Foreign Policy Watch: United Nations

UN and the retreat from multilateralism


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : U.N. and its organs

Mains level : Paper 2- United Nations and the challenges it faces

As the U.N. enters into 75th year of its existence, it faces several challenges. The article discusses such challenges.

Challenges to the multilateralism

1) Withdrawal of the main stakeholders: U.S. and the U.K.

  • The U.S. is withdrawing from multilateralism and so it the U.K.
  • Brexit has shown that nationalism remains strong in Europe.
  • Nevertheless, the most important development is the position of the U.S.
  • The U.S., which created the international system as we know today, is no longer willing to be its “guarantor of last resort”.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump stressed “America First” and suggested that others too should put their countries first.

2) China’s reluctance

  • China has stepped in to take advantage of the West’s retreat from multilateralism.
  • But China is not embracing the idea of multilateralism.
  • China’s Belt and Road Initiative consists of a series of bilateral credit agreements with recipient countries with no mechanism for multilateral consultation or oversight.
  • The European Union’s and U.S.’s sanctions against Russia have driven it closer to China.
  • Work of the UN Security Council has been affected by the lack of consensus between its permanent members.

3) Turkey’s interventions

  • Turkey has intervened in Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean, which is a breach of international law.
  • The last was a reference to Turkey sending a drilling ship in Greek and Cypriot exclusive economic zones.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a detailed reference to the Jammu and Kashmir issue.
  • As Turkey has assumed the position of UN General Assembly President, statement and its actions matters.

4) Paucity of resources

  • Over 40 UN political missions and peacekeeping operations engage 95,000 troops, police, and civil personnel. it suffers from a paucity of resources.
  • The UN peacekeeping budget, a little over $8 billion, is a small fraction of the $1.9 trillion military expenditure governments made in 2019.
  •  Most of the humanitarian assistance, developmental work, and budgets of the specialised agencies are based on voluntary contributions.
  • There are calls for increasing public-private partnerships. This is not a satisfactory arrangement.
  • The UN provides ‘public goods’ in terms of peace and development often in remote parts of the world.
  • There may not be enough appetite on the part of corporations. The UN remains an inter-governmental body.

5) Climate action

  • President Trump mentioned that China’s emissions are nearly twice of those of the U.S.
  • Despite its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the U.S. has reduced its carbon emissions by more than any country in the world.
  • President Xi said that after peaking emissions by 2030, China will achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
  • President Macron said that he was determined to see the EU agree on a target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Consider the question “As the world is facing the retreat from multilateralism, what are the challenges facing the U.N. in the current global order?”


What does the UN bring to the developing countries? It gives them greater political space. We need to support reform not only to expand the permanent members’ category of the Security Council but also to revitalise the role of the General Assembly. The retreat from multilateralism would undermine the UN’s capacity to face diverse challenges.

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