Remarks at a Brookings India Roundtable on Global Order

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
New Delhi, India
December 8, 2015

Thank you for your very kind words about my step-father Samuel Pisar who passed away recently but indeed was a staunch fan, advocate, and supporter of Brookings and its global mission. So I’m really grateful for you mentioning that.

I also want to say how impressed I am by the work that has gone on here. Brookings India has become a truly premiere center in the world for helping to think about, understand and indeed advance what is an incredibly dynamic relationship between the United States and India.

So we’re grateful for the work that you do, and I’m grateful to you for convening everyone today, and grateful for everyone who is here for taking the time because this is I think a very important opportunity for us to listen and learn from you, and hopefully we can impart a few things at the same time.

A few things to be said at the outset. We are very proud of the work that we’ve done together, and particularly the work that’s really intensified in the last couple of years to strengthen the political, the security, the economic and the people to people ties between our countries.

I have to say, having been in government now for 23, 24 years, in the Clinton administration and then working with then Senator Biden on the Hill during the Bush administration and now the Obama administration, I actually do see a continuum. I think President Clinton, late in his administration, began a significant effort to strengthen the relationship. President Bush I think did an extraordinary job also advancing in that direction. Of course the Civil Nuclear Agreement was a keystone of that. I remember well the Ambassador’s tremendous work in that effort.

Now I think with President Obama, he sees the relationship between the United Statesand India as quite simply a foundational relationship for this century, and we have tried to act accordingly.

We of course in one sense have been working together for decades and decades. Side by side to advance human progress through agricultural, through scientific, technological discoveries, that have in many senses quite literally transformed the world. So there was already a foundation of cooperation and work together. And of course coming at this as the world’s largest and world’s oldest democracies there is also a tremendous affinity at the heart of everything in terms of our interests.

But last year when President Obama was given the great honor of being the first American President to join you for Republic Day, he reflected, as I know you all heard, on India’s impressive rise and what he sees and we see as the unbounded possibilities of our growing collaboration on the world stage. He said at the time, I’m absolutely convinced, and I quote, “that both our peoples will have more jobs and opportunity, our nations will be more secure, and the world will be safer and amore just place when our two democracies, the world’s largest and the world’s oldest, stand together.”

So I think the challenge for us and the challenge we’ve taken on is to work every day, to look for days for us to be standing ever closer together, understanding the challenges that come along with that, and you alluded to one of them in the context of climate.

But the intensity and the depth of the relationship which stretches quite literally from the orbit of Mars to the floor of the Indian Ocean, is testament to the value that we place on the partnership and the confidence that we have in its potential.

From the Washington perspective, India has a uniquely important role to play in the international arena today. Obviously over the past 25 years India has moved towards integration, into the global economy while lifting millions of people out of poverty, sharing its expertise with other developing countries, reinforcing its strategic standing in the world, and that has been a profoundly positive development.

But when we look at it, it seems to us that this transformation has been supported and even accelerated by an international order dedicated to trying to advance peace, stability and the prosperity of every nation. And this is an order, of course, that was born out of the rubble of war 70 years ago, something that we celebrated just this year at the United Nations.

And I think it’s worth reflecting on that and it’s also useful because I think it’s very much the prism through which the United States at this point in time looks at the world, and it explains a lot of how we approach problems around the world.

If you think about it, 70 years ago in a sense we were, without exaggerating the similarities, we were in a place that India is in in a sense today. That is really emerging fully on the world stage, and we had some basic decisions to make about how we would do that and how we would use the power that had accrued to us after World War II. And the decision that was made by those who were leading our country then was to take a lead in shaping the international order and in particular building the institutions and developing rules and norms that would govern the conduct of nations in this international order.

On one level that was a little counter-intuitive because it would seem to bind American power. We could simply have exerted the tremendous power that had accrued to us after the war, but instead we chose very deliberately to give others a voice and a vote in the running of world affairs. We bound ourselves with the same rules and norms that we worked to develop and apply to others.

And as it turns out, I think this incredibly wise approach had tremendous benefits for us but also for many of our partners around the world.

In the case of the United States it prevented what typically happens when you have a rising power, which is that other countries band together to try and check its power. Because we deliberately tried to give others a stake and a say in the system that mitigated the natural instinct to bandwagon against a rising power.

