G20 Summit: How the West lost plot to India

The West should not have agreed to the G20 declaration in Delhi. It was a strategic mistake because the world does not need new emerging powers who push for their own version of hegemonic power while disregarding the basic tenets of the global order.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 7 min.

I read it several times and each time I found it more and more shocking. I am referring to the comments of India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, in relation to the paragraph in the final declaration issued by the Indian Chairmanship of G20 covering the ongoing war happening in Ukraine. “Bali was Bali. New Delhi is Delhi. Bali was a year ago, the situation was different. Many things have happened since then”, Jaishankar said once asked to explain the wording of the declaration.

“We call on all states to uphold the principles of international law including territorial integrity and sovereignty, international humanitarian law, and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability” reads the official statement.

As we all know, including the Indian government, we are not just talking about a simple conflict but of the most destructive war happening in the old continent since the second world war, the war that happened because Russia decided to invade a much smaller and weaker country.  It was a big change in comparison to the statement included last November in the Bali G20 Declaration under last year’s Indonesian chairmanship of the group.

Then it was indeed a positive surprise what President Jokowi of Indonesia and his entourage of diplomats managed to come up with the strongest possible declaration that the international community could have ever imagined at the end of 2022: The G 20 Summit in Bali “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine. deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine”.

There was more.

“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy–constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity, and elevating financial stability risks.”

What a shocking difference between the two declarations.

Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor of The Guardian, is right when he wrote that “Mr Jaishankar, did not seem too bothered to justify the outcome”. I wish I could ask Jaishankar what difference emerged from last year and this year and how the situation has changed.

Surely the Minister would retort with one of his sharp and abrasive (and arrogant) responses as he is a master in giving such highly charged rhetoric comments. Yet for me, in trying to come up with some justifications to the greatly watered-down text, Jaishankar came really short, he could not offer his best.

Think well about it: “Bali was Bali. New Delhi is Delhi”. For me, it does sound like a joke but one that does not provoke any funny reaction but just outrage. Yet at the end of the day, Minister Jaishankar and PM Modi did what they were supposed to do–finding a compromise and not fully and wholly condemning Russia.

Thanks to Brazil and South Africa, respectively the next chairs of the G20 and thanks to the fact that the so-called West bloc is a minority within this group of nations, India pulled off the job this time. Mission accomplished, for Mr Modi and Mr Jaishankar!

And how ironic to read that both American National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared the statement as a “milestone”.  Certainly, it was for Russia but how audacious was it for one of the closest advisors to President Biden to frame the declaration in such a way? All the representatives of the G7 that were in Delhi came up with declarations similar to Sullivan’s.

For instance, both French President Macron and British Prime Minister Sunak echoed the official American position. “This G20 confirms once again the isolation of Russia. Today, an overwhelming majority of G20 members condemn the war in Ukraine and its impact “shared President Macron.

Prime Minister Sunak instead said that the language against Russia was “very strong”.

What bothered me is not that the West (Australia, the UK, the EU as a bloc and as Team Europe made up by its members sitting at G20, Canada, the USA together with Japan and South Korea) is not anymore the predominant voice in such a symbolically important forum. This can be, all in all, a good thing and that’s the raison d’être, the whole idea of why the G20 came about in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 economic crisis.

It is important to have the voices of the so-called Global South take center stage and be heard vocally around the world. The problem is that supporting Ukraine is still perceived as a Western liberal democracy “crusade” against the rest of the world. I am not talking about expecting other nations to step up their military aid to Kiev the way the West has been doing so far. This can be or can be seen controversial even in the same nations that are the staunchest allies of Ukraine.  I am talking here about at least diplomatically stepping up and defending the principles of the UN Charter and holding Russia accountable, showing full solidarity to Ukraine.

Now the West looks more isolated. It is not that the G20 was wholly negative for these nations.

A potential alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China was launched and a new global biofuel alliance was launched with many Western nations leading it together with countries like India, Brazil and Argentina. Yet fully embracing the cause of Ukraine is seen as corrosive and too compromising for many nations in the South.

I do not need to spend time explaining how much India is indispensable to the USA and the whole G7 group in terms of geopolitics. A lot has already been written about it from a multitude of analysts.

The bottom line is the following:

First the Indian establishment is united in its official position in relation to the war.  Those like me that believed that a Congress-led government in Delhi would have turned around New Delhi’s official position towards the conflict were left bitter in hearing, both former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh and Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi during an official visit to Brussels, that they share the same position of the Modi’s government.

There is no way that New Delhi, after the triumph of the G20 Declaration, is going to change its stances towards Russia. Its ambiguity and self-interest like the ones pursued by the West not only for decades and decades but for centuries and centuries, will continue and no one will any more bother to press the issue against them.

Second, the Global South is in charge of its own understanding and narrative of world affairs even if at the cost of compromising key principles and values. President Lula of Brazil, a democracy icon and an inspirational progressive leader, already announced that President Putin of Russia will be welcome at the next G20 Summit in Rio de Janeiro to be held on 18–19 November 2024.

Many other countries, while not fully condoning Russia, won’t also be ready to change their positions and fully and unequivocally condemn Russia. This is for me a real conundrum for the West that has become incapable of persuading allies and partners in what is a just cause against a powerful aggressor.

It is the West that is losing its influence and sway. Is it perhaps that its double standards are one of the reasons for such diminished role? Will these countries be humble enough to introspect their behaviors? While trying to answer these questions, I will point out the third and final point that is actually a further elaboration of the previous two. The West needs to step up.

The West has become incapable of persuading allies and partners in what is a just cause against a powerful aggressor. The West is losing its influence and sway. 

The global aid support provided by the West, while paramount and essential for many developing nations despite the criticisms, is no more enough for them to steer and hold steady the balance of moral and ethical principles.  While undertaking such a process of self-analysis, the West should not give up, as they did in Delhi, on their principles just out of convenience and expediency.

They just have to do a better job at listening to the rest of the world and have a real conversation on the most intricate issues affecting our humanity. When they promise to the Global South billions of dollars to fight climate change and they are not delivering, emerging and developing nations do resent in the same way they did resent when the Covid vaccines were not equally distributed with the rest of the world.  There is indeed a lot of catch up the West needs to do, including advancing a bold reform of the global financing institutions.

Countering China won’t depend only on economic and military prowess that the G7 nations are trying to shore up to resist the rise of Beijing. It will also depend on a completely different postering and attitudes on global levels and bold decisions to share the global power as they are doing at G20.

Such change would also help the West build a new narrative less centered on its indispensability and righteousness, a narrative that slowly could become accepted by the rest. Yet sharing power, holding less brash and commandeering positions on the global scene, does not mean that West should cave in when instead it should hold its own principled and values based stance.

The Declaration at G20 in Delhi should not have been agreed by the West. It was a strategic mistake because the world does not need new emerging powers, rising nations like India, Brazil or South Africa that can finally push for their own version of hegemonic power while disregarding the basic tenets of the global order. It is true, there are many other conflicts and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is not the only tragedy affecting humanity these days. Yet we cannot afford to give it a pass and allow India and the new giants of the South of the world, driven by pure self-interest, to thrive in ambiguity, without taking sides and risks.  Perhaps Jaishankar is right, even unintentionally and inadvertently.  After all, it is true. Bali was Bali and New Delhi is Delhi.

The situation is indeed different and now is much worse for the people of Ukraine while Russia is showing its weaknesses day by day.  While there are a multitude of issues where the West should cave in, this time in Delhi, the capitals of the so-called “Free World” made indeed the wrong call.

Views are personal.