Sink or Swim! Multilateralism in Deep Waters

Among the appendages of international diplomacy, there is a rot in the global system of multilateralism that has been festering. It is now at a point where cauterisation or amputation are the only two choices remaining. To understand the materialisation of this malady, we must first look at the evolution of multilateralism itself.

Global governance in gestation

Multilateralism, in its incipient stages, can be traced back into the nineteenth century to the cartographic revision of Europe by a newly gregarious grouping of European powers (i.e., Concert of Europe) at the Congress of Vienna. However, this rudimentary form of multilateralism soon imploded with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The progenitor of the modern multilateral and liberal cause within international relations was the American President Woodrow Wilson. Through his 14 points, he bolstered the cradle into which the League of Nations was born. Unfortunately, an absentee United States led the League to be stillborn, failing colossally in its mission of collective security and dispute arbitration with the outbreak of the Second World War. The Declaration by United Nations signed in 1942 by the allied powers is the edifice of the present-day United Nations. This was later formalised via the UN charter. Under the leadership of the United States, the post-war multilateral system came into existence. This refers to the various agencies of the UN including but not limited to UNHRC, WHO, ILO,
UNESCO and more. These agencies acted as global incumbents in their respective domains.
In preparation to redress the economic consequences of the Second World War, the Bretton Woods twins, namely: The World Bank and International Monetary Fund were born. These multilateral institutions, along with the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (later becoming the WTO) were conceived to collectively manage the world economy and promote development through liberalisation and globalisation. The world was stained in blood at the end of the Second World War but had resultantly birthed some of the largest multilateral organisations that still exist today. However, postpartum pains arising from bipolarity were looming large.

Born from bipolarity

The ideological rivalry between the USA and the USSR and the concomitantly ensuing Cold War further catalysed multilateralism. The formation of two blocs and their respective collective defence organisations, specifically, NATO and the now-dissolved Warsaw Treaty Organisations was the result of this. Surprisingly, multilateralism offered a centrist option between the two warring poles in the form of the NAM spearheaded by India, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia and Yugoslavia. This represented the interests of the post-colonial states who wished to abstain from aligning with either camp of the Cold War.

Another iteration of multilateralism, which changed the global milieu, is the formation of regional groupings. Globalisation was the clarion call which bore the promise of rapid industrialisation and economic prosperity. To milk this cash cow, nations of a common region came together to form economic unions like the EU and free trade areas like ASEAN.

The international arena was now occupied by multilateral organisations, agencies, institutions and groupings which reflected the needs and trends of the post-war era. These greatly dictated global norms and rules while simultaneously managing challenges in their respective domains. However, passing time is an invitation to change archaic organisations, which if declined can become pregnant with problems.

Pangs of the pandemic

Cut to 2021, a pandemic has ravaged the global populace and has been desiccating to the fountain of economic prosperity. To make matters better or worse- depending on who you ask- the veil of stability shrouding the deepening fault lines in multilateralism has been blown away by the tempest that is Covid-19; Here is what lies behind the veil. The most recent, alarming and undeniable exemplar of this crisis in multilateralism was the jarringly lacklustre coordination in global responses and initiatives for tackling the pandemic. Noble calls by UN Secretary-General Guterres for member states to contribute bountifully to the Global Humanitarian Response Plan has not been heard. The plan hopes to strengthen the fight against the virus and ensure the Novel Coronavirus vaccine is a global public good available to all, particularly the least developed and war-torn regions. Unfortunately, the members have left the global mechanism for the same largely underfunded. In place of a fraternal solution, developed nations were vociferously practising vaccine nationalism by pre-buying large stocks of vaccines (then undergoing clinical trials) at quantities well beyond equitable.

Furthermore, the G 20 -constituted by the twenty largest economies and designed to be a premier forum for international economic management- which met last in November was in disarray. The forum failed to do nothing more than pay lip service along with the tokenism of suspending debt repayments of the poorest nation until mid-2021.

