Context: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the compelling reality that most challenges confronting the world knows no national boundaries. 

Two aspects of this reality:

  1. Cross-national character of challenges: Most challenges confronting the world and likely to confront it in the future, are cross-national in character. They respect no national boundaries and are not amenable to national solutions. 
  2. Cross-domain in nature: These challenges are cross-domain in nature, with strong feedback loops. A disruption in one domain often cascades into parallel disruptions in other domains. For example, the use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides may promote food security but have injurious health effects, undermining health security. 

What does this reality demand?

  • Demand multilateral approaches: The intersection of cross-national and cross-domain challenges demand multilateral approaches.
  • Require empowered international institutions of governance. 
  • Humanity over nationality: There must be a spirit of internationalism and solidarity, a sense of belonging to a common humanity. 

Past experience:

  • However, over the past decade and more, the world has been moving in the reverse direction. 
  • There has been 
    • an upsurge in narrow nationalism
    • an assertion of parochial interests over pursuit of shared interests and 
    • a fostering of competition among states rather than embracing collaboration. 

Nature of COVID-19:

COVID-19 is a global challenge which recognises no political boundaries. 

  • It is intimately linked to the whole pattern of large-scale and high-density food production and distribution.
  • It is a health crisis but is also spawning an economic crisis through disrupting global value chains and creating a simultaneous demand shock
  • It is a classic cross-national and cross-domain challenge. But interventions to deal with the COVID-19 crisis are so far almost entirely at the national level, relying on quarantine and social distancing. 

Present situation:

  • There is virtually no coordination at the international level. 
  • Also,  a blame game erupts between China and the United States which does not augur well for international cooperation and leadership. 

Long term alternative pathways required:

  • Accept the reality: The more hopeful outcome would be for countries to finally realise that there is no option but to move away from nationalistic urges and embrace the logic of international cooperation.
  • Reviving and strengthening multilateral institutions and processes: Institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization needs to be revived and strengthened to deal with such cross-national challenges. 

India’s foreign policy in the backdrop of outbreak:

  • From non-alignment to multi alignment: The present government follows the policy of seeking friendship with all countries as contrasted from the earlier policy of non-alignment. For example, India’s friendship with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with the U.S. as well as Russia. This approach can be manifested as
    • Mobilising global collaboration: The plea made Prime Minister of India recently for mobilising global collaboration, more specifically in fighting COVID-19 would be in keeping with India’s traditional activism on the international stage. For example, international initiative, either through the G-20 or through the U.N.
    • Mobilising regional cooperation: The Prime Minister has shown commendable initiative in convening leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations for a regional collaborative effort on COVID-19. 

Pandemic as an opportunity for India:

The COVID-19 pandemic presents India with an opportunity to revive 

  • Multilateralism
  • Become a strong and credible champion of internationalism and 
  • Assume a leadership role in a world that is adrift

Way ahead

  • Relevant policy interventions: Whether at the domestic or the international level, the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak need to be understood and relevant policy interventions need to be framed. 
  • The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect the pathway for cross-national, cross-domain policy framework.
  • A leadership role by India in mobilising world collaboration would act as a beacon for the world in the direction towards reviving faith in multilateralism for dealing with global challenges of present nature.