Usually it was an earthshaking event such as the end of World War II, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall or the breakup of the Soviet Union which in the past led to an attempt to recreate a new world order. The terminology itself has undergone a change: we now prefer the euphemism “reset”. In 2018, the reset process is in place much more quietly and without a preceding jolt, unless you wish to term Donald Trump’s takeover in the United States a jolt. The attempts to dismantle the globalisation-based economic order and the US intent towards greater isolationism under Mr Trump could form the basis of this reset.
Obviously, the first assumption on which any change is based is the regression of America’s comprehensive power and the rise of alternative power centres. In 1989-90 it was the US alone, supported by the larger Atlantic community of Nato, which facilitated the attempt.
Mr Trump’s “America First” is out of sync with this, as is the notion that the country which is the core leader of the reset does not bear the major expenses of world leadership. In contrast, China’s aggressive selling of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to pump its version of the reset may appear more appropriate, but the expenses for it too are not being undertaken with free lunches, but rather through coercive debt trap diplomacy.
The real trigger for the ongoing reset was not recent, and simply blaming President Trump’s arrival would be an unfair assumption. In fact, this was in the making for some time once it was progressively realised that the liberal democratic order being sought by the US and less energetically by US allies could not adjust to China’s or to Russia’s political ideologies; a reset based upon only confrontation would spell a return to a new cold war. The decline of Russia following the end of the Cold War was mistakenly seen as something in perpetuity. The return of Russia’s emphatic international role came with its decision to contest the West’s march on Ukraine. The failed Arab Spring also gave the US enough indicators of its inability to take forward the liberal democratic agenda, contributing to its cooling and comparatively lower assertiveness in the Middle East.
Russia’s return to active big power politics was challenged by the US and Europe without sufficient muscle and unity. The expansion of Nato to Russia’s doorstep was a challenge the latter simply had to resist. Yet Europe’s dependence on Russian gas prevents unified sanctions on Russia and enhances the latter’s ability to resist. For example, in the European Union, as Germany expelled Russian diplomats, it quietly approved the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on its territory. Not the least of triggers is the ongoing trade war, which is seriously diluting 25 years of effective globalisation and inter-dependency. The reset is giving direction to new regional trade blocs such as the recently reported potential 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes Asean nations along with China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia — this could be a reality by the end of 2018, much against US interests. Most countries yet do not want to give up liberalism in trade. In fact, the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that it had initiated several years ago, but other countries are trying to recreate it without the US presence. The new protectionism the US is attempting to foist, the politicisation of economic relations and attempts to foil positive economic interdependence in Europe, based on Russian natural gas supplies in exchange for European goods, as well as China’s unwillingness to be intimidated by trade wars may witness a path towards a new economic order which will form the basis of the reset that is underway.
While India’s role in this emerging reset may yet be unclear, there are some indicators that quiet diplomacy is under way — the symptoms of which are quite obvious to keen observers. The enthusiastic indicators of an emerging India-US strategic partnership, which appeared evident in 2014-16 and perhaps even a bit later, have given way to an ominous reconsideration with a realisation that the world will neither be unipolar nor bipolar in the near future. It was realised that the larger role envisaged for India in the Indo-Pacific by the US would emerge in a clash with the interests of other power centres. China’s support to Pakistan and its aggressive posturing in India’s neighbourhood were messages in response to the increasing Indian propensity to be seen to be in league with the US. Doklam momentarily upset Indian perceptions of vulnerability even though it was being drawn into multilateral arrangements such as the US-Japan-India equation and the so-called “Quadrilateral” — without a full think through on the future implications. The signals emanating from Moscow were also none too positive and a potential Russia-China-Pakistan equation was likely to militate against Indian interests. At the beginning of 2018, a reset in India’s relationships was already on the cards — and Wuhan, Sochi and Qingdao followed in quick succession. In later years any examination of the progressive international reset will recall these meets as important waypoints.
There is no closure to a process such as an international reset, as witnessed in the past. There are already enough issues that are on the cards which will dictate which way the progression will go. Not the least is the handling of Iran by the international community as part of the sanctions regime; India’s response to US pressure to abide by sanctions will be significant. Russia’s ability to wade the sanctions against it, retain its European interests against US pressure and continue safeguarding the core joint interests with China with strengthened political mutual trust will decide the order that will emerge. The progress of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s “eastern Nato” status will also be under test.
Whatever it be, polarity in the international order will be far more diffused — a quasi-multipolar system is likely to dominate the order for the next few years. For India, straddling this will become the order of the day, rather than cozying with any one of the strategic blocs.