Has multilateralism run out of steam? - Hindustan Times

Has multilateralism run out of steam?

ByHindustan Times
Jun 24, 2023 08:19 PM IST

This article is authored by Sameer Patil, senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation and Soumya Awasthi, consultant, Tony Blair Institute.

The emergence of the multipolar world order in the 21st century has witnessed a proliferation of minilaterals like Quad that brings together Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US), the AUKUS (combining Australia, United Kingdom, and the US) or the I2U2 (India, Israel, United Arab Emirates, and the US). These are essentially the coalitions of the willing bound by the convergence of strategic interests. They are tight-knit but loosely structured groupings, often lacking the frills of a formally established inter-governmental organisation. Forged to advance cooperation on specific issues, the minilaterals have been heralded as effective means to tackle pressing challenges facing its members.

International Relations
International Relations

At a broader level, these minilaterals also reflect the changing balance of power or geopolitical shifts in a specific region. For instance, the altered power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have brought forward powers like India and Australia which have demonstrated an increasing willingness to take on greater regional security responsibilities. Likewise, in West Asia, the thaw in relations between Israel and the UAE has facilitated the formation of the I2U2.

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Why are states exploring the path of minilateral arrangements when there exists a surfeit of inter-governmental institutions to deal with many global challenges? The reason lies in the perceived inability of the United Nations (UN)-led multilateral framework to deliver solutions for pressing global problems. Hampered by persistent differences among the major powers or the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on key international issues, the UN-led multilateral bodies have been unable to respond effectively to emerging global challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, ransomware attacks and the debt crisis in the developing economies.

This situation is unlike the Cold War era. While the two superpowers – the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union engaged in power rivalry and arms race, their interests converged in addressing emerging threats to international security. The spate of arms control and non-proliferation agreements like the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty of 1968 illustrates this. Some may argue that these agreements were the outcome of détente years (60s and 70s), nonetheless they showed the willingness to negotiate and prioritise cooperation. Today, however, it is not so. The intensifying rivalry between the US and China, the expanding discordance between the West and Russia, and the reappearance of protracted warfare have dashed hopes that the world will see major powers coming together to address the climate crisis or alleviate the refugee problem.

This crisis of multilateralism is exacerbated by the inability of the UN-led multilateral framework to signify contemporary power configurations. It had failed to align with the rise of economic powers in Asia, Africa, and South America: emerging economies from these three continents have accounted for almost two-thirds of the world’s Gross Domestic Product growth over the past 15 years. Yet, multilateral institutions lack a broader representation of developing countries and emerging economies. This is most evident in the UNSC, which reflects the power equilibrium of a bygone era.

Besides these, contemporary multilateralism confronts another significant challenge: the rise of populism and States prioritising domestic interests over international cooperation. This was most evident during the Covid-19 pandemic; countries decided to shut borders and turn inwards when faced with the virus outbreak. This has also sown seeds of scepticism towards international collaboration and the states’ willingness to compromise and collaborate.

So, has multilateralism run its course, and is minilateralism the new normal in international relations? It can be argued that this is not the case; both are not antagonistic. Minilaterals imply the innate belief of states that they cannot tackle the challenges confronting them and therefore need like-minded partners to get things done. At its core, this is also the spirit of multilateralism. Minilaterals such as Quad and AUKUS have sustained the States’ appetite to cooperate – albeit on a limited scale – and strengthen global governance when multilateral institutions have failed to deliver.

Platforms like the G20, which brings together major global economies, have taken this cooperation to the next level. With a broader representation and wider convergence, the G20 can bridge the perennial challenge afflicting multilateralism – how to advance cooperation while accounting for member states’ diverse and divergent worldviews. Under its G20 presidency this year, India has sought to leverage the power of the grouping to focus on the makeover of multilateralism.

The idea termed ‘reformed multilateralism’ aims to develop a new framework, ‘Multilateralism 2.0.’ By focusing on issues usually classified under ‘low politics’ like food security, clean energy and digital cooperation, India intends to show that the process of multilateralism, if pursued in the right spirit and focused on narrower goals, can deliver. India’s participation in various minilaterals is also in the same spirit. In that sense, multilateralism has not run out of steam but is being repurposed to fit the new emerging geopolitical realities.

This article is authored by Sameer Patil, senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation and Soumya Awasthi, consultant, Tony Blair Institute.

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