December 2, 2023

Need for Reformed Multilateralism: Time for India to play a leading role

India can play a key role in reviving and reforming multilateralism to suit the current geopolitical order.
Keywords: Global Governance | Reciprocity | Globalisation | International Activism | Diplomacy | COVID-19 | International Order
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Multilateralism, which is often equated with global governance is considered possible when the stakeholders share a genuine interest in multilateral negotiations, willingness to compromise and willingness to act on the basis of ‘reciprocity’. The current state of world politics – marked by the rise of nationalism and competition – demands empowered international institutions of governance. However, there are issues in removing inherent difficulties and limitations of multilateralism. The challenges confronting international politics demand that the actors work together in broad coalitions involving not only states but also non-state actors – international and civil society organisations. 

Multilateralism evolved as a key element of the post-Cold War inclusive and liberal international order that allowed the participation of new actors, including private businesses and civil society organisations.   

The idea is that the influence of powers like the United States, China and Russia alone would not be sufficient to make global governance progressive enough. The post-war multilateral system was designed to foster international cooperation, based on the principles of “indivisibility” and “reciprocity”. Multilateral architecture encompasses global economic development, security, health, human rights, and environmental issues. All of these are manifested in the United Nations (UN), World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organisation (WTO), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and informal international platforms like G7 and G20. In short, multilateralism evolved as a key element of the post-Cold War inclusive and liberal international order that allowed the participation of new actors, including private businesses and civil society organisations.   

The multilateral system remains a hybrid of universal aspirations or assertions such as human rights concerns and other overlapping interest areas in which major powers exert their influence through the veto system or otherwise. However, the Security Council is weakened to a great extent by the presence of human rights abusers in the Council. Lack of finance and weak decision-making processes are some of the common structural impairments. During the second half of the 20thcentury and the early part of the 21st century, the United States acted as the champion of multilateralism and western universalism through its “soft power” and military might. However, in the face of the postcolonial backlash against the predominance of the West, and Trump administration’s aggressive “America First” policy, US has nearly relinquished the country’s role as herald of the “international liberal order”. The US has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Convention, the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On the other hand, China, intending to bend the multilateral system to its advantage, has set up parallel institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the ‘BRICS’ Development Bank and others. The European Union, which is a staunch supporter of multilateralism, is increasingly divided and is losing ground in the international arena. G8 shrank to G7, and trade relations between China and the United States became increasingly strained. Concurrently, the United Nations and its agencies seem to be losing their lustre, as bilateralism and protectionism are resurging worldwide. It appears that most of the powerful countries prefer bilateralism to multilateralism, and they consider multilateralism as the refuge of the weaker nations. The malaise that afflicts multilateralism is evident in the undermining of the capability or credibility of multilateral institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Multilateralism, in its current form, appears to be incapable of preventing misuse by “systemic rivals”, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the crisis. The problem reminds us of the necessity to revive and preserve multilateralism. India finds the opportunity to step in and together with friendly countries, could assume leadership in reforming and strengthening international cooperation.

In the face of the postcolonial backlash against the predominance of the West, and Trump administration’s aggressive “America First” policy, US has nearly relinquished the country’s role as herald of the “international liberal order”. The US has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Convention, the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On the other hand, China, intending to bend the multilateral system to its advantage, has set up parallel institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the ‘BRICS’ Development Bank and others.

International organisations are facing new challenges in a world of “multiple speeds and layers” (national, bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral), “multiple dimensions” (public and private) and “multiple power balances” (economic, financial, political, diplomatic, military, etc) as enumerated in the publication International Intellectual Property and the ASEAN Way: Pathways to Interoperability. Seemingly, the universal multilateral organisations seem to lack the capacity to resolve the issues/problems thrown up by globalisation, population explosion, urbanisation, modern technology, etc. For example, there is always a wide contrast between the inherently slow multilateral processes and the speed of change and attendant social changes. Geopolitical change across the globe also creates adaptation problems for international organisations. The challenges are factored in the proliferation of plurilateral groupings of States – special interest groups, eager to step in where the universal multilateral organisations are unable to provide the desired response. The G20 and trade groupings between States such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Pacific Alliance are prominent examples. In the area of health, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been joined by actors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNAIDS, the Clinton Foundation and other public-private partnerships. Although the plurilateral groupings are multilateral in the sense that more than two States are involved, they are not universally multilateral like the United Nations. The multilateral system needs to acquire speed and capacity in order to adapt to the new circumstances in a fast-changing world. 

The challenges are factored in the proliferation of plurilateral groupings of States – special interest groups, eager to step in where the universal multilateral organisations are unable to provide the desired response. The G20 and trade groupings between States such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Pacific Alliance are prominent examples.

A more optimistic view suggests that multilateralism has gained in complexity and buoyancy in terms of informality, increased participation and inclusiveness. What the contemporary world may be witnessing through a multilayered system of competing or conflicting regimes and initiatives should not be considered as the demise of global governance per se but rather the decline of a kind of liberal multilateralism espoused by the Western powers and set up after World War II. The state actors are proving increasingly reluctant to support international organisations and engage in international agreements. Besides, global governance is no  longer the prerogative of states. The changing nature of multilateralism may well be a precursor to an alternative multilateral system in the making and gradual marginalisation of the West.

While calling for COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC, Prime Minister Modi observed that an “inter-connected, inter-related and also interdependent” world should be able to overcome the COVID-19 crisis with the power of collaboration.

The question is whether the currently emerging multilateralism, which is more informal, inclusive and dynamic, will be sustainable and effective enough in the face of resurgent power politics, nationalism and trade wars in the global arena. What is important is a shared normative approach or ground for collaboration and collective action. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that most challenges confronting the world are cross-national in character and, therefore not amenable to national solutions. Despite the fact that COVID-19 is a global challenge which does not respect political boundaries, efforts to face the crisis are mostly at the national level and uncoordinated at the international level. The blame game that has erupted between the United States and China does not augur well for either multilateralism or bilateralism. There is no option but to move away from nationalistic urges and reaffirm multilateralism. While calling for COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC, Prime Minister Modi observed that an “inter-connected, inter-related and also interdependent” world should be able to overcome the COVID-19 crisis with the power of collaboration. India is a G-20 country and the world’s 5th largest economy, and with a clean record of international activism, it can play a key role in reviving multilateralism. India is well placed to take a lead role with a significant voice in the multilateral world and shouldn’t miss the opportunity. This also implies a need for reformed multilateralism to suit the current geopolitical situation.

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Shristi Pukhrem

Dr. Shristi Pukhrem is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. She has worked as a Researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi. Her areas of research and interest cover India-ASEAN relations, India and Southeast Asia relations, Act-East Policy. She has served as a Visiting Scholar at the ASEAN Studies Centre, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. She was also selected as one of the Canberra Fellows in March 2019.

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