“The West uses double standards” - An Interview with Amrita Narlikar

By Martin Bialecki - 05 January 2023
“The West uses double standards” - An Interview with Amrita Narlikar

What leads to arrogance towards the Global South, what German foreign policy can do better and why India does not belong in the same corner as China.

Amrita Narlikar is President and Professor at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, GIGA; Honorary Fellow, Darwin College, University of Cambridge; non-resident Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, ORF; and non-resident Distinguished Fellow at the Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne. The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki.

MB: Should we be concerned about deglobalization? What should a re-globalization look like?

AN: Globalization has been a key factor in not only bringing people and ideas closer together, but also in helping lift millions of people out of poverty. If we get countries turning towards increasing isolationism, we will risk undoing decades of growth and development that have been achieved. In this sense, the concern is understandable. But sometimes, this concern translates into a commitment to keeping markets open at all costs, and ignores the costs and risks of pursuing existing (and by-and-large unreformed) models of globalization. Let me flag up two such costs.

First, as you know, the post-war economic system was founded on the assumption that increasing interdependence would lead to prosperity and peace. Our international institutions and rules that underpin globalization today still remain rather attached to this assumption. But the world has changed: in a world of deeply integrated global value chains, the very ties of interdependence that were supposed to lead to peace can, in fact, be “weaponized”. In such a world, it is important to reconfigure supply chains to ensure not only economic gain but also security. I should have expected policy-makers and researchers to have learnt from our over-dependence on Russia for energy purposes. And from these lessons, at least now, they would try to build alternatives to another major authoritarian trading partner – China. But sadly, we see far too little evidence of this, also in the case of Germany – and we even see local and federal governments deepening the relationship. I suspect this is going to come back to bite Europe.

Second, there are issues of sustainability. We know that our production patterns, travel habits, consumption habits are unsustainable. This is especially the case in the Global North where these habits have a lot to do with lifestyle choices rather than existential livelihood questions. And yet, almost everyone I know has been supremely excited about the prospect of a revival of global holiday travel and “back-to-normal” business travel for the smallest excuse – very few are referring to lessons learnt from the pandemic, and to thereby rely instead on digital technologies in order reduce their carbon footprints. And sadder still, most scholars and policy-makers, when referring to sustainability, build arguments in terms of preserving existing stocks of fisheries etc for future generations of human consumers. Isn’t it tragic that even a concept like sustainability is so anthropocentric in policy debates? Add to this the extreme and needless suffering that humans inflict on animals, be it in the name of development or tradition.

So I’d argue what we need is a new model of globalization that pursues not only economic gain, but also security gain (recognizing and making clear to electorates that this will likely involve trade- offs between the two). Such a new model of globalization would be less anthropocentric in its goals of sustainability. This means that this rebooted globalization would most likely not be universal and all-encompassing in its scope – contra the vision that the current form embraces. Rather, it would be built on re-configured supply chains with like-minded partners, and deeper levels of integration among allies and friends. To incorporate the non-anthropocentric dimension would require much greater attention and commitment to values. And credible new narratives would have to be systematically and consciously built around it to get buy-in from different stakeholders (domestically and internationally).

What form of world order will we see in the coming years? Is the American age completely over, is the Pax Americana history?

AN: There is no question that American hegemony has been declining in relative terms. But reports of the death of American dominance (like Mark Twain’s death) are, in my view, rather exaggerated. The US still has the largest economy in the world, and the largest amount of military spending. But especially as other countries rapidly catch up and show the potential to even surpass the US, much depends on how the US plays its cards and what policies it develops. The US cannot afford to be complacent. This is especially so with reference to China.

China has been rising rapidly (recent events in relation to its Zero Covid policy notwithstanding). As China expands its reach into different parts of the “Global South” – or in fact, even into Europe! – bearing gifts of cheap technology and infrastructure, there is a real danger that the US will lose its edge. And this loss will accrue not only to the US. It will accrue to the many countries which share values of democracy, pluralism, rule of law, individual rights in the private sphere – and these countries include members of the EU as well as democracies in the Global South.

The US and its allies should be reaching out to like-minded partners in the Global South, which are equally concerned about the global and regional imbalances of power being created. And this is also about the US putting its money where its mouth is. Through cooperation in sectors such as digital infrastructure, climate financing, defence cooperation, sustainable and secure supply chains, democracies in different parts of the world need to see that the US can still be relied on as a credible ally. And the US has not always made it easy for itself in this regard – yes, in the Trump years, but also the withdrawal from Afghanistan under Biden’s watch. Amidst all the global uncertainties, working with like-minded partners – not from above, but at an eye-to-eye level – will get the US far. And much of what I say in the context of the US can also be applied to the EU.

