K.C. Singh | A fine balance? Liberalism on lips; realpolitik at home

The G-7 faced especially acute challenges this year as the global effects of Covid-19 pandemic have been compounded by the war in Ukraine

India and four other democracies attended the Group of Seven summit of the seven most advanced economies of the world on June 26-28. It was hosted by Germany at the Alpine city of Elmau. Besides India, the other attendees were South Africa and Senegal from Africa, Indonesia from Asia and Argentina from Latin America. Indonesia is the most populous Islamic nation, which is hosting the Group of 20 summit later this year. That is an expanded grouping which, in addition to the G-7, includes 13 nations selected for their geo-economic importance.

The G-7 faced especially acute challenges this year as the global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been compounded by the war in Ukraine. There is an escalatory impact on the price and availability of energy and food. Russia having blockaded all Ukrainian ports, the wheat and other foodgrain in their silos are isolated from the global markets. Russia and Ukraine are two of the biggest grain exporters of the world. Furthermore, eastern Ukraine, now the theatre of the Russian military advance, also constitutes its agrarian and industrial heartland. Therefore, even the sowing of the next crop is affected.

The 28-page Leaders’ Communique spells out the perceived challenges and suggested solutions. A two-page summary of this was also issued. The introductory para of the communique emphasises G-7 unity in a fragmented world and their resolve, together with their partners, to “jointly defend universal human rights and democratic values, the rules-based multilateral order and the resilience of our democratic societies”. The core immediate concern is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but looming above it are the rise of China and climate change.

The G-7, especially the United States, have been distracted from the latter two challenges due to the Ukraine war. There is an attempt to restore some balance between these near-term and more fundamental concerns. It is also correctly realised that the global liberal democratic order, now under challenge by resurgent autocratic powers like Russia and China, cannot be defended without strengthening democracy within nations and shepherding the transition of the world to a more sustainable, climate-neutral economic model.

For that, the G-7 resolved to rustle up $2.8 billion of humanitarian aid and $29.5 billion of budget aid to Ukraine. As regards the rest of the world, the escalating price of energy is to be tackled by a novel scheme of price caps on Russian oil. US President Joe Biden is also travelling to Saudi Arabia soon to try to wean it away from OPEC Plus, which includes Russia, and encourage increased oil production.
But the problem is that by pushing the developed nations to reduce their dependency on Russian oil and gas there is the danger of climate and environmental goals getting compromised. The German government, supported by the Greens Party, is unwilling to shift to nuclear power. It is relooking at fossil fuels for power production. A transition to LNG will also need time and capital. After three months of the Ukraine war and despite the sanctions, Russia continued to make nearly $1 billion a day from its oil and gas exports, enabling it to finance its war effort.

The difficulty in curbing Russian energy income is two-fold. European Union members will only complete their energy boycott of Russia by the yearend. Also, India and China have been lapping up discounted Russian oil at increased levels. Before the Ukraine war, India’s oil imports were only one per cent of the total. According to Kpler, a commodity data company, Indian imports from Russia last month were 1.15 million barrels per day (mbd). India’s refining capacity is 5 mbd, enabling India to import even a higher amount, catapulting Russia ahead of India’s current top supplier Kuwait.

To balance these different requirements, some of them mutually conflicting, the G-7 announced some pathways. A Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) will mobilise $600 billion over the next five years to “narrow the global investment gap”. Some will call it a counter to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The G-7 proposal instead is not merely to create a spoke and hub network with the EU at the centre, like the Chinese BRI. It is also to enable the transition to an environmentally friendly order. That is why this initiative is dovetailed into Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETP), with India, Senegal, and Vietnam. There is already one with South Africa.

The summit also issued a clarion call for an open society and liberal democracy within nations, as a condition precedent to a liberal rules-based international order. That is why the five invitees and the G-7 issued a separate “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement”. On Page 25 of the Leaders’ Communique there is a commitment “to halt democratic backsliding and undermining of our fundamental values”.

In the separate statement, to which India is a party, the threats to democracy globally are noted, followed by a commitment to “defending peace, human rights, the rule of law, human security and gender equality”. The resolve to promote a rules-based international order, normally a euphemism for criticising Chinese unilateralism and now Russia’s attack on Ukraine, is prefaced by the words “as democracies”. The sub-headings in the Resilient Democracies Statement comprehensively delineate the contours of a liberal democracy, and are as follows: Global Responsibility: Democracies as Reliable Partners; Information Environment: Democracies Defending Open and Pluralistic Debate; Civil Society: Democracies Protecting and Fostering Open and Pluralistic Civic Spaces; Inclusion and Equality: Democracies Promoting Equal Representation.

Ironically, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was committing India to this high road of progressive thought, aligned with the internationally recognised principles of a liberal democracy, the conduct of the law enforcement agencies at home was at variance. The arrest of a lawyer and civil society advocate by the anti-terrorism cell of the Gujarat police and the action against a co-founder of a fact-checking website that tries to counter online bigotry for an old tweet, dating back several years, were a poor reflection on the state of democracy in India. Some resilience, if at all, was being shown by the beleaguered Opposition, especially in Maharashtra, where the ruling party’s breakaway legislators were cajoled, hosted, and protected by the BJP.

The question that lingers is whether a high moral tone abroad and no-rules electoral politics back at home can be sustained in the long run. So far, the world seems willing to look the other way if certain red lines are not crossed, like by Nupur Sharma.

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