Power transition

If the world needed a sign that the old global order is collapsing and a new one is on the anvil, the tussle earlier this month for a seat at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) should be enough. It was a contest between an old power, Great Britain, and an emerging one, India. Both fought hard until the end but it was the UK which decided to fold.

India's Justice Dalveer Bhandari was re-elected to the International Court of Justice for a nine-year term, after Britain withdrew its candidate Christopher Greenwood from the race. The ICJ, comprising of 15 judges, was established in 1945 to settle legal disputes between nations in accordance with international law and is the principal legal body of the United Nations.

It was a close fight. Despite Bhandari reportedly polling two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly in the first 11 rounds, British hopes were alive since Greenwood had greater support in the Security Council than Bhandari. There were some suggestions that the UK would resort to 'joint conference mechanism' to get its man in despite legal opinion being against it. But in the end, the UK decided to withdraw, ceding the place to India, fearing negative blowback for ignoring the voice of the majority.

Bhandari obtained an absolute majority, or 183 of the 193 votes in the United Nations General Assembly and all 15 votes in the Security Council in simultaneous elections that were held at the UN headquarters in New York. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Bhandari, calling his re-election a proud moment for India. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj herself reportedly made some 60 calls to her counterparts across the world in the past few days to canvass for Bhandari, thereby leading from
the front as her ministry lobbied hard.

The UK has put up a brave face. Its foreign secretary Boris Johnson dismissed the idea that the defeat of Greenwood was a failure of British democracy, arguing that "it has been the long-standing objective of UK foreign policy to support India in the United Nations." But there is no denying the significance of this win for India. Britain's withdrawal signals the first time in 71 years that a UK judge will be absent in the UN court. It is also the first time a permanent member of the Security Council is losing to a non-permanent member for a seat at The Hague.

Amid all-round chaos in the UK post-Brexit, this may not register as a big issue for a troubled country at the moment, but its long-term implications will be huge. The UK's global standing has been damaged and it is not clear if it can be redeemed in the short to medium term given the scale of challenges facing the country.

Just this week, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) decided to relocate from London to Amsterdam, and the European Banking Authority (EBA) to Paris amid increasing talk in the financial district of a "Brexodus" of jobs. While many in the UK may want to chart out a new course as a 'global Britain,' the rest of the world remains sceptical and views the country as one rapidly turning inwards.

Britain withdrawing its candidate to the ICJ is also a tribute to smart and aggressive diplomacy by India. Indian diplomats and top political leadership got involved in the process and used their diplomatic capital rather effectively. In many ways, this was what the UK would have done in another day and age. It is now India's turn. New Delhi is now ready to play a larger global role and it is willing to step up to the plate when needed. This hunger was absent before, but the Narendra Modi government has made it clear that it believes in fighting for what it believes India deserves.

Aggressive diplomacy

New Delhi wanted to win this contest and it used all the levers at its disposal. This aggressive streak in Indian diplomacy is refreshing. It doesn't always work. India has not been able to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group despite making it a foreign policy priority. But when it works, like in the case of the ICJ, it tells us that indeed a new India is emerging that is no longer risk-averse and is willing to fight it out openly. In this case, of course, the world witnessed how the rise and fall of powers continue to shape the global governance architecture.

But there is no denying the fact that this win for India is indicative of the underlying shift in the global distribution of power. The old powers are no longer able to hold their ground and the emerging powers are willing and increasingly able to challenge the old world's stranglehold over the global institutional architecture. Global institutions invariably reflect the extant distribution of power. Most current global governance structures were erected in the aftermath of World War II and are incompatible with today's power structure. This is the reason India has been demanding their restructuring.

Some might be tempted to see India's victory at the ICJ as a shot in the arm for India's pursuit of a permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. But caution should be the norm in that regard as the unique structure of the Security Council, where the five permanent members' right to decide its future precludes any outside intervention. And for India, China remains the biggest roadblock in the Security Council, even though the other four remain favourably disposed to India's entry into the group.

For now, however, there is every reason to see this victory at the ICJ as a significant one, both for India as well as for the emerging world order.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King's College, London)

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