India’s Bilateral Turn (or, why IR scholars need to get out more)

The Hindu has its Year in Review overviews of different topics for 2016. Suhasini Haider’s piece on Indian diplomacy makes the point that India is moving away from multilateralism toward bilateralism as Modi tries to position India is a very uncertain international environment. This is not a vague move; it is quite explicit:”“Global blocs and alliances are less relevant today and the world is moving towards a loosely arranged order,” said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar in an address to the press this year” (from the article).

2016 and, I suspect, 2017 strike me as showing the further fracturing of an international order that many international relations scholars, particularly those emerging from the liberal institutionalist tradition, viewed as inextricably moving toward ever greater institutionalization and “rules-based” governance. Something that I think many of these scholars missed is how deeply this order did not appear particularly “rules-based” to rising , non-Western powers like India. They have had incentives to engage with, and try to benefit from, this order, but view it as stacked against them from its very origins – a way to keep the US, Europe, and other American allies on top, articulated through hypocritical rhetoric and gauzy self-regard. Now as American and European power declines amid domestic political chaos in both, it should be no surprise that the rising powers will try to substantially shift which institutions matter and how they work. The seemingly-natural, obvious world of the 1990s, and the intellectual projects it fostered, are collapsing around us.

I don’t know if this blindness to the profound fragility of the 1990s-style order was because of institutionalist scholars’ deep normative commitment to a vision of an institutionalized world operating through robust organizations, or because most American IR scholars don’t spend much (any?) time doing research outside of America. Either way, it strikes me as a good reason to get out and talk to scholars, analysts, policymakers, and everyday citizens in other countries, read their work, and try to see the world through the eyes of others.  What seems like a straightforward, technocratic, functional solution to people sitting in Princeton, DC, and Chicago often seems like a form of obviously distributional conflict to those in Delhi or Beijing.

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