MB: Will powers like India, Brazil or South Africa turn to China because quick economic gains are important to them and China - unlike the West - does not care about adhering to values? How can the West work more effectively with the Global South?

AN: I think these countries do care about values. But they are also very concerned about ensuring development and growth for their people, and even doing so in a green and sustainable way (which is not always cheap). So rather than treat the large democracies from the Global South as a lost cause, every effort should be made by the West to support them. And I must add here: a big mistake that many actors in the West make is to paint diverse countries of the Global South together with one brush. I get this a lot in the context of China and India, where people will mention the two in almost one breath. This is very damaging for two reasons: a) it is just plain wrong to hyphenate India with China – the two have very different histories and polities, and also stand for very different values (with India being much closer to Western values) and b) it actually ends up pushing China and India into one corner – and India should not be in China’s corner, given the history of wars and ongoing conflict that these two have.

Besides, the West has double standards. So Europe and Germany seem to have no problem in lecturing to countries like India about democracy, environmentalism, human rights, and demanding their support for Ukraine and other noble causes – and at the same time, deepen business ties with China despite its adventurism in the region and terrible record on human rights and animal welfare. This is not only hypocrisy, it is self-defeating hypocrisy: in a world of weaponized interdependence, business is not “just” business and trade can have serious security implications.

What should be done? Besides what I already mentioned in terms of disentangling, differentiating, unpacking the “Global South”, there needs to be greater understanding and recognition of the constraints that countries from the Global South face. Take, for instance, the shock and disappointment that many in the West expressed against India for its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I shared the disappointment, but was I surprised? Not in the least. India faced a real bind. India’s dependence on Russia for military supplies (50-80%) is huge. A reliable supply matters, given especially India’s difficult neighborhood. And here is the irony: China is a key factor in that difficult neighbourhood. Through its reluctance towards criticizing Russia on Ukraine, India may also be strengthening the hand of an authoritarian China, with which Russia has a “no-limits” partnership (and potentially greater dependence on China). This is geopolitically a risky game for India. Now were key Western players better at understanding these constraints of the partners in the Global South, they would be able to help reduce these types of dependencies – to mutual advantage.

Germany, as a leading and committed member of the EU and also bilaterally, should reach out to India – to realign global supply chains, to deepen economic integration – and yes, something that Germany has resisted thus far, deepen defence cooperation. Work closely with India – on the green transition and energy cooperation, but also the digital transformation, dual-use technology, infrastructure, security. Only if India has reliable partners as alternatives to turn to besides Russia (and indeed China!) will it be able to stand up for the principles of democracy and liberalism internationally.

Diversification away from China, re-alignment of supply chains with democracies is not always easy. Democracies like India are often messier. And to work with them in an effective way requires a willingness to invest – yes, financially, but also in terms of commitment, interest, research.

I’ve mentioned earlier the importance of working with partners in the Global South at an eye-to- eye level. Let me add here though the importance of shared values. Far too often, we in the West tend to assume that we are the guardians of liberalism, and expect the rest of the world to learn from us. This is patronizing, and also counter-productive, because in doing so we miss out on the indigenous, complementary, entangled liberal scripts we have in parts of the Global South. India is one country where there are indeed strains of liberal thought that are, in some ways, even more “liberal” than western variants. The West needs to be open to these possibilities. And to enable this, it also needs to be very self-aware of its own red lines, and not fall down the trap of cultural relativism.

So I would say that on both sides – the Global South and North – it would be good if there were a willingness to dissolve the false dichotomy between interests and values (which shape each other) and conduct diplomacy and foreign policy taking these into account.

MB: Is there a way out of the weaponization of interdependence, and what might it look like?

AN: Frankly speaking, I don’t think there is a way out of weaponized interdependence. The technologies and supply chains that underpin WI are there, the network effects are there, and the narratives are there. I don’t see how that genie can be put back into the bottle, especially when there is not a system of global governance in place that can deal with these problems, and major powers have divergent interests and values (and thus incentives to weaponize asymmetries). But where we do have considerable choice still is how we manage weaponized interdependence.

On the one hand, we could keep pretending that the old form of globalization still works, insist that countries keep their markets open as per the old rules – and what we will then get is over- dependence on rival-states, followed by helter-skelter fragmentation, isolation, and a further diminishing of international institutions into irrelevance. On the other hand, we could take charge of reforming international organizations like the WTO in a meaningful way. This would require tightening the rules, security considerations would have to be taken into account and fundamental principles like MFN (Most Favoured Nation Status) and National Treatment would have to be rethought to allow for more variable geometry. Admittedly, this will not be an easy task. But this task will be easier than dealing with the mess that will follow, if we continue to dig our heads in the sand.



This was first published in Internationale Politik in German and reposted with permission. 

Photo by cottonbro studio

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