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Harnessing New Opportunities in a World of Declining Multilateralism

Published: 7th Feb, 2022


Today, the world is somehow witnessing the crisis of multilateralism, however, it is often forgotten that this crisis (declining multilateralism) could offer new opportunities that India should harness.


  • The post-World War II multilateral order may have been shaped largely by the western allies, but this did not deter India from taking on an active role across different negotiations for the setting up of new international organisations.
    • For instance, even before the country won independence in 1947, its negotiators worked systematically to ensure that any international trade organisation that emerged would take into account its interests (and the concerns of several other developing countries).
    • India was a founding member of the United Nations (UN), and an original signatory to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
    • Even when the rules of the game did not turn out to its advantage—it was neither a permanent member of the UN Security Council, nor was it a member of the informal decision-making “Quad” group in the GATT—its enthusiasm for multilateralism seldom waned.


What is ‘multilateralism’?

  • Multilateralism is the process of organizing relations between groups of three or more states.
  • Beyond that basic quantitative aspect, multilateralism is generally considered to comprise certain qualitative elements or principles that shape the character of the arrangement or institution. Those principles are:
    • An indivisibility of interests among participants
    • A system of dispute settlement intended to enforce a particular mode of behavior
  • Multilateralism has a long history, but it is principally associated with the era after World War II, during which there was a burgeoning of multilateral agreements led primarily by the United States.
  • The organizations most strongly embodying the principle of multilateralism are to be found in trade (the World Trade Organization [WTO]), security (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]) and environment (numerous multilateral environmental institutions also exist).

Brief History of Multilateralism  

  • Concert of Europe: The end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe saw the establishment of the Concert of Europe, with the great powers redrawing European borders peacefully at the Congress of Vienna.
  • League of Nations: The First World War destroyed the European Concert and replaced it with League of Nations.
  • UN, IMF & IB: The post-World War II world saw the creation of a new world order sustained by multilateral and supranational institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The rise of multilateral system

  • Over the next 70 years, sometimes in coalitions and sometimes alone, the world’s largest democracy sought to reform the multilateral system from the inside.
  • This earned it a reputation of being a “difficult” negotiator, especially when dealing with western counterparts. Its persistent activism, however, contributed to at least some updating of the system (e.g., the World Trade Organisation, from the mid-2000s onwards, began to include Brazil and India in the Quad).

How has the multilateral system served India well?

  • The multilateral system, in turn, served India well:
  • India’s dramatic rise since the turn of the millennium, while in good measure a function of its domestic economic and social reforms, has also been facilitated by the many growth and development opportunities afforded to it by free markets and the absence of major wars.

Why multilateralism is facing issues?

  • Today, multilateralism faces a crisis of unprecedented proportions.
    • The crisis has several sources. It manifests itself in a fundamental questioning of the very value of multilateralism within countries and deadlocks in negotiations in multilateral organisations.
    • Add to this the phenomenon of “Weaponised Interdependence” – the ability of some powerful states to exploit the control that they exercise over hubs of production networks in a world of closely integrated global value chains – and it is clear that multilateral institutions are ill-suited to meet the challenges of the present day.
  • The long-standing vulnerabilities of the multilateral system have been laid bare by the pandemic:
    • The World Health Organisation has come under much critique for its mishandling of COVID-19; even now the World Trade Organisation stands by helplessly as members continue to bicker over the TRIPS waiver, and potential capacity for vaccine and medicine production in the Global South cannot be put to its much-needed use.
  • The system is in dire crisis, at a time when the world needs it most; collapse of the system would hurt all parties, including India.
  • Yet, amidst all the handwringing, it is often forgotten that the crisis of multilateralism could offer new opportunities that India should harness.

How is it an opportunity for India?

  • The opportunities emerging directly from the crisis are fourfold.
    • First, while India itself had, for decades, pushed for reforms in the multilateral order (e.g., for greater inclusiveness in international organisations), the crisis of the system seems to have finally created a more widespread recognition for the necessity of reform.
    • Second, key players in the west—especially in Europe—have begun to recognise that they need new allies and friends. This is especially so given that the US seems to be turning away from the very system that it had led in creating, and then served as a guarantor for.
    • Third, a significant cause for the malaise of multilateralism lies in the disillusionment of the many—within both the global north and the global south—who believe that they have missed out on the gains of globalisation. This disillusionment, in turn, is a product not only of inequalities that have indeed increased across many societies, but also of the absence of a convincing narrative about globalisation and the multilateral rules that facilitate it. In some key policy circles in developed countries, this has prompted considerable soul-searching, as exemplified by Munich Security Conference 2020 and its focus on “westlessness”.
    • And fourth, a recognition seems to be finally growing that sometimes helter-skelter globalisation—in a world where production chains can be weaponised—is no longer acceptable. Alternative and more sustainable forms of globalisation need to be developed, which meet goals of both prosperity and security.  The moment is ripe for sharing new ideas. And while India has always had much to offer the world, the world may now be ready to appreciate it.

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