Germany Listening – Lecture with Ummu Salma Bava

“New India, Old Europe? Shifting Global Roles in the 2020s”

“New India, Old Europe? Shifting Global Roles in the 2020s”. Under this title, Ummu Salma Bava, Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the Center for European Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, delivered the first Germany Listening lecture of 2020 on 5 February.

While Professor Bava’s lecture focused on the period following the Cold War, it began with the much earlier date of 1648, when the idea of the sovereign state was born along with the Peace of Westphalia. Starting in the period following World War II, Europe has disrupted this idea, while India—like many other nations in the postcolonial era—just began to fall in love with it. These different approaches inform the ways in which India and Europe act and interact to this day.

Jumping forwards, it was not only the end of the Cold War that marked the beginning of the 1990s as an important turning point for India. As a pioneer of the Non-Aligned Movement, India’s ideological proximity to the West, codified in a strong democratic constitution, had been accompanied by a significant degree of estrangement from Washington. It experienced the end of the USSR as the “loss of a big friend”. At the same time, India found itself in a severe balance-of-payments crisis.

Yet the ensuing massive liberalization of the Indian economy lay the groundwork for its status as an “emerging market”. And in the years following, it became clear that this economic dimension of India’s rise was complemented by a political one. Thus, the “emerging market” also became an “emerging power”. This culminated in 1998 with India’s first nuclear test, definitively demonstrating that India had ceased to be a mere object of foreign policy.

Europe followed a very different political trajectory in the last decade of the 20th century, yet might also be understood as an “emerging power”. Rather than losing a friend, Western Europe gained new ones as the area encompassing a united and free Europe expanded eastward, and the European Communities became further integrated as the EU. A new actor came into being which Prof. Bava calls a “strange political animal which nobody knows how to define”.

The 21st century brought closer forms of cooperation between the EU and India, beginning with the “strategic partnership” of 2004. This has been based not only on economic cooperation, but also on common values. Yet according to Prof. Bava, while abstract values bind actors together, there is no real traction without a convergence of concrete interests. It has sometimes been difficult for Europeans to sympathize with the military interests that result from the unique regional conflicts in which India is embedded.

As Prof. Bava sees it, today’s global order presents us with a great deal of unpredictability. One of the biggest challenges is the rise of non-state actors. And within the realm of states, China has grown dramatically in importance, while the US has undergone massive changes in leadership, direction and priorities.

All in all, we are faced with “an international order with too many question marks”, and one in which the very concept of order is being challenged. Yet this is not only the result of the aforementioned destabilizing factors. It also has to do with the fact that the institutions of global order set up after the Second World War are not inclusive of diverse voices. For one, they do not reflect the power-shifts that have taken place since their institution, such as the rise of India and the other so-called BRICS states.

When it comes to the future of EU-India relations within this uncertain environment, it does not make matters any simpler that from India’s perspective, foreign policy remains in large part within the purview of EU member states. Even if Brussels sometimes speaks with one voice, as in the EU’s India strategy of 2018, New Delhi still prefers to talk to Berlin, Paris, and the other major member states.


Germany Listening is organized by Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft and the International Relations Master’s degree programme, jointly offered by the Free University of Berlin, Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Potsdam. For more information about Germany Listening, please klick here.

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