This year’s G20 was about India. Or as foreign minister Dr S Jaishankar described it, India’s year-long leadership of the G20 was designed to get ‘India ready for the world, and the world ready for India.’
The other major G20 powers played a key role in India’s success, whether by default or design. Putin didn’t turn up. President Xi’s last-minute decision to absent himself from the summit deprived a global audience two days of ‘geopolitical stage watching’. This left the spotlight on the blooming US–India relationship.
President Joe Biden distinguished himself from his predecessor in the care he took not to upstage his host during the summit, his third meeting with Modi in only five months.
The US also delivered a series of concrete concessions to India, on Ukraine, AU membership, and on multilateral development banks, helping to make India’s presidency a success.
The G20 confirmed the centrality of the US–India partnership to the US Indo-Pacific strategy – which included on this trip a carefully choreographed sequence of US diplomacy that began with Kamala Harris’ visit to Indonesia in early September and concluded with Biden’s trip to Vietnam.
But the G20 also illustrated that the US–India relationship is about far more than countering China. In fact, geopolitical necessity is radically insufficient in accounting for this partnership.
Biden and Modi recognize each other as leaders of the world’s two largest democracies, each seeking re-election in the short term. Both govern on a platform that draws attention to the inequalities that spring from the contemporary multilateral order. And both seek to build strong domestic foundations for global leadership.
But India’s quest for global leadership and autonomy and a US that may seek a more definite alignment make for an uncertain future.
Differing domestic foundations
When President Biden addresses US audiences he talks about creating a foreign policy for the middle class – one that is designed to secure jobs and that prioritizes the needs of American workers. His critique of the existing multilateral order recognizes that neoliberalism has created grave inequalities at home.
The US political debate has been influenced by a narrative of decline in international status and a belief that international institutions are partly to blame. And Americans have a long standing suspicion of international commitments.
The next US president is therefore unlikely to use the G20 as a vehicle for mobilizing public support when America hosts the summit in 2026. Iowa will probably not deliver the kind of fanfare with which residents of Mysuru or Mumbai have greeted visiting officials during India’s G20 year.
India has also cast dispersion on the existing multilateral order, but primarily because it has been denied a seat at the top table. Modi has used India’s leadership of the G20 to grow India’s global influence, and as as a marker of the country’s growing prestige and influence.
The Modi government has used G20 signposts, and a programme of events rolled out across the whole of India, to mobilize the public and to signal that India’s global leadership is not designed simply to advance the interests of foreign policy elites on Raisina Hill.
And if Biden’s primary audience are American workers who have been left behind, India has used the G20 to stake out its role as a leader not only of ordinary Indians, but of the entire developing world.
But Modi’s leadership also rests on a more fundamental critique of the West and this is where the US–India strategic partnership is most vulnerable.
Whether Biden and Modi can sustain a united front despite divergence on some more fundamental matters in foreign policy is unclear.
The world’s largest democracy has long proclaimed sovereignty as the core value in its international relations but India has refused to take a side on the war.
True, the G20 managed an artful compromise on Ukraine. But the last 18 months confirm that both India and the US will continue to face charges of hypocrisy when it comes to delivering their foreign policy priorities.