- 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.
- 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.