no mention of Europe’s troubles with immigration, Britain’s exit, or the future of the EU project.

When Modi had his first meeting with US President Donald Trump last year, he similarly sidestepped concerns on globalisation, protectionism or nativism – all of which also impact India’s own multilateral engagement – much in contrast to Trump’s first summits with French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This insulation of bilateral relationships from multilateral, regional or global concerns has served New Delhi in the past. It ensures that New Delhi is able to navigate between sworn geopolitical rivals and archenemies without any missteps, and manage bilateral ties with each of them without complications from the other.

But this narrow bilateral approach to foreign policy is also a problem for India’s aspirations for global leadership, especially at a time when it is seeking to make a case for its membership in the world’s many decision-making councils. Geopolitics is by definition about geography and regional politics. But India’s bilateral relationships sit in silos and don’t quite work together in service of a coherent global agenda. They don’t offer any leadership or vision to the world in resolving its most pressing concerns and issues.

New Delhi makes no contribution on political and security issues that dominate the domestic agendas and foreign policies of governments around the world, and thereby wields limited influence in international politics, punching far below its weight.

The one exception to this approach is India’s burgeoning engagement with the ASEAN. Later this month, New Delhi will play host once more to ten leaders from South-East Asia, in an attempt to foster coherent relationships with each country in the region, pursue the common goal of preserving free navigation in the South China Sea, and counter Chinese hegemony.

India will need more of the same in other parts of the world too, as it seeks to expand its global influence. New Delhi will need to lay out a coherent global strategic framework, and expand its bilateral relationships into multilateral alliances, aimed at resolving regional and global concerns. Insulated bilateral transactions won’t do for global leadership. They have to work together to produce a coherent result.

Mohamed Zeeshan is a scholar of international affairs at Columbia University and a foreign affairs columnist. He has previously worked with the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations, and written for The Diplomat, India Today, The National Interest and several others.