Today, exactly 11 days after the targeted US strike on Iran’s top general Qassem Suleimani, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif will be under the same patch of New Delhi sky and talking to the same people as US deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and senior US diplomat Alice Wells. That is reassuring, after fears of escalating conflict amid rising tensions, which led to scary apocalyptic memes and the hashtag World War III.
The Raisina Dialogue, now in its fifth year as a multilateral global conference jointly organised by the Indian foreign ministry and the Observer Research Foundation thinktank, is part of a clutch of conclaves that indicate diplomacy does not stop at the door of the United Nations.
This year’s Raisina Dialogue will have ministers and foreign policy practitioners from 17 countries but no heads of state or government because the bushfires in Australia forced embattled Prime Minister Scott Morrison to renege on his commitment to be keynote speaker.
Interestingly, Raisina 2020 is themed around “navigating the alpha century”. This suggests the hope and expectation that by now, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, there are substantial clues to the next 80 years. This is somewhat surprising because almost every Raisina theme until now has stressed that the world order is in a state of flux, as America’s appetite for its traditional role changes, international norms are tested and new alliances forged. Except for 2016, when Raisina took stock of Asia in terms of regional and global connectivity, every year has examined the fluidity of the international architecture. In 2017, Raisina’s theme was “the new normal”, which is to say a multi-polar world; in 2018, it was the management of “disruptive transitions”, and in 2019 the uncertainties posed by the “new geometrics”.
But there are several possible reasons to adopt a substantially different approach in 2020. First, despite the churn in relationships in the past few years, new data shows one significant point of general agreement around the world. A Pew survey conducted across 33 countries from May to October last year revealed some interesting findings. While US President Donald Trump and his administration are not much liked or trusted – 64 per cent of people said they did not have confidence in Mr Trump to do the right thing on the global stage – ratings for the US were generally favourable, even showing an uptick from 2018. Pew researchers read this partly as a result of political swings to the right in many countries. However, other analysts suggest that even the volatility of the Trump era has not changed the essential status of the United States as a force that cannot be ignored.
Second, there is a new appreciation of the potential of multi-alignment. Indian observers note New Delhi’s keenness to be a “free-floating balancer”, a position that reprises its traditional non-alignment for a new century. In November, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar spelt out the policy shift as “more energetic, more participative as compared to an earlier posture of abstention or non-involvement”. And back in August, Indian journalist and former junior foreign minister M J Akbar delivered a keynote address at the National University of Singapore, where he described India’s approach to conflict as follows: “states must find the route to direct dialogue or, where that seems difficult, elliptical engagement.”
The participation at Raisina 2020 is a nod to multi-alignment. There will be the secretary general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Vladimir Norov, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and ministers from Morocco, the Maldives, Bhutan, Australia, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia and Uzbekistan. Leading officials – across the foreign, economic, intelligence and military sectors – from the US, South Africa, South Korea, Brazil, Britain, France and Serbia will also attend.
Getting people together to deliver speeches at Raisina is one thing; managing multi-alignment to good effect quite another. New Delhi has been straddling divides for some time, with Narendra Modi becoming, in 2018, the first Indian prime minister to visit the Palestinian territories within three weeks of playing host to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But China’s rise poses many challenges to multi-alignment.
In the Indo-Pacific region there will need to be broad strategic dovetailing between India, the US, Australia and Japan. There is considerable enthusiasm for this in many capitals, with Stephen Smith, a former Australian foreign affairs minister who will be participating in the Raisina Dialogue, recently noting in a joint-byline piece for The Australian, that India "will be essential" to our prosperity and that the strengthening partnership will be key for "the Indo-Pacific as a whole".
But for multi-alignment to work in India’s immediate neighbourhood, New Delhi has to offer something that Beijing cannot, even while recognising the reality of China’s prominent development and security partnerships with most of its neighbours. However, India’s domestic policies can affect this tension, and some of the fallout is already apparent at Raisina 2020.
On Saturday, Bangladesh’s deputy foreign minister Shahriar Alam, who was to speak at Raisina, became the fourth senior official from Dhaka to cancel his visit to Delhi. Even though the Bangladesh foreign ministry insisted it was a mere scheduling conflict, there is speculation that it is linked to Dhaka’s publicly stated concerns about the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which came into force on January 10 and entitles non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to Indian citizenship. Bangladeshi ministers have been miffed about being “bracketed” with Pakistan and Afghanistan on religious persecution and deny that minorities face any such threat in their country.
India’s success in navigating these challenges will determine the viability of multi-alignment as well as of Raisina as the venue for geostrategic dialogue.