[RSTV Archive] Multilateral Institutions – Need for reforms


  • Recently BRICS Foreign Ministers summit was organized.
  • During the conclusion, they acknowledged that the current international challenges should be addressed through reinvigorated and reformed multilateral systems.

Multilateralism: The spirit of global governance/cooperation

  • In international relations, multilateralism refers to an alliance of multiple countries pursuing a common goal.
  • Multilateralism, in the form of membership in international institutions, serves to bind powerful nations, discourage unilateralism and give small powers a voice and influence that they could not otherwise exercise.
  • Similarly, multilateralism may allow one great power to influence another great power.
  • For a great power to seek control through bilateral ties could be costly; it may require bargaining and compromise with the other great power.

What are Multilateral Organizations?

  • These are organizations formed between three or more nations to work on issues that relate to all of the countries in the organization.
  • They include the UN, and other institutions such as IMF, World Bank, WTO, and WHO.
  • These institutions are the major reflective of a larger power reality in the international structure.

Failure of multilateralism

  • Across the system, multilateralism is severely eroding as nations become more inward-focused, directing their attention and strategies towards improving domestic capacities and reducing dependence on foreign imports.
  • Protectionist tendencies are on the rise in addition to the pressures of constrained mobility and fear of a reduction in financial resources essential for tackling climate change and achieving SDGs.
  • It seems that a tussle between unilateralism and multilateralism is going to shape much of the discourse on international cooperation.

Why are they under question?

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the nature of international cooperation and bringing out the inherent fault lines and weaknesses embedded in global institutions to sharp focus.
  • The western, or so-called ‘Atlantic system’, comprising of the USA and developed European countries ostensibly considered champions of multilateralism has failed to cope with the pandemic.
  • They have failed to provide any meaningful leadership during this unprecedented crisis.

Recent shocks to multilateralism

(1) Trade disputes

  • Most state-state disputes are handled by the WTO system, the primary body governing international trade.
  • Since last year, we have seen many times WTO panel ruling against India in a trade dispute over its subsidies to exporters under various schemes.
  • The US still has veto power over an array of major decisions in the World Bank.

(2) Lack of transparency

  • Multilateral organizations were more intergovernmental during their inception. These institutions were undoubtedly western dominated.
  • The lack of transparency of the WHO and its handling of the covid pandemic has exposed the limitations of global cooperation.

(3) Losing consensus

  • Major institutions are functioning in stagnancy since no new agreement has been reached in decades.
  • Be it WTO for its Agreement on Agriculture or the UNFCCC for the climate change negotiations for phasing out fossil fuels.

(4) Rise of regional superpowers

  • The rise of China and is strategic might has been a bone of contention for the global community due to its clear defiance of the rule based global community over South China Sea.
  • The proxy trade wars between the US and China as well as the India and China are reaching new lows.

(5) Rise of Mini-laterals

  • The contemporary global problems are sought to be better solved at the regional rather than the bilateral or global level.
  • This has led to the decline in global cooperation over range of issues. For example, RCEP to counterbalance the US dominated Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • These are called issue-based coalitions.

(6) Security challenges

  • There is inherent irony over the expansion of the membership global security blocs as such NATO, UNSC etc.
  • For example, Africa where most of the UN Peacekeeping forces operate, has no permanent member in the UNSC.
  • The UNSC veto powers possessed by permanent members are used as an instrument to shore up their geopolitical interests.

Way forward

  • Multilateralism should promote international law, democracy, equity and justice, mutual respect, right to development and non-interference in internal affairs of any country without double standards.

Reforming the multilateral system should encompass the following steps:

  • It should make instruments of global governance more inclusive, representative, and participatory to facilitate greater and more meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries.
  • It should be based on inclusive consultation and collaboration for the benefit of all, while respecting sovereign independence, equality, mutual legitimate interests and concerns.
  • It should strengthen the capacities of individual states and international organizations to better respond to new and emerging, traditional and non-traditional challenges.

Indian approach to multilateralism: NORMS

  • NORMS stands for New Orientation for a Reformed Multilateral System.
  • India will work constructively with partners to bring innovative and inclusive solutions to foster development and for greater involvement of women and youth to shape a new paradigm.
  • A first and vital step is the reform of the United Nations Security Council. It must reflect contemporary realities to be more effective.


  • There is no easy way out for immediate consensus-building among nations over the limitations of these multilateral institutions.
  • For this, non-alignment or ad-hoc coalitions could never be the answer.
  • Issues-based coalitions are the best answer and Health is the easiest framework to work upon.
  • Lastly, there are many mini-laterals that should unite for a global commonality.


RSTV: The Big Picture : Multilateral Institutions – Need for reforms

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