Context: The COVID-19 outbreak has placed all international institutions under a magnifying glass. By any measure, most have performed below par. 

More on news:

  • Multilateralism refers to an alliance of multiple countries pursuing a common goal.

Concerns for multilateralism

Delayed reforms: When there was great power cooperation rather than great power rivalry like now, multilateralism has failed to bring cooperative action. 

  • For example, Resolution 50/52 adopted unanimously during the 50th session, to amend the Charter, by the deletion of the ‘enemy State’ clauses from Articles 53, 77 and 107 at its earliest appropriate future session” awaits action, nearly 25 years later.

Reverting to Multilateralism 1.0: Multilateralism today seems to have reverted to its version 0.1. The General Assembly now passes resolutions through no objection procedure. 

  • The 75th session’s ‘leaders week’ runs the risk of being reduced to a video playback session.
  • Need for reforms: They need to adapt to new realities, just as their headquarters staff have quickly adopted the new normal of ‘work from home’. 

Departure of countries: 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 World Health Organization (WHO), notwithstanding its visible shortcomings, will survive U.S. threats.
    • Reason: Multilateral organisations serve desperately felt global needs of the vast membership. The pandemic has reinforced the desire for greater global cooperation amongst most states.

Current multilateral order: will it fall prey to the ‘wolf warriors’ of China posing as the new defenders of the established order?

  • Despite contributing nearly 10% of the UN’s budget, Chinese nationals are not exactly overrepresented in terms of staff positions, unlike many other countries whose personnel occupy more than half of the percentage of their financial contribution. 
  • Chinese language interpreters: If the head count of senior staff from UN regular and peacekeeping budgets is taken together, that percentage falls dramatically, although China contributes 14% of the peacekeeping budget.
  • Chinese voluntary contribution has increased: However,  They usually encompass all contributions — bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral — on a specific theme. By those indices, many contribute much more.
  • China has certainly risen up the multilateral pantheon and is able to better promote its interests. 
    • 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. 
  • Multilateral bodies are populated by a plethora of small and middle states quietly working to restore equilibrium, when the balance tends to shift.

Not binary choices: 

  • Between collapse and capture there are other pathways. Multilateral architecture places premium on structures over functions, processes over substance. 
  • The ‘pluri-laterals’ and the emerging ‘mini-laterals’ each have their place in terms of international agenda setting, but global norm-setting requires an inclusivity.
  • Issue-specific ‘coalitions of the willing’ are catalysts. As a growing power, India needs to avail of such avenues. 
  • Since India visualises the world as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, support for multilateralism will have to remain a primary pursuit.
  • Responses of states during the COVID-19 crisis point to more emphasis on sovereign decision making than before. 
  • ‘Nothing about us without us’ is likely to increase.

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.

Image Source: the hindu