The Fall of Multilateralism: End or Evolution?

Multilateralism was designed to encourage cooperation among states post World War II. It is based on shared principles of conduct, indivisibility and expectations of diffuse reciprocity (J. Ruggie). Ever since its inception in the 20th century, it has grown rapidly and adapted to any setting that it was thrust onto, whether it was economic development, security, human rights or global health concerns. Multilateralism has manifested itself in various forms including, but not limited to, the United Nations, Bretton Woods System, World Trade Organisation, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as well as informal mediums such as the G7. While the run of such organisations might be tainted by a myriad of questionable decisions, one cannot disagree that the progress of multilateralism was a key influence on the emerging liberal world.

On the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Charter in 2020, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, pointed out the urgent need to reflect on the future of multilateralism. More recently, multilateralism has been akin to a sinking ship, as it has seemed to enter a state of decline. (akanksha arora) While there is no question that agencies like WTO and the UN have been instrumental in accelerating growth, they have also been significantly losing their sheen over a few years. These organisations have been criticized for their lack of efficiency, institutional boundaries and ideological bias. 

The rising postcolonial backlash against Western powers and the tide of populism have been undermining multilateralism in the past few decades. Moreover, after the spread of coronavirus, nations have aggressively been disavowing and contesting this supposed win-win relation. Nations seem inclined to pursue protectionist policies, such as the ones introduced by former US President Donald Trump’s – “America First” policy. The United States has been the poster child for multilateralism networks, championing its spread by using soft power and even through military interventions when they saw fit. The Trump administration took the age-old tradition of multilateralism and threw it out the window quite unceremoniously. It withdrew from the Paris Climate Convention, Iran Nuclear Deal (aka JCPOA), the UNHRC and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While a few of these decisions were overturned when President Biden took over the reins, the fact that a country that used to pride itself over its global governance could leave so simply was worrisome and makes one truly question the future of multilateralism. 

In the latest report on the work of the UN, the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres states that the condition the world finds itself today in is unfortunate and even if individual member nations or states wish to, they cannot fight it alone. There is a need for dialogue and joint action more than ever. To facilitate this dialogue, the UN must play a central role. However, as time has passed, the UN’s functioning is severely undermined by foundational problems. It is accused of being extremely antiquated and elitist due to the composition of the Security Council. The decisions made by the UNSC are often deeply influenced (and in many cases, dictated) by the five permanent members: China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia (aka the P5 members). By using their right to veto, they end up protecting their national interests while leaving the other nations as collateral damage. Due to this tainted decision-making process, the UN’s entire functionality is brought to question. This only seems to be growing worse. China has been aiming to bend existing multilateralism structures to its will by setting up parallel governance structures such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Asian Development Bank. This is only increasing the economic and geopolitical tensions between China and the other key members, primarily the USA. 

Akanksha Arora, a 34-year old who has been working with the UN for 4 years now, was the youngest individual to launch her candidacy for UN Secretary General. While she was not successful in her candidacy, she has been quite vocal about the various pitfalls that exist in the United Nations. Regarding climate change and the refugee crisis, she stated that the UN was not able to bring a change at the ground level asserting that it was time to walk the talk.  She stressed that we have the highest number of refugees, almost close to 85 million, and these individuals only have the UN and yet we were not able to provide them with their basic necessities. As for climate change, for every dollar that the UN gets, 15 cents is used for nature-based solutions and the rest goes to talking about climate change, holding conferences and writing reports. She highlighted how after the pandemic things have only worsened and we cannot, and should not, rely on old structures such as the UN in its current capacity, to help us overcome these obstacles.

Due to this reason, the need to relaunch international cooperation is urgent. It is necessary to invest in a more inclusive and diverse form of multilateralism if we truly wish to tackle the volley of problems already upon us. Such bodies must adopt an integrated and multi-stakeholder approach. Rather than indulging in the frequent armchair activism, the UN and its specialized bodies must get involved with regional authorities and organisations, the private sector, the scientific and academic world. Collaboration is key to overcome any of these modern-day crises that we face and will face in the future.

The decline of multilateralism only seems to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has not stopped yet and continues to ravish thousands of deaths and new infections everyday. This pandemic, which started out as a global health emergency soon morphed into an economic and political crisis while also putting international security at risk. Just like Trump’s USA, many countries, which had just wormed their way outside their shells, are retreating once again. Each country wants to protect their national interests and due to a lack of shared guidelines and strategies, they don’t see how multilateral organisations can help them do so. The failure of the WHO in anticipating and then further preparing nations to face the pandemic only deepened the mistrust of developing nations in multilateral bodies. Similarly, as the era of Brexit was ushered in, Pro-European commentators labelled it a rash decision made by an uninformed electorate after a vicious and one-sided campaign. The EU was created after the desolation of two world wars. It aimed to bring together European nation states together in a continent-wide commitment of cooperation and integration. However, once Theresa May, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, triggered the process of Brexit, there was no stopping her. With the West abandoning multilateral agreements, what reason does it leave the rest of the nations to continue their legacy? 

The historical record shows that international systems do not implode, even when the world around them seems to be falling apart. As Zara Steiner notes in her book ‘The Triumph of the Dark’, the League of Nations remained useful even when the second world war was approaching. As the book suggests, the Health and Labour Organisations were in the process of making valuable contributions to spreading new standards in medicine and industrial legislation. The economic arm of the League of Nations was focused on the 1930 Great Depression and navigating its way through it. By making these monumental advances the LoN paved the way for future multilateral agreements. Yet, Steiner notices that ‘during the later 1930s the League was perceived to be a failure’ as it failed to manage the singular threat posed by Nazi Germany. The stakes are high as the crisis of the liberal international order comes at a time when working together seems more necessary than ever. While many countries seem to view unilateralism as a boon, especially those who have been engaged in multilateral agreements priorly. These governments of such countries believe that multilateralism has pushed them from their own people, becoming increasingly distanced and detached. Moreover, local communities and councils feel like they have lost all power in an ever-growing array of international bureaucrats. Nations and their citizens have felt the scythe of the outsiders, and most of them do not like it. 

However, today we find ourselves amongst pressing global issues such as major conflicts, climate change, migration flows, global economic shocks and cybersecurity breaches. These problems transcend boundaries that we have created, and we have seen the alternative options of unilateralism and uncoordinated action wield its ugly faces. What we need is not the disbandment of multilateral bodies, but rather their restructuring. More effective and better endowed mechanisms of global governance are required to anticipate, prevent and tackle future crises and mitigate their devastating consequences.

Today we are not witnessing the demise of multilateralism as a whole, instead, we are observing the fall of a type of multilateralism. A system dominated by the Western powers possibly framed to suit their whims. A system where the Western powers abandon the rest when it doesn’t seem to suit them anymore. A system that has lived on more than it ever should have. What we require is a more diverse and integrated body that understands the issues from the perspective of those not in power as well. Countries which are emerging now need to be able to put their trust in multilateral bodies, unlike the past. This form of ‘smart global governance’ will allow for more flexible and multi-stakeholder projects. 

Yasashvi Paarakh is a second-year Economics and Politics student at Ashoka University. Her research interests lie in studying the growing intersection between politics and the state.

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