Rethinking Rules Of Engagement

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Apr 22 2004, 05:30am hrs
The word governance has dominated the current election campaign in India and is the sexiest new entry in Indias popular political lexicon, fast replacing empowerment in frequency of use. However, it has been a top-of-mind theme in the West for some time now, only with a difference.

While in India the term generally refers to the delivery of essential services such as electricity and water, its meaning in the West is far deeper. When Europeans, Americans, Canadians and sundry other globalists discuss the term, what they really mean is Global Governance.

The recently concluded Tallberg 2004 conference in Sweden was centered on this theme and there emerged many sobre reflections on how mutual dependencies are getting stronger and how we need to rethink rules of global engagement and behaviour that are people-centric instead of government-centric. Particularly for many in Europe, this is an issue which is deeply felt and even pre-dates geopolitics of the last few years.

Painfully learnt lessons from Europes brutal history of the 20th century have long propelled intellectuals away from nationalism or even national institutions; meanwhile, the post-war evolution of the continent has pushed most countries to make huge investments in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Organisation of Econo-mic Cooperation and Development, and the Council of Europe.

Now, American unilateralism in Iraq has totally shaken their faith in the relevance and efficacy of the United Nations. There is now a deeply held view that we need to re-order the world via a new system of rights, responsibilities, institutions and mechanisms.

The problem with debating global governance is that there are in fact very few dos but a large number of donts. There are few positive parameters, guidelines and performance indices that can be used. The term is often used so promiscuously that it sounds rhetorical and platitudinal, a fate similar to that of globalisation which is its conceptual cousin.

Also, there is genuine fear of a global super structure that brutally takes away national sovereignty and removes decision-making even further away from the individual. In 1995, the United Nations Commission on Global Governance issued its report which made a number of suggestions, including 1) a system of global taxation, 2) a standing UN army, 3) a Court of Criminal Justice and 4) UN authority over the global commons such as oceanic wealth.

This report generated a wave of resentment from European conservatives and multinationals. Clearly, the UN cannot and should not become a runaway power in itself. On the other side, liberals face a real dilemma inasmuch as global governance usually pits universal values and multiculturalism, both icons of liberalism, against each other.

In fact, as different parts of the world converge culturally and economically, the powerful human impulse to identify more and more with ones own kind, a longing for roots if you like, only gets stronger. Le Pen, the controversy over the Muslim scarf in France, debate over Turkeys membership and the simultaneous demand that a new European constitution should contain a reference explicitly stating that Christianity is essential to the historic identity of Europe...these are all examples that social identity is often the heart of the matter, whether European liberals like it or not.

Is the UN becoming irrelevant Maybe so, but the alternate is not very clear. We clearly cannot have another super-layer of government or another level of regulation, but at the same time self-organisation is not terribly practical either. What we perhaps need is a kind of invisible hand.

What is the lesson for India from such abstract and theoretical debates in the West First, we are not the only country where globalisation is accentuating inequity and imbalance. Over the last 30 years, the world in aggregate terms has in fact become far richer and healthier, and this is true for India as well, but average perceptions about being left out have only increased and not decreased in this time.

Second, democracy, moderation and engagement have become de facto universal values; global governance, what ever it might be in future, implies global democracy, it is just that simple.

None of these is a great notion, but taken together they project a world where India could in fact stand much taller than it does now, but only if we manage to get our own social house in order. The road to Aha! sometimes starts with taking the right turning at Oops!.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors