Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Multilateralism post COVID-19


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: WIPO, UNIDO

Mains level: Paper 2-Multilateralism in the post-Covid world

What is the future of multilateralism? This is the question we have come across many times recently. Given the chaos that we are witnessing in the global order, multilateral seems to be headed for either collapse or capture by China. But, the author of this article suggests that it would be a mistake to consider the choice as binary. Between the collapse and the capture, there are many stakeholders working for its sustenance. So, multilateralism will endure.

International institutions performing below par

  • The COVID-19 outbreak has placed all international institutions under a magnifying glass.
  • By any measure, most have performed below par.
  • Such is the caution espoused that multilateralism today seems to have reverted to its version 0.1.
  • The General Assembly now passes resolutions through no-objection procedure.
  • The Security Council has been found wanting in no small measure.
  • The 75th session’s ‘leaders week’ runs the risk of being reduced to a video playback session.

Pursuit of change by threatening to leave

  • It is true that functioning of multilateral institutions requires reform.
  • They need to adapt to new realities.
  • However, the pursuit of change by threatening to leave multilateral institutions is a phenomenon we witnessed only during the period of the League of Nations.
  • One state followed another in bidding goodbye, until the League’s final demise.

Why post Second World War institutions survived departures

  • The post Second World War multilateral institutions have survived such departures.
  • The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and the Human Rights Council in Geneva have survived the departure of the U.S.
  • The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna continues despite the withdrawal of the U.S. and many others.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO), notwithstanding its visible shortcomings, will survive U.S. threats.
  • The reasons are simple.
  • Multilateral organisations serve desperately felt global needs of the vast membership.
  • The pandemic has reinforced the desire for greater global cooperation amongst most states.

So, will the current multi-lateral order survive China’s onslaught?

  •  It is true that Chinese nationals head four multilateral organisations.
  • It is also true that Chinese nationals have failed in campaigns to head UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
  • Despite contributing nearly 10% of the UN’s budget, Chinese nationals are not exactly over-represented in terms of staff positions.
  • China has certainly risen up the multilateral pantheon and is able to better promote its interests.
  • It has warded off attacks against it in multilateral fora, at times with the aid of the heads of these organisations.
  • However, it is yet to display an ability to set the multilateral agenda and dominate the discourse on an array of issues, in the manner that the U.S. once indispensably did.
  • China’s flagship venture, the Belt and Road Initiative, remains only on the fringes of multilateral fora.
  • Neither in monetary terms nor in substantive inputs are there portents of a ‘Chinese takeover’.
  • Amidst this, multilateral bodies are populated by a plethora of small and middle states quietly working to restore equilibrium, when the balance tends to shift.
  • The capture of the existing multilateral order by a new hegemon is antithetical to the ethos of multilateralism.
  • Multilateralism thrives on the notion of the Lilliputians tying up Gulliver — old or new.

Evolving multilateralism is not a choice between collapse and capture

  • Between collapse and capture, there are other pathways.
  • Multilateral architecture places a premium on structures over functions, processes over substance.
  • It slows down the change of any sort.
  • The same processes that have stalled change in the past will militate against a takeover in the future.
  • Does that mean that multilateralism will meander meaninglessly?
  • It will meander, but perhaps not meaninglessly.
  • The ‘pluri-laterals’ and the emerging ‘mini-laterals’ each have their place in terms of international agenda-setting, but global norm-setting requires inclusivity that they lack.

Opportunity for India

  • Being able to shape the discourse at an incipient stage is a good perch to be on.
  • Issue-specific ‘coalitions of the willing’ are catalysts.
  • As a growing power, India needs to avail of such avenues.
  • However, by themselves, these will not do justice to the depth and variety of India’s interests and our stakes in global cooperation.
  • Also, they are not holistic solutions in ensuring global acceptance of norms.

Understanding the essence of multilateralism

  • Responses of states during the COVID-19 crisis point to more emphasis on sovereign decision making than before.
  • The imprimatur for acting on behalf of the global community is not going to be available easily.
  • On myriad issues, from sustainable development to the environment, from climate change to pandemics and cyberspace to outer space, the demands for ‘nothing about us without us’ are likely to increase.
  • Since stakeholders perceive that their stakes have risen, they will call for enhanced engagement.
  • Convening such stakeholders in pursuit of global goals is the essence of multilateralism.

Consider the question “In the world afflicted by Covid, multilateralism seems to be headed for collapse or capture by a hegemon. Critically examine.”


We need to patiently promote reforms while building partnerships to avail opportunities which may arise for more fundamental change. We need to bide our time without hiding our intent.

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