An equally pressing concern is the globally perceived insouciance of the WHO in its early analysis and reporting of the virulency of Covid-19. This has not only brought disrepute to the organisation but also allowed for its credibility to be impugned. Its actions have been read by several analysts as a compromise on its autonomy and an attempt at ingratiating itself with China.

These crises only brought awareness to the fact that the ship of multilateralism was lost in deep waters, and rudderless. It is also important to observe the waves which carried the post-war system away from the harbours of stability.

Predicaments prior to the pandemic

The multilateral milieu prior to the pandemic was already rife with lassitude and internecine squabbles. A prime poster child for this is the UNSC where the P5 have effectively stalemated the working of the body on critical issues, the Syrian and Yemen civil wars for instance, with their veto powers. Not only does the body poorly reflect the contemporary economic and demographic realities but has become a crematorium for competing interests rather than an opera of overlapping global consensus tuned to safeguard international security.

Brexit, now completed, marks the regression of the European Union, heralded as a visionary attempt at regional multilateral cooperation, into the prewar system of unilateral policies on trade and other issues. Preference has tilted towards ‘multilateralism à la carte’ where States cooperate with multilateral organisations on issue-based convergences. Despite the EU’s consociational approaches to issues like climate change, other deeply divisive differences on substantial issues like the refugee crisis and the economic support policies post the Eurozone crisis portended this regression. In this context, it is undeniable that trade multilateralism is in crisis.

Even the WTO, the high priest in the temple of trade multilateralism, is squandered in its functioning. Washington D.C, through its blocking of new appointments to the Appellate Body, has taken a hard stance on its claims of ‘judicial overreach’ by the body, which it purports as the cause of unfavourable rulings against the US. This has a de facto paralysed international system of trade dispute resolution, at a time when the pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and nation-states have imposed curbs on exports. Such disruption threatens the rules-based trading regime which developing and developed nations alike use for resolving disputes with large trading partners.

Seventy years since the constitution of NATO, the organisation today stares at several daunting internal impediments to its functioning. The most distinct of these is the need to restore decisive American leadership, which under former President Donald Trump had been on the decline. In fact, America for the first time has viewed the EU as more of an economic adversary than an integral partner. It is this outlook that has permeated into the American stance towards the collective defence organisation. However, some of Former President Trump’s grievances stand on solid ground like his demand from NATO partners to increase their respective defence spending; it is untenable that only five of twenty-nine allies spend more than 2 per cent of their GDP on defence while the USA spends 3.5 per cent of GDP for the same,
thereby disproportionally bearing security burden1Furthermore, Shared principles of free speech and democracy have been subverted-by the sovereign itself in some member nations like Hungary, Poland and Turkey eroding the normative foundations of the organisation. These challenges have been disconcerting enough for the French President Macron to exclaim that NATO is experiencing ‘brain death’.2

On shifting the microscope to the developing world, there is an observable hibernation which the NAM has slumbered into. While the GCC was marred by infighting with Qatar being ostracised by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt with the severing of diplomatic and transport links. However, recently this has been resolved in Al-Ula. The SAARC is comatose owing to the continuing hostility between India and Pakistan, effectively rendering the region inept at pursuing a common growth strategy.

It must be noted that these varied institutions and their unique predicaments are not coincidental occurrences but an outcome of certain global trends which has acted as a common catalyst to these diverse challenges

Catalysts to the crises

Looking into the precipitates to these crises will enable insights into the directions of the global tide. The retrenchment of American leadership from international affairs is a primary factor disheveling the prospects and efficacy of a global response to the pandemic, be it from the G-7, G-20 or the UN. It can be claimed, simplistically, that Trumpism lies at the centre of this decline. If so, President Joe Biden may resolve this predicament. However, America has not been as polarised and divided since the civil war and the new regime has to heal wounds within; lest they wish to give credibility to Chinese political theorist Wang Huning’s work ‘America against America’.