At the same time I think the institutions that we helped to create, the rules and norms that we helped to develop did create an environment that answered the first primary objective which was prevent another major war between world powers, but also in creating a predictable, stable, all relative, of course, environment in which many countries would have the time and space to try and develop and grow. And I think India was a beneficiary of that environment.

That system now is under tremendous stress and challenge from a variety of places. It’s under stress and challenge when we look at changes in power dynamics among states, within states, and indeed beyond and below states, and as a result of this governments have to be much more responsive, including our government, than ever before to different actors on the world stage. We have to be much more responsive to new actors, whether it is the Mayors of megacities who are arguably just as important as Prime Ministers and Presidents in what we’re trying to achieve; whether it is of course the private sector and NGOs; or whether it is super-empowered individual or groups, for good or bad. All of this is of course driven by technological change. All of this is driven by a greater interdependence, economic and otherwise that’s developed. And on the one hand that’s created I think many new opportunities for us to advance the human project, but it’s also created shared vulnerabilities that we have to deal with.

So the system is under stress in those ways.

It’s also under stress because there are a number of actors on the world stage who choose either to ignore the rules or to apply them selectively. And of course none of us are immune to the selective application of rules and norms, least of all the United States. But some are somewhat more egregious in this than others. That too presents a challenge to the system.

Finally and critically, two other very major developments. We believe strongly not only in sustaining the system, but in adapting it to new realities. The two major new realities are one, the emergence of other countries that 70 years ago of course were not in the place they are today. And India is probably the leading example of that. So if the system is not adapted to reflect that reality it will fail.

Second, of course, there are issues that we couldn’t imagine 70 years ago. You referenced one of them, the cyber domain, that we need to account for and develop rules, norms, and modes of governance that again were something that were only in the minds of science fiction writers when the system was developed.

So when we’re looking at the world, I think you can understand and interpret and explain many of our actions as, in effect, being in defense of that system even as we try to adjust and adapt it.

I’ll conclude with two quick examples of that. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last year contending with the situation in Ukraine and Russia’s actions in Ukraine. On one level the bottom line truth is we don’t have a profound strategic stake in Ukraine. We care about it. We care about its people. We care about their democratic prospects. But it’s not something that was of core strategic importance to the United States as Ukraine. But what was and what is is the fact that basic rules and norms, long established, are under threat and challenged by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and that’s why more than anything else this has mattered to us. The notion that it should not be permissible for one country to change by force another country’s borders. The notion and the principle that it is the people of the country in question, particularly in a democracy, who should be able to decide their future and their association, not someone from the outside.

These things matter and that’s why Ukraine has mattered to us and why we felt the need to stand against some of the actions Russia’s taken. It is not about Russia itself. It’s not about President Putin. It’s certainly not about fomenting a so-called color revolution in Russia. It is standing for basic principles that are at the heart of the system we’ve labored to build.

A second example is China and the South China Sea. We have no stake, direct stake in the various claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea. We’re not a claimant. How these claims, the substance of their resolution doesn’t matter in the sense that if China were to be vindicated in certain claims, we would defend that proposition; just as if other claimants are vindicated in their claims, we would defend that proposition. But the way these different claims are prosecuted matters a great deal. Here again, certain basic principles that have been at the heart of international order are being challenged notably by some of China’s actions. Freedom of navigation, critical to both of our countries; the notion that differences and disputes should be resolved peacefully, not through the coercion of a large country against smaller ones. And finally, the idea and the principle that in these matters it’s very important to resolve differences based on international rules and norms. So for example, the Law of the Sea Treaty to which even though we haven’t ratified it we adhere to. That’s why for us what China’s doing in the South China Sea actually matters. It’s less the substance of these different claims and more how they’re being prosecuted.

So I give you those examples just by way of explanation because I think it helps explain how we see the world and how we’re motivated to act in it.

With all that said, our strong hope and desire is that India would be a full partner in this effort, but to sustain the normative rules-based system that we’ve built up, but also to play a lead role in adapting it to the realities of a new century. That I think is the challenge before us. It requires us to bend a lot as well, and we’re working on it. It’s always imperfect. But that I think is the challenge.

The opportunities I believe are immense and we can talk about some of them if we get into some of the specific issues.

But let me stop talking and start listening.