Democratizing Norms: Jaishankar’s Comments and the Challenge to US Hegemony

There is a considerable buzz around EAM S. Jaishankar’s comment about India taking “views on other people’s human rights situation, including that of the United States.” While most literature is focused on perceiving it as some form of retort to US Secretary of State Blinken’s comment on the “rise in human rights abuses” in India, which it indeed is, its significance goes much beyond that. Instead, it can be seen as a significant step towards the democratization of the liberal international order and the values it espouses.

The Liberal International Order (LIO) asserts the concept of ‘conditional sovereignty’ where sovereign nation-states are bound to look after their entire populations. A failure to that end invites interference and comments from other nation-states and external agencies. This norm has been pushed forward and spearheaded by the first-world countries like the US and Western Europe, much to their advantage. Contrary to this, the neo-Westphalian order is a proponent of the ‘classical sovereignty’ model where nation-states are sovereign within their own territory to administer however they want, obviously with a necessary reverence to human rights, but others are not authorized to interfere in the same. China and other authoritarian regimes have been advocating for the same. So, while the LIO talks about the equality of every individual, the neo-Westphalian order focuses more on the equality of all nation-states.

Despite such noble intentions, the LIO and its means have been under criticism for various reasons and incidents. The dominant criticism that goes around is how the US and Europe have weaponized the concept of human rights and taken the lead in a hegemonic manner. It is fairly common to find one or another European or American agency to comment on human rights abuses in the Third-World countries and in extreme cases, even invade them under the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). It is generally dependent upon their own interests. Thus by usurping and monopolizing the task of criticizing, the West gained a significant amount of power which is utilized for its own strategic purposes. In the words of former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1993, “policies towards Africa were often determined not by how they affected Africa, but by what advantage they brought to Washington or Moscow.” This comment made in reference to the Cold War remains relevant even now, considering the West’s consistent position on human rights. Interestingly then, the US stood in support of the most violent, authoritarian, and brutal regimes, including that of the Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran, and the Batista of Cuba. All the while the facade of global protection of human rights remained, but support for or criticism of regimes was based on strategic interests and alliances. This same behavior continues unabashed in the current world order.

What needs to be seen in sharp contrast over here is that while the West even ventures into commenting on the human rights situation in its allies, including India, the Chinese respond with a firm assertion of sovereignty and the right to handle domestic issues as the regime deems fit. They avoid commenting on the domestic matters of even their adversaries. Nonetheless, just a month back released report by China’s State Council Information Office on ‘Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2021’ took a major step in the offensive direction to comment on the domestic human rights issues of the United States. In this same vein, the comments of EAM Jaishankar, in the presence of the US Secretary of State and the US Secretary of Defence, go a long way in democratizing the space for the protection of human rights.

The significance thus should be seen in how it brings into ambit the racial injustices and hate crimes within the US into the purview of international criticism. It is a sign of weakening hegemony, where the US can no longer claim to be above criticism, and its domestic issues would now similarly be condemned by other nation-states. However, while analyzing the two responses, a careful distinction should be maintained, and they should not be equated. While the Chinese response was the release of a full-scale, US-centric, US-styled report as an offensive against the US criticism, the Indian action is more of a subtle signal to the US to mellow down its voice in order to build on the alliance. It was qualified by the assurance that the US and India are strong allies and the government of India understands the lobbies and vote-banks influencing such criticism. This has been characteristic of the current Indian regime to assert its sovereignty, as also visible with the acquisition of Russian oil and stringent responses that the EAM gave to questions in that regard by the media. Considering the circumstances, and the strategic requirement of both nations to stick together, it is improbable that India would launch a full-scale critique of US domestic issues unless extremely warranted. It is in India’s benefit to avoid such interactions and focus more on issues of synergy like geopolitical and economic domains. 

What remains to be seen is how the US State Department responds to such global assertions and challenges to its hegemony through questioning its domestic stability and regime. While it can be fairly expected that there would be no toning down in the criticism of China, the response to India’s statements would require more careful scrutiny. It might wish to reconsider the birth-right assumption and free nature in which it commented on its allies. With the critical and unstable geopolitical landscape, the importance of several partners has shot up exponentially. How loosely would the US deal with its allies and how much liberty would it take to criticize their actions or risk angering these leaders are questions that the world would have its eyes set on.

[Photo by U.S. Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Falit Sijariya is India’s Representative to the G20 Youth Forum and a Member (Observer) of the Commonwealth Students’ Association. He also serves as the Member Working Group of the Global Student Forum on UNESCO World Higher Education Conference and the Global Student Declaration. He is the Founder-President of Studomatrix, an all India school students’ organization spread across 150+ cities.

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