Additionally, the meteoric rise of an assertive, belligerent, revanchist and revisionist China has contributed to the tectonic trembles of change rocking the world order. Through consistent diplomatic diligence and the economic clout secured through trade surplus, China has usurped several autonomous institutions into its sphere of influence: the paeans of praise sung by the WHO for the Chinese handling of the virus and tardiness in its interactions with Taiwan evinces this.3 Beijing has been, over the past decade, spawning parallel governance structures to reimagine the post-war system of multilateralism. This global governance architecture is viewed as a proxy for furthering western interests. These parallel bodies include the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and
the China Development Bank.

The danger of the Thucydides trap, though not explicit, is inexorably escalating and is evident in the rising acrimony in Sino-American relations. This risk pervades through the entire multilateral system further destabilising it.

Another contributor to the multilateral mess is the growing disillusionment of the working classes with globalisation. Their discontent with growing inequalities and perceived loss of opportunities has been directed at the perceived false prophet of liberalised trade. This has spurred the rise of the macho, alpha male, populist leaders of the right like Trump, Bolsanaro, Erdogan, Boris Johnson and Modi. Under their leadership protectionist policies like obstructing appointments to the WTO appellate body, America first, Brexit and Atma Nirbhar Bharat have been championed. Calls to ultranationalism have fomented this inward regression therein emaciating multilateralism.

Systemic rivals have resorted to the misuse of existing multilateral rules and procedures to protect their sovereign interests as against the common interests of peace and prosperity. The complex interdependence theory put forth by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye has today been transformed into a ‘weaponised interdependence’ where powerful state actors are abusing global supply chains and networks to meet their ends.

South Asian multilateralism can only be rescued if the India and Pakistan conflict is made secondary after the interests of the region. This impasse is being exploited as an opportunity by China to lay inroads deep into South Asia as it advances its relations with all players in the region sans India with whom they are embroiled in a border face-off and Bhutan.

Multilateralism at a crosscurrent

On performing the corporate technique of strategic position analysis to the international system in light of the above, it becomes evidently clear that multilateralism is at a sink or swim crosscurrent. The survival of multilateralism is possible if global players enable and expedite transformation within the organisational structures and rules of functioning across the various institutions such that they reflect contemporary realities. Undeniably, the post-war system of multilateralism is anachronistic and akin to a telegraph in the internet era. Such transformation spearheaded by a revival of American leadership will be all the more efficacious. Several nations, particularly in the developing world, are vehemently lobbying for reforming multilateralism. India is an apt example for the same with its stated the objective for its eighth term in the UNSC being “New Orientation for a Reformed Multilateral System (N.O.R.M.S)”.4

The international community must collectively stand firm for a rule-based international order and not allow rising China to bend multilateralism in its weaponisation of interdependence. Although the threat of the Thucydides trap is real, it must not act as a deterrent in standing against aggressive expansionism. This is possible only if multilateralism is reinvigorated. Middle powers must agglomerate their collective bargaining power to contribute to multilateral resurgence.

Furthermore, a healthy counter-narrative must be developed to the inward, anti-globalisation and protectionist rhetoric prevalent in major sovereign states across continents. Multilateralism was born as a twin along with modern globalisation and therefore stand tallest when they are fortified by one another. This new message must refrain from lofty ideals as embellishments, and instead be ornamented by practicality in addressing the real economic hardships of the common man while transcending social class and political ideology in its appeal.

In the thought experiment the ‘Ship of Theseus’, it is debated if a ship with all its components changed over time still fundamentally remains the same ship or not? It is this writer’s humble view that what matters is not the identity of the ship but that the changes allowed it to continue sailing the open seas. If the ship of multilateralism doesn’t transform itself, it is bound to sink.





About Daniel Kurian

Daniel Kurian K is an aspiring civil servant with a zeal for political phenomenon and a penchant for international affairs. He has now dipped his feet into analytical writing to give expression to his thoughts and find a voice for his ideas.

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