Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the keynote address at the opening session of the 48th annual World Economic Forum (WEF) this morning in Davos, Switzerland. Modi’s largely platitudinous address dropped one diplomatic bombshell: a call for a “multipolar world order.” That seemingly innocuous statement aligns the leader of the world’s largest democracy with anti-American autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. It seems a very un-Modi-like remark. Time will tell if he really meant it.
Ever gracious in his public appearances, Modi opened his speech with praise for the World Economic Forum and its founder and organizer, Klaus Schwab. Speaking in Hindi, he went on to highlight India’s rapid economic growth of the last twenty years. He also characterized India as a successful model of many different cultures living together in harmony, and pointed to the 30-million-strong Indian diaspora as a model of multicultural integration.
But as came to the climax of his speech, Modi parlayed India’s multiculturalism into a global geopolitical model. In the official English translation, he was quoted as saying: “today we believe in a multicultural world — and a multipolar world order.”
That innocuous-sounding statement is pregnant with foreign policy implications. The two biggest champions of a “multipolar world” today are Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Both chafe at the dominance of the United States in global affairs.
It can also be heard as a slap in the face of Donald Trump, whose first National Security Strategy document, released just one month ago, promised to “deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role” in South Asia and beyond.
Given the even tone of Modi’s speech and Modi’s previous embrace of stronger US-India relations (and literal embrace of Donald Trump), it seems possible that the rhetorical tilt toward Russia and China was inadvertent. In a June 26, 2017 appearance alongside Trump in the Rose Garden, Modi had said that “the USA is our primary partner for India’s social and economic transformation.” He even endorsed Trump’s slogan of “making America great again.”
India does have historically strong defense ties with Russia, but it was tangled in a tense territorial standoff with China in last summer’s Doklam Plateau crisis. Though India is usually careful not to explicitly contradict Russia in international affairs, it rarely takes Russia’s side in any active way. And it never gives diplomatic cover to China, which it sees as its most threatening geopolitical rival.
Modi (or his speechwriters, or perhaps the WEF translator) may not realize just how politicized the term “multipolar world order” has become. It may sound benign, but Putin and Xi routinely use it to describe a world free from American interference and American support for democratic norms. It has actually been incorporated into both Russian and Chinese official foreign policy doctrine as an explicit protest against the U.S.-led world order.
Last January, when Chinese President Xi Jinping was the one giving the opening address at Davos three days before Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, he subtly jabbed at the incoming President by embracing multilateralism as his preferred approach to foreign policy. Never mind that China ignores any multilateral rulings it finds inconvenient. His rhetoric played to the crowd.
It is no surprise that the communist leader of a one-party state would play politics with the arch-capitalists of the World Economic Forum. It is more of a surprise that the democratically-elected leader of a free India would do the same. It seems more likely that the phrase was accidentally slipped in as an intended platitude about international and intercultural cooperation. Either way, Modi’s foreign policy team is likely to find itself operating in damage-control mode once Washington wakes up to what he said.